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.