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Princess Marie-José of Belgium: A tale of royalty and resistance

Marie-José'of Belgium

I am posting this because on this day (January 8) in 1930, Crown Prince Umberto of Italy married Princess Marie-José of Belgium in Rome. Marie-José is famous for being the last Queen of Italy.

Challenging early years

Born on August 4, 1906, in Ostend, Belgium, Marie-José was the youngest child of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. She grew up in a simple and modern royal family, and received education in England, Italy and Belgium. For example, during the First World War she was evacuated to England where she was a boarding pupil at the Brentwood Ursuline Convent High School in Brentwood, Essex.

 Princess Marie-José of Belgium aged 9
Marie-José aged 9

Unsurprisingly, her early years were marked by the tragedy of World War I, during which her family played a crucial role in supporting Belgium. Her father, King Albert I, was a symbol of resistance, and her mother, Queen Elisabeth, worked tirelessly for the welfare of soldiers and civilians alike. These formative experiences instilled in Marie-José a deep sense of duty and compassion.

Marriage and move to Italy

In 1930, Marie-José married Crown Prince Umberto of Italy, the heir to the Italian throne.

 Marie-José and  Crown Prince Umberto of Italy,

It was a fairy-tale wedding at the Quirinal Palace in Rome. The union was seen as a symbol of reconciliation between Belgium and Italy after the tensions of World War I. Marie-José fully embraced her role as Crown Princess, but the marriage was never considered a particularly happy one. They had four children.

“I don’t have much to do with the House of Savoy. It’s not a family, it’s a Frigidaire.” (refrigerator)

Princess Marie-José of Belgium

The Second World War

By the late 1930s Marie-José realized that Mussolini was intent on leading the country to ruin. She made contact with his opponents, and is reported to have supplied the Italian resistance with arms and money. In 1940 she met Hitler and pleaded for the release of food to the starving Belgians, and for a more humane treatment for her imprisoned brother King Leopold III of Belgium – both to no avail. Later she said that if she had a pistol she might have killed Hitler.

The May Queen – for 27 days

On May 9, 1946, her father-in-law, King Vittorio Emanuele III, abdicated in favor of Marie-José’s husband, Umberto II. She became the Queen of Italy: known as the “May Queen”.

 Marie-José the last Queen of Italy

However, their reign was short-lived: a mere 27 days. The following month, on June 2, 1946, the Italian people voted to abolish the monarchy in a referendum. She and her family had to leave Italy and live in exile, initially in Portugal. However, by then the couple had drifted apart. The ex-king remained in Portugal; Marie-José moved in Switzerland.

Life outside the monarchy

Marie-José never gave up her hope of returning to Italy, and maintained her interest in Italian affairs. She devoted herself to humanitarian causes, such as the Red Cross and the World Wildlife Fund. She was also a patron of arts and culture, and supported many Italian artists and writers. Her marriage endured until Umberto’s death in 1983.

Death and memory

On January 27, 2001, Princess Marie-José passed away in Geneva, Switzerland, aged 94. She was buried in Hautecombe Abbey, France, alongside her husband and other members of the House of Savoy. The funeral was attended by 2,000 mourners, including King Albert II of Belgium and King Juan Carlos I of Spain. She is remembered as a remarkable and radical royal, who left a lasting mark in the history of Italy.

Princess Marie-José of Belgium

New movie coming

Queen Marie-José and Italy’s Royal House of Savoy is the subject of a forthcoming movie by Chinese director, writer and producer Yi Zhou.

“The story of Queen Marie-José is sweepingly epic, and embedded in every layer are dramatic twists, many with weighty historical significance and ramifications. This is a certainly a case where real life bests fiction and it’s for these reasons I am compelled to bring this fascinating story to life.”

Li Zhou

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