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Umberto II – Last King of Italy

There is no doubt that fate was very unfair to Umberto II, the last king of Italy, as his reign lasted for just over a month May 9 1946 – June 12, 1946, despite having a proven flair for being an efficient and a good-hearted king. He was even jocularly nicknamed the May King, his length of tenure as ruler having begun and lasted for most part of that month and a little more!

Unfortunately for King Umberto II, he ascended the throne just prior to when the Kingdom of Italy was poised to become the Italian Republic, on June 2, 1946. The royal coronation was shortly followed by a referendum, bogged down with controversies as it was but the fate of the Italian kings was sealed from then onwards and Umberto II was forced to abdicate, subsequently flee the country to avoid a civil war. He settled in Portugal as the Count of Sarre. The new Italian constitution not only unseated their rulers forever but also forbade all male members of the House of Savoy - the dynasty of nobles who became rulers in Italy, from setting foot in Italy thereafter. This harsh order was withdrawn only many years later in the 2002 but only after many of the exiled kings died of illness and old age, pathetically longing to get back to their native soil during their last days.

Umberto II, also known as Humbert II by the anglicized world, was born Prince of Piedmont on September 15, 1904 in Turin, as the second son Victor Emmanuel III, who also occupied the throne of Italy just before his son did. They were both descendants of the House of Savoy, a dynastic family of nobles who hailed from Savoy - a place between Piedmont, Italy, France and that part of Switzerland where French was spoken. Counts of Savoy, Dukes of Savoy, Kings of Sardinia and Italy were all from amongst them. Their vice-like grip over the kingship of Italy and misrule by several, so alienated the common man that the constitutional ban after Italy became a Republic, disallowing all male members of this dynastic family to live or enter Italy did not come as a surprise to many.

The Prince of Piedmont known as Umberto II later was married to Marie Jose, youngest child of Albert I of the Belgians, on January 8, 1930. They had four children from this union. The Prince was trained in military activities and soon took charge as the Commander-in-Chief of the Northern and Southern Armies, though only Prime Minister Mussolini’s writ ran, when important military decisions had to be taken. There were strong rumors that Mussolini maintained a closely guarded dossier on the prince that enabled him to make the latter act only as a figurehead. Umberto was also not allowed to participate in politics, as the unwritten code then was ‘Only one Savoy reigns at a time’. He bent this rule once only to rue it when he attempted to meet Hitler at a royal wedding in Germany. Though some claim this meeting was more accidental than planned, the strictures on Umberto’s movements that followed became even more severe after this There was another instance when Crown Princess Marie Jose clandestinely attempted to hammer out a peace treaty between the United States and Italy in 1943, through some of her sympathizers from the Vatican. The move backfired and she was sent away in shame to live in Sarre with her children, far away from the political activity of the royal palace

When Benito Mussolini was overthrown in 1943, Umberto II was made Lieutenant General of the Realm by his father King Victor Emmanuel III and sent to Egypt. It was in these three years here that UmbertoII distinguished himself as a good leader and exhibited excellent material to become king. Many still believe, had the father crowned his son promptly after Mussolini’s exit in 1943 instead of making Umberto Lieutenant General, monarchy would have survived the referendum and Italy been even today a kingdom but sadly the old king preferred to cling on to his throne. History has always recorded this as a great blunder.

areas to do so. And hence the electoral rolls were incomplete and defective. The next charge was that those Italians who lived in disputed regions where Italy’s borders were still not defined, were again omitted in the list and denied voting rights. There were bitter allegations too about the misappropriation and counting of votes that finally added to the loss the monarchy suffered. The mood was definitely pro republic state among the people and the voice of the minority supporters of the kings went unheard.

The monarchy came to an end on June 12, 1946 and Umbreto II was officially the king in exile as he left the shores of Italy, never to set foot there again. Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi took charge as Italy’s interim Head of State.

It was not only on the official front that Umbreto was facing problems. As soon as he abdicated and made ready to leave Italy, he also separated from his ex-queen Maria Jose. There were strong rumors that the dethroned king was a playboy and had bisexual ‘tastes’. Many believe that this was the reason the Vatican did not support the royalty during the referendum that took place. Foreign governments, who did not wish to see the Italian kingdom thrive, also used this information to sully the image of the king.

Umberto II spent part of his exile in Switzerland and then Portugal. His genial nature made him very popular with those whom he came in touch with and he was fondly known as ‘Europe’s Grandfather’. Marie Jose and her daughters during the lifetime of the king, out of their own choice never stepped into Italy again, though there was no bar on the female members of the royal family doing so. They simply wished to show their solidarity with the king and his son. The former queen made her first visit to her country, after the exile only after her husband passed away in 1983.

When exiled King Umberto was on his deathbed, Italian President Sandro Pertini made a valiant effort to make amends and allow the king to return to Italy and breathe his last on native soil but before the formalities of making changes to the constitution could be achieved, Umberto II died and his funeral was held in Savoy. Not a single member of the Italian Government had the grace or decency to attend the funeral, though in hindsight Prime Minister Andreotti regretted this glaring omission and admitted it was wrong, as well as unfair to have meted such unfair behavior to a decent and good man, who could have made a commendable king for Italy but for the circumstances that existed then. Monarchy in Italy had been completely besmirched mainly due to Mussolini and his fascism. King Umbreto was only paying for the sins of his predecessors. And when he abdicated the throne, the 999-year-old reign of the House of Savoy was thus given a quiet burial.

Maria Jose, widow of Italy’s last king Umbreto II died in 2001 in Switzerland at the age of 94. It is reported her death was caused by lung problems.

Few people know that King Umbreto II left a chest of the priceless crown jewels in a bank vault before he went into exile sixty years ago. A note that he left behind with the invaluable contents said, “to be returned to the rightful owner”. He did not clarify whether this referred to his family or the Italian people. His daughter Maria Gabriella di Savoia has scotched all rumors that the family will lay claim for the precious jewels. She has expressed hope that the family heirlooms will be put on display like the British Crown jewels are in the Tower of London.

With this, the last ghost of the House of Savoy will probably be laid to rest.