Brave Facts About Marie-José of Belgium, Italy’s “May Queen”

June 10, 2024 | Brendan Da Costa

Brave Facts About Marie-José of Belgium, Italy’s “May Queen”

Marie-José of Belgium was the last Queen of Italy—lasting only a month. But her reign and life had more drama than could fit in a century.

1. She Was The Last—But Best

Marie-José of Belgium was queen consort of Italy from May to June of 1946, earning her the nickname “the May Queen”. But her short reign was full of drama, intrigue, subterfuge and scandalous affairs with history’s most controversial men. This last Queen of Italy proved to be the bravest—even if she kept one dark secret.

Marie-Jose of Belgium, Queen of Italy wearing a crownGhitta Carell, Wikimedia Commons

2. She Was Of The Highest Pedigree

Marie-José of Belgium might have been Italy’s last queen, but she wasn’t even Italian. She was born Princess Marie José Charlotte Sophie Amélie Henriette Gabrielle of Belgium in Ostend. As the youngest child and only daughter of King Albert I of Belgium and Duchess Elisabeth of Bavaria, she was, however, of the highest royal pedigree.

And not just because of her very blue blood.

Marie-Jose of Belgium, Queen of Italy as a child with her mother and siblingsAPI, Getty Images

3. She Loved Music

From the time she was born, Marie-José had the world laid out at her feet. She was an indisputably beautiful and intelligent child with a mind and passion for the arts. She took a particular shine to music, even studying under the “The King of Violin”, Eugène Ysaÿe. However, she would not be able to pursue her heart’s desire.

Her parents had something else in mind.

Marie-Jose of Belgium, Queen of Italy as a childBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

4. Her Parents Decided Her Fate

Born in 1906, Marie-José was a member of one of the last remaining monarchies in Europe. As such, her marriage prospects became a matter of wild speculation, even in her youth. Basically, even before she was born, her parents had already decided for her. They wanted her to marry the crown prince of Italy, Umberto, whether she liked it or not.

But before she could, catastrophe got in the way.

King Umberto Ii Of Italy As A ChildBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

5. She Fled The Fighting

At the outbreak of WWI, nothing mattered more to Marie-José’s parents than her safety. After all, she was destined to be the next Queen of Italy. To spare her from the worst of the fighting, her parents evacuated her to England where she boarded at the Brentwood Ursuline Convent High School in Brentwood, Essex. Only, she had some bizarre trouble fitting in.

Tower Bridge in London, after the 1918 ArmisticeUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

6. She Loved Her Rabbit More Than People

As she was away from home, Marie-José’s parents had given her an escort; her father’s messenger, Major Archibald Alexander Gordon. But her true companion was a furry friend, the rabbit Marshal Soult. By all accounts, that little rabbit had more privilege and position in Marie-José’s court than the Belgian King’s Messenger. This led to a cringeworthy incident.

Marie-Jose of Belgium, Queen of ItalyUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

7. She Was A Stickler For Protocol

According to the legend, Marie-José of Belgium favored her rabbit above everyone else. So, when her escort, Major Archibald Alexander Gordon, made the mistake of referring to the rabbit simply as “Soult”, she scolded the courtier. The princess quipped that, if she had simply called him “Gordon”, no one would know who she was talking about.

She would have to grow out of those childish games pretty quickly.

Archibald Alexander Gordon in uniformMCallaerts, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

8. She Arrived In Italy

In an effort to prepare her to one day wear the crown in Italy, Marie-José’s parents next shipped her off to Florence, Italy. There, she studied at the all-girls College of the Santissima Annunziata. But her parents might have had ulterior motives for sending her to Italy. In fact, given what happened next, it was all part of their plan.

The Official Visits To The Western Front, 1914-1918Ernest Brooks, Wikimedia Commons

9. She Met Her Future Husband

During her stay in Florence, Marie-José got a massive surprise. She met the man who would become her husband; Crown Prince Umberto of Italy, Prince of Piedmont. There aren’t really any records of the couple’s first meeting but, given how their marriage eventually unfolded, it’s safe to say that it was not love at first sight. Besides, she had other things on her mind.

King Umberto II of Italy in uniform 1924Empresa Periodística Zig-Zag, Wikimedia Commons

10. She Got The Crown Jewels

By 1924, Marie-José of Belgium made her much-anticipated social debut, attending her first court ball. But she wasn’t just your average debutante. As a true princess, she received a rare gift for the occasion: an antique pearl and diamond tiara. The sparkly artifact had originally belonged to the French princess, Stéphanie de Beauharnais.

