15 June 2022

Double Dynastic Debacle

Princess Helen of Greece
Bain News Service via Wikimedia Commons

Royal romance was sweeping through the troubled Balkans in 1921. The beautiful Princess Helen of Greece had agreed to marry the dashing Crown Prince Carol of Romania. Despite his reputation as a playboy -- he had already fathered illegitimate children and married then divorced a woman of lower status -- he seemed to offer some stability, or at least his throne did. Helen was living in Switzerland with her often exiled family when Carol, his mother Queen Marie and his sisters came to celebrate the engagement of Helen's oldest brother 
Crown Prince George to Carol's oldest sister Princess Elisabetha A longtime admirer of Elisabetha, George had often tried to woo the princess. Both families were pleased when the usually disinterested Elisabetha actually accepted his proposal. A pair of royal weddings was soon announced. 

Elisabetha and George married first in Bucharest, Romania in February. Then, the mass of interwoven royal relatives relocated to Athens, where George and Helen's father had only recently been reinstated as King. The second royal wedding of the year took place there on March between Helen and Carol. 

Elisabetha's adoption into her new husband's family did not go well. Neither they nor she made much of an effort to get along. The family often spoke Greek in front of her, which was certainly a slight. It didn't help that she was doing little to learn the language. Elisabetha did not have many sterling qualities to win them over. Even her own mother, the former Princess Marie of Edinburgh, was not a great admirer. Elisabetha had been a beautiful little girl, but she grew less and less attractive. She studied art in Paris for a short time, but she lacked social style and was not affectionate by nature. Her little sister Maria, future Queen of Yugoslavia, note, "Mamma thinks her decidedly dull." A terrible sin in comparison to her sparkling, dramatic, beautiful, and hardworking mother. Queen Marie characterized Elisabetha as narcissistic, cold, and joyless.

Helen, on the other hand, was beloved within her family and welcomed warmly by her husband's family in Romania.

Princess Elisabetha of Romania
George Grantham Bain Collection via Wikimedia Commons

Like many royal and noble young women, both Helen and Elisabetha had trained as nurses during World War I. Elisabetha, however, often was absent from her duties due to some claimed illness or another. She also suffered criticism due to her alleged weight issues. Queen Marie later wanted to send her to a sanatorium not so much for her nerves but because
 "she WILL not understand how fat she is".

By the summer of 1922, the newly married Elisabetha had fallen so physically ill that no one could think she was just being lazy. She had contracted typhoid and then pleuriscy. Her parents went to Greece to bring her back to Bucharest to recover. When her hair began to fall out, it was cut short and she dyed it red. She began applying makeup that heightened her sickly, "ghostlike appearance".

In September, yet another Greek military defeat led to yet another Greek military revolt and sent King Constantine back into exile. Elisabetha's husband became King George II. Although she was unprepared to be queen so young and still recovering her health, she started off well by helping resettle Greeks who were fleeing Turkey. However she really had no love for Greece, for her role, or for her husband. She had made no friends in her new country and she was still refusing to have a child. Added to that, King George was really just a military puppet.

Fifteen months later, when the Greek throne was once again dismantled, Elisabetha and George were invited to spend their exile in Romania. Her parents set them up in a wing of the royal palace Cotroceni. After a while, they found their own residence, where he grew increasingly bored and where she spent much of her time gambling and eating cake. Elisabetha temporarily escaped by traveling to Yugoslavia following the birth of her younger sister's baby. Now Queen Maria of Yugoslavia, little sister was not happy to see her. Their mother sent Elisabetha away after she flirted one too many times with her brother-in-law King Alexander. Having been stripped of all of their properties in Greece, the couple added financial stress to their already troubled relationship. When Elisabetha started an affair with his banker, the marriage was all but over. George spent more and more time away, eventually moving to London. They finally divorced in 1935. Neither remarried. He returned to Greece as King in 1935 and remained until his death at age 56 in 1947.

