Crown Princess Mary of Denmark may be set to become the first Australian-born queen but a grazier’s daughter from rural New South Wales tried for years to claim that title.
Susan Cullen-Ward is largely forgotten now but for the second half of her life she sought to be recognised as Albanian royalty through her 1975 marriage to that country’s exiled King Leka I.
Three decades before Tasmanian advertising account manager Mary Donaldson married Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik, Cullen-Ward became consort to the pretender to another European throne.
She claimed to be descended from England’s King Edward I – known as Edward Longshanks – and he was a ninth cousin once removed of Queen Elizabeth II.
But the petite country girl’s marriage to the giant, gun-toting Leka I was never quite the full fairytale romance between a prince and commoner.
Earlier this month Denmark’s Queen Margrethe made Princess Mary a regent, allowing her to perform duties as head of state when the 79-year-old monarch is otherwise engaged.
Mary, 47, will become Queen of Denmark when 51-year-old Frederik ascends to the throne upon the death or abdication of his mother.
‘Queen’ Susan’s path to royalty would never be as smooth.
Susan Barbara Cullen-Ward was born in Sydney’s Waverley in 1941 and raised near Cumnock, a tiny town of 200 houses 57km north-west of Orange in the central west of New South Wales.
She was the third of five children from a local wheat, wool and cattle clan.
Young Susan helped on her parents Phyllis and Alan’s 2023 hectare property Mani, went to primary school at nearby Baldry and high school at Presbyterian Ladies College (PLC) in Orange.
After graduating, she returned to PLC as an art teacher, studied design at East Sydney Technical College and dabbled in interior decorating as she fell in with the city’s social set.
n early marriage ended in divorce after three years.
Leka was the only son of Ahmet Zogu, a Muslim chieftain who in 1928 proclaimed himself King Zog I, and his queen consort, Countess Geraldine Apponyi de Nagyappony.
Zog was the first monarch of Albania after it gained independence from the Ottoman Empire but fled his homeland in 1939 when Italy’s fascists occupied the Balkan state.
Albania’s communist government abolished the monarchy in 1946 but King Zog, who died in Paris in 1961, and then Leka insisted they were the country’s legitimate sovereigns.
Upon Zog’s death Leka was proclaimed ‘King of the Albanians’ by a national assembly while in exile, swearing his oath of allegiance at the Hotel Bristol in Paris.
Cullen-Ward met Leka at a North Shore dinner party in the late 1960s. It was not exactly love at first sight.
She told her mother the 205.7cm (6’9″) tall Royal Military College Sandhurst graduate, who spoke seven languages, seemed like ‘just another bloke’.
But the pair became friends and would catch up each time Leka visited Australia.
Cullen-Ward moved to Paris in 1971 to study fine arts at the Sorbonne but gave that away to paint in northern Spain. She later moved to Madrid and met up with Leka again.
‘It was during my training as a tourist guide that we fell in love,’ she once said. ‘He requested I not continue with this work and later we married.’
The guest list at the wedding in Biarritz, France included exiled royalty from across Europe as well as members of Cullen-Ward’s family.
Leka, who was just days old when he fled Albania with his father, declared Susan his queen, although she had never seen the country whose people she supposedly ruled.
He affectionately called her Roo; she referred to him in public as ‘His Majesty’.
After the wedding, Queen Susan told reporters: ‘I don’t feel like a queen. I feel a happy bride.’
‘Nothing has changed except I have the responsibility of helping His Majesty back on to the throne of his country.’
The couple set up home in Madrid but in 1979 was later told to leave Spain, after authorities objected to his large personal cache of weapons.
This was not the first or last time Leka’s fascination with guns would get him trouble.
Leka described himself as an international commodities broker and later as an importer/exporter of heavy machinery but spent decades denying he was an arms dealer.
Often heavily armed, even when travelling abroad, Leka had been arrested in Bangkok in 1977 for hoarding military firearms including M16 rifles and hand grenades.
