The royal visitors arrive at Zurich’s Kloten airport on 29 April 1980.
The royal visitors arrive at Zurich’s Kloten airport on 29 April 1980. Swiss National Museum / ASL

Cheering for the blue-bloods

Switzerland has played host on numerous occasions to royals such as Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Victoria, Sisi and many others – and these illustrious personages have left their stories and their mark.

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw has a PhD in history and is a performance poet and author. He regularly publishes historical books.

No one had heard of the ‘Countess of Kent’ or the ‘Countess of Hohenems’. But the Swiss weren’t about to be fooled by these aliases; they knew that behind the name ‘Countess of Kent’ was hiding the most famous woman in the world, Queen Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom. And that the ‘Countess von Hohenems’ was none other than Empress Elisabeth of Austria, better known as Sisi. The democratic Swiss gave these well-known aristocrats a frenzied welcome when they travelled to Switzerland under false names. When the English queen arrived at Lucerne train station, a huge crowd of onlookers was waiting to greet her with enthusiastic cheering and applause. The Lucerne city police even had to hold the public back, to stop people getting too close to the Queen. When Victoria later went on an excursion to the Rigi, 200 to 300 people sang ‘God Save the Queen’ in her honour in Kaltbad, and gun salutes shattered the silence of the mountains.
Queen Victoria spent several weeks visiting Switzerland in 1868.
Queen Victoria spent several weeks visiting Switzerland in 1868. Wikimedia / Alexander Bassano
Great throngs of people also turned up during the visits of the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II of Austria-Hungary, Tsar Alexander I, Emperor Napoleon III, King Ludwig II of Bavaria and, in the 20th century, those of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Queen Astrid von Belgium, Emperor Haile Selassie of Abyssinia and Queen Elisabeth II. This is very interesting: Switzerland, which has always celebrated and showcased its democratic tradition, nonetheless rushes to drop into a deep curtsey whenever a royal and his or her retinue stops by. Are the Swiss just monarchists in disguise? Perhaps because they never had a king or queen of their own?
TV report on Queen Elizabeth II’s state visit to Switzerland in 1980 (in French). YouTube / RTS
Admittedly, that’s not entirely true: in this country we don’t call the top performers in our national sport ‘Swiss champion’, we call them ‘King of wrestling’! In the sawdust-strewn ring, our wrestling royalty seems to make no trouble. And vice versa, the touring royals have had no problems with Switzerland and the Swiss people. Although the incognito act didn’t last, the queens and kings, empresses and emperors have obviously felt very comfortable between Basel and Chiasso, even if the reasons for their trips to Switzerland were as different as the royals themselves. Some of them came to Switzerland because they wanted to meet the great minds of Europe who lived and worked in our country at the time. Others have come here to relax or to be left in peace – like Queen Victoria, who visited many of the sights in central Switzerland, went for walks and painted watercolours of the landscape. And others wanted to meet with other powerful figures on neutral ground in Switzerland or, like Kaiser Wilhelm II, they came on state visits. Or they were on the run and sought quiet exile, like the man who would later become Emperor Napoleon III of France. Sometimes it was quite simply a shopping trip, a jaunt to buy expensive Swiss watches or Swiss weapons.
The Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I and President of the Swiss Confederation Rodolphe Rubattel at Hindelbank (Bern) railway station, 1954.
The Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I and President of the Swiss Confederation Rodolphe Rubattel at Hindelbank (Bern) railway station, 1954. Swiss National Museum / ASL
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Kaiser Wilhelm II and President of the Swiss Confederation Ludwig Forrer in Zurich in 1912.
Kaiser Wilhelm II and President of the Swiss Confederation Ludwig Forrer in Zurich in 1912. Swiss National Museum
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Federal Councillor Kurt Furgler and the Queen at the gala dinner in Bern, 1980.
Federal Councillor Kurt Furgler and the Queen at the gala dinner in Bern, 1980. Swiss National Museum / ASL
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The Queen also caused a flurry of excitement among the press photographers. Some overstepped the mark...
The Queen also caused a flurry of excitement among the press photographers. Some overstepped the mark... Schweizerisches Nationalmuseum / ASL
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Prince Rainer III of Monaco and Grace Kelly visited Switzerland in 1960. On the left is President of the Swiss Confederation Max Petitpierre.
Prince Rainer III of Monaco and Grace Kelly visited Switzerland in 1960. On the left is President of the Swiss Confederation Max Petitpierre. Swiss National Museum / ASL
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State visit of the Spanish King Juan Carlos in 1979.
State visit of the Spanish King Juan Carlos in 1979. Swiss National Museum / ASL
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Sweden’s Queen Silvia in Ticino in 1985.
Sweden’s Queen Silvia in Ticino in 1985. Swiss National Museum / ASL
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The Queen even had to do some gardening and plant a tree at the Grün80 exhibition.
The Queen even had to do some gardening and plant a tree at the Grün80 exhibition. Swiss National Museum / ASL
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In Valais too, people were astonished at how heartily the Swiss cheered the Queen of the Netherlands in 1929. The ‘Briger Anzeiger’ newspaper gave a somewhat convoluted analysis of the phenomenon: “The Queen may have seen from this that the oldest Republicans in the world are not nearly as far removed from the monarchist idea as one might think.”

The Royals are coming

13.03.2021 03.10.2021 / Forum Schweizer Geschichte Schwyz
The list of royal visitors to Switzerland is long – and equally impressive: Emperor Wilhelm II, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Queen Elizabeth, Astrid, Queen of the Belgians, and Queen Victoria. These are some of the many crowned heads who have visited Switzerland. Their reasons for doing are so as varied as their backgrounds. Whether for a state visit, rest and recreation, or even exile, crowned heads have long favoured Switzerland as a destination. The exhibition reflects the diversity of royal visitors to Switzerland and features fascinating stories and impressive mementos of their time here.

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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).