Prince Paul Of Yugoslavia meets Hitler.

On 2 March 1941, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, the senior or ‘chief’ Regent of that country departed Belgrade for his Slovene holiday home at Brdo in what his Greek-born wife, Princess Olga, describes as ‘a depressed condition’. The Prince had every reason to feel so. Firstly, Italy had made no secret of its expansionist desires in the Balkans, as was evidenced by its recent invasion of Greece. Athough this incursion had, for the moment, been successfully repulsed, Prince Paul remained very much alive to the threat that Italy posed to Yugoslav independence. Secondly, the attitude of the British government left much to be desired. Oxford-educated Paul was known as ‘F’ or ‘Friend’ by the British for his solid Anglophile outlook. However, the British had repeatedly avoided the Prince Regent’s numerous requests for ‘material aid’ in the form of weapons and ammuntion etc.. Indeed, Churchill’s government had, until recently, been content with the Yugoslav’s neutral stance. Nevertheless, this had changed in January and February when the British government indicated that they wished Yugoslavia and Turkey to join with them to form a ‘united’ Balkan front to ‘fight’ (even if their own country was not invaded) and provide ‘speedy succour’ to Greece. Thirdly, and most pressing, were the demands currently being made by Germany for Yugoslavia to join the Axis Tripartite Pact. This matter had to be addressed as a matter of extreme urgency for, following Bulgaria’s accession to the Pact on 1 March, Yugoslavia now found itself surrounded by Axis-aligned nations on all borders, a fact emphasised when between twelve to fifteen divisions of German soldiers crossed the Danube into Bulgaria as Paul’s train travelled westwards. Ominously, ‘Fascists’ in Bulgaria were apparently calling out, ‘Down with Yugoslavia.’

Hence, Paul’s final destination was not to be Slovenia but the Berghof, Hitler’s residence in the Bavarian Alps near Berchtesgaden. Word of the meeting had gradually leaked out to the international press as far as Australia. The Fuhrer seemed to be in good form and according to German Foreign Office documents, he informed the Yugoslav Prince Regent that England had already lost the war and other nations would have to adapt themselves to a ‘new order’. Hitler mentioned that he was offering the Slavs a ‘unique opportunity’ to ‘establish and secure’ their ‘territorial integrity’ in this reorganised Europe. The Fuhrer indicated that in order to secure this preferential treatment, Yugoslavia would have to acceed to the Axis Tripartite Pact.

The Prince was not about to be rushed into a decision there and then. He parried that as far as he personally was concerned, the Greek descent of his wife, as well as his sympathies for England, made this a most difficult matter. There was also another complication: It also so happened that one of the ‘founding’ signatories of the Pact was Mussolini’s Italy. Prince Paul firmly believed that Mussolini and Italy were responsible for the assassination of King Alexander of Yugosalvia in Marseilles in 1934.

Nevertheless Hitler persevered and stressed that Yugoslavia, through accession to the Tripartite Pact, could rely on Germany both as a ‘partner’ and a ‘guarantor’ of both her present and future territory. The latter was a reference to Germany’s tempting offer that should they sign the Pact, ‘when the war ended, Salonika would go to Yugoslavia’. The Fuhrer also declared that his country only expected Yugoslavia to acceed. The Slavs would not, however, be asked to participate militarily in any war.

Prince Paul ‘reserved’ his position, having already indicated that if he did as the Germans asked, his position in Yugoslavia might become untenable. The Regent further declared that as this was such a serious matter, he would have to discuss the matter with the cabinet on his return to Yugoslavia. Soon thereafter, the German Foreign Minister, von Ribbentrop contacted the German Minister in Belgrade, von Heeren, and informed him, ‘Please do everything you can in every possible way to hasten the accession of Yugoslavia [to the Pact]’. The Prince, meanwhile, left Bavaria convinced that ‘war was inevitable but that we had to gain time to be able to moblize.’ His viewpoint was echoed by the international press in headlines ‘BALKAN VOLCANO NEARING RUPTION..’

A new biography Princess Olga of Yugoslavia:Her Life and Times will be published on 1 April 2021 by Grosvenor House Publishing. This is now available to pre-order on Amazon.

Princess Olga of Yugoslavia: Her Life and Times: Amazon.co.uk: Prentice, Robert: 9781839754425: Books

Sister in the Shadows.

Princess Margretha of Sweden and Norway was born on 25 June 1899 at her parent’s white-washed summer home, Villa Parkrudden, in Stockholm’s exclusive Djurgården. She was the eldest child of Prince Carl of Sweden and Norway, Duke of Västergötland (the third son of King Oscar II) and his wife Princess Ingeborg, sometimes referred to as “the happiest Princess”, the eldest child of King Frederick VIII of Denmark. The couple went on to have three more children, Martha (born in 1901), Astrid (1905) and Carl (born in 1911 and known in the family as ‘Mulle’.)

There was a brief flurry of excitment, in 1905, with the news that Prince Carl was being considered as a prospective ‘candidate’ for the Norwegian throne. However, that honour finally fell to Ingeborg’s brother, Prince Haakon of Denmark, who reigned for 52 years as King Haakon VII of Norway and earned the lasting respect and admiration of his subjects.

Margaretha had a happy upbringing in Stockholm and, with her sisters, spent the summers (and often Easter and Christmas too), from 1909 onwards, at the family’s newly-constructed Villa Fridhem, overlooking Lake Skiren, near Bråviken in Östergötland. One of the main features was a purpose-built solid brick “Wendy House” which featured chintz wallpaper, a scaled-down kitchen with impliments and white furniture. Visitors at Fridhem included Margaretha’s Swedish-born maternal grandmother, Queen Louise of Denmark and her daughter Thyra.

The three sisters became something of a public relations draw for the Swedish royal family, with their images featuring regularly on postcards and in magazines. The Swedish Court photographer Jaeger also produced wonderful photographic portraits of the family, both individually and in groups. The family often joined other members of the Swedish royal family at events such as the 60th birthday celebrations of King Gustav V, held at his summer residence, Tullgarn Palace, in 1918. This would be one of the final royal family gatherings for Margaretha before she departed her homeland.

Although Margaretha’s named had been linked with the Prince of Wales (‘David’), the Princess was already in love with Prince Axel of Denmark, a cousin of Princess Ingeborg. The couple married on 22 May 1919 at Stockholm’s historic Storkyrkan (Great Church). The newlyweds made their home at the Villa Bernstorffshøj (a wedding gift) in the shadow of Bernstorff Palace, at Gentofte. The royal duo had two children-both sons-Georg (born in 1920) and Flemming (born in 1922). Although Margaretha was now a Princess of Denmark, the family photographic portraits continued to be taken by the trusted Mr Jaeger from Stockholm.

Meanwhile, back in Sweden, Prince Carl and Princess Ingeborg were beset by financial problems when the Danish bank, Landmandsbanken, who managed Ingeborg’s private capital, crashed. For reasons of economy, Prince Carl moved his family from the Djurgården into an apartment in Stockholm’s Villagatan in the autumn of 1923. Fortunately, Fridhem remained in the family and truly became “home” to all of Prince Carl’s family, including Margaretha who was a frequent visitor there with her sons. However, this change in family circumstances did not deter Margaretha’s sisters from making excellent marriages. In 1926, Astrid married the wealthy Prince Leopold, the Duke of Brabant and heir to the Belgian throne; while, three years later, Märtha wed her cousin, Crown Prince Olav of Norway.

The sudden death of her youngest sister, Queen Astrid of the Belgians, in a car accident in Küssnacht, Switzerland, in August 1935, at the tender age of 29, proved to be a devastating blow for Margaretha. Astrid had been flung from a Packard convertible car, driven by her husband King Leopold, and tossed against a tree, resulting in a fatal blow to the head. Margaretha and her mother Ingeborg remained in Brussels, following the funeral, to help the widowed King Leopold care for his children, Josephine-Charlotte, Baudouin and Albert. This trio often visited Villa Fridhem in the summer and would have encountered their Aunt Margaretha, along with their teenage cousins Georg and Flemming, during these Swedish sojourns.

