The legendary King Michael of Romania died recently after a long battle with cancer. His death was greeted with national mourning, and his funeral was attended by an array of royalty, including Prince Charles and Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. In the course of an extraordinary life, King Michael reigned as king on two separate occasions, battled oppression, and was exiled from his home country for 43 years before a triumphant return.
As a tribute to the great man we take a look back at some of the lesser known facts about his life, including his commitments to freedom, his penchant for music and his unlikelier chosen professions.
King Michael had lineage tracing back to a surprising number of current monarchs and iconic royalty from history. As well as being the great grandson of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria, he was great grandson of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, great-grandson of Germany’s Emperor Frederick III, great grandson of Queen Maria II of Portugal, great grandson of King George I of Greece… as well as being a distant descendant of Tsar Nicholas I on his mother’s side!
Rarely does one ever see such an eclectic and star-studded line-up of royal relations. This, along with the brave and selfless decisions he made in the course of his life, is part of the reason why attendees at his funeral included Prince Charles, Queen Silvia, Princess Astrid, Henri, Grand Duke of Luxembourg, Prince Lorenz of Belgium and Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia of Spain.
King Michael believed in freedom and justice, and his actions throughout his life reflected this. After a brief taste of being King following the death of his grandfather Ferdinand I, his father Prince Carol having being exiled to Paris due to a controversial relationship with Magda Lupescu, his father eventually returned and became King again. It wasn’t until 1940 that Michael became king for the second time, but this time he had tough decisions to make.
In 1944 he chose to have Marshal Ion Antonescu, the man who led Romania into an alliance with Nazi Germany in World War II, arrested. King Michael was just 22 at the time. Experts estimate that the loss of Romania as an ally to the Nazis could have shortened the war by as much as 6 months, and was probably responsible for saving hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. Antonescu was sentenced to death and did not receive a royal pardon.
Following the war King Michael was pressured to appoint a pro-Soviet government, led by Petru Groza, which reduced Michael to little more than a meaningless figurehead. Michael enacted what little power he could by refusing to sign the government’s decrees (traditionally just a formality) in what was termed a ‘royal strike’.
Ultimately the Groza government had a hand in forcing King Michael to abdicate, reportedly at gunpoint, which led to his 43-year exile from Romania in 1948. He was just 26 years old at the time, but had seemingly lived a much longer life through the toughness of the decisions he had made, and the trials he had endured.
King Michael was a great lover of music, and it bookended his life. In the summer following his exile he married his wife Princess Anne of Bourbon Parma, whom he had met when in London for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten. Reportedly the first song Michael and Anne played each time they moved to a new home was Poema Romana, a composition by George Enescu, often before they even began to unpack.
Michael was not new to composing music; in fact he was a great pianist. In 1941 he composed Elegie on piano, which was orchestrated by Ion D. Chirescu. The work was later adapted and presented in 1989 by Dan Grigore.
A new life takes flight
It was rumoured that the forced abdication King Michael suffered was less of an ordeal than reported. Some sources stated that he had negotiated a deal which saw him leave with luxury paintings and hundreds of thousands of Swiss francs. However, his time spent while exiled seems to suggest otherwise. He and Anne owned a small hen farm, selling eggs to the local market to make ends meet. He also worked as a broker in New York, and also briefly ran a company called Metravel, which manufactured flight equipment.
Following his extended exile, King Michael returned to Romania in 1990 briefly, and then again in 1992. He drew huge crowds at Easter celebrations, and gave a speech from his hotel room which over a million people turned out to see. Finally, in 1997 his citizenship was reinstated by Emil Constantinescu’s government, and he went on to live the rest of his life between there and his home in Switzerland. King Michael’s popularity remained strong to the very end.
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