In October 1920, the engagement of Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark’s brother George to Princess Elisabetha of Romania was announced. Elisabetha’s mother, the ethereal Queen Marie, was delighted with the proposed marriage and decided to invite George and his sisters Helen and Irene (who were currently living in exile in Lucerne) to her summer residence, Castle Pelisor in Sinaia, for a royal get-together. Also present was Elisabetha’s brother, 27-year-old Crown Prince Carol, who had just returned from a world tour, the purpose of which was to help him to overcome his sorrow at the annulment (by the Romanian courts) of his first (morganatic) marriage to his First World War sweetheart, Joanna Marie Valentina ‘Zizi’ Lambrino.
As Carol’s unsuitable union to a commoner had also met with strong opposition from his parents, so it was with some relief that Queen Marie observed that her eldest child was attracted to the tall, slender and charming Princess Helen. Nevertheless, ‘Sitta’ was still somewhat naïve in the ways of the world and seemed totally unaware of Carol’s reputation as a coureur . However, the news that her favourite brother, King Alexander, had died, on 25 October, from sepsis as a result of being bitten by a monkey, left Helen devastated and in an emotionally vulnerable state. She and her sister Irene therefore decided to return to Switzerland to be with their parents, ex-King Constantine and Queen Sophie.
By sheer coincidence, word then arrived that Queen Marie’s mother, the Duchess of Coburg and Edinburgh, had also passed away at the Hotel Dolder Grand in Zurich. Marie therefore joined the Greek Princesses on their journey back to Switzerland as did her son Carol. Although the Crown Prince was supposedly there to support his mother, Queen Marie felt that he and Helen were on the verge of ‘coming to an understanding.’ Indeed, within a few days of their arrival in Switzerland, Carol asked Sitta to marry him. Helen’s father, Constantine, was wary and would only permit the marriage after receiving an assurance from Carol that he had completely finished with Zizi. The couple’s path was somewhat smoothed by the fact that the royal houses of Romania and Greece were already about to be linked in matrimony.
Thereafter, Helen accompanied her parents and siblings back to Athens where there were scenes of public jubilation following the restoration of King Constantine to the Hellenic throne in December. Carol visited Sitta in Athens in the New Year and the betrothed couple motored together through the surrounding countryside. The Crown Prince was a cultured individual with an interest in antiquities and found the architectural sites of classical Greece particularly enthralling.
On 27 February 1921, Helen and Carol both attended the wedding of Elisabetha and George in Bucharest. The royalties of Greece and Romania then reassembled in Athens on 10 March for the nuptials of Helen and Carol. Thousands of Greeks lined the main boulevards as the bride-to-be processed to the Metropolitan Cathedral in a gold coach attired in a white satin dress trimmed with gold and accessorised with a deco diamond tiara rumoured to be worth 1 million French Francs. Queen Marie was ecstatic that her son had married a great-granddaughter of ‘Grandmama Queen [Victoria]’.
After a honeymoon spent at Tatoi and Sinaia, the newlyweds set up a temporary home with the King and Queen at Cotroceni Palace where Helen soon established that she was pregnant. Following a difficult confinement (when she was attended by her old family doctor and nurses from Greece), the Crown Princess gave birth to a son Michael on 25 October 1921. Thereafter, the little family moved into a villa on Bucharest’s fashionable Chausee Kiseleff. It was around this time that Helen noticed that Carol possessed some disturbing character traits: Although he could be caring and kind, the Crown Prince displayed a fiery temper and was often arrogant and dismissive of his wife. Yet, the problem was far from one-sided for Helen loved nothing better than to visit her homeland-often for months at a time-where she enjoyed the familiarity and close ‘cosy’ bonds of her Greek family circle. Meanwhile, Carol was left behind in Romania to amuse himself as he thought fit and rumours soon circulated that he was being unfaithful to his wife. Furthermore, even when in Bucharest, the Crown Princess habitually invited her Greek relatives for extended visits. Indeed, following the death of King Constantine in 1923 (when the Greek royals were enduring yet another period of exile from their homeland), Helen’s mother Queen Sophie and her younger sisters were omnipresent, leaving the couple with little time alone together. Carol had also discovered that his wife was no intellectual, with little interest in reading or music or the arts. Both parties to the marriage began to acknowledge that they seemed to have little in common.
However, Helen had much to offer both to her new family and her new country: She was polite, neat, worthy, well-organised and conscientious. She also took great care over the running of her home and, unlike many royal mothers of that period, showed great concern over the day-to-day care of her son and the running of the nursery. Similarly, the Crown Princess took great trouble over her official patronages, particularly in relation to nursing care. An accomplished horsewoman, Sitta’s skills were highly evident (and favourably commented on) at the many official parades. To her mother-in-law’s surprise, Helen also possessed a highly-developed sense of humour and a gift for mimicry, something she shared with her Greek cousins, Olga, Elisabeth and Marina.