In 1936, Margaretha was shaken by another event: her beloved Villa Bernstorffshøj was severely damaged by fire. Prince Axel rose to the challenge and commissioned the architect Helweg Møller to design a new and much enlarged white-washed residence featuring wide, expansive windows, a charming library, a large drawing room (in which Margaretha hung family portraits) and a long, sweeping terrace. Large vases of flowers arranged artistically throughout the main public rooms added a welcome feminine touch. Each time the Princess travelled out to her home via the coast road from Copenhagen, she was afforded wonderful views of her native Sweden, so temptingly near across the sea.

Margaretha’s husband, Prince Axel, who had intially served in the Danish navy, now enjoyed a busy and varied business career: In 1921, he began working for the Copenhagen-based East Asiatic Company, which operated shipping services to Bangkok and the Far East. In 1937, he rose to the rank of Chairman and Managing Director. The Prince was also a member of the International Olympic Committee and Honorary Chairman of Scandinavian Airlines. While he zipped in and out of Copenhagen in his Bentley, usually accompanied by his latest pet dog, Margaretha preferred to remain at home and dedicated herself to raising her family. An avid letter writer, she also corresponded with her extended family in Sweden, Norway and Belgium. The Princess also undertook charitable work and was Chairperson of the children’s charity, Gentofte Børnevenner. Margaretha also accompanied her husband on some of his official and business trips overseas, including an extensive tour of Asia, in 1930, also in the company of Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark and his younger brother, Prince Knud. Yet the Princess was also a familiar sight in Copenhagen, her tall, angular frame invariably offset by a neat hat with a small veil, as she rushed to a lunch engagement or to take tea at the Amelienborg.

The period of the German occupation of Denmark in World War II was a difficult and risky time for the Princess. Her husband was an avowed Anglophile and he was said to have kept in touch with British intelligence sources in Stockholm. Furthermore, the Villa Bernstorffshøj was used as a meeting place for members of the Danish resistance, while weapons for use against the German occupiers were concealed nearby. This led to Prince Axel being placed under house arrest for a period. It also did not help that Margaretha’s sister, Crown Princess Märtha, had become an iconic symbol of Norwegian resistance against the Nazi cause, particularly in the United States, where she lived in exile with her children, throughout most of the war, under the benevolent protection of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Observers, and in particular the writer James Pope-Hennessey, described the Princess as ‘stiff’, while others found her to be very conscious of rank, precedence and court etiquette. Margaretha would therefore have enjoyed attending the wedding, in London, in November 1947, of Britain’s Princess Elizabeth (a great-great granddaughter of King Christian IX of Denmark) to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten RN (born a Prince of Greece and Denmark and, like Margaretha, a great-grandchild of King Christian IX). This was the first major gathering of European royalty since before the outbreak of World War II. What she made of the marriage, in May 1949, of her younger son Prince Flemming to a commoner, Alice Ruth Neilsen, is best left to the imagination. Nevertheless, it must have been a bitter blow to the status-conscious Margaretha, as Flemming was required to relinquish the title of Prince of Denmark and was henceforth known as Count of Rosenborg. Then, in September 1950, her elder son, Prince Georg, married the British Queen Consort’s divorced niece, Lady Anne Bowes-Lyon. Unlike his brother Flemming, Georg cared deeply about his royal title and was able to remain a Prince of Denmark thanks to his successful plea to King Frederick not to revoke his royal status. It helped that Britain’s King George VI had also approached Frederick over the matter, probably at the urging of his wife Elizabeth. Although Georg’s new wife was now able to take the title of Princess Georg of Denmark, unlike ‘Lilibet’ and Philip’s marriage, this was certainly not a union of royal equals. Margaretha’s association with the British Royal family continued when she and Prince Axel officially represented the King of Denmark at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, in Westminster Abbey, in June 1953.

After the death of her sister, Märtha in 1954 , “Aunt ‘Tha” became an important support to her nieces Ragnhild and Astrid, as well as to her nephew Harald. Indeed, following Prince Axel’s death in July 1964, the Princess invariably spent Christmas with her brother-in-law, King Olav of Norway, in Oslo. As the sole surviving sister of Crown Princess Märtha, in August 1968, she was seated in pride of place next to the bridegroom at the banquet to celebrate the nuptials of Crown Prince Harald to Sonja Haraldsen. In 1971, she attended a Gala dinner at Akershus Castle in honour of King Olav’s 70th birthday. Later that year, Crown Prince Harald asked his beloved Aunt to act as sponsor (godmother) to his daughter, Princess Märtha Louise, at her christening.

Margaretha had often visited Sweden over the years, particularly to celebrate the milestone birthdays of (or mourn the deaths of) members of the Swedish royal family. In widowhood, she usually attended the annual presentation of the Nobel Prizes in Stockholm’s Concert Hall on 10 December, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. This ceremony was followed by a sumptuous banquet in the City Hall, where the press invariably captured the Princess in animated conversation with one or other of the winning Laureates. Another date in her Swedish calendar was attending a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” at the Storkyrkan on the first Sunday of Advent.

Princess Margaretha survived her husband by 12 years. Following a stroke in December 1974 ,the Princess was obliged to make use of a wheelchair. She died after suffering another stroke on January 4, 1977, aged 77 at Tranemosegård in Zealand. She is buried beside her husband Axel in the grounds of their beloved home at Gentofte.

King George of the Hellenes Wartime Escape…

As April 1941 dawned, King George II of the Hellenes had much to contemplate from his country home at Tatoi, some twenty miles outside Athens. Although Greek forces had successfully beaten off an invasion by Mussolini’s Italy from occupied Albania, in late October/November 1940, and had subsequently gained control of most of the northern Epirus, an even greater Axis power now posed a very real threat: Following Bulgaria’s signing of the Tripartite Pact on 1 March, German forces moved up to Bulgaria’s frontiers with Greece and Yugoslavia. On 6 April 1941, these troops invaded Greece from Bulgaria, both directly and via the south-eastern corner of Yugoslavia. Although the invaders initially met with stiff opposition from both Greek soldiers and a recently-arrived Allied expeditionary force (composed of British, Australian and New Zealand troops), by 18 April the Axis troops were marching towards Athens where the Prime Minister Alexandros Koryzis (who had only lately succeeded as premier following the death of General Ioannis Metaxas on 29 January), weighed-down by this recent turn of events, committed suicide. The King now assumed the Presidency of the Greek cabinet and, in a radio broadcast to his people, appealed to all Greeks to ‘remain united and steadfast’.

On 21 April, George II appointed Emmanouil Tsouderos, an Anglophile Cretan with links to the late Eleftherios Venizelos, as Prime Minister. Tsouderos was perhaps an apt choice as, on 22 April, to avoid capture by advancing Axis forces, Crown Princess Frederika and her children, Constantine and Sophia, flew in a Sunderland Flying Boat from the mainland to Crete. They were followed, next day (his name day) by King George, Crown Prince Paul, other royal family members and the government. Some have posited that the King appointed Tsouderos to act as his ‘protective shield’ for Crete was deemed to be a republican stronghold. On 27 April, German forces occupied Athens and Allied forces and Greek militia were evacuated to Crete.

Meanwhile, diplomatic circles in Germany let it be known that King George was ‘not recognised now as a representative of Greece. He is regarded as an ordinary fugitive.’ The Germans were now looking to work alongside the collaborationist ‘Hellenic State’ government of General Georgios Tsolakoglou, an avowed republican, who seemed more than happy to declare that his country was no longer a monarchy. President Roosevelt certainly disagreed with this view, for he arranged for his son, Captain James Roosevelt, a US air observer, to deliver a friendly note to the King in Crete praising the ‘magnificent fight the people of Greece are putting up’ and adding, ‘I wish you could get more help from us, and more quickly. I can only say I am using every effort.’

