Sunday, August 25, 2019

A Bride for Boris

In August 1926, the New York Times published a profile of King Boris III of Bulgaria.  “Europe is watching a royal bachelor” was the headline, and it was a telling headline.   “Next to the Prince of Wales, Boris III, King of Bulgaria, is the most talked-about royal bachelor. Each year, a crop of rumors concerning him springs up thick as the daisies in the field.  Gossip has engaged him to marry almost every eligible princess in Europe, from Princess Ileana of Rumania, who is 17 years old, to Princess Giovanna of Savoy, who will be 19 in September.”

The first rumors of marriage appeared in 1911 when the Washington Post reported  that “the engagement of the Grand Duchess Olga of Russia and of Prince Boris of Bulgaria will be announced officially on November 15.”    According to the article’s author, the Marquis de Castellane, Olga, was the “prettiest” of Nicholas II’s four daughters.   She was “devotedly attached to her little brother, the Grand Duke Alexis, who is only 7 years old.”   Olga’s “chief regret” when leaving for Bulgaria “will be parting with her only brother.”

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The date of the proposed engagement was Olga’s 16th birthday.   Crown Prince Boris was “slightly older than his fianceé, as he will be 17 next January.”   De Castellane was mistaken about Boris’ age, as the Crown Prince was already seventeen.   

The proposed marriage was “considered a masterstroke” by Boris’ father, King Ferdinand.  Olga’s birthday came and went without an announcement of her engagement.  This would not be a surprise, as the proposed marriage was largely a figment of the media’s imagination.

 Less than eight months later, the young Crown Prince, who turned 18 years-old in January 1912,  and thus reached his majority, was again the subject of marital speculation, when in June 1912, the Washington Post reported on Boris’ forthcoming engagement to Princess Elizabeth of Roumania.  A Viennese newspaper reported that their engagement “will be announced officially very soon.”

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King Ferdinand apparently approved of the match, and “at the prayer of Boris,”  Ferdinand went to Vienna to persuade Emperor Franz Joseph “to use his influence,” with the Roumanian King Carol I to withdraw his objections to the match.  The Washington Post’s  columnist, the Marquise de Castellane, noted that the elderly Austrian emperor was “perennially interested in the love affairs of young people; he has been a fairy godfather to several of the young Austrian archduchesses and given to them the men of their heart.”

De Castellane certainly thought that the Roumanian princess was the woman of young Boris’ heart, as the prince had fallen in love with Elizabeth, even before they had met.   “The prince saw a photograph of the princess when Queen Elizabeth of Roumania, her aunt, visited the Bulgarian court last year.  Deeply enamored, Boris seized the opportunity to be presented to the princess and found her even more charming than she had been pictured.”

It is known that Queen Elisabeth of Roumania did visit Bulgaria in 1911, as the guest of Boris’ stepmother, Queen Eleonore.  The Bulgarian queen’s marriage to King Ferdinand was difficult and unhappy.   In 1908, Ferdinand, a widower for nine years, decided that he needed to remarry.  His second wife, Princess Eleonore of Reuss-Kostritz, was selected by Ferdinand’s good friend, Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna of Russia, the German-born wife of Grand Duke Wladimir.  She was 48-years-old at the time of the marriage and was “an earnest and well-educated lady with an impressive record of voluntary Red Cross work in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War,” when she married Ferdinand.  It was a marriage of convenience, as Ferdinand treated Eleonore “as any other member of his household,” but he understood that his “self-effacing and considerate spouse had won the respect of the country and the affection of his children.”

Boris was fond of Eleonore, and “embarrassed by his father’s treatment of her.”
King Ferdinand was abroad when Eleonore had invited the Roumanian queen to join her at Euxinograd.   The king sent a telegram to Boris, referring to Eleonore and Elisabeth “as two-half mad royal women, who concocted this affair together, taking advantage of my absence.”    Ferdinand was not referring to a possible marriage between Boris and Princess Elisabeth of Roumania.  He had accused his wife of plotting against him simply because Eleonore had invited Queen Elisabeth to come for a visit.

Yet, Queen Elisabeth might have brought photographs of the young Princess Elisabeth, who was the eldest daughter of Crown Prince Ferdinand and Crown Princess Marie of Roumania.  But there is no evidence that the two women were encouraging a match between Boris and Princess Elisabeth.
However, the Princess was also being linked to Crown Prince George of Greece, whom she actually did marry in 1921.

