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European Royals

Marie Jose, the last Queen of Italy

She was the ‘May Queen’ whose reign lasted little more than a month but left its mark in royal history. Marie-Jose was always a bit of a maverick who had her own views and no fear of sharing them. Those opinions would become a saving grace for the dynasty she married into when she became its one public dissenting voice against the fascism taking over their country. But Marie-Jose’s royal story would be as unusual as the woman herself. She would end her days in exile, still carving a royal path of modernity. Now, another chapter of her story has closed with the death of her only son, Vittorio Emmanuele, on February 3rd 2024. Here is the story of Italy’s last queen.

Her Early Life

Marie-Jose Charlotte Sophie Amelie Henriette Gabrielle was born on August 4th 1906. Her father, Albert, became King of the Belgians three years later, ruling alongside his popular wife, Elisabeth. Through her mother, Marie-Jose was descended from the Portuguese and Austro-Hungarian ruling dynasties.

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Her family, however, enjoyed a simpler life than their titles and connections would suggest and won the hearts of the Belgian people with their service during World War One. Marie-Jose, who was educated in England, Italy and Belgium, had all the charm and ability of her popular parents and grew into a well liked princess with her own ideas.

The Path to Queenship

A sought after bride in royal circles, Marie-Jose married Prince Umberto of Italy on January 8th 1930. The pair had first met when the princess was studying in Florence. Her new husband was the son of King Vittorio Emanuele III and Queen Elena and heir to the throne of Italy but Marie-Jose was marrying into an increasingly weakened royal family which appeared to be sitting by while Benito Mussolini built an unassailable hold over Italy.

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The royal wedding was designed to be a showpiece as much as a romantic ceremony with Umberto and Marie-Jose entertained to parades of traditional Italian dancing and celebrations involving royalty from across the continent. The prince helped design his bride’s wedding dress while Marie-Jose added her own touch of splendour to proceedings by choosing to wear a spectacular diamond tiara that had once belonged to Umberto’s grandmother, Queen Margherita of Italy.

After their wedding at the Pauline Chapel at the Quirinale Palace in Rome, the couple went straight to an audience with Pope Pius XI at the Vatican before further celebrations and balcony apperances.

Preparing for a Crown

Now Prince and Princess of Piedmont, Umberto and Marie-Jose set about fulfilling the dynastic obligations placed on their shoulders. They would have four children – Maria Pia (born in 1934), Vittorio Emanuele (1937), Maria Gabriella (1940) and Maria Beatrice (1944). However, Marie Jose would later say that she and her husband had never been happy together. Even in the early years of their marriage, Umberto’s sexuality was the subject of rumours.

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Marie-Jose did enjoy her royal role and she soon became a popular member of the House of Savoy. She served for a time with the Red Cross in Libya and took a deep interest in politics. When World War Two began, she lobbied for help for Belgium as it was occupied by Nazi Germany and as the conflict progressed, she carried out secret negotiations with opponents of Mussolini. Umberto took on the regency of Italy in 1944 but his father refused to abdicate in his favour. In 1946, a referendum was called on the future of the monarchy. It was only then that Vittorio Emanuele realised the extent of his unpopularity. He stood aside on May 9th 1946.

Marie Jose, Queen of Italy

King Umberto II and Queen Marie-Jose set about trying to save the monarchy they had finally inherited. They toured the country, trying to build up support for the royals in the forthcoming vote and underlining their own roles in strenghtening Italy in the darkest days of World War Two.

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However, their efforts came to nothing. On June 2nd 1946, the referendum showed 52% in favour of abolishing Italy’s monarchy and turning the country into a republic. Umberto was angry but resigned and, along with his family, left Rome for Portugal. Marie-Jose had been Queen of Italy for just 34 days.

The End of the Story

The former king and queen could no longer hide their unhappiness and separated with Marie-Jose and her children moving to Geneva. There, she continued to explore her interest in travel, painting and writing and produced books on the history of the House of Savoy. She even voyaged to China where she was received by Chairman Mao.

Marie-Jose died in Geneva on January 27th 2001, outliving her husband by almost thirty years. But despite their differences in life, they were reunited in death. Umberto and Marie-Jose are buried at Hautecombe Abbey in Savoy, France. Their descendants remain a royal family without a throne.

Marie-Jose, Last Queen of Italy, 1906 – 2001

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Jubilee and Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton who is a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. Her latest book, A History of British Royal Jubilees, is out now. Her new book, The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr, will be published in March 2024. June is an award winning reporter, producer and editor. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.