However, on 20 May, Crete was subjected to an airborne invasion by German paratroopers and mountain soldiers, who eventually wrestled control of defensive positions in the north, despite determined resistance on the part of the local populace, as well as Greek and Allied forces. Indeed, the King and Prince Peter narrowly escaped capture when the house they were inhabiting at Perivolia was attacked by a squadron of Messerschmitt planes. Later, large gliders landed nearby and German paratroopers engaged the Greek gendarmes and a platoon of New Zealand soldiers who were guarding His Majesty. Although King George avoided capture, he soon lost contact with his cabinet (and the Allied command) during a 72-hour dash over the mountains, with only a faithful squad of 16 New Zealand soldiers to protect him. Indeed, the second night of his adventure was spent at 8000 feet atop a snow-topped mountain range. On another occasion, the King sheltered in a cave alongside shepherds and ate mutton provided by them. The final day of this adventure was spent travelling knee-deep in water along a rocky river bed to evade detection.

The King was evacuated to Alexandria in Egypt from the southern Cretan port of Agia Roumeli, on 23 May, aboard the British destroyer, HMS Decoy. The government-in exile also joined King George there, but it was now much reduced in size, with the Prime Minister also assuming the portfolios of Foreign Minister and Finance Minister.

Although the Greek War Minister, Panagiotis Kanellopoulos, was to remain behind with evacuated Greek troops in Egypt, by early July, the King and his government had moved on to South Africa. There, His Majesty was greeted with all the ceremony and decorum due to a visiting Head of State at Pretoria Station: The King of South Africa’s personal representative, the Governor-General, Sir Patrick Duncan, introduced King George to the South African Prime Minister, General Jan Smuts while, in the background, a 21-gun salute rang out. The King was later feted by women from the Greek community, in national dress and carrying Greek flags, who strewed rose petals before him as he walked-by. However, although the King George did not remain long in the Union, a large swathe of the Greek royal family decided to take refuge there for the duration of the war. They included Crown Princess Frederika and her children, Princess Catherine, Prince George and his wife Marie Bonaparte, as well as their daughter Eugenie. Smuts had a particular soft spot for the Greek royals and soon took to referring to them as ‘my children’ regardless of their age and rank.

King George, meanwhile, was about to depart for London using a long, circuitous route, when Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, telegraphed him, on 20 July, to say: ‘I have been thinking a great deal about Your Majesty in these months of stress, danger and sorrow and I wish to tell you how much Your Majesty’s bearing amid these vicissitudes has been admired by your many friends in England, as well as by the nation at large.’

The Greek King arrived at the sea port of Liverpool, on 22 September, where he was greeted by the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Derby. He subsequently inspected a Naval Guard of Honour. The King then travelled southwards by train to London and received a right royal greeting at Euston Station from King George VI (‘Bertie’), Queen Elizabeth and his cousin, Marina, the Duchess of Kent. Winston Churchill also made an appearance and was seen to doff his top hat to the Hellenic monarch. The King of the Hellenes was accompanied by a party of forty, who included Crown Prince Paul, Princess Alexandra (the daughter of the late King Alexander of the Hellenes) and her mother Princess Aspasia. Prime Minister Tsoudoros and the government-in-exile were also much in evidence.

The Times, England’s establishment newspaper of choice, carried a positive article: ’London is proud to welcome King George, who is joining the honored band of national leaders who have fought and endured incredible personal hardships, but have never for a moment despaired of ultimate victory. He shared the dangers of the troops during the fighting in Crete which was a delaying action of the utmost value.’ For his part, King George II stated in a radio broadcast that ‘We have come here (to London) the better to direct the interest of the [Greek] nation, for here it is that, in common with our Allies, we shall take decisions regarding our participation in the war. This will be carried on until final victory is won.’

Princess Olga of Yugoslavia: January 1941, The Gathering Storm.

As January 1941 dawned, Princess Olga of Yugoslavia was enjoying a visit from her sister Elizabeth and her family from Munich. There were also lots of official engagements to undertake including the distribution of coats, sweets and toys to underprivileged children in Belgrade (under the auspices of the ‘Winter Help” charity of which the Princess was patron) as well as a charity concert at the local Y.M.C.A. Much to Olga’s relief, a new Lady-in-Waiting, Madame Babic, had agreed to assist the Princess with her increasing round of duties and audiences.

However, always in the background was the deteriorating situation in the Balkans, and in particular, the expansionist desires of Mussolini. Italy occupied Albania in the spring of 1940, from there it led air attacks on Greece on 28 October. As a Greek, the Princess was encouraged by her homeland’s successes over the Italians during a counter-offensive which saw them penetrate deeply into Italian-held Albanian territory. The recent capture of the strategically vital Klisura Pass was particularly welcome. However, as the Consort of the Prince Regent (Paul) of Yugoslavia, Olga was increasingly anxious over her adopted country’s future. As Head of State of a neutral country, Prince Paul was having to balance an increasingly difficult tight-rope of not provoking the Germans (who had already ‘persuaded’ Yugoslavia’s neighbours of Hungary and Romania to join the Axis Tripartite Pact), while at the same time keeping relations with Britain and the Allied powers on an even keel. The Regent had little room for manoeuvre. Unlike her anxious husband, the Princess could at least relax by skating on an ice rink near her home, the magnificient neo-Palladian style Beli Dvor (White Palace) or take drives to nearby Avala. When all else failed, there were five dogs to be walked!

On 12 January the British MP, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, arrived in Belgrade. He was an old friend of Prince Paul’s from Oxford University days and part of the Anglophile Prince and Princess’ social circle in London. However, this was no mere social visit but rather one for taking ‘soundings’, as his arrival coincided with the British Minister, Ronald Ian Campbell, informing Paul that Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, was intent on sending a mechanized force into Greece. Campbell also indicated that Yugoslavia’s current policy of neutrality was no longer enough, for Churchill now wanted the Slavs to join the war on the Allied side and assist British, Greek and Turkish troops in the southern Balkan peninsula (often referred to as ‘ forming a United Balkan Front’). The Prince told the American Minister, Arthur Lane, that he simply could not agree to this as Yugoslavia would be overrun in a matter of weeks by militarily superior Axis forces. Such an action might also precipitate a civil war in this ethnically diverse country.

Meanwhile, Olga ploughed on with a batch of official audiences in what she descibes as ‘anxious days’. A visiting Greek diplomat came to lunch, on 16 January, and this provided the Princess and her sister Elizabeth with the ideal opportunity to catch up on fresh news from Athens. Olga also found time to give Chips Channon a tour of the royal air raid shelter. When he departed for Athens, on 20 January, carrying a large pile of Christmas cards and presents from the Princess to her Greek relatives, Channon was in tears as he truly feared for the future wellbeing of the Regent and his wife. Bidding her Bavarian-based sister Elizabeth farewell, on 26 January, was also a heartrending ordeal for Olga, as neither of them could be sure when they might see each other again. At least the Princess had all her children for company, as Nicholas and Alexander had not returned to their boarding schools in England following the summer 1940 recess. They were currently attending the Second Gymnasium School in Belgrade. King Peter was also close to his ‘Aunt’ Olga. He was due take over full powers as Head of State from the Regency Council on reaching his majority (at the age of 18) in September.

But as I will reveal in a later instalment, things were to take a different course……

Princess Alice’s Wartime Canadian Adventure.

In February, 1940 the King’s representative in Canada, Lord Tweedsmuir, died suddenly following surgery. This left the post of Governor-General vacant at a particularly important time, for German military successes in Europe now required the strengthening of relationships between the United Kingdom and the Dominions, each of whom would provide military and non-military assistance to the ‘mother’ country. King George VI decided to appoint his Uncle Alge, the sixty-five-year-old Earl of Athlone to the post. The official announcement was made from Buckingham Palace on 3 April. The appointment was a God-send to the Earl (a younger brother of Queen Mary), who although too old for active military service, was anxious to be of use in the war effort.

There was no one more surprised at this sudden turn of events than Lord Athlone’s wife, the fifty-seven year-old Princess Alice. She was the spirited daughter of Queen Victoria’s youngest son, Leopold, Duke of Albany. Given Lord Athlone’s age, she had probably envisaged seeing out the war undertaking a series of minor official engagements or providing succour to evacuees from London’s East End who were currently quartered at the family’s country home, Brantridge Park, in rural Sussex. Alice was kind, candid, enthusiastic and fun; she was also often praised for her ‘band box’ elegance.

