The press office of the Elisabeta Palace in Bucharest, the official residence of the former Romanian royal family, have announced the death of Romania’s former King Michael, who passed away after a lengthy illness at the age of 96. The royal family’s statement indicated that Michael died at his long-time home in Switzerland, where he had lived for several decades while in exile. King Michael was Romania’s fourth and last king of the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen Dynasty since they were appointed to the newly established Romanian Principality in 1866. Michael succeeded both his grandfather King Ferdinand on his death on the 20th July 1927, and his father King Carol II in 1940. At the time of his death, King Michael was the world’s second oldest former or current crowned head of state after Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg and the only former living head of state who was in power during and after the Second World War. On the occasion of the 90th birthday celebrations of the king, an opinion poll published in January 2012 placed him as the most trusted public figure in Romania, with 45% of Romanians indicating they had a good or very good opinion of Michael, far ahead of the country’s elected political leaders, this popularity has continued and remained in place ever since.
Michael was widowed in August 2016 on the death of his wife, known as HM Queen Anne, a princess of Bourbon-Parma and Denmark, whom he married in 1948. She was buried in Bucharest with state honours and a national day of mourning was declared by Romania’s president on the day of her burial. The couple had five daughters, their eldest daughter, the Crown Princess Margarita, also referred to as custodian of the crown, is expected to succeed her father as head of the royal family of Romania. In November, the current Romanian government accorded the status of a former Romanian Head of State which means Michael I may be buried with full state honours. It is expected that King Michael will be laid to rest in the Curtea de Argeș Cathedral, also in the resting place is the late Queen Anne. The date has not yet been confirmed.
A True King Without a Throne: Michael of Romania, 1921-2017
King Michael of Romania had succeeded his grandfather King Ferdinand in 1927, at just six years of age, his father, the would-be King Carol II, having renounced his place in the Romanian succession in 1925 due to his personal relationship with a commoner. King Michael’s reign, and the regency which governed in his place, was ended when his father returned from exile three years later and proclaimed himself as the country’s rightful king on the 8th June 1930.
The life of the crown prince, later king, Carol II was marked by numerous personal scandals including an unapproved marriage to a commoner when he was 25-years-old, which resulted in the temporary loss of his place in the Romanian succession. After its annulment, he then became engaged to Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark, daughter of King Constantine I of Greece, at the end of 1920, eventually marrying her in March 1921. The arrival of their only child Prince Michael in October of the same year did little to strengthen their marriage. Prince Carol embarked on another affair with Magda Lupescu, who would eventually become the prince’s third wife, but his poor judgment and conduct resulted in his renunciation of his succession rights for the second time in 1925 and leaving Romania for exile. Princess Helen divorced her husband in 1928, and with the death of King Ferdinand in 1927, she and former Queen Marie of Romania, widow of Ferdinand, became part of the regency along with Michael’s uncle, Prince Nicholas, the patriarch of Romania, and the president of the supreme court.
Carol II’s own reign came to an end ten years later on the 6th September 1940, when he was deposed by the-then Prime Minister Ion Antonescu. The former king formally abdicated and left the country for his final exile which saw him eventually settling in Portugal with his mistress who he would marry after the war. It was the last time he would see Romania or his son who succeeded him. The now 19-year-old King Michael was reinstated as Romania’s head of State in the midst of a World War, and while Romania was occupied by the armed forces of the German Third Reich. Romania’s prime minister at the time of the change of head of state was strongman Ion Victor Antonescu (1882–1946), who had allied Romania with the Third Reich and himself with Adolf Hitler personally in an attempt to fight against Soviet Russia. King Michael had garnered enough support within the government to depose the rule of Antonescu.
Remembered in Romanian history as the Royal Coup of August 23rd, it was on this day when King Michael asked Antonescu to meet him in the royal palace and requested him to take Romania out of its Axis alliance. When Antonescu refused, he was promptly arrested by soldiers of the guard and was replaced as premier with General Constantin Sănătescu (1885–1947) who presided over a national government. While Sănătescu was appointed by King Michael to form a new government, he was unsuccessful in strengthening ties with the United States, crucially needed in order to save Romania from a Soviet communist occupation after the cessation of hostilities.
On the evening of the appointment of the new government, King Michael addressed his country in a radio broadcast and issued a cease-fire just as the army of the USSR was penetrating the Moldavian front and proclaimed Romania’s loyalty to the Allies. He announced the acceptance of the armistice offered by the United Kingdom, the United States, and the USSR, and at the same time, he declared war on Germany. It was perhaps too little, too late, as the army of the USSR rapidly began an occupation of Romania where they captured more than 130,000 Romanian soldiers and transported them out of the country. While the occupation of the Third Reich ended, the occupation of the USSR was about to begin, and one which for all intents and purposes did not end until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
The deposing of King Carol II in 1940 and the intervention of King Michael in 1944 was said to have shortened the war by perhaps six months as Germany had been deprived of her strategic ally in the Balkans. Michael’s efforts were considered so valuable that after the conclusion of the war, President Truman awarded America’s highest decoration, Chief Commander of the Legion of Merit to King Michael. He was also was also decorated with the USSR’s Order of Victory by Joseph Stalin for what was described as the king’s courageous act of the radical change in Romania’s politics which lead towards the break-away from Hitler’s Germany. However, the threat of communism was just around the corner for the country that by March 1945, just two months before victory in Europe for the allied forces, internal political pressures forced King Michael to appoint a pro-Soviet government which would eventually lead to his own ouster less than three years later.
