In the history of the British monarchy, Queen Elizabeth II (1926-2022) was the longestreigning sovereign. She was the queen of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth realm for more than 70 years. During her long life and reign, she took part in several events relevant for British-Serbian and British-Yugoslav relations
Her father, Prince Albert, Duke of York (1895-1952) became King George VI in 1936 and reigned till 1952. He was the first person from the British Royal family to establish close relations with Serbia and Yugoslavia and participated in at least five symbolically important events that linked Serbia and Yugoslavia with Britain. In the early spring of 1916, Crown Prince and Regent Alexander of Serbia visited Britain. On that occasion, Prince Albert received the Prince Regent at Charing Cross station in London and escorted him to see his father King George V. That was the first visit of a Serbian head of state to the United Kingdom. The Times reported that: “the reception accorded the Crown Prince outside the station was magnificent, and no foreign visitor has been more warmly received.” (The Times, 1st April, 1916). This was a u-turn in mutual relations since the Belgrade regicide of 1903 had produced a particularly negative impression in Britain and even led to a three-year-long break in diplomatic relations. The Great War turned everything around, and British public opinion became the champion of its small and heroic ally, Serbia. The British court endorsed this kind of appraisal during the visit of the Prince Regent to London.
After the end of the Great War, Prince Albert twice visited Belgrade. On 8th June, 1922, Prince Albert acted as ‘kum’ (chief witness / godfather) at the royal wedding of King Alexander Karađorđević and Princess Marie of Romania, great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. On that occasion, Prince Albert represented his parents, the King and the Queen. (The Times, 9th June, 1922). In October 1923, he came again, this time to attend the christening of the infant son of Queen Marie and King Alexander. On 20th October, the Duke and Duchess of York were greeted in Belgrade, in front of the royal palace, where “in spite of the cold, large crowds awaited the arrival of the Koom and Koomitsa [Godfather and Godmother].” The Duke of York held the baby throughout the service, as Christian Orthodox tradition demands, and Serbian Patriarch Dimitrije conducted the ceremony.
(The Times, 21st October, 1923). It is important to mention that the Serbian word “koom” (or kum in more modern spelling) can denote both a best man at a wedding and a godfather or godmother at a christening. The Duke of York represented his father as the best man of King Alexander in 1922 and was godfather to his son in 1923. The baby was named Peter, after his grandfather Peter I the Unifier. The Duke of York also acted as the best man at the wedding of Prince Paul two days later. Prince Albert was the second son of King George V, who was succeeded by his eldest son Edward VIII (r. January-December 1936), and only after his abdication did the Duke of York become the king of the United Kingdom as George VI.
On 20th March, 1944, King Peter of Yugoslavia married Princess Alexandra of Greece and Denmark. On that occasion, King George VI and King George of Greece acted as witnesses. Finally, on 24th October, 1945, the christening of Crown Prince Alexander took place at Westminster Abbey in London, in the presence of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. King George VI and his daughter Princess Elizabeth were godparents to the Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia. The ceremony was conducted by Patriarch Gavrilo and Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. (The Times, 25th October, 1945) Princess Elizabeth was 19 at the time of this ceremony and held the Crown Prince in her hands. The event made such an impression on her that, many decades later, she vividly described that moment to several Serbian diplomats.
Although the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was an official British ally until 1945, the victory of the Yugoslav communist-led Partisans in the civil war led to the suspension of the Yugoslav monarchy in November 1945. In the first years of communist Yugoslavia, its relations with both the U.S. and the UK were fraught with tension. Everything changed suddenly in June 1948, when the Soviet Union expelled Yugoslavia from the association of communist countries.
50 years ago, on October 1972, Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by Prince Philip and their daughter Anne, made a four-day visit to Yugoslavia. It was the first communist country she visited
After that, Yugoslavia found unlikely allies in the Western countries. In the 1950-53 period, communist Yugoslavia received assistance from the U.S. and UK, and the Yugoslav leadership visited Britain in March 1953. It was the first meeting of Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito and Queen Elizabeth, but since the Queen had not yet been crowned, it did not have the rank of an official visit, but rather a “private own”. Nevertheless, Yugoslav President Tito was received with full pomp, which was very important for him because, at this time, Yugoslavia was making efforts to build bridges with Western states.
The rapprochement between the two states proved rather short-lived. The Suez Crisis in 1956 brought the two countries into a new dispute, which was amplified during the decolonisation of British Africa between 1956 and 1966. Yugoslavia’s direct opposition to Israel in 1967 was another low point. Only after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968 did Communist Yugoslavia try to re-establish warmer relations with the West, including Britain. In the 1970s, mutual relations reached a new high point that included several visits on both sides. In November 1971, the Yugoslav President made his first one-day official visit to the UK and had lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. The visit was organised under “unusually stringent security precautions.” (The Times, 8th November, 1971).