Once, upon flying into Gabon on the west coast of Central Africa, Leka’s plane was surrounded by local troops he feared had been paid to kidnap him.
Leka removed the threat when he appeared at the plane’s door carrying a rocket launcher.
A courtier once observed of the ‘king’: ‘From the moment he was born, there was a gun under his pillow and he has worn it all his life.’
How Leka supported himself was a mystery. It was long rumoured that over the years he had received assistance from friends including the Shah of Iran, United States President Richard Nixon, who was a distant cousin, and the CIA.
He was partial to a safari suit and was sometimes seen wearing ivory-inlaid pistols in his belt.
After their problems in Spain Leka and Susan were forced out of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when Robert Mugabe came to power, before settling in South Africa.
The couple and the king’s mother Queen Geraldine moved into a secure compound near Johannesburg, where their son Crown Prince Leka was born in 1982.
While in South Africa the family was protected by guard dogs and armed bodyguards.
In 1999 Leki was charged by South African authorities with possession of AK-47 rifles, grenade launchers and anti-personnel mines.
Successive Australian governments refused to recognise Cullen-Ward as Albanian royalty which made it difficult for her to return to Australia, a situation she described as ‘personally very, very hurtful.’
‘The government insisted I have an Australian passport and my husband permitted me to travel on one which was under the name of “Queen Susan”,’ she once said.
‘But when they renewed it there was a bureaucratic foul-up and it is in the name of Susan Cullen-Ward, married to King Leka.
‘I’m afraid this document amounts to a denial of my sovereignty, which is against the Albanian Constitution and everything our family stands for.’
This identity document impasse dragged on for years.
In 1997 the Australian High Commission in Pretoria was prepared to issue a passport in Cullen-Ward’s maiden name or as ‘Madame Susan Zogu’, Albania’s royal family name.
‘Neither of these options is acceptable in any way,’ Cullen-Ward said at the time. ‘And I’m not in the business of being insulted by my own countrymen, particularly as Australia is a constitutional monarch.’
‘It should also be remembered that our cousin, Queen Elizabeth of Australia, sent us a congratulatory telegram on the occasion of our marriage.’
Eventually, then foreign minister Andrew Peacock helped issue a passport in the name of ‘Susan Cullen-Ward, known as Queen Susan’.
As a four-year-old Leka junior was asked to sign an undertaking he would not address any Albanian dissident groups during a trip to Australia to visit his dying grandfather.
By the late 1990s Cullen-Ward had returned to Cumnock only once since her marriage and only her brother John and his wife Diane still lived locally.
They had little contact with their supposedly royal relative.
‘I haven’t seen my sister since my father died about 10 years ago,’ Mr Cullen-Ward said in 1997. He did get a Christmas card every year.
There was no animosity between the siblings but having a queen as a sister ‘comes very low on my list of priorities’, Mr Cullen-Ward said.
‘That’s her life, no doubt she’s happy with it and I’m happy with mine.’
School friends Jan Gibson and Lyn Munro recalled ‘a great country girl’, but little more.
‘I would think Albania’s very lucky,’ Ms Munro said.
After the fall of communism Leka made unsuccessful attempts at returning to Albania in 1993 and again in 1997 when the country rejected a return to the monarchy.
The royal couple finally returned to Albania in 2002 after being invited back by parliament.
Cullen-Ward was diagnosed with lung cancer and died of heart failure at her home on the outskirts of Tirana, the Albanian capital, in 2004. She was 63.
‘Her Majesty Susan I Zog is no longer with us,’ spokesman Fluturak Germenji announced.
Queen Susan lay in state at the royal palace as hundreds paid their last respects before she was buried next to Queen Geraldine, who had died in 2002.
Leka never took the throne but lived the last nine years of his life in Albania. He withdrew from public life in 2005 and died of a heart attack in 2011. He was 72.
Son Leka II, who also attended Sandhurst and has worked as an adviser to Albania’s president, succeeded his father as head of the House of Zogu, and titular King of the Albanians.
Leka II married Albanian actress and singer Elia Zaharia in 2016.