Rumors of a Russian marriage continued to be written until 1916 when the Washington Post reported that the “Czar’s daughter grieved over shattered romance.  The engagement of the eldest daughter of the Russian Czar to Crown Prince Boris of Bulgaria is at an end.  The match was approved in circles of the Russian royalty, but Bulgaria’s defiance of Russia has shattered it.  The Grand Duchess is said to be heartbroken.”

Boris and Olga were not entirely strangers.   In 1898, the young Crown Prince accompanied his father, King Ferdinand, to Russia, where he met his godfather, Nicholas II, and he “vaguely remembered playing with” Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana.  But there are no references in family correspondence or biographies about a proposed marriage, although Olga was seriously considered as a bride for the future King Carol II of Roumania.

But even war did not stop the rumors.   By special cable, the Washington Post reported in March 1916, that Pope Benedict XV had refused Franz Joseph’s request for a “necessary dispensation of the marriage of the Austrian Archduchess, who is to wed Crown Prince Boris of Bulgaria.”    The Pope would only grant the dispensation if Boris returned to the Roman Catholic faith.  This was unlikely to happen as the heir to the Bulgarian throne was required to be Orthodox.

The Bulgarian royal family’s relationship with the Roman Catholic church was fraught with division and distrust.    In 1893, when Ferdinand, who had been elected Prince of Bulgaria in 1887, married Princess Marie Louise of Bourbon-Parma, he had to agree to Pope Leo XIII’s demands that the couple’s children would be baptized as Roman Catholics.   This was contrary to Article 38 in the Bulgarian constitution, which stated that the Prince of Bulgaria and his descendants were required to be members of the Orthodox church, although the “first Prince of Bulgaria may exceptionally profess his original religion.”

 Ferdinand remained Roman Catholic, and his future wife was a devout Roman Catholic and a goddaughter of Pope Pius IX.

The marriage was made possible only after the Bulgarian National Assembly agreed to override Article 38.   Ferdinand agreed to the demands, and the marriage took place on April 20, 1893.    Nine months after the wedding, Princess Marie Louise gave birth to her first child, Boris, who was baptized according to the rites of the Roman Catholic church.

The decision to baptize Boris in the Roman Catholic faith brought further friction as “the majority of Bulgarians were Orthodox Christians, the official religion of the country.”   It was foolhardy for the sovereign to ignore the traditions of the country he ruled.   Relations with Russia, an Orthodox nation, were also difficult due to conflicts between Alexander III, “who hated Bulgaria,” and Ferdinand I.  Alexander’s death in 1894 “provided an opportune moment” toward reconciliation, and the crafty Ferdinand knew he had no choice but to choose Bulgaria over Rome.  He was the sovereign of an Orthodox country, and, although he had been permitted to retain his Catholic faith, he knew that his heir would have to be Orthodox.   Thus, the three-year-old Prince Boris went through a ceremony of conversion to the Orthodox faith on February 15, 1896.  The little prince did not go through a second baptism as the Orthodox church recognizes Roman Catholic baptism.    Not only did Nicholas II restore diplomatic relations with Bulgaria, but he also agreed to be Boris’ godfather.

 Pope Leo XIII promptly excommunicated Ferdinand for permitting his son’s conversion to the Orthodox church.  Ferdinand’s throne became a little bit less shaky when he spoke before a special session of the Bulgarian parliament: “I know that I have been expelled from the Western Church, which casts its anathema upon me.  But from today, I shall turn my eyes towards the golden dawn of the Orient.”

On Easter Sunday 1915, King Ferdinand “was forgiven for his religious apostasy,” when he received the Sacrament of Holy Communion for the first time since his ex-communication.  The ban had been lifted, like Boris, now 21-years-old, was capable of making his own religious decisions, and his decision to remain Orthodox “could henceforth be considered by Rome as a free choice rather than an imposition by his father.”

Despite having lifted Ferdinand’s ex-communication, Pope Benedict XV would probably not have granted a dispensation to allow a Catholic archduchess to marry an Orthodox prince, without securing a written statement that the children of this marriage would be raised Catholic.  Crown Prince Boris was unlikely to have acceded to this request.

 The article does not name the particular Archduchess, nor in a similar report three days later, when the paper cited an article in the Journal des Balkans, which said that Bulgarian heir to the throne was to marry a “princess of the house of Hapsburg.” In 1918, however, the Washington Post reported that Boris was to marry Archduchess Gabrielle of Austria, the fourth daughter of Archduke Friedrich.  It was to be a double engagement as Boris’ sister, Princess Nadejda, was expected to marry Archduke Karl Albrecht, the son of Archduke Karl Stefan.