Yet, the King had actually made a wise choice for Alge and Alice were already well-versed in the nuances of Vice-Regal life: The Earl of Athlone had served as Governor-General of the Union of South Africa from 1924-1931 at a time when Afrikaner nationalism was on the ascendency, leading to tensions with those of British descent. Although Princess Alice had left the politics largely to her husband, she had proved to be an indefatigable hostess at the Government Houses of Pretoria and Cape Town, as well as forging strong links with both the ‘pro-British’ politician Jan Smuts and the Nationalist Afrikanner leader and Prime Minister, General James Hertzog. When not occupied entertaining official guests and politicians, the down-to-earth Princess could be found visiting Girl Guide groups, presiding over Rose Day festivities in Johannesburg or fund-raising for the King Edward VII District Nursing Association.

Although Canada differed enormously from its fellow Dominion in the south, the two countries shared a deep political and cultural divide. Whereas in South Africa these divisions had been between the more reactionary, republican Afrikaans-speaking people of mainly Dutch descent and the liberal-leaning (and monarchist) English-speaking population, in Canada the disconnect was between the principally royalist English-speakers of English and Scottish descent (who formed a majority in most areas of Canada) and their French-speaking counterparts (who were dominant only in the province of Quebec). It would be fair to say that the latter viewed the Crown (of whom Lord Athlone was now the official representative) with indifference at best, and sometimes open hostility.

After zig-zagging their way across the Atlantic to avoid enemy U-boats, on 21 June, the Vice-Regal couple steamed into Ottawa’s Union Station where they were greeted by the Administrator (Sir Lyman Duff) and the Prime Minister, Mr Mackenzie King. The Earl of Athlone and Princess Alice then processed to the imposing Parliament Buildings where the Earl immediately took the Oath of Office as sixteenth Governor-General in the Senate chamber. From there, the couple travelled to their official residence, Rideau Hall. Princess Alice quickly made a tour of this 175-room edifice, which she found to be an unsatisfactory hotchpotch of rooms in varying architectural styles, for the building had been much extended over the years. Nonetheless, within weeks, the highly-organised Alice had rearranged much of the furniture in the public rooms and mastered every detail of the domestic side of life at the Hall, some say down to the point of knowing the exact number of dusters in the housemaid’s cupboard.

Again leaving the political side of matters to her husband and his Private Secretary, Sir (Arthur) Shuldham Redfern, the Princess first focused on welcoming various relations who sought refuge at Rideau Hall. These included her daughter, Lady May Abel Smith (whose husband Henry was currently serving in Palestine) and her three children Anne, Richard and Elizabeth. Also arriving in Ottawa was Princess Juliana of the Netherlands and her daughters Beatrix and Irene. Juliana was the daughter of Princess Alice’s first cousin Queen Wihelmina. Although the Abel Smith family would remain at Rideau Hall for several years, the Dutch royals soon relocated to a charming house in nearby Rockcliffe Park.

In October the Earl and Princess Alice spent the weekend at the country home of President Roosevelt at Hyde Park on the Hudson River. The Princess was much taken with Eleanor Roosevelt, especially her energy and positivity. Although Lord Athlone had to rush back to Ottawa, Alice then took the opportunity to visit New York where she visited the British Pavilion at the World’s Fair. The Vice-Regal couple later paid a visit to Montreal, where Lord Athlone received an Honorary degree from McGill University. As both the Princess and her husband spoke excellent French, they were able to converse quite freely with the Québécois.

With the approach of her first Canadian Christmas in Ottawa, Princess Alice pulled out all the stops to make it a festive occasion. In addition to her own daughter and grandchildren, she also invited, as guests, Juliana and her daughters, as well as the Canadian Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, who was a bachelor. Not only was this a thoughtful gesture, it was also a prudent one. ‘WLMK’ as many called him, could be prickly and was often difficult to get along with on official matters. Some say he even resented the presence of the Athlone’s, feeling that he played second fiddle to them. In a sense this was true, as technically they had precedence over him. This was perhaps Alice’s tactful way of smoothing his sometimes ruffled feathers. Sadly, all of the Princess’ Christmas presents and cards to family and friends in England went to the bottom of the sea, when the ship carrying them there (the Western Prince) was sunk by a German U-boat.

Canada, of course, was a huge country and tremendous distances would require to be covered. Each individual province was more akin to the size of one of the larger countries in Europe. Fortunately, the Vice-Regal couple were given the use of carriages from the Royal Train which had transported the King and Queen during their tour of Canada in 1939. Thus, as winter turned to spring, the Athlones set out on a tour of the western provinces, travelling as far west as Victoria on Vancouver Island. On the way out, they made stopovers in Winnipeg and Edmonton to visit air force training units and those involved in war charity work; while the return journey saw them visit Calgary (where they inspected members of the Royal Canadian Volunteer Reserve) and Regina (to attend a patriotic display by 12,000 schoolchildren).

In June 1941, it was the turn of the east of Canada, with a visit to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Alice was particularly taken by the Province House in Halifax, the home of the oldest legislature in Canada, and she also joined her husband on a visit to the naval dockyard to inspect a group of navy ratings, stepping gingerly along muddy paths in her best finery. However, when the occasion required it, she happily wore uniform. There was quite a selection as Alice was, inter alia, Honorary Commandant of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service, Honorary Air Commandant of the Royal Canadian Air Force (Women’s Division) and President of the Nursing Division of the St. John Ambulance Brigade. 

In late July, Alice’s nephew, Prince George, the Duke of Kent paid a visit to Canada to inspect the operations of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and other matters relating to the war effort. He stayed at Rideau Hall and brought the Princess up-to-date with news from England. Not welcome were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who were travelling to their ranch in Pekisko, Alberta. Alice commented tartly that ‘there was much feeling against’ the Duchess in Canada and must have been glad that the couple tactfully avoided Ottawa. Other royal visitors included the widowed (and somewhat other-worldly) Empress Zita of Austria who always dressed in black and Queen Wilhelmina, who visited in 1942 and 1943, and kept the staff at Rideau Hall on their toes by alternating between insisting on ‘giving no trouble’ but then suddenly becoming imperious if her royal wishes were thwarted in any way.

With the first year under their belt, Princess Alice and her husband carried on with the ‘official round’ in a similar fashion throughout the rest of the war, with visits stretching from Newfoundland in the east to British Columbia in the west; from the Great Lakes of the south to the Yukon Territory in the north. On one occasion, they paid a call on the native Ojibwe tribe. The Earl was created ‘Chief Rainbow’, while Alice was presented with a squaw’s head-dress. The duo also visited Alaska at the invitation of President Roosevelt to view American tanks and aircraft being ferried across the Bering Straits to the Soviet allies. Back in Canada, endless factories and munition works were inspected, along with hospitals and military establishments. Also part of the annual Vice-Regal schedule were levees and official dinners at Rideau Hall, as well as the State Opening of Parliament. If Alice was required to make a speech, she invariably wrote it herself.

Each July, the Princess and her husband would escape the heat of Ottawa for the cooler climes of Quebec City and their other official residence, La Citadelle, with its wonderful views over the St Lawrence River. This residence was also the location for the famous Quebec Conferences, held in August 1943 and September 1944 (to discuss strategies for the invasion of France and the subsequent advance on Germany). Although the Vice-Regal couple were happy to act as hosts to Winston Churchill, President Roosevelt and Mackenzie King, apart from posing for official photographs and attending some official dinners, they otherwise tried to remain firmly in the background.

However, there was also still time for fun. In the winter the couple would skate on an ersatz ice rink at Rideau Hall (formed by simply flooding the tennis court) or go tobogganing in the nearby Gatineau Hills. Alice and her husband also regularly spent time at a fishing lodge at Kamloops in British Columbia; while another favourite destination was the Jasper National Park where they lived unobtrusively on board their private railway carriage which was shunted into a siding.

