Marie of Rumania (1875–1938)

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Marie of Rumania (1875–1938)

Queen of Rumania and English princess who married the heir to the Rumanian throne and played an important role in the affairs of her adopted country during and immediately after World War I . Name variations: Marie of Romania; Marie of Roumania; Mary of Saxe-Coburg; Marie of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; called Missy by her family. Born Marie Alexandra Victoria of Saxe-Coburg on October 29, 1875, at the family country home in Eastwell Park, Kent, England; died on July 18, 1938, at Castle Pelesch, Sinaia, Rumania, of an intestinal hemorrhage; daughter of Prince Alfred Saxe-Coburg, duke of Edinburgh (who was the son of Queen Victoria) and Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna (daughter of Tsar Alexander II of Russia); sister of Alexandra Saxe-Coburg (1878–1942), Beatrice of Saxe-Coburg (1884–1966), duchess of Galliera, and Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg (1876–1936); educated by governesses and private tutors; married Ferdinand I of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (1865–1927), king of Rumania (r. 1914–1927), on January 10, 1893; children: Carol II (1893–1953), king of Rumania (r. 1930–1940); Elisabeth (1894–1956); Marie (1900–1961, also known as Mignon); Nicholas (1903–1978); Ileana (1909–1991); Mircea (1913–1916).

Spent portion of early years in Malta (1885–89); moved with family to the Duchy of Coburg in Germany, where Prince Ferdinand of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen became heir to the Rumanian throne (1889); attended coronation of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (1896); while Ferdinand was ill with typhus, began first extramarital love affair (1897); began friendship with Waldorf and Pauline Astor (1902); during Rumanian peasant revolt, began longstanding love affair with Barbo Stirbey (1907); performed relief work when Rumania fought Second Balkan War against Bulgaria (1913); with outbreak of World War I, Rumania declared its neutrality; following German invasion, performed relief work when Rumania entered war (1916); continued relief work until Rumania left the war, German occupation began (1917); Prince Carol eloped and Rumania reentered the war against Germany (1918); conducted mission to Paris Peace Conference (1919); coronation (1922); toured U.S. (1926); widowed by death of Ferdinand (1927); Carol returned from exile to take the throne (1930); published her autobiography (1934).

Queen Marie of Rumania was one of the most colorful and influential monarchs of the early 20th century. Her physical beauty, her vast energies and talents, and her vibrant personality combined with her sense of style to set her apart from most members of Europe's royal houses. Moreover, in contrast to royalty in most other countries, Rumania's monarchs wielded crucial influence in political affairs. Marie's qualities of leadership came to the fore during World War I.

The country that became Marie's adopted homeland was one of the most turbulent nations in the troubled Balkan peninsula. Rumania was freed from Turkish domination to become an independent nation only in the middle of the 19th century. Shortly after independence, Rumania's political leaders called in a member of a reigning German family to become the country's monarch. Monarchy was still the normal form of government in Eastern Europe, and Prince Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, who became King Carol I of Rumania, turned out to be a forceful and intelligent ruler. In 1889, he turned to his nephew Prince Ferdinand (I) of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen to become crown prince and heir to the Rumanian throne.

The country, despite its vast agricultural and mineral wealth, faced numerous problems. Its relations with its neighbors were particularly difficult. The adjoining great power, Austria-Hungary, had a large number of Rumanians within its territory in the province of Transylvania. The desire of most Rumanians to obtain Transylvania meant strained relations with a country Rumania could not hope to challenge militarily. In its internal affairs, Rumanian stability was threatened by a large, impoverished peasantry presided over by a small, wealthy, and privileged native aristocracy. The periodic persecution of Rumania's Jewish minority made the country the target for bitter criticism from abroad, both from Western governments and from public opinion. The political system was notoriously corrupt, with leaders using public office to enrich themselves with impunity.

The future queen of Rumania was born into the most rarefied levels of European society. Her father Prince Alfred Saxe-Coburg was the second son of Britain's Queen Victoria , the most eminent monarch of the 19th century. Her mother was Marie Alexandrovna , daughter of Tsar Alexander II, the Russian emperor who reigned from 1855 to 1881 and the author of the reform movement that ended serfdom.

In the style of British royalty, the young princess was given a nickname, Missy, which her relatives in Britain used throughout her life. Her childhood included visits to her imposing grandmother Queen Victoria, as well as trips to see her mother's family, the ruling Romanov dynasty in Russia. She acquired vague memories of her maternal grandfather, Tsar Alexander II, and she was shocked in March 1881, at age seven, when her tearful mother told her the tsar had just been assassinated. A crucial friendship dating from childhood linked Marie to her younger sister, Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg , who was known as Ducky.