The Post based its account on reports in German newspapers, which noted the dynastic alliances were still possible, even during the final months of a devastating war. Considering the political situation in Austria and in Bulgaria, neither marriage seemed plausible.  By October 1918, Bulgaria had capitulated, and Ferdinand went into exile, leaving his eldest son to accept the throne.  It had been made clear to Ferdinand that his continued reign would not be acceptable to the Allies.  He was a detriment to Bulgaria’s independence; thus, Boris succeeded to the throne upon his father’s abdication, as Boris III.   Boris’ siblings joined their father in exile, leaving the young monarch, alone in a country plagued by political instability, and poverty.

The war ended in November 1918.  Germany was defeated, and the German and Austrian emperors went into exile.  Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in July 1918. 

The changes in Boris’ situation made the question of marriage rather difficult, certainly during the first years of his reign. In postwar Bulgaria, Boris was less likely to look for a bride among the exiled German and Austrian royal families.  One putative bride, Archduchess Gabrielle, was forced to seek employment after the fall of the Habsburgs.  By 1923, she was working as a housemaid for a Viennese banker, where she turned “down beds and dusts dressing tables for the banker’s daughters.” 

In 1921, King Boris III gave an interview to the American news agency, the Associated Press.  He declared that “Peace and work,” was the motto of his small nation, and he spoke eloquently of his gratefulness toward America.  He spoke English fluently, and had made “a deep study of America and American conditions.”  He also wanted to speak of the Bulgarian Parliament’s decision to make a gift of a parcel of land in Sofia for the building of an American college.

The King added: “Until now neither I nor my people have had an adequate opportunity for expressing their feelings of gratitude to the great American nation.” 

By the next year, the possibility of Boris seeking an American bride became a topic of conversation on both sides of the Atlantic.  There were plans for the king to visit the United States in the spring of 1922, but he dismissed talk of marriage to an American.  “This is an extremely interesting and novel idea,” when the topic of an American bride was broached. “But I am afraid it isn’t true.  Anyway, I’m too busy with reconstruction of the country and other vital problems to give it any time to matrimonial prospects.” 

“It is true that I have been living a life of great loneliness, devoid of all social diversion, but now I have my two sisters with me and that makes a great change.  You see, it is the duty of a brother to get his sisters married first before he himself marries.”

The king’s comments came only a week before Sofia newspapers reported that Boris’s engagement to Princess Yolanda of Savoy, the eldest daughter of King Vittorio Emmanuele of Italy.  The reports were quickly denied by palace officials in Rome.

The idea that Boris could marry a wealthy American remained a subject for discussion, certainly in the U.S. papers. “Why Bulgarians Seek Queen Here,” was the title of   Frederick Cunliffe-Owen’s article in the New York Times on January 28, 1923.    Cunliffe-Owen noted that “with an American as Consort, Boris’s country would not fear political complications.”   Cunliffe-Owen noted that “until now there has been but one woman of American birth who has ever been called upon to share a throne and who can boast of having received with sovereign honors at some of the principal monarchical courts of Europe --namely Miss Alice Heine of New Orleans.”   Alice was the second wife of Prince Albert I of Monaco.

The political complications of a dynastic marriage would not be “such a drawback in the event of an American-born Queen, who would not be suspected by the Bulgar peasants of being prepared to sacrifice their interests to those of some foreign nation or dynasty,” according to Cunliffe-Owen.  “They feel that they could rely on the impartiality of an American consort for their young King if the right kind of American girl can be found, who would be willing not only to adapt herself but even to devote herself, to the conditions and the welfare of the country of her adoption.”

Bulgarian prime minister Alexander Stamboulisky added to the speculation when he told a Swiss reporter that the King “wishes to marry a beautiful and wealthy American girl.”

The Prime Minister suggested that the Bulgarians “have lost faith in royal alliances and hope that an American queen will be a greater asset to their country than a European.”

Bulgaria, however, was not a constitutional monarchy.  Many considered Stamboulisky to be a megalomaniac, who was bringing the country to further deprivation and rot.  According to one of Boris’ biographers, Pashanko Dimitroff, Boris was  “a prisoner in his own kingdom,” who believed that his prime minister “would calm under the influence of his contacts with Western politicians.”    For eight years, the king did not leave his country.