The Greek Royal Family with Helen in the back row.
By Carl Boehringer via Wikimedia Commons

Nicknamed Sitta, Princess Helen was a tall brunette considered pretty and refined as expected of a princess. She grew up in a relatively tight-knit family. Even when she and three of her siblings were sent to school at Eastbourne in England, their mother Sophie, formerly a princess of Prussia, would come to stay for the summer. First she would visit her British royal cousins at Windsor and then settle in at the Grand Hotel near her children.

Greece, however, was a turbulent country continually engaged in military conflicts during this period. Nevertheless, in the first World War, Greece remained neutral. Instead of peace, however, this stance made them a target from both sides. When Helen was 20, French and British troops landed in Athens. They bombarded the city, including the Royal Palace from their nearby ships. Queen Sophie, Helen, her baby sister Katherine and the women of the palace had to shelter in the cellar for three hours. The ongoing barrage prompted Helen's father, King Constantine, to write a letter to his first cousin King George V in the United Kingdom. "I entreat you," he begged, "do not push us to despair, I have never harbored any plots against you and your allies." A three-week blockade left the royal family with only days worth of food. In the streets, people were dying from starvation and disease. The French insisted that they would only relent if King Constantine left the country and the British stood by the French, even though Queen Sophie was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Helen remarked, "it was as though some dear, trusted friend had cold-bloodedly pushed a dagger in one's back."

It was this event that led to the family's exile in Switzerland while her second brother King Alexander was placed on the throne and left alone without any of his family in Greece, where their Romanian cousins later visited them sparking the double engagements. The Greek royals were in mourning for King Alexander when Carol made his proposal to Helen. The young king had died after being bitten by a monkey. The family was being summoned back to Greece, but Helen could not bear the thought of returning to the place where they had suffered so much. Queen Sophie advised Helen to decline. Besides Carol's terrible reputation, she thought the pair were poorly suited, and she didn't want her daughter to go away from her so soon after losing her son Alexander. Helen later regretted that she had not followed her mother's advice, writing, "I would have been spared years of misery." Queen Sophie's cousin Queen Marie also saw that the young couple had very different personalities, but she hoped the steadfast and reliable Helen would be Carol's savior. Even she later regretted the match, telling Helen that she and Carol should have never met, comparing her son to a disaster from which Helen could never recover.

Nevertheless, the wedding went forward in Athens in March after their siblings' wedding in Bucharest in February. By the time, Carol and Helen returned to Romania for their official welcome, Helen was already pregnant. Their son Michael was born in October on the first anniversary of King Alexander's death. Queen Marie was at her daughter-in-law's side as Helen struggled through a difficult delivery. The early birth meant that Helen's own mother was not there as both baby and new mother nearly died. Queen Sophie arrived a week later. Sophie stayed for a while as Helen recovered. Since Helen and Carol's home was being remodeled, she took her daughter and baby grandson back to Greece to continue their convalescence. The next year, King Constantine was forced to abdicate again. Helen and Michael dashed to Italy to be with them. In January 1923, Constantine suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died. "Mama's state simply breaks my heart," Helen wrote to Carol. "I could not possibly leave her just now." Instead Helen brought Sophie back to Romania with her.

This frequent togetherness with her family -- in Greece, in Italy, and in Romania -- set a pattern that Carol did not like. He called it a "crowded marriage." He added to the crowd, while Helen was away, by starting an affair with Elena "Magda" Lupescu. Sexy and vibrant (or vulgar and crude depending on your point of view), the tall redhead was the opposite of Helen. Having already married and been forced to give up an earlier "inappropriate" marriage to Zizi Lambrino, Carol was unwilling to surrender his own desires to the Crown much less to the wife from home he had grown increasingly distant. 

Helen with young Michael
via Wikimedia Commons

In 1925, barely four years after marrying Helen, Carol ran off to Italy to live with Magda. Ever dutiful, Helen offered to go to Italy and bring him back, but her father-in-law King Ferdinand prevented her. Ferdinand had had enough of his son shirking his duties and running off over the years. Carol proposed his own solution to the problem: he begged his family to just pretend he had died in an automobile accident. They declined and the government forced Carol to surrender his rights as heir to the throne in honor of his young son Michael. With King Ferdinand's death in 1927, six-year-old Michael became king with his uncle Nicholas as regent. Helen was recognized as Princess Mother of Romania.  