Marie's father had made his career in the Royal Navy, and thus her childhood included a long stay in Malta, starting in 1885 and lasting until 1889. An active and athletic young teenager, she spent much of her free time using her vast skills as an equestrian riding around the island. There, she had a first romance with her cousin, Prince George, who would take the British throne as King George V in 1910. At the close of their stay in Malta, Marie moved to a German environment. Her father, the heir to the duchy of Coburg, moved to that small region of southern Germany.

She loved being a queen. She gave herself to the Rumanians with exuberance and played her role with drama and humor.

—Hannah Pakula

In the custom of European royalty, Marie's mother sought a suitable spouse for the girl while she was still a teenager. Already strikingly beautiful with blonde hair, blue eyes, and an attractive figure, the exuberant young princess seemed destined for a brilliant marriage. Prince George of England, an old companion from her Malta days who had just become heir to the throne upon the death of his older brother, tried and failed to get Marie's parents to accept him as her future husband. Marie's Russian-born mother had found her life in England uncomfortable and wished her daughter to marry a German.

Marie's family now turned their efforts to securing Prince Ferdinand of Rumania, heir to the Rumanian throne, as Marie's husband. Ferdinand was a tall, painfully shy young man, totally dominated by the force of his uncle's personality. In 1892, King Carol had compelled Ferdinand to give up his hopes of marrying a young Rumanian noblewoman. Carol welcomed the diplomatic advantages of a marriage between Marie and Ferdinand: it meant closer ties for Rumania with both Britain and Russia.

Beatrice of Saxe-Coburg (1884–1966)

Duchess of Galliera . Born Beatrice Leopoldine Victoria on April 20, 1884, in Eastwell Park, Kent, England; died on July 13, 1966, in Sanlucar de Barrameda, Andalusia, Spain; daughter of Alfred Saxe-Coburg, duke of Edinburgh, and Marie Alexandrovna (1853–1920); sister of Marie of Rumania (1875–1928); married Alphonso Bourbon, 5th duke of Galliera, on July 15, 1909; children: Alvaro (b. 1910); Alonso (b.1912); Ataulfo (b. 1913).

Even during their courtship a cloud came into the relationship between the two young members of European royalty. Ferdinand gave his bride-to-be hints of both the country's primitive nature as well King Carol's dominant presence in family affairs. Despite her fiance's only middling good looks, Marie was enchanted with the prospects of marriage. In her memoirs, she described how "the love I read in Nando's eyes meant nothing to me but a promise of perfect happiness." In an emotional farewell meeting with her father, he told her how he had hoped for a different kind of happiness for her, and how he regretted her departure for such a distant country.

The marriage took place at Sigmaringen in 1893. As with many weddings involving European royalty, monarchs and their representatives gathered from throughout the Continent. Among the guests were Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Prince Albert (I), the heir to the Belgian crown. Like her peers, Marie had been sheltered from any detailed knowledge of the physical side of marriage, and after the wedding she was shocked by her husband's passionate overtures.

A few weeks after the wedding, the young couple made their way to Rumania. Marie was surprised by the primitive appearance of the capital city, Bucharest, and the modest royal palace. Under Carol's orders, she was not permitted to have extensive contact with the Rumanian aristocracy, and she soon found herself isolated and lonely. In short order, she discovered she was pregnant. Her first child, Carol, was born in October 1893.

As Marie's biographer Terence Elsberry notes, King Carol "regarded his Crown Prince and Princess as necessary, but potentially dangerous" to his rule. Thus, he kept them both isolated and under close control. Marie was particularly disappointed to find that she could only travel abroad on infrequent occasions, even for family weddings. Her lively and spirited nature did not mix well with Ferdinand's quiet and shy personality. Marie also learned that Ferdinand was often unfaithful to her.

She had a rare moment of freedom in May 1896, when she attended the coronation of her cousin Tsar Nicholas II. In a memorable event in her life, she rode to victory in a horse race against a Russian cavalry officer. Upon her return to Rumania, she insisted on a new measure of personal freedom, epitomized by rides in the countryside. She also became the honorary commander of a distinguished Rumanian cavalry regiment.