Princess Alice and the Earl of Athlone departed Ottawa in March 1946. The final period of their Vice-Regal term was mercifully busy with a ball at Rideau Hall in honour of General Dwight Eisenhower and a stream of farewell dinners. It is typical of Alice that instead of accepting the traditional gift to the wife of a departing Governor-General of jewellery or a warm fur coat, instead asked that a Fund be established to support the young people of the Dominion. Furthermore, in a final speech as Honorary President of the Imperial Order Daughters of Empire, she emphasised the need for the citizens of Canada to adopt a national outlook, rather than one focused on the needs of the individual provinces.

Wartime Royal Visit to Malta.

Following the Allied victory in North Africa in May 1943, Britain’s King George VI was to pay a morale-boosting visit to British military forces stationed there. However, His Majesty was also desirous of making a visit to the island of Malta, from where British air and sea forces had mounted successful attacks on enemy ships transporting vital supplies and Axis troop reinforcements from Europe to North Africa. Yet, it was not just this strategic role that had brought Malta to the King’s attention; he had also been most impressed by the gallantry of the military, as well as the courage and sufferings of the local population throughout a sustained bombing campaign by the German and Italian air forces, the aim of which had been to bomb or starve the island into submission. Indeed, His Majesty had already acknowledged the ‘Island Fortress’ of Malta’s role, in April 1942, by awarding it his own decoration, the George Cross, ‘to honour her brave people…..[and] to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.’ The locals were proud of this touching act and soon took to referring to Malta as the ‘King’s Island.’

The King’s highly secret visit to North Africa and Malta, (known as ‘ Operation Loader’) commenced on the morning of Saturday, 12 June, when His Majesty (travelling as ‘General Lyon’) landed in a York Transport Aircraft in Algeria. That evening, over dinner in a villa in Algiers, the King broached the subject of his visit to Malta (which although already agreed to in principle by Churchill still required to be signed off locally for reasons of safety and security) with Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, the Naval Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, who was impressed by the strength of George VI’s arguments and needed little further persuasion. For good measure, the determined monarch also discussed the matter with Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, who informed his boss in London that ‘the King insists on going to Malta’.

Thus, at 8.15 am on a sunny Sunday June morning, King George VI, dressed in naval whites, hand at the salute, stood on a specially-constructed platform atop a turret of the heavily camouflaged British Royal Navy frigate, HMS Aurora (under the command of Commodore W. G. Agnew and flying the Royal Standard) as it entered Valetta’s Grand Harbour, having sailed the 200 miles overnight from Tripoli, escorted by the destroyers Eskimo, Jervis, Nubian and Lookout. The King’s visit had been kept so secret that local officials had not learned of it until three hours beforehand, for it must be remembered that there were enemy air bases situated a mere 60 miles away in Italy. Nevertheless, all the local vantage points were filled with cheering loyal Maltese civilians and British servicemen. When His Majesty landed by the Customs House, at 9.30am, the bells of local churches filled the air. The King later described this as ‘a very moving moment for me.’

George VI’s first port of call, in his open-topped car, was the Palace where he held a Council and presented John Gort, the Governor, with a Field Marshal’s baton. He also inspected the George Cross awarded to the island. The King then proceeded onto the Palace balcony and received a rousing ovation from the populace in the square below. Thereafter, His Majesty travelled to the Naval Dockyard. As most of the structures above ground had been decimated in the bombings, the King was shown over the underground workshops by Rear-Admiral Mackenzie. These were housed in a complex of tunnels, many of which had been excavated by hand.

His Majesty subsequently journeyed to the nearby area of Senglea which in truth, like the dockyard was, he later noted, but a ‘mere shell.’ Accompanied by Canon Emmanuel Brincat, the Archpriest of Senglea, he walked through the narrow streets, including the aptly-named Victory Street, and saw first-hand the ruined houses which had once provided shelter to the local inhabitants who, nonethless, turned out in droves to greet their Sovereign with flags and banners and confettti.

The King later travelled to the Verdala Palace, the current residence of the Governor, to partake of lunch, enjoy a brief rest and greet a party of 20 staff officers. George VI, accompanied by Gort, then visited Mosta, which had suffered heavy attacks as it was in the vicinity of Ta Qali Aerodrome. It was during his afternoon tour of the military aerodromes that the King knighted the New Zealander, Air Marshal Keith Park, who had overseen the air defence of the island. As the King’s car passed through local villages en route, flowers were thrown into the vehicle and although His Majesty was touched by the gesture, the fastidious monarch subsequently observed that this had been ‘detrimental to my white uniform.’

After dining with the Governor, the King embarked HMS Aurora which set sail at 10 p.m. for the return passage to Tripoli. It is worth noting that George VI’s visit was the first time a Sovereign had landed in Malta since 1911 and, as he reflected on it, His Majesty noted that it had been ‘a very strenuous day but a very interesting one to have spent.’ To Queen Mary, he described it as ‘The real gem of my tour.’

Queen Mary’s Wartime Escapades

As the rumours of war intensified in the first days of September, 1939, Queen Mary was holidaying at the royal family’s Norfolk estate at Sandringham, close to the ancient market town of King’s Lynn. On the morning that war with Germany was declared, 3 September, the Queen was listening to a radio broadcast by the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, on the vicar’s radio in her stall at the small estate church of St Mary Magdalene. Soon thereafter, the local parishioners were temporarily diverted from their devotions by the drone of the local air raid siren. This was a false alarm, being merely a test of the system. Presumably, the Queen Dowager spent the rest of what remained of that first Sunday of wartime in a state of nervous anticipation.

In the early hours of 4 September, Queen Mary was roused from her sleep by another ‘alarm.’ She and her detective Green and her grandchildren Prince Edward and Princess Alexandra of Kent (the children of Prince George, the Duke of Kent and his wife Marina, who were temporarily under her care) all rushed to the basement, where they sat stoically until the ‘all clear’ was sounded at 3.30 am. Although Mary returned to her bed, she remained wide-awake till morning.

Indeed, by 10am the Queen Dowager and her large entourage of staff had already packed their cases and departed ‘the Big House’, under a pre-arranged plan, for an even grander edifice, Badminton House, in rural Gloucestershire. This was the home of the Duke of Beaufort (‘Master’) and his wife, Mary, who was a niece of Queen Mary. As the Duke had already joined his Regiment, it was Mary Beaufort who was faced with the daunting prospect of greeting her royal aunt and her staff of around fifty, along with seventy pieces of the Queen’s luggage.

Queen Mary-who had lunched en route at the Northamptonshire home of Lord and Lady Spencer at Althorp-quickly selected a first-floor bedroom, with a splendid view over across the park, together with an adjacent sitting room and bathroom. For her private dining room, she made use of the so-called Oak Room, the main feature of which was its dark, heavy Jacobean panelling. Yet, even this generous accommodation was deemed insufficient, so she commandeered a large dining-room to serve as a formal drawing room for receiving important guests. To protect her royal personage, four despatch riders were on constant call to lead the way to safety in case of a sudden attack or a German invasion. They were augmented by 120 men of the local Gloucestershire Regiment who were quartered in the old stables. Of course, Inspector George Gardner, the Queen’s personal police protection officer, was also on hand.

It must be said that the Queen Dowager never wanted to go to the country. She would far preferred to have remained at Marlborough House, but the King persuaded his mother that if she were to remain in London, he would be constantly fretting over her wellbeing. To combat her initial restlessness and feelings of uselessness, ‘Bertie’ ensured that Mary should receive regular news summaries from the Foreign Office. These were sent down by motorbike courier in official red leather dispatch boxes. Another weapon to combat country boredom was Queen Mary’s weekly train visits up to London, during which she sometimes lunched with the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace and visited her favourite shops. Filled with purpose, the Dowager was up with the lark to catch the 8.28 train from nearby Chippenham. The journey took two hours. Her only complaint was that the blackout requirements, on the evening return trip, hampered her ability to read.

