by Scott Mehl
Princess Helen of Greece, Queen Mother of Romania
Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark, Queen Mother of Romania, was the second wife of King Carol II of Romania, the eldest son of King Ferdinand of Romania and Princess Marie of Edinburgh. She was born on May 2, 1896 in Athens, the third of six children of King Constantine I of the Hellenes and Princess Sophie of Prussia. Her siblings were:
- King George II of the Hellenes (1890) – married Elisabetha of Romania, no issue (divorced)
- King Alexander of the Hellenes (1893) – married Aspasia Manos, had issue
- King Paul of the Hellenes (1901) – married Frederica of Hanover, had issue
- Princess Irene of Greece (1904) – married Aimone, Duke of Aosta, had issue
- Princess Katherine of Greece (1913) – married Sir Richard Brandram, had issue
Helen was educated at home by tutors and governesses and was particularly close with her brother, Alexander. Their family life was often disrupted by the political tension in Greece, and the family spent several years in exile. Following her grandfather’s assassination in 1913, Helen’s father became King of the Hellenes. However, he would be forced from the throne in 1917. The family settled in Switzerland, while Helen’s brother, Alexander, was chosen to replace his father.
It was while in exile in 1920 that the Greek royal family was visited by Queen Marie of Romania and her daughters. This resulted in the engagement of Helen’s brother, the future King George II of the Hellenes, and Princess Elisabeta of Romania, Carol’s sister. The group was soon joined by Carol who was returning from a trip around the world, intended to separate him from his first (and former) wife, Zizi Lambrino. After traveling together to Romania for the engagement announcement, they returned together to Switzerland and became closer on the journey. After returning, Carol asked Helen’s father for her hand in marriage, and their engagement was announced in November 1920. They married on March 10, 1921, at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens, and following a honeymoon, returned to Romania. The couple had one son:
The couple had apartments at Cotroceni Palace, but lived at the château de Foisor on the grounds of Peleș Castle, and later moved to a house in Bucharest. The marriage was not a happy one. Helen was very proper and aristocratic, while Carol preferred spending his time partying with his friends, and in the company of other women. Within a few years, Carol began an affair with Magda Lupescu, and in 1925 he renounced his rights to the throne and left the country. Helen was given the title Princess of Romania.
In July 1927, King Ferdinand died, and Helen’s son Mihai ascended the throne at just five years old. Despite being the mother of the King, Helen had no official position, nor was she a member of the Regency Council. At the end of that year, Carol asked Helen for a divorce, which she initially refused. However, she later gave in to the advice of the government, and the couple was formally divorced on June 21, 1928.
In June 1930, Carol returned to Romania following a coup organized by Prime Minister Iuliu Maniu. The parliament voided his previous renunciation of the throne, and he was proclaimed King. Helen remained at their home in Bucharest with her son, while there was a significant discussion, both publicly and within the government, about annulling the couple’s divorce. Helen was told that since the 1926 renunciation was voided, she had technically become Queen of Romania when her father-in-law died in 1927. However, when presented with a decree from the government to confirm Helen as Her Majesty The Queen of Romania, Carol refused, insisting that she should be styled Her Majesty Helen.
While Helen considered the annulment of their divorce, Carol was adamantly against it. Faced with harsh treatment from Carol – guards placed around her home, visitors harassed – Helen left Romania, and traveled to her mother’s home in Italy. After she returned in 1932, King Carol began a media campaign to damage her reputation. The government finally interceded, announcing that she would be permitted to live in Romania for six months each year and take her son abroad for one month. They also confirmed her civil list payment. Despite all of this, she was expected to remain abroad. She purchased a home in Italy, and in 1934, moved into Villa Sparta – her mother’s former home – along with her brother Paul and two sisters. She remained there for ten years, only seeing her son for a month or two each year.
In 1940, Carol was forced to abdicate, and Mihai returned to the throne. Helen was called back to Romania and given the formal title Her Majesty the Queen Mother of Romania. Helen served as a close advisor to her son, and encouraged him to stand up to Prime Minister Ion Antonescu who had established himself as dictator.
During World War II, she devoted herself to caring for the wounded, and in 1942 she played a major role in stopping Antonescu’s plans to deport the Jews. For this, she was later awarded the status Righteous Among the Nations (in 1993, nearly eleven years after her death). By 1947, Romania was under Communist control, and Helen and King Mihai were treated very harshly. When the traveled to London for the wedding of Helen’s cousin, Philip Mountbatten, to Princess Elizabeth of the United Kingdom, many in the Romanian government hoped that they would not return. Despite being urged to remain in London, the two returned to Romania on December 21, 1947. Within days, King Mihai was forced to relinquish the throne, with threats of mass executions if he did not agree to abdicate. The country was proclaimed a republic and Mihai and Helen left Romania on January 3, 1948.
They settled in Switzerland, where they found themselves in poor financial circumstances. They had most of their assets and properties seized by the Romanian government, and had been stripped of their citizenship. Helen’s biggest concern was the upcoming marriage of her son to Princess Anne of Bourbon-Parma. Due to Anne’s Catholicism, most of her family refused to attend as the Pope would not sanction the marriage. Instead, Helen’s brother, King George II of the Hellenes, arranged for the couple to marry in Athens in June 1948.
Helen then returned to Villa Sparta in Italy, often hosting her son and his growing family, as well as her sister Irene and her son. She also traveled often to England and Greece to visit family, and participated in the Cruise of the Kings in 1954, hosted by her brother, King Paul of the Hellenes, and sister-in-law, Princess Frederica of Hanover. She also indulged her love of Renaissance painting and architecture, spending much of her time visiting museums and exhibits. Her love of gardening also led to a romance with the twice-widowed King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden, who reportedly proposed marriage but Helen declined. Always struggling financially, Helen was forced to sell off many of her remaining assets, and eventually had to give up Villa Sparta.
In 1979, now facing the effects of age as well as finances, Helen left Italy and settled in a small apartment in Lausanne, Switzerland. She later moved in with her son and his family. On November 28, 1982, Princess Helen of Greece, Queen Mother of Romania, died in Lausanne. She is buried at the Bois-de-Vaux Cemetery in Lausanne.