In June 1923, Stamboulisky was killed in a coup d’etat, that brought about a new government for the country.  With Bulgarian facing further political instability, Boris wrote to his father, saying that it might be a good idea to find husbands for his sisters, although “In principle, I am not enthusiastic about marriages, as you know, and I will not change my convictions about it.”  He advocated a quick marriage for Princess Nadejda “while the firm has still some appearance of luster left.”

(Princess Nadejda married Duke Albrecht of Württemberg in January 1924.)
Three years after Stamboulisky’s death, the king made light of the late prime minister’s comments.   Stamboulisky, he said, “always used to say he would find me a rich American wife, but I am not really looking for riches.  Character counts far more than money.”

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 One person who was keeping an eye on Bulgaria, at least from a matrimonial point of view, was Queen Marie of Roumania.   She may have had her eye on Boris, as a possible husband for her youngest daughter, Ileana.  Queen Marie was an inveterate matchmaker, having already arranged the marriages of her eldest son and daughter, Carol and Elisabeth, to Princess Helen and King George II of the Hellenes.  A year after the Greco-Romanian alliances, Marie’s second daughter, Marie, was married to King Alexander of Yugoslavia.  It would make perfect sense for the Romanian queen to want to secure another Balkan alliance, this time between Princess Ileana and King Boris.   Marie also advocated the candidacy of her niece, Grand Duchess Kira of Russia; yet, neither got a second look by King Boris.

“I am too busy putting Bulgaria’s house to get married,” he said laughingly in an interview with the Associated Press in 1928.  “Besides, Bulgaria is too poor at the moment to afford a queen.  When we get on our feet I shall be prepared to embark on the sea of matrimony. We must first make sure that the throne is strong enough to ‘support’ two.”

The king was also asked, “if there were any likelihood that he would plight his troth with Princess Giovanna, the 22-year-old daughter of King Victor Emmanuel of Italy.”  He “smiled evasively, and responded: “You see, in Bulgaria, there is a custom that the sons in a family shall first get their sisters married off before they themselves take brides.  As I still have my sister Eudoxia on my hands, the question of my wedlock must wait.”

Although Princess Giovanna of Savoy had been on a list of possible brides for nearly the entire decade,   Orthodox princesses still figured prominently as the future Queen of Bulgaria.  In September 1929, the Romanian newspaper, Adverul, reported that the plans for a Bulgarian-Roumanian marriage were revived.  According to information from that ubiquitous “reliable court authority,”    Boris’ engagement to Princess Ileana was imminent.   “Now it is understood that Queen Marie has revived the old idea --once laughingly admitted in conversation with a newspaperman -- of becoming the mother-in-law of the Balkans.”

According to the report, Boris had “already sounded royal opinion in Bucharest,” and had “received a favorable answer.”  This was only two months after newspapers reported that the King would marry “the beautiful Princess Francoise, 25 years old, daughter of the Duke of Guise, claimant to the French throne.”    A prominent member of the French Chamber was in Sofia to “ostensibly inspect the earthquake regions,” but his “real aim was to sound the King on behalf of Premier Poincaré and M. Briand, on the question of marrying the second daughter of the ‘King of France."

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Boris apparently listened “attentively” to the Deputy, but his response was that “he was too busy at the moment to get married, but would take the French offer under consideration.”

Stephane Groueff, who wrote the biography, Crown of Thorns, noted that Boris had “vaguely considered a few possible choices among the available European princesses,” although marriage to a Bulgarian “was out of the question.”  Two possible candidates for marriage were Grand Duchess Kira of Russia, whose father, Kirill, had succeeded as the de jure Emperor of Russia after the Bolsheviks had murdered Nicholas II and his family, and Princess Sibylla of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.   An American diplomat based in Belgrade noted that Prince Paul of Yugoslavia had told him that Kira “would not be averse to marrying the Bulgarian monarch, as the young lady had expressed herself favorably to this idea only recently.”

The American diplomat, John Dyneley Prince, would also note Prince Paul’s “wicked remarks” about the Bulgarian king.  He asked the prince if he thought that either Kira or Sibylla was truly interested in King Boris. “Certainly not,” was Prince Paul’s response.  “How could any girl fall in love with Boris with his wizened little face?”

