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Giovanna, Last Tsarina of Bulgaria

By Unknown author - This file was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the Bulgarian Archives State Agency as part of a cooperation project. The Bulgarian Archives State Agency provides images, which are public domain. For attribution/citation of the source, Bulgarian Archives State Agency, please use the identification numbers of the document's fonds, inventory, archival unit and sheet., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Early Life

Giovanna Elisabetta Antonia Romana Maria was born on 13th November 1907; her parents were King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and Queen Elena. Giovanna was born in Rome into the house of Savoy, as the fourth child of the couple; she had two older sisters Yolanda and Mafalda and an older brother Umberto, another sister Maria Francesca was born in 1914.

Princess Giovanna had a quiet childhood at home at the Villa Savoia in Rome, away from the Italian Royal Family’s official residence. As was the custom, she was educated at home with her siblings by tutors and governesses and received a high level of education for a girl of the time. Little else is known of her childhood, and we next hear of Giovanna in records in 1923 when she fell ill with typhoid fever along with her sister Mafalda. Typhoid fever was a killer disease in this period, and the lives of the sisters were in danger, luckily the pair were nursed back to health by Franciscan nuns. After this, Giovanna devoted herself in thanks to St Francis of Assisi for the rest of her life.

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Path to Tsaritsa

In 1927 at the wedding of her brother Umberto to Princess Marie José of Belgium, Princess Giovanna met Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria. The pair fell in love, and the match was supported by the Bulgarian government because of Giovanna’s Slavic heritage as her mother was from Montenegro. In October 1930, the civil wedding ceremony took place in Assisi, Italy, followed by a Roman Catholic ceremony. To keep both parties happy, an Orthodox ceremony also took place in Sofia, Bulgaria, and this doubled up as Giovanna’s coronation. The new Tsaritsa from then on used the name Ioanna which was the Bulgarian variation on her name.

Role as Tsarina

Despite her husband’s often tumultuous reign, Ioanna was liked by the Bulgarian people, and she threw herself into charitable works and raising the couple’s two children, Marie Luisa and Simeon. During this difficult time, Boris III was the target of two assassination attempts after a military coup. Eventually, after a second coup, Tsar Boris ended up leading a ‘King’s government’ and no political parties were restored, in this period of essential dictatorship, Bulgaria actually prospered for five years.

When World War II broke out, Tsar Boris struggled to keep Bulgaria out of the war, and Adolph Hitler was constantly trying to gain assistance from Bulgaria. In 1941, Boris relented and joined the Axis powers, eventually assisting with the invasions of Greece and Yugoslavia. Tsar Boris did, however, refuse to declare war on Russia and refused to deport Bulgarian Jews from the country. Tsar Boris is remembered fondly for this, but it must be said that he did not manage to stop the removal of 11,000 Jewish people from Macedonia and Thrace.

During World War II, Tsarina Ioanna did what she could to arrange travel visas in order to aid the escape of Jewish citizens. Sadly, before he could see the end of the war, Tsar Boris III died after a heated meeting with Adolph Hitler. It is still unknown if the Tsar died of natural causes or if he was poisoned by the Nazis for not heeding their commands. After this, Bulgaria was ruled by a regency council as the new Tsar Simeon II was only six-years-old. The regency was led by the brother of Boris III, Prince Kyril.

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End of the monarchy

In 1944, Tsarina Ioanna’s life became yet more difficult, and she and her family were placed under house arrest after the Soviet invasion. A people’s court tried Prince Kyril who was suddenly executed on 1 February 1945 along with around 90 other people including the Prime Minister, royal advisors, MPs and cabinet ministers. The group were executed by firing squad and thrown into a mass grave, wiping out the whole Regency Council. Tsarina Ioanna and her children luckily escaped death, but the Soviet regime abolished the monarchy on 16th September 1946. Ioanna and her children had just 48 hours to leave the country and head into exile.

Ioanna went firstly to Egypt, as her father King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy was living there in exile as he had abdicated the throne of Italy. In 1951, the family moved to Madrid, before finally moving to Estoril in Portugal after the marriage of her son Tsar Simeon II to Margarita Gómez-Acebo y Cejuela.

And the rest

Ioanna was remembered fondly by the people of Bulgaria, and in 1993, fifty years after the death of her husband, she returned on a visit to Bulgaria and was warmly welcomed. The 92-year-old former Tsarina died on 26th February 2000, and as she has wished, she was buried at the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi where she has been married. Ioanna’s children are still alive, living happily with their spouses, and each has children and successful careers. Simeon even went on to become Prime Minister of Bulgaria from 2001-2005.