In the summer of 1897, Ferdinand fell seriously ill with typhus. He was for a time feared to be dying. His recovery was a prolonged one, and it left him physically weakened. While Ferdinand was convalescing, Marie of Rumania had her first extramarital relationship, a romance with an aristocratic young army lieutenant. Word of the liaison spread in Rumanian society, and Marie fled for a time to visit her family in Germany. She returned in November 1899 upon hearing that her eldest child, Prince Carol, was ill with typhoid. The boy recovered, and she and Ferdinand responded to the emergency with a personal reconciliation.

While visiting England in 1902, Marie began a lifelong friendship with Waldorf Astor and his sister Pauline Astor , the children of an American millionaire who had settled in England. The friendship with the young Astor developed into an intense, albeit platonic, love affair. The birth of a fourth child, Nicholas, her second son, in 1903 led to a wave of gossip in Rumania that the boy was Waldorf's son, although his physical resemblance to Prince Ferdinand, his legal father, was striking.

By the start of the new century, Marie of Rumania had developed into a confident as well as a physically attractive woman. She had shaken off much of the confining supervision of the early years of her marriage and widened her circle of friends. A symbol of her growing freedom was her extensive contact with the wealthy, often dissolute, members of the Rumanian aristocracy.

In 1907, her life took a new turn in several ways. The oppressed peasantry rose in revolt, and thousands marched on the capital city of Bucharest. Marie and her children left the city to guarantee their safety. In her refuge at the mountain resort of Sinaia, she began her longstanding romantic attachment to Barbo Stirbey, a Rumanian noble and a prominent leader in the country's economy. As a longtime student of Rumanian politics, he provided Marie with her first serious introduction to the nation's problems. Word of their personal tie spread through European aristocratic circles, and rumor had it that the last of her six children, Ileana , born in 1909, and Mircea, born in 1913, were the offspring of their relationship.

When Rumania participated in the Second Balkan War in 1913, sending its army to invade Bulgaria, Marie of Rumania took on a public role for the first time. She visited the dismal and poorly equipped Rumanian military hospitals. Appalled by what she saw, she took the initiative in setting up an emergency center for treating soldiers with cholera. "Devoid of physical fear herself," writes Hannah Pakula , "the Crown Princess obtained permission from the King to

personally administer one of the cholera camps." It was a preview of one of her roles in World War I.

That same year, Stirbey received an important royal appointment when Carol made him superintendent of the crown's estates. It was a significant sign of royal influence; it also meant Stirbey would have daily contact with Marie.

In July 1914, when World War I began, Marie's relatives in Germany and Russia were rulers on opposite sides of the battle lines. King Carol, now suffering from severe illness, tried to bring Rumania into the war on the side of Germany and Austria, the Central Powers. He found his efforts blocked: all the major political leaders called for neutrality, a position that in fact reflected sympathy for the side of Britain, France, and Russia. Rumanian public opinion was virulently hostile to Austria-Hungary, since that country held Transylvania with its large Rumanian population. Marie, with her close ties to both Britain and Russia, shared the sympathies of most Rumanians, but she was tormented by the course of events. As she wrote a friend at the time, "One cannot know where or how we shall all be when this horrible nightmare is ended."

The death of King Carol less than two months after the start of the war placed Ferdinand and Marie on the throne as rulers of Rumania during this precarious era. The war came steadily closer to Rumania as Turkey entered the conflict on the side of Germany in late 1914, while Bulgaria did the same at the close of the following year. As monarch, Ferdinand remained the timid and indecisive figure he had always been. Personally inclined to favor Germany's side, he was swayed by those around him, notably the prime minister Ion Bratianu. Marie's influence too promoted sympathy for the Entente (Britain, France, and Russia). At Bratianu's request, she corresponded with King George V of Britain and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, asking for future territorial concessions to Rumania, especially the acquisition of Transylvania. Notes Pakula, "Being everyone's relative warmed diplomatic waters."

In the spring and summer of 1916, the position of the Entente seemed increasingly favorable in Eastern Europe. The key event was the successful offensive by Russia's General Aleksei Brusilov against the Austro-Hungarian army. Pushed by Marie, Stirbey, and Bratianu, Ferdinand declared war on Austria-Hungary in late August. Germany immediately joined its ally against Rumania.

In short order, the military situation shifted. Brusilov's offensive stalled; the Rumanian offensive into Transylvania brought early successes but at the cost of stripping Rumania of its own defenses. By mid-September, powerful German armies were pouring into Rumania from the north and the south. Meanwhile, the German air force bombed Bucharest. In November, as German armies approached the nation's capital, personal tragedy struck Marie's family: her young son Mircea died of typhus. The Rumanian government and the royal family fled to Jassy, in the unoccupied area in the country's northeastern corner.