Hopefully she enjoyed it, because her life as she knew it was about to come to an end.

Maria José of Belgium, Queen of Italy wearing a crownEva Barrett, Wikimedia Commons

11. She Became An Italian Princess

Just as her parents had planned, Marie-José’s big (and dreaded) day had finally come. On January 8, 1930, the Belgian princess dutifully walked down the aisle at the Quirinal Palace in Rome to become the Princess of Piedmont. However, the wedding was anything but magical. It was just a brief glimpse into the drama that awaited her in Italy.

Maria Josè of Belgium engagement portraitCartolina casa editrice BALLERINI & FRATINI, Wikimedia Commons

12. Her Husband Broke With Convention

The big day kicked off with a terrible omen. Defying tradition (and every regular convention), Marie-José’s husband-to-be, Umberto, insisted on seeing her before the wedding. His reason? He wanted to make sure that her dress—which, apparently, he had helped design—was perfect. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he made Marie-José very uncomfortable with his next move.

Marie Jose And Umberto During Their Marriage CeremonyUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

13. Her Husband Ruined Her Wedding Dress

Once Umberto caught sight of Marie-José of Belgium in her wedding dress, he made the already ominous situation even worse. Umberto fumed that the seamstresses had sewn Marie-José’s sleeves on backward and demanded that they change them. By the end of it, Marie-José simply resolved to wear long white gloves instead of the sleeves.

Somehow, that wasn’t even the most awkward part of her wedding day.

Marie-Jose of Belgium, Queen of Italy weddingUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

14. She Met Il Duce

By marrying into the Italian royal family, Marie-José had inadvertently stepped into a world of intense court intrigues. Some years before, a vicious dictator had seized control of the real power in Italy: Benito Mussolini, AKA Il Duce. Mussolini had more or less strong-armed the royal family into bending to his will. But Marie-José was no regular royal.

Benito Mussolini  in suitBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

15. She Signed Her Own Name

At her wedding, Marie-José of Belgium made it very clear that, unlike her new in-laws, she would not bend to Mussolini’s will. When Mussolini insisted that she sign the wedding registry as “Maria Giuseppina”, forsaking her Belgian heritage, she bluntly refused. In her first sign of defiance against a ruthless dictator, she signed her own name.

Thankfully, not everything that day went horribly wrong.

Umberto And His Fiancee Marie JoseUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

16. She Got Lavish Gifts

The people of Italy as well as foreign dignitaries hoped that Marie-José might inject some new blood into the royal family and pull them back from Mussolini’s extremism. As such, they showered her with lavish gifts. Some of her gifts included a resplendent turquoise and diamond jewelry set and a diamond bow that she wore as decoration on her sash during state occasions.

The other “gifts” from her marriage were a lot less shiny.

Umberto II of Savoy and Maria José of Belgium in a carBundesarchiv, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

17. She Did Her Duty

To anyone paying attention, it had been obvious from the very beginning; Marie-José of Belgium and Umberto were not in love. Their marriage was simply a matter of political necessity. Unhappy as their marriage might have been, however, Marie-José still did her royal duty and produced four children between 1934 and 1943. But she was just getting started.

Marie-José of Belgium and familyThe gambler, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

18. She Saved Many Lives

Marie-José had come a long way from the spoiled child she had once been—and the world took notice. In 1939, the Red Cross in Italy made the Princess of Piedmont the President of their organization. She had absolutely no idea just how instrumental she would be in preventing the loss of life in the dark days that lay ahead.

Marie-Jose Of Belgium, Crown Princess Of ItalyEva Barrett, Wikimedia Commons

19. She Was Against The Axis Forces

At the outbreak of WWII, Marie-José found herself in an impossible situation. The Italian royal family that she married into had vouched their support for Mussolini and the Axis forces. But, as a Belgian, she could not bring herself to turn her back on her family. What she did next would have potentially dire consequences.

Marie-Jose of Belgium, Queen of Italy portraitAlbert Edwin Flury, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

20. She Turned Her Back On Her In-Laws

Under the cover of secrecy, Marie-José of Belgium made a bold and potentially fatal decision. She was going to defy Mussolini. Behind the dictator’s back—and without the blessing of her in-laws—Marie-José tried to negotiate a peace deal with the United States. She even set up a meeting with the future Pope Paul VI to broker the deal.