Looking out of her bedroom window one day, Queen Mary espied a whole wall of the house covered in ivy ‘of 50 years standing.’ She had always hated the plant with a vengeance, believing that it was destructive to a building’s stone work. Some of the park’s trees were also covered in the dastardly plant. Soon, her Equerry, Sir John Coke, was pressed into joining his mistress for a morning of clearing ivy. This ‘Ivy Squad’ was eventually augmented by the enrolment of Her Majesty’s duty Lady-in-Waiting and Private Secretary, aided by any visiting guests. Given the old Queen’s zeal, it is not surprising that Badminton’s considerable stock of Ivy was quickly exhausted.

Undeterred, by the autumn of 1940, Queen Mary turned her attention, most afternoons, to the clearance of areas of the local woodlands. A ‘Wooding Squad’ was established, mainly composed of the four dispatch riders and their royal charge. As Mary now rarely went to London due to the German bombing campaign or ‘Blitz’ (during which most of Marlborough House’s windows were blown-out, as were many of the interior doors), this diversion proved particularly welcome. The Queen was a thoughtful ‘employer’ and happily passed round cigarettes to her workers during their breaktime from chopping and sawing, always ensuring, of course, to have one herself. Mary also took great pains to find out the birthdays of her ‘wooders’, so that she could give them a small gift.

However, the Dowager Queen’s efforts at undertaking a salvage campaign to collect scrap iron for the war effort proved less successful. Her enthusiasm often led her into ‘salvaging’ the local farmers’ perfectly serviceable field implements which had to be discreetly returned to them at a later date. Yet, her dedication to the task is evidence that her patriotic heart was in the right place. Mary’s patriotism was also apparent in her insistence on obeying the strict rationing rules. Many was the evening that a dinner guest left her table hungry after consuming only half a snipe. By contrast, the Queen loved to fill her rooms with exuberant displays of geraniums and orchids, the latter often sourced (doubtless at great expense) from neighbouring nursery gardens.

Another outlet for Queen Mary’s talents was to undertake a varied array of official engagements in the locality, be it visiting a munitions factory or a hospital or a woollen mill or a group of evacuees from London. Although Her Majesty’s movements were meant to shrouded in secrecy, on a visit to a spitfire production factory at Trowbridge, one of the workers let the secret slip, so a group of children were there to greet her as she alighted from her old green Daimler saloon ‘prim as always’ with her trademark rolled-up umbrella in one hand. Sometimes, on her outings, Mary would come across members of the military plodding along the road and she soon took to offering them lifts. Many were unaware of who this kind and inquisitive old lady was, particularly in the case of foreign combatants.

For relaxation the Queen Dowager often visited antique shops in nearby Bath. She also enjoyed embroidery (or ‘stitchery’ as she sometimes referred to it). Mary would also visit local gardens and if it happened to be raining, she would don a pair of short rubber boots and prod tentatively at the flower beds with her stick or umbrella. Family members often visited, particularly her youngest son, the Duke of Kent, and his sister Mary, the Princess Royal. The Duke’s death in an air accident in northern Scotland, in August, 1942 was a severe shock. However, Mary stoically put her own feelings aside and arranged to motor to Buckinghamshire next day, to comfort his widow, Marina. The only night the Queen Dowager spent away from Badminton during the entire war period, was at Windsor Castle on the eve of the Duke’s funeral on 29 August.

On occasion, Badminton was subjected to air raids due to its proximity to Bristol and Bath. Queen Mary initially ‘descended’ to a reinforced room on the ground floor where, dressed to perfection and sitting bolt upright, she would attempt to solve a crossword puzzle. Eventually, she decided to remain upstairs in bed and take her chances. However, Mary was less sanguine when it came to the bombing of her beloved Marlborough House noting, ‘The dear old House cannot stand much more of this, & I tremble each day for news of it’s having succumbed.’

By early 1945, the old Queen had resumed her journeys up to London. Their primary purpose was so that she could assess the extent of the damage to Marlborough House, with a view to preparing the place for her eventual return. From the outset, it became clear that only her private suite of rooms could be made habitable in time for her return home, as materials to undertake repairs were almost impossible to obtain.

After celebrating VE day (8 May) with a visit to the local pub (where the villagers were celebrating with a sing-song), Queen Mary departed Badminton on 11 June. She insisted on personally bidding farewell to the Heads of each of the nine ‘departments’ of the estate and presented a gift to each. It was an emotional occasion and with tears streaming down her face, the Dowager acknowledged to Mr Perks, the Head Gardener, ‘Oh, I have been happy here! Here I’ve been anybody to everybody, and back in London I shall have to begin being Queen Mary all over again.’ She also admitted to having ‘gained much’ from her time there, which is an understatement given that, prior to moving to Badminton, she had not even known what hay looked like.

Marie-José-The May Queen

On 9 May 1945, a tall, aristocratic lady spent the day helping the homeless in Cassino. However, when a helper referred to her as ‘Your Majesty’, the individual suddenly realised that she had become Queen of Italy. The lady in question was Marie-José, the daughter of the late King Albert I of the Belgians and his wife Elisabeth. Yet, how had this situation come to pass?

In January 1930, following a long romance, the Princess had married the then heir to the Italian throne, Umberto, the Prince of Piedmont, in the historic Paolina Chapel of Rome’s Quirinal Palace. Initially, Marie-José and Umberto lived in the Royal Palace in Turin. However, unlike her more deferential husband (who always referred to his father, King Victor Emanuele, as ‘Majesty’) the Belgian Princess was much more of a free spirit. She preferred organising musical evenings and working with the Red Cross to observing strict court etiquette. From the outset, Marie-José was also passionate about studying the history of the House of Savoy, into which she had married.

However, a move to Naples, in November 1931 (where Umberto had been appointed Commandant of the 25th Infantry), was to prove fortuitous. The couple could escape the confines of the city’s Royal Palace for relaxing weekends at the Villa Rosebery in the seaside suburb of Posillipo. Marie-José also felt more emancipated among the happy and relaxed Neapolitans: She played tennis thrice-weekly at the Villa Communale and established a Public Refectory to feed the poor of the city. Fulfilled and in love, she later described this era as ‘the best times in our marriage.’ The culmination of her joy was the birth of a beloved daughter, Maria Pia, on 24 September, 1934.

Yet, this was also a difficult period. Marie-José’s father, King Albert, died in a climbing accident during her pregnancy and she was advised not to travel to Belgium for the funeral. Then, in August 1935, her beloved Swedish sister-in-law, Queen Astrid, was killed in a horrific car accident in Switzerland. Always in the background too were the troubling machinations of Mussolini’s right-wing government, or more particularly his invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935. While the Princess had grave reservations over Il Duce’s actions and policies, she coped by trying to be of practical use. Marie-José trained as a nurse and undertook a course in tropical medicine. Her hospital work would soon earn her the title, ‘Sister Marie-José.’ During a tour of Italian troops in Africa in 1936, the Princess was troubled by the poor facilities and low morale of the troops. She was incensed too by Mussolini’s propaganda machine, which described her as the ‘Empress of Ethiopia.’

With the passage of time, Marie-José bemoaned Il Duce’s increasing closeness to Hitler. This would eventually result in a confrontation, when the Princess decided that the proceeds of her Neapolitan fund-raising concerts should be donated to her ‘Princess of Piedmont Work Fund’ rather than the Fascist’s ‘National Work Fund.’ A major beneficiary of her Fund’s largesse was the National Association for Southern Italy which was overseen by the eminent archaeologist and anti-Fascist, Umberto Bianco. The Fascist regime in Rome was furious. Nor were they enamoured with Marie-José’s association with ‘liberals’ such as the Archbishop of Naples, Cardinal Alessio Ascaresi and the philosopher Benedetto Croce, whose home was raided by Fascist troopers.

In February, 1937, the Princess of Piedmont gave birth to a son, Vittorio Emanuele. She was not best pleased to learn that the Fascist Grand Council had the power to deliberate on the suitability of the Heir to reign and confronted Mussolini over the matter. He was unnerved by her direct approach, so different from that of her father-in-law, the King, whom Marie-José felt was complacent in his dealings with the Fascists. ‘A monarch’ Marie-José chided her husband Umberto, ‘should be there for all his people.’ A meeting with Hitler in Naples did little to dissuade her from her ‘democratic’ outlook. Indeed, in September 1938, the Princess met with the First World War hero, Marshal Pietro Badoglio at Racconigi Castle to discuss a plan to remove Mussolini and persuade the ‘discredited’ King Victor Emanuele to abdicate, thus paving the way for an anti-Fascist government. However, the Munich Agreement of 29 September short-circuited this attempt.

