The King of May

After the wrenching cataclysm of the Second World War, Europe’s war shattered countries faced an uncertain and challenging peace. The most immediate problems that needed urgent solutions were how to feed their hungry populations, where to house millions of refugees and how to demobilise the gargantuan war machines that had rampaged over the continent. Italy faced an additional issue – how to deal with a monarchy that had been complicit in Mussolini’s fascist regime.  

Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe is a fascinating book by one of the modern masters of the historical grand sweep. Each lost country is given a chapter in which Norman Davies ponders the fate of such exotic, distant sounding realms as Burgundia, Aragon and Galicia. It isn’t only kingdoms that have vanished – monarchies are joined in the dusty vaults of historical memory by grand duchies, republics and empires.

Umberto II of Italy - the last King of Italy (the King of May)

Many of these long dead realms were incorporated into larger countries – victims of wars, dynastic intrigues or nationalist fervour. But one kingdom was consigned to history by a referendum when subjects were asked if they wanted to become citizen. Norman Davies notes that:

“On 2 June 1946 Italians were asked to vote in an ‘institutional referendum’ to decide whether their country should remain a kingdom or become a republic. The result was announced next day. The monarchy received 10,719,284 valid votes – 46 per cent; the republic 12,717,923 – a victorious 54 per cent.”

The vote saw 89% of Italy’s eligible population voting. This franchise included women, who only received the vote in 1945.

The country was split along its traditional north-south divide, perhaps fulfilling Prince Metternich’s infamous assessment that the peninsula was not so much a country as a “a geographical expression”. The difference in the vote was starkest in certain towns:

“The north supported the republic; the poor, less populous Mezzogiorno favoured the monarchy. Ravenna voted 91.2 per cent for the republic; Messina 85.4 per cent for the king.”


A map showing how the various regions of Italy voted illustrates the clear division in opinion between north and south. But the monarchist fervour of Neapolitans (76.5% of voters in Campania voted for the monarchy), Apulians and Sicilians could not overcome the firm republicanism of Tuscans (71.6% of whom voted for a republic), Venetians and Lombards. Thus, suffocated under a flurry of northern votes, the kingdom of Italy died and, with it, the fortunes of the House of Savoy sank:

“The last king of Italy, Umberto II (1904–83) was forty-two years old when, from his point of view, the referendum was lost. Having mounted the throne a month earlier as a result of his father’s abdication, he had reigned for only thirty-three days, and thereby earned the unkind sobriquet of Il re di maggio, ‘The king of May’”

Alcide de Gasperi, Prime Minister of Italy before and after the referendum

The monarchy had not gone without a fight. King Victor Emmanuel had been irredeemably tainted by his association with the fascist regime to stay on the throne. He formally abdicated in favour of his son Umberto on 9 May 1946.

In time for the June referendum, therefore, the Italian people were presented with a new king and a promise of a reformed House of Savoy. But the majority of the people were in no mood for kings, crowns and the glittering paraphernalia of monarchy. Umberto II’s reign formally ended on 12 June 1946 and the king left Italy to go into a long exile.