Throughout most of the 1920s, the media’s darling was Princess Giovanna of Savoy, who was usually at the top of the favorites’ list.   In 1926, when Boris spent a few days in Milan, as the guest of the Duke of Aosta, the New York Times, and other newspapers in the USA and Europe, speculated that the king’s “betrothal [to Giovanna] was expected to be officially announced soon.”   However, the king returned to Sofia with nary an announcement, although the “possibility of such a marriage has aroused Bulgaria’s neighbors, especially Rumania, to the point of a protest to Rome, and the idea of Boris’ marriage to Giovanna is most displeasing to Rumania.”

It was also noted by church officials in Bulgaria that it was “almost impossible” for Boris and Giovanna to marry, as the princess was Roman Catholic.
Was Giovanna the topic of conversation between the king and the Duke of Aosta, a member of the Italian royal family?  The Duke of Aosta could certainly have made overtures to Giovanna’s parents about a possible marriage.  Giovanna herself was aware of the media speculation about her marriage, but she had not met the Bulgarian king.

Boris and Giovanna were finally introduced on September 15, 1927, when Boris joined her family, including her parents, King Vittorio Emmanuele and Queen Elena, for lunch at San Rossore.

The princess was shy and nervous, and she had considered going to Turin to see her brother avoid meeting Boris, as she was aware of the ridiculous engagement stories.   They “exchanged a few words in French,” as both were fluent in the language.  Boris spoke “exclusively” to her parents throughout the lunch, while  Giovanna sat quietly, noting his “maturity and sophistication.”   She was nearly 20, and he was 33.

Although their conversation had been brief, Boris realized that Giovanna was “new and refreshing.”  She didn’t know much about politics, which was the main topic of conversation between Boris and his sisters.  Giovanna was, according to Stephane Groueff, “more worldly than the Bulgarian princesses.”

Queen Elena and Giovanna were at the opera one evening when the queen took her daughter aside and told her that Princess Mafalda (Giovanna’s older sister, married to Prince Philipp of Hesse) had said that Prince Kyril had come to see her, and ask her if she knew if Giovanna was interested in marrying his brother.  “What do you think?” the Montenegrin-born Queen Elena asked her daughter.
“I don’t know him well enough,” she responded.  “I need some time to think about it.”

She certainly had the time to reflect on a marriage, as Boris did not contact her for more than two years.   It was not until Boris came to Rome in January 1930 to attend the wedding of Giovanna’s brother, Crown Prince Umberto to Princess Marie-José of Belgium, that he finally approached her, and said that he wanted to marry her.     He also confided his pessimism over this marriage because of the religious obstacles, but he told Giovanna: “I have a friend in Sofia on whom I can count.  He is an Italian, who I know cares for me.”

The friend was the Vatican’s delegate to Bulgaria, Angelo Roncalli -- the future Pope John XXIII – who discreetly provided the assistance that made it possible for the marriage to take place.    Six months would pass before Boris’ sister, Eudoxia, traveled to Italy, to let the princess know that talks “were progressing.”   Boris, she noted, was optimistic that the Bulgarian government and the Orthodox and Catholic churches would be able to come to an agreement.   On September 3, 1930, at San Rossore, Giovanna and Boris became engaged although an official announcement would not be made until the religious issues were settled.

Roncalli worked tirelessly to overcome the ecclesiastical objections, and on October 15, 1930, the Vatican issued a dispensation to allow the wedding.   Boris and Giovanna provided a “written declaration, promising to baptize and educate all their children, without exception in the Catholic religion.”    Roncalli had not been “overly insistent on a solemn commitment” on raising the children as Catholics, although he was required to issue some pro forma warnings.”

“In a driving rain and hail storms out of doors,” King Boris III of Bulgaria, 37, married the 23-year-old Princess Giovanna of Savoy, at the Basilica of St. Francis at Assisi on October 25, 1930.   The newlyweds arrived in Sofia on October 31 and attended a “nuptial benediction” at the Orthodox cathedral.   Wedding rings were not exchanged, but “the fact that crowns of marriage were held over the heads of the king and queen, and they drank out of the same communion chalice and both kissed the gospel afterward,” provided Bulgarians with an acceptance of “the essentials of the orthodox rite.”

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 This second ceremony “infuriated” Pope Pius XI, who rebuked Roncalli for allowing the service to take place.  Roncalli saw the second service as a blessing on the marriage, and not an actual wedding.  He accepted blame for the ceremony, but was wistful when he noted that the king could have made a “simple declaration that would have explained the significance of the October 31 marriage, a declaration that would have averted the solemn words of the pope that cannot have been very pleasant for his Majesty.”

The “bachelor king” was no more.                        

If you liked this article (which was originally published in 2005 in Royalty Digest)

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