When Italy declared war on Great Britain and France, in June 1940, Marie-José informed a lady-in-waiting that the monarchy in Italy was ‘finished.’ She was already reeling from news of the invasion of her homeland by Nazi forces on 10 May. Indeed, the Princess had been ‘tipped-off’ about Germany’s intentions by a sympathetic Pope Pius on 6 May. However, Marie-José’s attempts to alert the Belgian government were thwarted by the Belgian Ambassador in Rome who dismissed the warning as an ‘enemy rumour.’

No matter what her personal feelings were in the matter, the Princess focused on helping those in need. Following the birth of her third child, Maria Gabriella, she spent the summer of 1940, working with the Red Cross on the Western Front and even organised a hospital train to transport the wounded from the Front. In September, Marie-José paid a visit to Brussels for discussions with her brother, King Leopold III, who had decided to see-out the German occupation with his people. He asked his beloved sister to meet with Hitler to request the repatriation of Belgian prisoners-of-war and ask for much-needed food supplies. Once again, the Princess put her individual feelings aside for the sake of her homeland and paid a visit to the Fuhrer at Berchtesgaden on 17 October. He seemed disinterested, although Marie-José pressed on doggedly and spoke to him of the ‘many sufferings inflicted on the Belgian people.’ She also encouraged her brother to enter into a dialogue with Hitler on the various matters.

By the time that Italy had declared war on the United States, in December 1941, the Princess had already reached the conclusion that her adopted homeland could not win the war. She again attempted to reach out to Marshal Badoglio and impress on him the need to remove the Fascists and end the war. Events backed her viewpoint: In late 1942, Italy was suffering from military reversals in Libya and Russia. The Marshal, however, was awaiting a signal from the ‘constitutional’ King and he in turn was seeking a signal from the people!

Undeterred, the Princess carried on with her work in hospitals and among the homeless and dispossessed, the numbers of whom had increased greatly as a result of Allied bombing. Marie-José was moved too by the people’s displays of affection towards her as she visited her refectories in Rome and Naples. By now pregnant with her fourth child, Maria Beatrice, the Princess sometimes took shelter in local houses from the bombing, where she was given coffee and, on one occasion, a bunch of flowers from the garden.

Mussolini, by contrast, appeared distracted and careworn. The swagger had gone as Italy’s defeats mounted. When the Allies invaded Sicily on 10 July 1943, King Victor Emanuele finally decided to act and, on 25 July, when Il Duce came to the Villa Savoia for an audience, he was arrested. Tellingly, Il Duce shouted out, ‘It is the Princess of Piedmont who will be happy.’ Clearly, Mussolini had realised that this ‘democratic’ Princess from Belgium was one of his greatest enemies.

Unfortunately, Marie-José relations with King Victor Emanuele were also far from good: They had not spoken in a long time and he must surely have been made aware of ‘the Belgian’s’ (as he referred to her) recent approaches to the Allies, through Cardinal Montini of the Vatican’s State Department, in an attempt to clarify their position if Italy was to withdraw from the war following a coup. On 6 August, the Princess was summoned by the King and ordered to cease all political activities. She was also told to leave Rome within 24 hours for ‘reasons of security.’

Following Italy’s surrender to the Allies on 8 September, a court official visited Marie-José at the Chateau de Serre in the Aosta Valley and requested that she move to Switzerland. This was probably for her own safety as German forces now swept into Italy and occupied the central and northern areas. The Princess and her four children initially settled at the Hotel Excelsior in Montreux and later moved to the Hotel Montana, Oberhofen. Her enemy, Mussolini, had meanwhile been ‘liberated’ by the Germans and set up the ‘puppet’ Salo Republic. The King and other members of the Italian Royal Family remained in Naples, which was occupied by the Allies on 11 October. Italy declared war on Germany on 13 October.

Although Marie-José now wished to join Partisan forces to fight the Nazi forces in northern Italy, she realised that if she was discovered, there could be reprisals for the local population. Instead, the Princess settled for smuggling weapons to the Swiss frontier for use over the border in Italy. This was very risky as she was under constant surveillance by the Swiss authorities and enemy agents too.

On 23 January 1944, the Italian diplomat Gallarati Scotti met with Marie-José at Oberhofen. He discussed a plan to install the Princess as Regent for her son, Vittorio Emanuele, and hopefully bring the monarchy closer to the people. However, the future authority was instead to rest with her husband Umberto, who was appointed Lieutenant-General of the Realm in June 1944, with full regal powers, following the liberation of Rome by the Allies. Indeed, it was not until April 1945 that Marie-José returned to Italy, crossing the Alps on foot from Switzerland, escorted by two mountain guides. Communist resistance fighters then escorted her to the Chateau de Sarre. Touchingly, her subsequent attendance at a Te Deum in nearby Aosta Cathedral was greeted with warm applause from fellow worshippers.

In May, the Princess moved to Turin and opened a Red Cross canteen for the homeless. Finally, she reached Rome on 16 June, for a welcome reunion with Umberto whom she had not seen for two years. In August, the children (who had been staying at Glion) returned home. Umberto had already opened a wing of the Quirinal to house the homeless, so Marie-José sold some jewellery to help provide much-needed funds to open yet another canteen, as well as a workroom for local women to make clothes. Nevertheless, there were many who opposed Umberto, feeling that he had not stood up sufficiently to Mussolini. He decided that a referendum should be held on the future of the monarchy in early June. In the interim, King Victor Emanuele abdicated on May 9 and left for exile in Egypt. Umberto was now King of Italy and Marie-José was his Queen Consort. But for how long?

Interestingly, by the time that the aforementioned helper, in Cassino, had referred to her as ‘Majesty’, Marie-José was already mentally preparing for exile. Her hunch was right, for following the referendum (in which she voted at a local school, submitting a blank ballot paper), she was informed privately that 54% had voted in favour of a republic. The King now instructed his wife to leave immediately for Portugal. But first she telephoned officials from all her charities, emphasising that their work must go on. On 5 June, Marie-José and the children flew from Rome to her beloved Naples and the Villa Rosebery. She queried to anyone who would listen, ‘Why can I not stay here as an ordinary citizen?’ However, next morning, she and her family boarded the vessel ‘Dukes of Abruzzes’, bound for Lisbon. As she watched the coast of Italy disappear into the distance, the now ex-Queen reflected, ‘For the first time I am free of all the falseness and hypocrisy which has surrounded me.’ Suddenly, her ‘reign’ of less than one month was over. She now became known for posterity as La Regina di Maggio (The May Queen).

Following confirmation of the referendum results, Umberto subsequently joined his family on an estate at Sintra, the Quinta de Bella Vista. He and Marie-José found life together difficult. She later complained that ‘Umberto was anguished, overcome by an inner suffering he could not share. It started to unnerve me and made me ill-at-ease in my own home.’ The couple’s daughter, Princess Maria Pia, observed that her parents were ‘very different’ characters. Umberto was ‘very serious and conscious of his role’ while her mother, ‘loved to laugh and walk in the street alone. [My father] would never have done this.’

Matters in the marriage came to head when Marie-José was given a transfusion of the wrong blood type during an appendix operation. She immediately fell into a coma and when she regained consciousness, it was found that her eyesight was severely impaired due to retinal haemorrhaging. The Queen moved to Switzerland for a course of treatment under the ophthalmologist Adolphe Franceschetti. However, the damage was found to be permanent and was such that if she looked downwards, she could see nothing. Marie-José now remained forever wary of descending stairs. Sadly, it had proved politically inappropriate for Umberto to follow his wife to Switzerland and Marie-José, taken aback by her husband’s lack of reaction to her situation, assumed that he craved solitude.

