The Italian Royal Family, which is the House of Savoy, is one of the oldest ruling families in world history. The amount of territory controlled by the House of Savoy fluctuated over the centuries but, from their beginning in the mountainous region where modern Italy, France and Switzerland meet until the downfall of King Umberto II of Italy in 1946 the House of Savoy ruled over some patch of land, be it large or small, longer than the Pharaohs of Egypt, the ancient Shang dynasty of China or the Biblical House of David. The first major figure in the history of the family was Count Umberto I, “the White Handed” in the eleventh century. From these humble origins the family, whose names tended to alternate between Umberto and Amedeo, rose in civil and religious life to positions of prominence, gaining control of the Alpine mountain passes. By the time of the Middle Ages the Counts of Savoy had become significant figures in Western Europe alongside the powerful kingdoms of Spain, France and England. In 1416 the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund elevated Amedeo VIII to the status of Duke of Savoy.
When the Savoy homeland was mostly conquered by France the family allied with the Hapsburgs of Austria. Duke Emanuele Filiberto was able to reclaim much of this territory at the expense of France and Spain and enlarge his dominion into what is now northern Italy, taking what would become their capital city of Turin. Later, a distant member of the family, Prince Eugene of Savoy, a great-grandson of Duke Carlo Emanuele I, became one of the most famous soldiers in European history, fighting for the Holy Roman Empire in wars against the Turks and most famously in the War of the Spanish Succession. Also involved in that conflict was Duke Vittorio Amedeo II who won the Kingdom of Sicily which was later exchanged for the Kingdom of Sardinia. Later this was better known as the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. The Savoy royals energetically entered the war against Revolutionary France but they were later devastated by the rise of the Corsican conqueror Napoleon. However, when Napoleon was defeated the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia was fully restored and enlarged by the late Republic of Genoa as well as other minor territories.
In 1848 King Carlo Alberto granted Piedmont-Sardinia their first constitution and by remaining faithful to it, the House of Savoy became famous across much of Italy at a time when there was growing unrest about the occupation of the Italian peninsula by foreign powers. King Vittorio Emanuele II took the lead in this effort, known as the Risorgimento, to unite all Italians into one powerful kingdom. He had hoped to do this in cooperation with the other rulers of the states of Italy but it was not to be. The north was secured in a series of wars against Austria and the south came along after the invasion of the “Thousand” in Sicily led by Giuseppe Garibaldi who handed the territory over to Savoy monarchy. In 1861 the Kingdom of Italy was formally declared with the Italian peninsula united by one government for the first time since the days of the Roman Empire. When Italian forces took control of Rome, which had been under papal rule since the Dark Ages, this led to an unfortunate rift with the Holy See.
Eventually, this disagreement was ended as it had to be considering the long history of the House of Savoy as one of the great Catholic families of Europe. Savoy rulers had been crusaders and clerics, champions against heresy and had produced one anti-pope, numerous bishops and cardinals and a number of near saintly figures such as Blessed Umberto III and Blessed Amedeo IX. The family coat-of-arms came down from Amedeo the Great who fought with the Knights of St John defending Rhodes from the Turks in 1315 and from the time of Louis I to the last Savoy king in 1946 the family guarded the Shroud of Turin, one of the most revered relics in Christendom. Even today more than one member of the House of Savoy is being considered for beatification, the first step on the process toward sainthood. For a family as ancient as the Savoy there are plentiful examples of almost every sort of character.
For eighty-five years the heads of the House of Savoy reigned as Kings of Italy, from Vittorio Emanuele II who was the “Father of the Fatherland”, to Umberto I who was known as the “good King”, followed by his son Vittorio Emanuele III, the “soldier King” who reigned during a war with Ottoman Turkey, World War I and World War II and finally Umberto II, known as the “King of May” for the month when the Crown of Italy passed through his hands. From the very beginning, over a hundred years ago the history of Italy has been the history of the House of Savoy. They led the way in the unification of the country and presided over the peak of Italian power and prestige. Unfortunately, they were later forced to bear the burden for the greatest Italian mistakes. Nonetheless, though denied political power for the first time in nearly a thousand years, the House of Savoy goes on, gone from the world stage but still not forgotten by the loyal Italians who remember their generations of service to the land and people of Italy.