But behind the duty and laughter, by the mid-1920’s the marriage had soured. Sitta was by now all too aware of Carol’s many paramours but, like many royal wives before her, she might have turned a blind eye had it not been for the arrival of a teasing redhead, Elena Lupescu. This gay divorcee with her swaggering gate and cheeky demeanour was the complete antithesis of Helen. She was also ambitious and self-assured, deliberately positioning herself at events attended by Carol so better to attract his attention. The ruse worked and the adulterous Crown Prince was soon coaxed into her tangled web. Sitta reacted by withdrawing into herself and the marriage disintegrated just as her father-in-law King Ferdinand of Romania’s health was waning. Perhaps in a bid to save his son’s marriage, the King momentarily toyed with the idea of banishing Lupescu into exile.
On November 7, 1925 Helen and Carol appeared together in public for the final time at a flower exhibition. Thereafter, the Crown Prince departed for England to attend the funeral of Helen’s Great-Aunt, Queen Alexandra. He later made for Paris and the ample arms of Elena. The duo then journeyed to northern Italy. Carol now decided to renounce his rights to the throne so that he could remain with Lupescu. He informed Sitta and his parents of his intentions by letter, claiming to be ‘misunderstood [and] misjudged’ . Despite a hand-written plea from his mother delivered in person by the Marshal of the Court, General Angelescu, Carol held fast to his decision. Meanwhile, Helen tormented herself over the failure of her marriage and offered to travel to Milan to reason with her husband. However, in a rare moment of decisiveness, King Ferdinand instead held a meeting of the Crown Council and, after revealing the details of his son’s renunciation, proposed that a Regency Council should be formed in the event of his death. The three-man Council would rule until young Michael reached the age of majority. This proposition seemed to meet with general approval and was ratified by the Romanian Parliament on 4 January, 1926. Michael was now officially the heir to the throne in place of his father. Ordinary Romanians were astonished at this turn of events.
While Carol would later profess his ‘highest esteem’ for Helen, both as a wife and mother, the shock and humiliation took its toll on Sitta’s wellbeing. Always in the background lurked the nagging feeling that Carol might still somehow inveigle his way back into the frail King and exuberant Queen Marie’s ‘good books’. This was not such a fantastical notion for there were certainly many Carlists who were only too ready to provide support for the former Crown Prince’s return and reinstatement. Indeed, even Queen Marie, at times, found herself torn over whether she would be able to support such a future bid should it happen.
In the spring of 1927, King Ferdinand suffered a bad attack of flu. As he was heavily weakened by this (as well as an on-going battle with cancer), it was feared that his death was imminent. He passed away at Pelisor on 19 July. The ramifications for Helen were great: She was now the mother of the five-year-old King of Romania and, heavily-veiled in black, accompanied Michael to the Romanian Parliament where he was seated on a throne-like chair to receive the acclamation of the country’s political representatives. However, the power actually lay elsewhere with the Regency Council, one of whom was Sitta’s brother-in-law, Prince Nicholas, who certainly could not be relied upon to champion his sister-in-law’s cause.
Carol received the news of his father’s death at his rented home, which he shared with Elena Lupescu, in Neuilly, a suburb of Paris. He subsequently attended a Memorial Service at the city’s Romanian Orthodox Church, where some devotees greeted him with a defiant ‘Vive Le Roi!’ Thereafter, Dowager Queen Marie continued to correspond with her eldest son and various family members, including Prince Nicholas, visited him. Meanwhile, over time, the Dowager Queen began to resent Helen’s increasing influence and new position as ‘Princess Mother of Romania’, even accusing Sitta of separating her from her grandson, whom she felt was a ‘stranger’ to her. Certainly, Helen-perhaps wary of her in-laws intentions and determined to protect her son at all costs from familial machinations-tended to put her trust, as always, in her extended Greek family. Regular visitors to Bucharest included her cousin Princess Olga of Yugoslavia. As King Alexander of Yugoslavia was married to Carol’s sister, Marie (Mignon), Olga was ideally placed to act as a listening ear and gentle voice of reason. In due course Helen petitioned the courts for a divorce. The formal announcement that the marriage was finally dissolved was reported by the Associated Press on 21 June 1928. However, if Helen imagined that she was now completely free of her former husband’s, she was in for a rude awakening.
Part 3-Queen Mother of Romania-will follow soon.