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Dutch royal extravagance: the queen in the golden coach
Published on:Sunday, September 12, 2010 - 09:58
Riding in the Golden Coach is a rare display of extravagance by the Dutch royal family. In other countries, similar examples of royal luxury were long ago seized and burnt by furious mobs opposed to rule by monarchy. But this never happened in the Netherlands, where some regard this golden coach as a symbol of national unity.
Every year on the third Tuesday in September, at the opening of parliament, this - now 112 year-old - grand horse-drawn carriage is rolled out once again. This year, Princes' Day, as this Tuesday is known, falls on 21 September.
This week saw the publication of The Golden Coach, from a gift from ordinary Amsterdammers to national symbol. Authors Thijs van Leeuwen and Alberto Stofberg record the history, design, construction, decoration and use of the carriage.
There is a significant difference between this Dutch royal carriage and those of the former French and Russian royal houses. The House of Orange only uses the carriage on Princes' Day, for the opening of parliament. As the queen waves a royal hand and smiles, people line the streets, clapping and cheering.
Nevertheless, the golden coach is a controversial thing for many Dutch people. Extraordinarily, the coach has featured in many significant moments in recent Dutch history. It appears in many photographs taken in the turbulent 1960s. The Second World War was still fresh in many people's memories when Crown Princess Beatrix married Claus van Amsberg, a German. As the royal pair rode through the streets of Amsterdam in the carriage, smoke bombs exploded. Many photos show the golden coach, bearing the happy couple, emerging from clouds of smoke.
The story of how the coach came to be reflects much of the feeling of national unity which it has come to represent. At the end of the 19th century, many people were angry about the growing divide between the very poor and the very rich in Amsterdam. Encouraged by a popular and persuasive preacher, people from all sides decided to donate 25 cents for a gift to mark the coronation of Queen Wilhelmina in 1898. The appeal was an overwhelming success and brought people together. The gift it paid for: the golden coach.
Royal pomp and circumstance
Initially, Queen Wilhelmina had misgivings about accepting the gift, as she feared nationwide protests against such royal extravagance. The golden coach was destined for a museum until she decided to use it for her wedding to Prince Hendrik in 1901.
On Princes' Day 2001, the world was still reeling from the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. Many questioned whether it was wise - or safe - to allow the queen to use the golden coach to open parliament. However, tradition won out and the carriage was brought out on its annual round. But, to mark the terrible events of 9/11, the carriage stopped briefly in front of the US embassy in The Hague. Despite the short duration of the gesture - it lasted a mere 15 seconds - it made a deep impression; never before had a coach bearing the Dutch monarch stopped to pay respects for the victims of a tragedy.
Not everyone thinks the coach is beautiful. It isn't made of gold but is just gold leaf and gold paint. The aesthetic lines of the vehicle weren't helped when the roof had to be raised in order to accommodate voluminous royal hairstyles and hats.
When Crown-Prince Willem-Alexander was a student he had to excuse himself from lectures to attend Princes' Day. In the logbook he wrote, "I will be unable to attend tomorrow. I have to accompany my mother in a golden caravan as she rides through The Hague".
The golden coach has led a far from boring life: smoke bombs, a paint bomb during the marriage of Crown-Prince Willem-Alexander and Princess Máxima, sexual escapades by members of the Royal Constabulary and more. Reason enough to devote 200 pages to the carriage in both Dutch and English. It's a must-have book for the hundreds of thousands of Dutch people who will line the streets on the third Tuesday of September, patiently waiting for a glimpse of the queen in the golden coach.
The golden coach: from gift from the people of Amsterdam to national symbol - Published by Waanders; Zwolle, The Netherlands