Romania’s precarious and unenviable predicament during the war was that it had historically close ties to France and Russia, but the origin of the royal family was based in Germany. France was unable to offer a further guarantee of Romania’s continued independence as they had done prior to the First World War. Russia’s government was now as a communist authoritarian regime led by Joseph Stalin who had his sights on Romania from the very beginning of the fighting. The armies of Great Britain — another close ally whose royal families were closely related to — were simply too far to offer any degree of protection from Stalin’s forces and the occupation which seemed inevitable.
By November 1947, King Michael, who had travelled to London for the wedding of his cousins, princess, later Queen Elizabeth II, and Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, it had become obvious that Romania was headed towards a forced alliance with the USSR. King Michael had been offered but rejected any offers of asylum by Great Britain and returned to Romania despite the strong advice of the British ambassador to Romania. Just one month later on the 30th December, Petru Groza (1884-1958) prime minister of the first Communist Party-dominated government under Soviet occupation, demanded that Michael sign a pre-typed instrument of abdication, thus abolishing the monarchy in Romania and paving the way to usher in a pro-Soviet communist-dominated people’s republic. It had later been reported that a gun had been held at the head of Michael and if he refused to abdicate, those in the room at the time were prepared to kill him. Pro-communist troops had already surrounded the palace to counter army units who were still loyal to the king so resistance was no longer feasible. Michael was allowed to leave the country on the 3rd January 1948, and as such, he was the last monarch behind what was described as “the Iron Curtain” by Sir Winston Churchill to lose his throne.
In March 1948, from the safety of exile in Italy, King Michael later renounced his forced abdication as an illegal action, he was still Romania’s rightful king and head of state and called it an act of blackmail since those who were holding a gun to his head also threatened to shoot 1,000 arrested students, if he did not abdicate.
Shortly after his exile, Michael became engaged to Princess Anne of Bourbon-Parma and Denmark, whom he had met in London at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. The couple were married in Athens, at the home of his kinsman King Paul and Queen Frederica on the 10th June 1948, and settled together in Lausanne Switzerland, Hampshire England, and eventually their permanent home near Versoix, Switzerland, where they would raise their family and live for the next 45 years. As a former king, Michael had some professional success as a broker and even as an airplane pilot. He remained out of the public glare for much of the many years in exile as there was always the threat of assassination by communist agents if he were to become a strong focal point for resistance to communist rule in the country.
It would not be until after the collapse of the communist government and downfall of Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989, that King Michael — who had not stepped foot on Romanian soil for more than 43 years — attempted to visit his homeland one year after the change of government accompanied by several members of his family. Shortly after their landing, he and his family were prevented from proceeding any further and left the country. Michael did not attempt to visit again until Easter 1992 where he was greeted as a hero by hundreds of thousands of Romanians — which alarmed the new government. It would not be for another five years that the Republic of Romania would restore the citizenship of their former king and Michael, his wife Queen Anne, their children and grandchildren were allowed to reside once again in Romania. Michael re-established a presence of the royal family. The Elisabeta Palace was returned to the family and once again became their official residence. Michael divided his time thereafter, living part of the year in Romania and part in Versoix, in the Canton of Geneva, Switzerland, where he and his family lived in exile since 1956.
As part of the restoration of his Romanian citizenship, Michael was asked to declare his support and loyalty of the Romanian Republic and has stated publicly that the restoration of the crown could one day come about but only if the Romanian people wished for this to happen. He stated he would be ready to fulfill this duty in the capacity as king once more if it were the wishes of the Romanian people. Aside from these declarations, King Michael had never made any statements to call for the monarchy of Romania to be restored nor had he taken part in any political activity. Over the years, the public attitude has changed favourably towards the monarchy, so much so that on the 25 October 2011, Michael’s 90th birthday, Romania’s former king delivered a speech before the assembled chambers of the Romanian Parliament, the first time the Romanian sovereign had done so for nearly 64 years.
Michael and his queen announced their retirement from public life on the 2nd March 2016, and just five months later, Queen Anne died aged 92. Their activities in support of the Romanian royal family were taken over by Crown Princess Margarita, custodian of the Romanian crown, and her husband Prince Radu. Many Romanians will genuinely mourn their last king who had been, for many years, the focal point of anti-communist sentiment and resistance. Romanians who remained loyal to the crown have described witnessing the initial return of their king in 1992 as one of the most important days in their lives and in the history of modern Romania.