Thursday, July 12, 2012

Consort Profile: Queen Rambai Barni of Siam

A remarkable woman, the last Queen consort of Thailand before the current occupant of that role, was born Her Serene Highness Princess Rambai Barni Svastivatana on December 20, 1904 to Prince Svasti Sobhana of Svastivatana and Princess Abha Barni Gaganang. Her father was one of the sons of the famous King Mogkut of Siam by Princess Piyamawadi, one of his many consorts. Known as Princess Na she was sent to the royal palace at the age of two to have her education overseen by Queen Saovabha, consort of King Chulalongkorn the Great, in keeping with Thai tradition. She lived mostly at Dusit Palace until the death of King Chulalongkorn in 1910 when she moved to the Queen’s School at the Grand Palace where she developed a closer friendship with her cousin HRH Prince Prajadhipok of Sukhothai. He held commissions in both the Siamese and the British armies and had hoped to serve on the western front in World War I but his future changed following the succession of his elder brother as King Vajiravudh who ordered him to resign his rank in the British army and return to Siam to take up his duties as heir-to-the-throne and spend some time as a monk in 1917.

During this time the relationship between Prince Prajadhipok and Princess Rambai Barni grew stronger and stronger and in 1918 the two were married, with the blessing of the King, at Bang Pa-In Palace. The two moved in to Sukhothai Palace to begin their wedded life together. They never had children but were deeply attached to each other and had similar upbringings, both being well acquainted with royal duty and having western as well as traditional educations. In 1925 the King died and the princess became Queen consort to King Prajadhipok (Rama VII). The devotion the King had to Queen Rambai Barni as well as their willingness to adopt western ways was evidenced by his abandonment of polygamy. The Queen would be his one and only wife and for that time on royal concubines became a thing of the past. Setting another lasting change, the King and Queen increasingly wore western clothes instead of traditional Siamese styles. There were also some revisions made to the very ceremonial court protocol as the King and Queen wanted to project an image of a modern monarchy in step with the rest of the world. They disliked the atmosphere in Bangkok and preferred to spend their time at their summer palace at Hua Hin.

Siam was going through a traumatic period at the time. The country was still an absolute monarchy but many political and military elites were growing rebellious. King Vajiravudh had accepted making some reforms toward constitutional monarchy but the idea was put on hold after a failed coup attempt in 1912. King Prajadhipok had instituted changes as soon as he came to the throne, setting up an oversight council to fight corruption, cutting his own allowance and instituting social welfare programs which required income taxes on the wealthy. Many elites, obviously, opposed this and they could count on the support of many Thai students who had gone abroad to study and were then coming home. After years in Europe or America many had adopted western attitudes and viewed the traditional absolute monarchy of their own country as primitive and ‘out of step’ with the modern world of democratic republics and constitutional kingdoms. All of this came to a boil in June of 1932 when the King and Queen were informed at their summer palace of a revolution (actually a coup) led by the so-called “People’s Party”, a group of civilian and military officials who had joined together in Paris, France which was the first political party in Thai history.

The absolute monarchy was abolished and the King was forced to sign into effect a new constitutional monarchy which deprived him of all of his traditional rights and authority. Fearing for the safety of himself and Queen Rambai Barni along with their adopted son (a nephew) Prince Jirasakdi, the King went into exile in England in 1933, ostensibly for an eye operation. The political elite became more intransigent and in 1935 the King officially abdicated, passing the throne to his nephew. The former King and Queen settled down to a quiet private life in Surrey. Through it all, Queen Rambai Barni had been a source of strength for her husband, worrying over his personal safety but encouraging him to be firm and trust his own good judgment. She spent much of her time in England gardening. Little did she know that even more difficult times were ahead but she would certainly rise to the occasion.

As World War II broke out and spread around the world, neither the recently renamed Thailand or the former King and Queen would be left untouched. Their adopted son, Prince Jirasakdi, joined the Royal Air Force and became a fighter pilot, serving gallantly in the epic battle of Britain until he was killed in action in 1942. It was the second tragedy the former Queen had to deal with. As a result of the increased bombing of the German Luftwaffe the royal couple had to move, eventually to Wales, for their own safety. The King had suffered a heart attack and died there in 1941. Before that time, Queen Rambai Barni had always felt it her duty to stay on the sidelines and simply support her husband in any way possible. Now that he was gone, she decided to speak up for herself about the political situation in her homeland. Thai nationalists had seized power and made General Plaek Pibulsongkram (Phibun) the effective dictator of the country. He had been involved in the 1932 coup and had suppressed a royalist rebellion aimed at restoring the absolute monarchy. He favored a military dictatorship and had allied with Imperial Japan, allowing Japanese forces to occupy Thailand in 1941 as part of their campaigns against the Allied powers.

Queen Rambai Barni became a major leader in the Free Thai Movement, organized mostly by Thais living outside the country in western nations, to support their people at home who opposed the Japanese and would fight against them in cooperation with the United States and Great Britain. The Queen helped organize Thais living in the United Kingdom, mostly students, into a resistance movement and volunteered herself to serve in any non-military capacity in which she could be of use. She used her influence with members of the British government and leading figures in Thailand to support the Free Thai Movement and gave a great deal of money to fund their operations. This went to aid Free Thai guerillas which sabotaged Japanese forces in Thailand and increase opposition to the rule of General Phibun. Finally, the dictator was overthrown in a coup by pro-Allied leaders, King Ananda Mahidol was invited to return and the country reverted to its old name of Siam. In 1949 Queen Rambai Barni was at last invited to return home herself and did so, bringing the ashes of her late, beloved husband with her. After the accession of King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great, the dowager Queen continued to serve her country, just as she had before, living at the Sukhothai Palace where she and her late husband had first started their life together. She died, after a lifetime of great service to her country, in 1984 at the age of 79.


  1. Excellent post! I love hearing about Asian royals, as their monarchies are just as storied and fascinating as the Western monarchs that so much has been written of in our native tongue (and consequently tend to be the focus of discussion in monarchist circles).

    1. I do as well but they don't seem to interest very many westerners (judging from my own posts here on the subject). There would be more interest, I think, if people were more familiar with them but the lack of available info in western languages is a problem. Nonetheless, I'll keep trying to do my part.

  2. As a former resident of Thailand, I am very interested in articles on the House of Chakri. With reference to the article above, I have long thought that Her late Majesty was an admirable woman and queen. If you're ever in Bangkok, the King Prajadhipok Institute is well worth a visit for the informative exhibits on the royal couple's lives, including some of their personal effects. In addition, Sukhothai Palace can be visited, as can the Queen's summer home in Chanthaburi. It's located on the grounds of a college that she founded, now called the Queen Rambhai Barni Rajabhat University.


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