In October 1972, Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by Prince Philip and their daughter Anne, made a four-day visit to Yugoslavia. It was the first communist country she visited, and that very fact was not received favourably in some quarters in the West. In Britain, the visit was seen “as yet another step in the readjustment of the British monarchy to the requirements of present-day realities.” (The Times, 17th October, 1972) At that moment, Yugoslavia was going through a deep crisis due to the re-emergence of ethnic tensions and the persecution of intellectuals, students and dissidents by the Yugoslav communist regime, which prompted criticism in many circles in the West. Under such conditions, Belgrade gave the Queen an “enthusiastic reception despite the political crisis”. British journalists were somewhat surprised that the Queen’s host, Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, who was “unusually stern”, could not wait with his announcement about the withdrawal of his support from the Serbian Party leadership till the visit was over.
During their visit, the Queen and Prince Philip laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Hero at Avala Mountain. The Queen also planted a tree in the Park of Friendship and visited the Commonwealth War Cemetery and the University of Belgrade. She spoke “of the traditional respect and understanding between Britons and Serbs and of the sincere admiration the British have for the long and courageous Serbian struggle, first to achieve freedom and then, with other constituent republics of the Yugoslav federation, to build a united nation.” The Queen also mentioned the dangers of neglecting the environment in the age of modern technology: “You cannot feed the beauty of the countryside into a computer and statistics cannot themselves make clean air, sparkling rivers or contented community.” (The Times, October 19, 1972).
The Queen was awarded the golden plaque of the City of Belgrade by its mayor. On that occasion, she said at the Belgrade City Hall: “Some 50 years ago, my father and mother were in a position to visit Belgrade and therefore I am particularly happy to be here with my husband and daughter.” (Politika, 18th October, 1972) This was a discreet reminder to the Queen’s hosts of the relations her family had had with the Yugoslav royal family.
During her trip, the Queen also visited Zagreb, where “a crowd of 15,000 people applauded”, and spoke of the close contacts between Britain and Croatia. As Dessa Trevisan of The Times noted: “The toast was addressed to the Serbs in Belgrade and to the Croatians in Zagreb, reflecting the Queen’s awareness of the delicate relationship between the two largest nations of Yugoslavia.” (The Times, 21st October, 1972).
Visits continued in the 1970s, and President Tito paid a short visit to the UK in March 1978, then in October that same year, Prince Charles visited Yugoslavia. At the funeral of the Yugoslav President in May 1980, the British delegation included Prince Philip, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington.
The official visits in the 1970s happened in the period when Josip Broz, the Yugoslav life-long president, after he met with Brezhnev in Belgrade in 1971 and again in June 1972 in Moscow, was seen in the West as getting too close to the Soviet Union. In retrospect, one can see that the Queen’s visit to Yugoslavia took place between Tito’s visits to Moscow in 1972 and 1973.
What happened in the early 1950s when communist Yugoslavia came closer to the West is nowadays known in historiography as a “Cold War anomaly”. A new climax in British-Yugoslav relations took place in the 1970s. In 1988, one of the last British ambassadors to Communist Yugoslavia, Andrew Wood, aptly summarised the process begun in 1948: “A British-Yugoslav marriage of convenience had nevertheless begun – and marriages of convenience are often the most durable.”
Communist Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991 and the Wars for Yugoslav Succession followed. The Queen never returned to Yugoslavia or Serbia after 1972. In 1995, she attended the 50th birthday celebration of Crown Prince Alexander in London and danced a waltz with the Crown Prince, whom she had baptised half a century earlier.
Finally, in 2016, Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, made a regional tour and visited Zagreb, Belgrade, Priština and Podgorica. During his visit to Belgrade and Serbia, Prince Charles, in addition to official meetings with the officials of Serbia, had special meetings with the Serbian Patriarch and the Friends of Mount Athos (FOMA) and paid a visit to the Temple of St. Sava in Belgrade and Kovilj Monastery. He also visited Crown Prince Alexander and was shown an exhibition on the mutual contacts between the two dynasties. On 17th March, 2016, in his address in the National Assembly of Serbia, he singled out some historical and public figures that symbolised relations between the United Kingdom and the region, including Father and Bishop Nikolai Velimirović, Flora Sandes, Fitzroy Maclean, Rita Ora, Novak Đoković and Mother Theresa.
What emerges from this short review is that, in one hundred years spanning from 1916 to 2016, the British Royal family gave a very important contribution to the development of British-Serbian, British-Yugoslav and British- Balkan relations.