In due course, the Queen purchased a small castle, Merlinge, near Gy. Her son Vittorio joined her there, with her other children visiting at regular intervals from Portugal. She now rarely talked about the past but admitted to missing the warmth of Naples. Her days were filled with undertaking research into the House of Savoy, about which she wrote several books. Another interest was music and this led her to establish The Queen Marie-José International Musical Composition Prize. Travel also proved a draw and , accompanied by her mother Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians, Marie-José travelled to India (where she met Nehru) and to China.

By the 1980’s age was catching up with both Marie-José and Umberto. The latter died in March 1983, following a long and painful battle against cancer. He and his wife had always kept in touch and the Queen often visited him in hospital. Marie-José soldiered on, often in pain and making use of a stick: In March 1988, she made her first visit to Italy since 1946, visiting Aosta to attend a historical conference followed by a tour of the Royal Palace in Turin and the State Archives. When asked what she thought of Italian monarchists, she cleverly replied, ‘I am a Queen, but I am not a Monarchist.’

In older age, Marie-José fell in love with Mexico during visits to her daughter Maria Beatrice in Cuernavaca. She subsequently purchased a villa there with a pool, in which she would swim everyday. The Queen entertained a wide array of visitors including her nephew, King Albert II of the Belgians. Although Marie-José’s body might now be failing her, her mind was certainly not. Maria Beatrice would recall her mother’s ‘young spirit’ and ‘modern way of thinking.’

In 1995, in a reflective mood, Marie-José undertook a visit to Belgium. The following year, she decided to return to live in Switzerland, this time with her son, Vittorio Emanuele. The latter organised an outdoor party to celebrate his mother’s 90th birthday on 4 August 1996, a birthday she shared with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who was six years older. In 1999, Marie-José visited Florence to receive the Freedom of the City and the following year, she received an invitation to attend Queen Elizabeth’s 100th birthday celebrations in London. Sadly, she was too frail to accept.

Her Majesty Queen Marie-José of Italy, Princess of Belgium, died on January 27, 2001 in the Canton of Geneva Hospital, at the grand old age of 94. She had recognised family members until the end. At her funeral at Hautcombe Abbey, on 2 February, her coffin, draped with the flag of Belgium and the arms of her beloved House of Savoy, was carried in by family members and European royalties. Her beloved Alpini choir sang some favourite songs and the Sardinian anthem, ‘Conservat Deu Su Re Sardu’ (sung at her wedding) echoed through the Abbey. It is a measure of the individual that as the years pass, the Queen is still remembered with great affection.

Royal Wedding Tiara’s Tantalising History.

It was a most touching gesture of the Queen to lend her diamond fringe tiara to her granddaughter Princess Beatrice of York on her recent wedding day. Interestingly, Her Majesty had worn the self-same tiara at her own wedding to the Duke of Edinburgh in November 1947. Fortunately, for Beatrice, there was no mishap, or drama, involved in the wearing of it. The same cannot be said for the then Princess Elizabeth as, on the morning of her wedding day, the tiara’s fragile frame snapped, as the bride-to-be was dressing. Fortunately, the court jeweller was on hand to rush it-accompanied by a police escort-to his workroom for a quick but necessary repair.

But what is the history of this sparkling jewel which the catty diarist, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon referred to, dismissively, as ‘an ugly spiked tiara’? According to Suzy Menkes in her worthy examination of royal jewellery, the Royal Jewels and Leslie Fields in the exhaustively-researched Queen’s Jewels, the ‘sunray’ tiara was made, around 1830, to be worn as a necklace from brilliant-cut stones belonging to King George III (and referred to as the King George III fringe tiara). Fields indicates that Queen Victoria was the first person to use it as a tiara, when the graduated necklace was mounted on a thin wire band. In her book, she even includes an image of a young Victoria wearing it in a Winterhalter painting, carrying her infant son Prince Arthur (later the Duke of Connaught) in her arms. This necklace/tiara was one of an extensive list of items of jewellery (sometimes referred to as the ‘Crown Jewellery’, to distinguish it from the Sovereign’s personal gems) left in perpetuity to the Crown by Victoria on her death in 1901.

This tiara/necklace eventually passed into the hands of that most acquisitive of royal consorts, Queen Mary. However, this is where the story takes an unexpected and confusing turn. According to more recent sources (and meticulously highlighted in a post in the blog, The Royal Order of Sartorial Splendor in 2017), although Queen Mary did wear this 1830 version as a tiara, she also subsequently had a similar-styled tiara made from stones from a necklace she had received as a wedding present from Queen Victoria in 1893. This new ‘Queen Mary Fringe Tiara’ was manufactured by E. Wolff & Co. for the royal jewellers, Garrard and Company, in 1919 and was apparently easier to wear. She passed this version on to her daughter-in-law, Queen Elizabeth (along with a portion of the Crown Jewellery) following the accession of her second son, Albert (‘Bertie’), to the throne as King George VI in December 1936.

While both Menkes and Field state that it was the 1830 version which was worn by Princess Elizabeth as the ‘something borrowed’ on her wedding day in 1947, the more recent sources, including Hugh Roberts in his publication The Queen’s Diamonds, point to the later 1919 Queen Mary Fringe Tiara version’s use. He and the Royal Order of Sartorial Splendor Blogspot (17 February 2012) also point out that the two tiaras are frequently confused, as was the case when the Queen wore the later version in a formal portrait to be used in New Zealand to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee. The tiara was also worn by Princess Beatrice’s Aunt, Princess Anne (the Princess Royal) on her wedding day in November 1973.

Queen Elizabeth was glad of the acquisition of jewels from Queen Mary-which she wore on a tour of Canada in the summer of 1939-for as she revealed to the photographer, Cecil Beaton, ‘The choice [of jewellery available] is not very great, you know.’ Although this is an exaggeration, it was a tactful acknowledgement by her successor that Queen Mary, now Queen Dowager, still held on to the vast majority of royal gems, much of which had been amassed from often impecunious relatives during her husband, King George V’s reign. Fortunately, Queen Elizabeth’s jewellery box would be augmented by a wonderful bequest from the shrewd Scottish brewery heiress, Mrs Ronnie Greville in 1942.

The Royal Chapel of All Saints, Windsor-location of the wedding of Princess Beatrice.

This pleasant little Victorian Gothic church was the location of yesterday’s wedding of Princess Beatrice of York. The chapel stands ‘across the way’ (as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, a frequent worshipper there, would say) from the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park, the current home of Prince Andrew, Duke of York. George IV-who used the Royal Lodge as a private retreat in the 1820’s-was the first royal to worship at All Saints from around 1825. Indeed, it was he who commissioned the English architect, Jeffry Wyatville to design it. (Other sources point to the influence of architect John Nash).

Queen Victoria later worshipped there too and had the chapel rebuilt, during the early 1860’s, to designs by Samuel Sanders Teulon and Anthony Salvin. This included the addition of a new chancel, extra seating for worshippers and a stained-glass window dedicated to the memory of her mother, the Duchess of Kent and Strathearn, who died in 1861. There is a also a window to the memory of Queen Victoria’s grandson, Prince Christian Victor of Schleswig-Holstein, the son of Prince Christian and his wife Princess Helena, who lived nearby at Cumberland Lodge. Their beloved ‘Christle’ died of enteric fever in Pretoria in 1900, while serving with British forces in South Africa during the Boer War.

Around 1931, the future King George VI (then Duke of York) and his wife Elizabeth took up residence at the (much-reconstructed) Royal Lodge. The couple were regular worshippers at the chapel. When the Duke of York ascended the throne in 1936, he subsequently had various alterations undertaken including the installation of a new ceiling (designed by the architect and designer Edward Maufe) in the Chancel, as well as the addition of a royal pew (carefully positioned to allow for privacy), new choir stalls and a screen for the organ.


Following Queen Elizabeth’s death at Royal Lodge on 30 March 2002, the Queen Mother’s mortal remains rested at the Altar of All Saints prior to being taken to London for the Lying-in-State at Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster. Today the Queen worships at All Saints when she is in residence at Windsor. Those who live and work in the Great Park may also attend services.