Marie José Carlotta Sofia Amelia Henrietta Gabriella of Saxe Coburg-Gotha, known as Maria José of Belgium, born princess of Belgium, was the last queen of Italy as consort of Umberto II of Savoy. Since his reign lasted only from May 9 to June 18, 1946, he was dubbed by the Italians Queen of May.
She was the daughter of Albert I of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who became King of the Belgians since 1909, and of Elizabeth of Wittelsbach, born Duchess in Bavaria.
His paternal grandparents were Count Philip of Flanders and Princess Mary of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen; those maternal the duke in Bavaria Carlo Teodoro and his second wife Maria José of Braganza, born infanta of Portugal.
He grew up with the two older brothers Leopoldo and Carlo Teodoro in an open family environment, steeped in culture, where, thanks to the vast interests of his parents, he developed both his artistic skills studying the piano and the violin, both his sporting and learning skills, guided by his father, who was among other things inclined to socialist ideas, both classical and contemporary culture.
During his childhood he had to face the tragic period of the First World War, during which he was sent with his brothers to live in England, while his father at home personally commanded the Belgian army, earning the nickname "King Knight", and the mother carried out assistance to the injured.
She was brought up for a royal wedding and destined by her parents, since she was a child, to marry Umberto di Savoia, heir to the throne of Italy, son of Vittorio Emanuele III and Elena of Montenegro. For this reason he attended the college of the Santissima Annunziata at Villa di Poggio Imperiale, where he learned the Italian language. The first meeting of the two future spouses took place in 1916, at the castle of Lispida in Battaglia Terme. After completing his studies in Italy in 1919, he enrolled at the college of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Linthout, Belgium; previously, in 1915 (while he was a refugee in England), he had studied at the convent of the Ursulines in Brentwood.
The wedding with the Prince of Piedmont was celebrated in Rome on January 8, 1930 in the Pauline Chapel of the Quirinale palace. After the ceremony, the couple were received by Pius XI, the Pope who had stipulated the Lateran Pacts the year before, in the framework of a clear thaw between Italy and the Vatican.
The couple spent the first years of marriage in Turin, where Umberto commanded the 92nd infantry regiment with the rank of colonel. Maria José never had good relations with the members of the House of Savoy. His provenance from the more open Belgian real environment and the modern education he had received, clashed with the rigor of the more closed Italian monarchy. The most classical education and education of the same Umberto and, above all, the loyal treat of the prince to the label, to the rules and to the paternal authority, were all factors of obstacle to the success of his union, already not perfect, with the heir to the throne. In the Torinese years, the princess preferred to avoid relations with the nobility and with the circle of her husband's friendships, carving out personal spaces and visits. Even in Rome, in the private apartment of the Quirinale, equipped with a grand piano, he received philosophers, intellectuals and writers in a way completely independent of Umberto.
Different and, in some respects happier, was the period spent by Maria José and Umberto in Naples, where they moved in 1933; the princess would have preserved an excellent memory of the Neapolitans. Certainly the couple's life was enlivened in this period by the birth of three of their four children: Maria Pia on September 24th 1934; the future heir to the throne Vittorio Emanuele on 12 February 1937; Maria Gabriella February 24, 1940. The fourth child, Princess Maria Beatrice, was born in Rome on February 2, 1943.
Maria José personally took care of her children, both in autumn stays at the Royal Castle of Racconigi and in the summer of Villa Maria Pia in Posillipo. On the educational level, however, did not get the opportunity to let them attend public school, but had to settle for a Montessori instigator, Miss Paolini, who was loved by children and who would follow them until the fall of the monarchy and the resulting exile.
In the same years, however, serious family deaths struck the Princess. On February 17, 1934, in a mountain accident, his beloved father Alberto died, just as Maria José was waiting for her first daughter. The circumstance discouraged his own participation in the funeral. Just a year later, on August 29, 1935, a car accident killed his sister-in-law Astrid of Sweden, wife of Leopold III of Belgium near Küssnacht in Switzerland.
The stay in Naples continued until the outbreak of the Second World War, when the family moved to the Quirinale. To the most loved places in Italy by Maria José, in addition to the Castle of Racconigi and Naples, must be added Capri and Florence.
Determinants in his approach to Italy were the excellent relations between Mussolini and the Savoia family: respect and respect by the former and esteem and admiration by the latter. All this led the Princess to consider, in a first time, in a favorable way the politics of the Fascist Party.
Things began to change when the alliance with Germany and the subjection against Hitler was outlined. In 1935 there was the Ethiopian War, which earned Italy the sanctions of the League of Nations and the condemnation of the major European and world powers. In 1936 the treaty of friendship between Italy and Germany was signed, called the Rome-Berlin Axis. In 1938 there was the promulgation of the racial laws. When, in 1938, Hitler visited Italy in the Quirinale, Maria José already had feelings of hostility towards the work of Mussolini and Umberto too, after all, had difficulty in concealing a certain dissent.
From this moment on, Maria José tried to have very limited contacts with the other main personalities of the regime, and some of them were even publicly banned, such as Achille Starace, Ettore Muti, Roberto Farinacci and Alessandro Pavolini. Also to Umberto only those that the wife also accepted were welcome, that is the monarchist faithful like Emilio De Bono, Italo Balbo and Cesare Maria De Vecchi. But while Umberto scrupulously adhered to the rules of the regime, Maria José frequented anyone who wanted them, without worrying about the consequences. Umberto, however, did nothing to dissuade his wife to act this way.