And that wasn’t the only way that she worked against the evil Axis forces from within.

Marie-José of Belgium in white dressUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

21. She Plotted Against Mussolini

From within the walls of the castle and the halls of power, Marie-José worked tirelessly to undermine Mussolini’s regime and spare the lives of Italians. She held regular meetings with anti-Mussolini intellectuals, contacted leaders of the Italian Resistance, and supplied the rebel forces with both money and arms. And she soon reaped a huge reward.

Marie-José of Belgium, Crown Princess Of ItalyUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

22. She Was The Only Smart One In The Family

Once the Americans entered the fight, it wasn’t long before the Axis forces began to lose their grip on power. Eventually, in large part thanks to Marie-José’s efforts, Italy successfully defected to the Allied side. A traveling British diplomat in Italy famously quipped that Marie-José was the only member of the Italian regime “with good political judgment”.

Her romantic judgment, however, was terrible.

Marie-José of Belgium and husband Umberto II of ItalyUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

23. She Was On Mussolini’s “List”

As Marie-José of Belgium worked behind the scenes, Mussolini had grown increasingly unpopular. Quite apart from his wacky political ideas, he was also just a cad. Everyone knew that he was “compulsively promiscuous”, reportedly sleeping with one woman a day for the almost 14-years of his regime. Shockingly, Marie-José found herself wrapped up in Mussolini’s personal melodrama.

Marie-José of BelgiumUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

24. She Seduced Mussolini

In her diaries, Mussolini’s mistress, Claretta Petacci, made a shocking disclosure. According to Petacci, Mussolini told her that Marie-José had once tried to seduce the dictator and entice him into her bed. The alleged “seduction” occurred at Castelporziano, one of the king’s hunting estates where Mussolini entertained his lovers.

The details of the supposed encounter were actually quite cringe-inducing.

Clara PetacciMadelgarius, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

25. She Bared It All

Petacci provided lurid details of the supposed encounter between Marie-José of Belgium and Mussolini. The dictator’s mistress quoted the man himself as having told her: “Marie-José came [up to me] and said 'May I?' Then, with a small movement her dress fell and she was there virtually [unclothed]." The lascivious dictator’s reaction defied all logic.

Marie-José Of Belgium, Queen Of ItalyUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

26. She Was “Repulsive”

In her diary confessions, Petacci continued to impugn Marie-José’s character with her sensational accusations. She went on to claim that Mussolini reassured her that he had turned down the Princess’ offer, going so far as to call her “repulsive”. But, if we are to believe another person from Mussolini’s inner-circle, that was a blatant lie.

Mussolini  at a deskLibrary of Congress, Picryl

27. Her Secrets Came Out

In 1971, Mussolini’s youngest son, Romano, wrote a letter to Antonio Terzi, a former editor with the newspaper Corriere della Sera. In the letter, Romano made even more shocking allegations than Petacci. In fact, Romano painted the picture of a love affair so torrid that it possibly changed the course of WWII and saved Italy from destruction.

Marie-José of Belgium wearing white dressGhitta Carell, Wikimedia Commons

28. She Had An “Explicit” Affair

In Romano’s letter to Terzi, he directly contradicted Petacci. “I can confirm in all good faith,” he wrote, “that the romantic and political relations between Marie-José and my father were often talked about at home”. Romano even went on to confirm that his own mother, Mussolini’s wife Rachele, gave an “explicit” account of the affair.

Benito Mussolini - with his wife Rachele and his childrenullstein bild Dtl., Getty Images

29. She Got Dumped

No one knows exactly how Marie-José’s affair with Mussolini began. But Romano shed some light on how it ended. The dictator’s son’s letters confirmed that there had been, as he described it “a brief period of intimate romantic relations” between Marie-José and Mussolini. But it ended abruptly, he asserted, “at the instance of my father”.

Still, people speculated about the truth of these allegations.

Marie-José of Belgium in blackUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

30. She Was A Lioness

Given her staunch opposition to Mussolini’s politics, it was hard for anyone to believe that she had any relations with the man—far be it carnal ones. However, in a 1993 interview, Marie-José all but confirmed the speculation herself. “He was a lion,” she said. “I, too, am a lion. And we both feared one another”. He wasn’t the only dictator she made tremble in his boots.

