Bavaria buries the royal dream Funeral of Prince Albrechty

Imre Karacs on the funeral of Prince Albrecht (above) pretender to the thrones of Britain and France
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Bonn - Europe's royalty gathers today for the funeral of a man who laid claim to some of the greatest kingdoms of Europe but never sat on a throne himself. Albrecht, Duke of Bavaria and pretender to the thrones of England, Scotland, Ireland and France, will be buried this morning in a manner befitting a king in the family plot of Kloster Andechs, a monastery south of Munich.

Representatives of all the major royal houses will be there. The requiem mass for "His Royal Highness" will be broadcast live by Bavarian television, underlining the significance of the event in Germany's last monarchist outpost. In a vivid display of royalist sentiment, thousands of Bavarians flocked yesterday to the family church in Munich to pay their respects.

Albrecht, who died on Monday at the age of 91, was the last living link with the Wittelsbach dynasty's reign spanning eight centuries; the embodiment of independent Bavaria. He was 13 when his grandfather King Ludwig III was overthrown in a short-lived communist revolution in November 1918.

The family spent three years in exile in Austria, but discovered upon their return that the Weimar Republic was as hostile to a Kingdom of Bavaria as the communists had been. The Wittelsbach estates were expropriated, leaving two castles and a palace in family hands.

Albrecht later studied forestry at Munich university, but was not allowed to graduate because of his refusal to join the Nazis. At the age of 32 he went into exile again, this time to Hungary, where German troops deported the family to Dachau in 1944.

They were rescued by American troops and made a final attempt to restore the monarchy. Helped by the Catholic Church, monarchists set up the "Bavarian Homeland and Royalty Party" in 1946. It was deemed a threat by the occupying US administration and banned.

The Wittelsbachs licked their wounds, but never renounced their royal title. Crown Prince Rupprecht, Albrecht's father and the son of Ludwig III, even pressed the family's tenuous claims to other royal titles. Related to the Habsburgs and direct descendants of the Stuarts, Rupprecht insisted until his death in 1955 that his family were the heirs to the titles usurped by the Windsors, as well as the vacant French throne. Every year, Rupprecht laid a wreath at the statue of James I in Munich.

The Wittelsbachs' British pretensions are not as fanciful as they may seem. According to Burke's Royal Families of the World, Prince Albrecht was "representative and heir-general of King Charles I, or the senior descendant of King James VI of Scotland, James I of England, and lineal heir of the Royal House of Stuart. This makes him the Stuart claimant to the British throne".

Albrecht, however, seemed to be less interested in the overseas dominions than his father. After inheriting the title, he withdrew from public life, devoting himself to hunting and fishing.

The 800th anniversary of the dynasty in 1980 brought a revival of public interest that continues, reinforcing suspicions elsewhere in Germany that Bavaria is almost a foreign land. The spirit of Bavaria lives on, above all, in the former ruling family. Between 1180 and 1918 the Wittelsbachs ruled the country almost uninterrupted, bequeathing an underdeveloped backwater dotted with quaint castles, none quainter than the turrets designed by Ludwig II, the "Fairy-tale King". His reign, between 1864 and 1886, marked the zenith of Bavarian civilisation, its glory set to score by Ludwig's protege Richard Wagner.

Ludwig II is now back in fashion. Exhibitions set out to prove that he was not mad, merely highly creative. Albrecht helped to foster the myth, and became a legend himself in the process: the "Fatherly Prince of Bavaria" and symbol of a nation yearning for nationhood.

He is succeeded by his son Prince Franz, 64, childless and unburdened by regal memories. For many Bavarians, he will represent not only the end of the line, but also the end of a dream.