Marie of Rumania now became a heroine-queen, one of few effective leaders in her country. She directed the Rumanian Red Cross, worked long hours setting up relief efforts, and personally worked in the nation's bulging military hospitals. Dying soldiers held her photograph, and, when she visited the wounded, she was greeted with the cry of "Mamma Regina," the mother queen.

The new year brought worse news. The March 1917 Revolution in Russia, led by V.I. Lenin, toppled the Romanov monarchy and threatened to remove Rumania's large neighbor from the war. Marie's sister Victoria Melita, married to a Russian grand duke, seemed to be in great personal danger. A partially restored Rumanian army was able to hold defensive positions against an attack by the Central Powers at the battle of Marasesti in August 1917, but Russia's departure from the war threatened to isolate Rumania completely. In November, the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia and the threat became reality. Russia made peace with the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918; Rumania was forced to do the same.

The international public soon heard that Marie refused to accept the peace settlement. These difficult months brought both a new romantic interest and new personal difficulties into her life. She became the firm friend, and perhaps the lover, of Joe Boyle, a representative of the Canadian Red Cross, who heroically delivered supplies from Russia into Rumania. Meanwhile, her eldest son Carol, the heir to the throne, caused deep personal and political embarrassment. He abandoned his duties as an officer in the Rumanian army and eloped to marry a young society woman, Jeanne Lambrino , nicknamed Zizi. Marie fought successfully to have the marriage annulled and to permit Carol to retain his right to succeed his father someday as king.

In the closing days of the war, Austria-Hungary collapsed, a pro-Entente government took power in Rumania, and the country re-entered the war on November 9. Marie was overjoyed at the turn of events. At the close of the month, the royal couple, accompanied by their French military adviser, General Henri Berthelot, returned in triumph to Bucharest. They soon discovered that the Germans had looted and devastated much of the country. Russian troops in Rumania, undisciplined in the aftermath of revolution, had also used their stay in Marie's realm to pillage.

At the request of Bratianu, who was serving as Rumania's delegate at the Versailles Peace Conference, Marie came to France to aid her country's diplomatic efforts. Bratianu was pursuing a policy of gaining vast territories for Rumania, but he found the representatives of the major victorious powers unsympathetic. Marie of Rumania answered Bratianu's call with enthusiasm, and received a warm welcome in Paris. Supplied with information and talking points by Bratianu, the queen applied her charm. She held press conferences, lobbied leaders like Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and President Woodrow Wilson, and visited military hospitals. Marie was also able to renew her longtime friendship with the Astor family. The Peace Conference ended with Rumanian success in gaining a vast amount of territory at the expense of the defeated powers. Due mainly to the strength of the Rumanian army and the power vacuum in Eastern Europe, her country's success was attributed by many, nonetheless, to Marie's personal efforts. Said Marie, "I had given my country a living face."

Marie of Rumania's life in the postwar period contained glamorous elements, many of them which she herself fostered. She continued to be famous for a flamboyant style of dressing, featuring wide hats, long gowns, fur wraps, capes, and turbans. She saw to it that her image was distributed throughout the world on millions of postcards. Rumania's queen even wrote a syndicated column for the newspapers of North America. In 1926, she toured the United States, beginning with a ticker-tape welcoming parade in New York. There, one newspaper greeted her as "the world's first ultra-modern queen." She visited with President Calvin Coolidge and General John Pershing, Sioux Indians, and the cadets at West Point. She was even fodder for the wit of Dorothy Parker :

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song.
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.

Despite Marie's long-standing success in the public eye, the trip soon became an embarrassment to the government back home due to her lavish style of travel, her occasional verbal indiscretions, and the unrelenting curiosity of the press. Word of her husband's illness encouraged her to cut the visit short.

These years were burdened by the disreputable behavior of her oldest son. Carol continued romantic attachments with unsuitable women and refused to fulfill his duties as an army officer. Although he married Princess Helen of Greece in February 1921 and their child Michael was born in late October, the marriage soon broke down. To Marie's consternation, he soon took up a scandalous relationship with a commoner from a Jewish family, Elena Lupescu . In 1925, Carol left the country, renounced his rights to the throne, and set up housekeeping with his mistress in Paris.

On a happier note for Marie, she saw one daughter, Marie , known as Mignon, married to Alexander (I), the crown prince of Yugoslavia, and another, Elisabeth , married to George, the crown prince of Greece. A signal event in these postwar years was the formal coronation of Ferdinand and Marie on October 15, 1922, as monarchs of the newly expanded Rumania.