Or, beg to be in her bed.

Princess Marie-José of BelgiumCollection Ralf De Jonge, Wikimedia Commons

31. She Faced The Führer

When the Third Reich invaded Marie-José’s homeland of Belgium, the Princess of Piedmont sprung into action. She immediately organized a meeting with the mad Führer himself in which she demanded mercy for her brother, King Leopold III, whom Axis forces had confined to his castle. She also demanded that the people of Belgium, who were starving, receive better treatment.

The answer she got back was heartbreaking.

Adolf Hitler  in suit Heinrich Hoffmann, Getty Images

32. Her Eyes Were Mesmerizing

Despite her boldness, the Führer turned down Marie-José’s simple requests for the humane treatment of her people. From the sounds of it, he was simply too distracted to remember what she was asking for. The loathsome Führer later admitted that he had been impressed with Marie-José’s beauty, saying that her eyes were “the [color] of the German sky”.

Her own reply was blood-curdling.

Marie-José of Belgium in red cross uniformGhitta Carell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

33. She Wished She Had Just Ended The Guy

While the Führer fawned over Marie-José’s beauty, she fumed over his heartlessness. After her unsuccessful meeting with the most reviled man in the world, Marie-José confessed that she wished she had used another tactic in their negotiations. She admitted that she wished she had taken a revolver into the room and put a slug between his eyes.

“I think I would have had the strength to do it,” she fumed.

Marie-José of Belgium walking on streetUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

34. Her In-Laws Found Out

Eventually, the rest of the royal family along with Mussolini became aware of Marie-José’s actions to undermine the Axis forces. Of course, they could not imprison the sitting Princess of Piedmont but they could punish her all the same. Mussolini exiled Marie-José and her children to Sarre, in the Aosta Valley, where she couldn’t cause any trouble.

Or so they thought.

Sarre CastleHagai Agmon-Snir, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

35. Her Crown Was Close

Marie-José’s efforts, however unsanctioned, had not gone in vain. Once Italy defected to the Allies, her maligned father-in-law, King Victor Emmanuel III, had no choice but to withdraw from government. Naturally, as the next in line to the crown, her husband became regent with the title of Lieutenant General of the Realm.

But the question remained: had her father-in-law damaged the monarchy beyond repair?

Victor Emmanuel III wearing an uniformViktorEmmanuel69, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

36. She Hoped To Save The Monarchy

In an effort to distance themselves from Victor Emmanuel III and restore some dignity to the monarchy, Marie-José of Belgium and Umberto toured Italy. Arriving in towns and cities ravaged by the fighting with open hearts, Marie-José and Umberto left a good impression on their subjects. They hoped, against the odds, that they had done enough to save the Italian crown in the upcoming referendum.

They soon found out the truth.

King Umberto Ii And Queen Marie-José Of ItalyGhitta Carell, Wikimedia Commons

37. She Couldn’t Defy The Will Of The People

King Victor Emmanuel III only officially abdicated in favor of his son a few weeks before the referendum. By that time, not even Marie-José could repair the monarchy’s reputation. On May 9, 1946 Marie-José became Queen consort of Italy. But, when the people voted to abolish the monarchy just one month later, she lost her crown.

Her consolation prize kinda sucked.

Marie-José of Belgium wearing a crownUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

38. She Could Have Done More

Royal watchers praised Marie-José of Belgium for her actions throughout WWII but criticized her and Umberto for being too ineffectual. As a consolation prize, however, Marie-José went to bed at night knowing that, had her father-in-law abdicated sooner, she may well have saved the monarchy. But that’s not how it went down. The reality was far darker.

Marie-José of Belgium in coatHolger Damgaard, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

39. She Had To Leave Italy

Thankfully, the mobs of angry Italians didn’t take their frustration out on Marie-José the way they did on her former lover and his associates. Nevertheless, for the country to move forward, she had to go. The new government exiled the remnants of the Italian royal family and banned their male heirs from ever setting foot on Italian soil.

Her remaining years would not be easy ones.

King Umberto II with Queen Marie-José of ItalyUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

40. She Separated From Her Husband

Marie-José of Belgium and her family first settled in Portugal but, without the crown to keep them together, the fractures in their marriage grew wider. Marie-José chose to separate from Umberto, taking their four children with her to Switzerland and leaving Umberto behind. However, as a devout Catholic, she never asked to divorce her estranged—and—deposed husband.

