I wanted to make a really short post about Margherita of Savoy, my favorite historical figure so far. Maybe I’ll update this post later, and write something much longer, but for now, here’s Margherita of Savoy.
Princess Margherita Maria Teresa Giovanna of Savoy was born on November 20th, 1851, to Ferdinand, Duke of Genoa, and his wife, Princess Elisabeth of Saxony. Her father’s father, Charles Albert, was the King of Piedmont-Sardinia. Charles Albert wasn’t originally intended to be king of Piedmont-Sardinia, but after his cousin died with no heirs, he was next in line. When Charles Albert became king, his second son, Ferdinand, was made Duke of Genoa. Ferdinand was Margherita’s father. Charles Albert abdicated in favor of his eldest son, Victor Emmanuel II, after his troops were defeated in the First War of Italian Independence. Margherita’s mother, Elisabeth, was the daughter of the King of Saxony.
Margherita was her parents’ first child, and a brother, Thomas, the future Duke of Genoa, would come in 1854. Ferdinand and Elisabeth’s marriage wasn’t a love marriage, and they didn’t like each other that much, so only two children would come. Ferdinand died in 1855 when Margherita was only four years old. Elisabeth was 25. Elisabeth quickly made a morganatic marriage in secret to her chamberlain.
Margherita wasn’t thought of as particularly beautiful by her contemporaries, but if you look at photos of her, or even portraits, she looks stunning. She was very smart, and learned to play the piano. When she was growing up, Italy wasn’t a unified kingdom as we know it today, but a bunch of little states who were almost always at war with each other. When the French, under Napoleon, had been in Italy, they had spread their revolutionary ideas, and after the fall of Napoleon, many people had been thinking about unifying Italy.
At the end of all that chaos and war, Piedmont-Sardinia — which Margherita’s uncle was now ruling — annexed much most of Italy except for San Marino and Rome, and became King of Italy in March of 1861. But Margherita’s uncle, Victor Emmanuel II, had a wife, so why is Margherita considered the first queen of Italy? Well, Victor Emmanuel II had made a morganatic marriage, so his wife never got the title “Queen of Italy”.
Then, Margherita was in her late teens, and it was time to get married. It was possible that the niece of the Italian king might marry a foreign prince, but no. They had to inbreed. On April 21st, 1868, when Margherita was 16 and Umberto was 24, they married. Yep. First cousins. Don’t question it, it’s history, so it’s supposed to be normal. The Savoy family was unpopular among other European royal families, so pretty much the only people they could marry were their Italian cousins.
The marriage wasn’t happy, and Umberto was having an affair with a woman who was briefly Margherita’s lady-in-waiting. Still, Umberto and Margherita’s first child was born in 1869, only about a week before Margherita’s eighteenth birthday. It was a son, Victor Emmanuel. They would never have any more children. Umberto and Margherita might not have loved each other, but they could be friendly with each other.
Even though her husband didn’t love her, her people did. Her many public appearances helped make the new Italian monarchy much more popular than it was. Unluckily for Umberto, she was much, much more popular than he was. She dressed elaborately and wore quite a lot of diamonds and pearls. She earned the nickname “Pearl of Savoy”. For her grandson’s christening, she even bought a tiara. Publicly, she did not show much interest in politics, but privately, she had some very strong opinions.
The people liked her a lot, and apparently, she liked pizza a lot. While in Naples, Margherita might have ordered a pizza with tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella cheese. It could’ve been symbolic in a way, since those were the colors of Italy’s flag, or maybe Margherita was just having cravings. The story goes that the pizzamaker named Margherita’s pizza after her, and that’s where Pizza Margherita comes from. Maybe. It might just be a story, but I want to believe it, since a queen liking pizza just makes me happy for some reason.
Once Rome was finally annexed in 1871, it became the capital of Italy, and the royal family moved there. 7 years later, in January of 1878, King Victor Emmanuel II died, and Prince Umberto was crowned King Umberto I with his wife by his side. That November, an attempt was made on the new king’s life. They caught the man responsible on the spot, and he was sentenced to life in prison. Luckily, Umberto made it out alive.
Margherita made further attempts to endear her family to the public by doing philanthropic work, and hosting a famous literary salon. She met many poets and writers, which she must have loved, as she was a well-read lover of poetry herself. Her efforts were not fruitless, and most people loved their queen.
In 1893, Margherita climbed a summit of Monte Rosa, a mountain in the Alps, to attend the inauguration of a mountain hut that was named the Margherita Hut. The hut still belongs to the Italian Alpine Club today. Margherita would soon become president of the Ladies’ Alpine Club.
In 1896, Margherita’s son married Elena of Montenegro, and had a much happier marriage than his parents and grandparents. If you look at photos of them together, you can tell that they loved each other a lot. They had four daughters and one son.
But during Margherita’s tenure, all was not well. A lot of bad things were going on for Italy, including the First Italo-Ethiopian War, in which Italy invaded Ethiopia to gain an African colony. The bigger thing was the Bava-Beccaris massacre in July of 1898. What on earth was that? Well, prices of wheat skyrocketed after less of it was harvested, and if this is beginning to sound like the French Revolution to you, then you’re smart.
The government did make efforts to help, but it wasn’t enough. People started rioting, and when police shot the rioters and suppressed the rioting, that just led to even more rioting. Many of the rioters were imprisoned with extremely harsh sentences, which made Umberto and the monarchy much less popular. On top of that, Bava Beccaris, the man who ordered that the rioters be fired upon, was congratulated by the king.
On July 29th, 1900, Umberto was shot 4 times by an assassin who was, like many people, angry about the rioters being fired upon. He was 56. Now that her husband was dead, Margherita was Queen Mother. Umberto’s mother, Adelaide of Austria, had died before his ascension, so Margherita also got the distinction of being the first Queen Mother of Italy, after her only son, Victor Emmanuel, became Victor Emmanuel III. Weirdly, even though everybody had hated Umberto, so much that he had been assassinated, Margherita was still really popular.
She lived to see the outbreak and aftermath of World War I, which Italy joined in 1915. Margherita was a huge patriot, and could clearly see the instability it was bringing to Italy. She obviously did not support the decision. Still, she helped very much with the war effort, despite being an old woman by that point. The war was a disaster for Italy, and the economy was in tatters after the war’s end.
After the war, the Romanovs were overthrown in Russia, and the new Bolshevik government was killing every Romanov they could find. Margherita, who loved her family very much, was afraid of this happening to her and the Italian royals. Margherita was also pretty darn scared of socialism, which led her to support the fascists and Benito Mussolini, even though she didn’t know much about them. Prior to their infamous March on Rome, four high ranking fascists visited the Queen Mother.
One night, King Victor Emmanuel III learned that his mother was not well. He and his wife, Elena, rushed to be by her side. Other members of the royal family also came to bid Margherita farewell. She died on January 4th, 1926, after a night of much suffering. She was 74, and had outlived her husband by almost 26 years. Pretty much everybody (including me right now) was crying, because everyone loved Margherita.