In 1932 he visited the Vittoriale da Gabriele d'Annunzio; of this visit he kept a funny memory; in the summer of 1935 the Princes went to Tripoli from Marshal Italo Balbo, exiled to Libya; later he returned there other times without Umberto; in 1939 he assisted, alone, in Lucerne at the concert of Arturo Toscanini, the last that the master held in Europe. During his frequent stays abroad he also wanted to know Thomas Mann, Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, Maurice Maeterlinck, all people considered outlawed by the regime, but with whom she entertained long-lasting relationships of sincere friendship.
Mussolini, on his part, always treated Maria José with a certain coldness, wanted to be informed of his every move and entrusted the supervision of the Princess to the head of the police, Arturo Bocchini, until 1939, that is until he considered submitting the Savoy , with the distortion of the Albertine Statute and with the intervention of the Grand Council in succession to the throne. He also expressly forbade the media to appoint Umberto and Maria José as hereditary princes, and forced them to call them only Princes of Piedmont.
On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, thus beginning the Second World War, which ended in 1945. Italy officially entered the war on 10 June 1940, declaring war on France and Great Britain. A reckless decision by Mussolini who was well aware of the lack of preparation of the Italian army and badly assessed the duration of the conflict.
In October of the same year Italy also invaded Greece, despite the country's resources were not sufficient to support this action. The Greek war turned out to be a disastrous defeat and the position of Mussolini gradually weakened. In light of these facts, Maria José, who had always maintained that Italy could never win the war and that the only way to spare the people of unnecessary suffering was to eliminate Mussolini and Fascism , undertaken, from 1941 until the coup d'état of 25 July 1943, a secret action aimed at linking the anti-fascist environment directly with the Savoys.
Regardless of the risks he ran, he met characters like Benedetto Croce, whose works he had read before arriving in Italy, Umberto Zanotti Bianco, a liberal who was strongly opposed to the regime, Ugo la Malfa, Carlo Antoni, Ferdinando Arena, who also became his personal physician , Ivanoe Bonomi, Elio Vittorini, Alcide de Gasperi, Monsignor Montini, then deputy secretary of state of Pope Pius XII and many others. Mussolini, despite being aware of the actions of the Princess, did nothing to prevent his work. Of everything that came to know Maria Josè informed her father-in-law through the Minister of Real Casa Pietro d'Acquarone. In the monarchy, she was defined by many as the only man in the House of Savoy. After the bombing of Rome on 19 July 1943, the King decided to act.
On July 25, Maria José learned of the outcome of the Grand Council meeting and Mussolini's arrest two hours before the news was released on the radio. Pietro Badoglio announced that he was the new head of the government declaring: "the war continues alongside the Germanic ally".
On 6 August, Maria José was summoned by her father-in-law, who had not spoken to her directly for more than two years, and was expressly ordered to immediately break off any relationship with the anti-fascist opposition and any political activity; furthermore, he forced her to retire with her four children to the Savoy summer residence in Sant'Anna di Valdieri, under the supervision of her sister-in-law Jolanda, and to remain there until he had expressly referred to her in Rome. On September 8th the Princess was in Sarre, where she had been moving for ten days and, like the rest of the Italians, she learned the news of the Armistice from the radio.
In this moment of serious danger for the members of the royal family and, in particular, for the king's nephew, Maria José and his sons managed to escape to Montreux in Switzerland. Then they had to move to Glion, because the Swiss police learned of a plan by Hitler to kidnap Victor Emmanuel. Finally they settled in Oberhofen on Lake Thun.
Only in February 1945, while Germany was falling, Maria José decided to return to Italy. It was a very hard route in the middle of winter and with skis on its feet crossed the border into the Alps, escorted by two guides and the few men who had remained close to it. To welcome her to Italy there were the partisans who escorted her to Racconigi. Here he waited until the following June, when a plane was sent to take her to Rome, where Umberto was waiting for her. They had not seen each other for about two years.
The last year he spent in Italy was in solitude. Umberto was always far engaged in his new role as lieutenant of the Kingdom, and in any case there was an irreparable rift between the two spouses. She resumed acting as the Red Cross inspector, visiting the places most affected by the war and it was just as she was returning from Cassino, on one of these visits, that she was informed that she was a queen. It was May 9, 1946. The King had abdicated in favor of Umberto. Contemporary sources report that he did not show any enthusiasm, but that he was already resigned to the prediction that the monarchy would lose the referendum that would be held shortly thereafter on 2 June.
On June 5th Umberto informed her that Italy was a Republic and told her that she would leave that same evening for Naples and, the following day, for Portugal. He begged her husband to leave her one more day to be able to see Naples again, but Umberto did not allow it , as he had promised to Alcide De Gasperi. He joined her after a week in Cascais, but they parted almost immediately. With the excuse of having to undergo an operation in the eyes, Maria José moved to Merlinge in Switzerland, with her son Vittorio Emanuele. The three daughters, who remained in Portugal with their father, joined her several years later.
In these years he traveled a lot by visiting China, India, the Soviet Union, Poland, Cuba and even the United States of America, first with his mother Elizabeth, then alone. He also devoted himself to historical studies on the House of Savoy publishing various volumes, and to the musical culture establishing a composition award. He received the Legion of Honor from the French Republic for his writings on the Savoy. He had permission to return to Italy only in 1987, as a widow, but only came back on 1 March 1988 to attend a historic convention in the city of Aosta.
He died on January 27, 2001 in Geneva and for his express wish he was buried in the Abbey of Altacomba in Haute-Savoie alongside her husband.