Carol was not done with them yet. In 1930, with changing political winds, he returned to Romania and was declared King, displacing a confused young Michael. The new prime minister encouraged Helen to take him back. Drawing on what Carol's mother called Helen's "quiet dignity ... golden heart [and] forgiving disposition", Helen reluctantly agreed. Carol, however, refused and blamed Helen for their divorce. Filled with spite, he placed her under surveillance, surrounded her home with police, and severely limited her access to their son. Within two years, he forced Helen out of Romania and summoned Madga to his side. Helen joined her mother in Florence, later buying her own villa there. He only permitted Michael to visit her there twice a year and allowed Helen to come to Romania for Michael's birthdays. 

This went on for nearly a decade before Carol was deposed. Having tried to play both sides against the middle in World War II, Carol finally declared Romania for the Axis powers. However, he was still making too friendly overtures to France on the Allied side for Hitler's liking. Carol, who had already been forced to cede significant territory to Russia now ceded more to Hitler in order to guarantee the safety of the rest of country. By this time, the Romanian government had had enough and Carol was forced to abdicate. The now 18-year-old Michael was restored to the throne. Helen was able to return to his side and the two of them tried to do what they could to thwart growing Nazi hegemony in the country. Helen worked to prevent the deportation of Jews and convinced the prime minister to provide food, clothing, and medical aid to the ghettos and camps. Due to her efforts she was later recognized by the nation of Israel with their honor as "Righteous Among Nations". 

Despite their efforts, Michael was increasingly stymied by the government and their Nazi handlers. The monarchy survived the war but the nation was soon overwhelmed by communism. He was basically a figurehead and constantly at odds with the communist leaders, frequently refusing to do their bidding. When he returned from London after attending the wedding of his cousins Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth) and Prince Philip, he was forced to abdicate and the monarchy was abolished. He was not allowed to return for more than four decades. Since his death in 2017, the oldest of his five daughters Crown Princess Margareta has been officially recognized by the Romanian government with the title Custodian of the Crown. 

As for Carol, he married Magda in 1947 and died six years later. Michael refused to attend his funeral. 

Helen returned to her villa in Florence, welcoming family there when she wasn't traveling and pursuing her interests in Renaissance art and architecture. In her later years, suffering from failing health and financial problems, she moved to an apartment in Switzerland, not far from Michael's home with his family. She eventually moved in with them just before her death at the age of 86.

By Philip de Laszlo via Wikimedia Commons

And lest we forget Queen Elisabetha, whom we left happily divorced in the 1930s, she made a home and reputation for herself back in Romania. When her brother Carol was restored to the throne, she took on the role of First Lady. She was the only person in the family who accepted Magda's role in his life. Through inheritance and financial advice from her lover, she grew quite wealthy and enjoyed her life at the head of the nation. In the early years of Michael's second reign, she kept her head low. By 1944, however, she was readily conspiring with the Communists against him, earning the moniker "Red Aunt." She even consorted with Marshal Tito who had deposed another of her child-king nephews, King Peter II of Yugoslavia. To round out her grand slam of familial betrayals, she even financially supported the guerilla war against her ex-brother-in-law King Paul of Greece. 

Elisabetha's support for the Communists was not reciprocated in the end. When they abolished the monarchy in 1947, she was given three days to pack up and a train to leave on. She ultimately landed in France and fell in love with a young artist, whom she later adopted. She died in 1956.


Bloks, Moniek. "Righteous Among Nations - Queen Mother Helen of Romania." History of Royal Womenhttps://www.historyofroyalwomen.com/helen-of-greece-and-denmark/righteous-among-nations-queen-mother-helen-romania/ Accessed 3 March 2021

Gelardi, Julia. Born to Rule. St. Martin's Griffin, 2005.

O'Donnell, Stephen. "Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark." Gods and Foolish Grandeur20 April 2014. https://godsandfoolishgrandeur.blogspot.com/2014/04/princess-helen-of-greece-and-denmark.html Accessed 1 March 2021.

Pakula, Hannah. The Last Romantic. Simon & Schuster, 1985.

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