Marie's own troubled marriage was transformed into a more serene tie in the postwar years. She and Ferdinand each accepted the other's extramarital alliances. They found common ground in devotion to their children and their royal responsibilities. Marie's skilled hand in public ceremonies complemented the shy Ferdinand's behind-the-scene political influence.

Ferdinand died of cancer in July 1927. In the last months of the monarch's life, Marie moved frantically to get Carol to return to Rumania. Like many politically astute figures in the country, she knew that it would be dangerous to have Carol's child Michael take the throne under a regency. Rumania's neighbors like Hungary might seize on such an opportunity to retake territory they had lost to the Bucharest government after World War I. But Carol had little interest in returning to Rumania without Elena Lupescu. The death soon afterward of Ion Bratianu, the country's only powerful political leader, only heightened her anxiety.

Marie soon witnessed even more political difficulty. The onset of the Depression struck Rumania's farm-based economy with stark force. Marie was frozen out of the regency council and became frustrated by her lack of political influence. She busied herself with her relationship with Barbo Stirbey; she also wrote a number of romantic novels and started work on her memoirs.

Carol returned in a successful coup in June 1930. He flew to Bucharest and soon received majority support from the regency council. Marie received word of these events while in Germany. She was well acquainted with her son's personal failings, but she accepted his return. The country, in her view, needed the kind of leadership that would restore national unity. She herself hoped to play a role in the new political environment.

Events soon disappointed Marie. King Carol II exiled Barbo Stirbey, whom he had disliked for years. He scandalized Rumanian opinion when he brought his mistress, Elena Lupescu, back home from France. Marie found her own activities restricted, and the new monarch cut off a substantial part of her income. A solitary bright spot in Marie's life was the marriage of her daughter Ileana to an Austrian noble.

Meanwhile, the political scene in Rumania grew uglier. Opposition to the power of Elena Lupescu spurred the growth of a Fascist movement. Led by the attorney Corneliu Codreanu, it was first called the Legion of the Archangel Michael, then renamed the Iron Guard. In 1933, the movement claimed a prominent victim when a member assassinated Marie's friend, Prime Minister Jean Duca. The following year, Marie was shaken by another assassination: her son-in-law, King Alexander of Yugoslavia, was murdered by a Croatian in Marseilles. Marie's daughter Mignon was a widow at the age of 34.

In 1934, Marie published the first portion of her autobiography and received favorable reviews as well as a prestigious British literary prize the following year. She then marked her 60th birthday, still a strikingly attractive woman as a number of portraits painted by Sir Philip de László have recorded. The sadness in one of them reflects her grief at the death of her sister and oldest friend Victoria Melita. At Victoria's deathbed in 1936, Marie had a final reunion with all of her sisters.

Her final illness became evident in March 1937. Marie collapsed at her home in Rumania, and her doctors discovered she suffered from repeated bouts of internal bleeding, possibly due to liver disease. King Carol seemed indifferent to her suffering; it took an angry confrontation between him and his sister Mignon to make the monarch call in noted specialists. Marie was able to continue writing her memoirs, but suffered a relapse at the end of the year. Her last months were filled with political pain as King Carol abolished the existing constitution in 1938 and declared himself the country's dictator.

Marie died at Sinaia on July 18, 1938. Her last words to her son were a plea that he be "a just and strong monarch." She was buried at the royal tomb at Curtea de Arges. Following her own typically romantic request, her heart was cut out and placed in the chapel at Balcic, her private retreat on the Black Sea.

Marie of Rumania remains a complex and fascinating figure to students of her time. In an era when European royalty seemed a useless anachronism, her personality was striking, and she played a significant, at times heroic, role for her country both in World War I and at the Peace Conference.


Blanch, Lesley. Pavilions of the Heart: The Four Walls of Love. NY: Putnam, 1974.

Elsberry, Terence. Marie of Roumania: The Intimate Life of a Twentieth Century Queen. NY: St. Martin's, 1972.

Pakula, Hannah. The Last Romantic: A Biography of Queen Marie of Roumania. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

suggested reading:

Blanch, Lesley. Under a Lilac-Bleeding Star. NY: Atheneum, 1964.

Marie, Queen of Roumania. The Story of My Life. NY: Scribner, 1934.

Seton-Watson, Hugh. Eastern Europe between the Wars, 1918–1941. 3rd ed. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1962.

Stavrianos, Leften. The Balkans since 1453. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1958.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

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Marie of Rumania (1875–1938)

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Marie of Rumania (1875–1938)