Marie-José of Belgium portrait wearing a crownLuigi Grassi, Wikimedia Commons

41. She Founded A Foundation

Once in Switzerland, Marie-José managed to find some measure of peace. Freed from the obligations that had burdened her whole life, Marie-José spent her days rekindling her love for the arts. She even set up a musical foundation, Fondation du Prix de Composition Reine Marie-José, that, to this day, still gives awards to budding musicians.

But family trouble disrupted her musical reverie.

Marie-José of Belgium in colorful dressThe gambler, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

42. Her Daughter Was Not Well

Marie-José’s youngest daughter brought the Italian royal family to the brink once again. In 1967, she sparked controversy when she tried to marry the Italian actor, Maurizio Arena. Marie-José immediately filed a lawsuit against the marriage, claiming that her daughter was not mentally well enough to enter into a marriage.

All’s well that ends well, however.

Maria Beatrice of Savoy and Maurizio ArenaUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

43. She Kept The Family Together

Marie-Jose’s youngest daughter eventually ended the relationship with Arena. A few years later, she made a decision that her mother could approve of, marrying the Mexican aristocrat Luis Rafael Reyna-Corvalán y Dillon. Marie-José even endorsed the union by living with her daughter and grandchildren in Mexico for a few years.

But her country was calling her back home.

Marie-José of Belgium in black and white and pearlsKeystone-France, Getty Images

44. Her Husband Never Went Back Home

In 1983, Marie-José of Belgium and the Italian royal family suffered another tragedy. This time, it was Umberto. The “May King” passed away in Geneva at the age of 78, having never returned to his homeland after the family’s exile. Moreover, he never reconciled with Marie-José. However, there was one good thing about her husband’s demise.

Mr. Parisi with King Umberto IIEugenix95, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

45. She Made A Comeback

With the passage of time—and the last King of Italy—the hardened hearts of the Italian people had begun to soften. Prior to Umberto’s passing, the then-president of Italy had lobbied unsuccessfully to allow the former king to draw his final breaths on Italian soil. However, once Umberto was gone, Marie-José was free to return to Italy.

Marie-José of Belgium in PairsKeystone-France, Getty Images

46. She Lived To A Ripe Old Age

While the ban on male heirs remained in place, Marie-José finally returned to Italy. And it looks like the Italian air was good for her. After spending many long years in her former queendom, she passed away on January 27, 2001, in a clinic in Geneva at the age of 94. It was only natural, then, that she received a queen’s farewell.

Marie-José of Belgium funeralJEAN-PIERRE CLATOT, Getty Images

47. She Had A Big Funeral

Despite their opinions on the monarchy itself, the people of Italy had always adored Marie-José. So, when she passed away, the country mourned her loss. Her funeral took place at Hautecombe Abbey in Savoy where 2,000 mourners turned out to show their respects. Even more impressive than the numbers, however, was the guest list.

Hautecombe AbbeyMartin Leveneur, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

48. She Was Still Royalty

By the time that Marie-José passed away, few monarchies remained. However, amongst those that did, she held a special place. King Albert II of the Belgians, King Juan Carlos I of Spain and Farah Pahlavi, the last Empress of Iran all attended Marie-José’s funeral and watched as she was buried alongside her (still estranged) husband.

Ironically, her passing revived the monarchy.

Juan Carlos I in suitא (Aleph), CC BY-SA 2.5 ,Wikimedia Commons

49. She Paved The Way For Other Royals

With the loss of their former queen consort, the Italian public went into a state of grieving. In a twist that no one could have anticipated, that grief paved the way for the relaxing of the ban on male heirs from returning to Italy. Just one year after she passed, her grandson, Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, Prince of Venice, went to Italy having never set foot on Italian soil before.

:Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, Prince of Venice during for the mass in memory of the kings of Italy within the Pantheon on January 21, 2018 in Rome, ItalyStefano Montesi, Getty Images

50. She Was Not Much For Monarchy Anyway

Whether she was defying tyrants or sleeping with them, undermining her in-laws or helping them, Marie-José was not your typical royal. For her own part, she never truly felt like a member of the aristocracy anyway. “You know, I don’t have much to do with the House of Savoy,” she once confessed. “It’s not a family; it’s a fridge”

Princess Marie-José of Piedmont on stairsKeystone-France, Getty Images

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