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The royal bride who wore a wedding dress designed by a future king

She was the beautiful princess who had been the subject of endless royal wedding speculation, he was the handsome prince with a crown waiting in his future. When Marie-Jose of Belgium married Umberto, heir to the throne of Italy, in January 1930 their marriage had all the echoes of history about it, a union of dynasties that would secure a throne. Tens of thousands flocked to Rome to see the couple while newspapers across the world reported endless details of these royal nuptials. And yet, within years, the couple found their very existence under threat. War and then peace would see this royal couple end their lives in exile. This is the story of the royal wedding of Umberto and Marie-Jose, the last King and Queen of Italy.

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Their royal romance had begun in tried and tested style. Marie-Jose Charlotte Sophie Amelie Henriette Gabrielle was the only daughter of the popular King Albert II and Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians. Born in Ostend in 1906, she had been talked about as a candidate for Queen of Italy since her earliest years. Umberto Nicola Tommaso Giovanni Maria had been born heir to the throne of Italy in 1904, the only son of King Victor Emmanuele III and Queen Elena, and took the title of Prince of Piedmont. The couple met while young (Marie-Jose was educated for several years in Italy) and finally announced their engagement in October 1929.

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The wedding was set for January 8th 1930, a date chosen by the groom to honour his mother, Queen Elena of Italy, who celebrated her 57th birthday on the same date. Marie-Jose arrived in her new home country as the new year got under way, accompanied by her parents. Days of festivities began. On the eve of their wedding, the couple were treated to a display of folk traditions while royalty from across Europe assembled in Rome for the ceremony itself.

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Umberto and Marie-Jose were married in the Pauline Chapel of the Quirinale Palace in the heart of Rome. Their guests were told to take their seats from 8 in the morning although the bride didn’t arrive until noon. Marie-Jose wore a white gown with a long train which her groom had helped design. Her veil was held in place by an ornate diamond tiara that had once belonged to Umberto’s grandmother, Queen Margherita, who had died in 1926 leaving orders that the gems were to be passed to the prince’s bride. But despite its size, or perhaps because of it, Marie-Jose’s veil came loose several times as she walked into her wedding.

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The new Prince and Princess of Piedmont walked out of the chapel and into a packed schedule of celebrations. They went to visit the Pope, Pius XI, and laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They were cheered on their journeys by huge crowds who massed around the Quirinale for a balcony appearance later on. Umberto and Marie-Jose went on to have four children but their married life was tumultuous from the start. Despite Marie-Jose’s often praised efforts during World War Two, the Italian monarchy lost popularity and by 1946, a referendum was planned on its future. On May 9th that year, King Victor Emmanuel III abdicated in favour of Umberto. But the couple’s time as King and Queen of Italy was brief with the Italian people rejecting the monarchy just 34 days into their reign. They went in exile and then separated although they never divorced. Umberto died in 1983 and Marie-Jose in 2001. They are buried together in Hautecombe Abbey in France.

Lydia Starbuck is a pen name of June Woolerton who has written extensively on royal history. Her new book, The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr, is available now. She is also the author of a popular cosy mystery, All Manner of Murder.

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.