Barbu Ştirbey, the Perfect Grey Eminence
They say he was the mastermind behind Romania’s Crown during the reign of King Ferdinand and Queen Marie, the great unifiers of the country. They say he charmed the King and seduced the Queen. They say he was the Queen’s lifelong secret lover. They say he was the natural father of her youngest son, Mircea, who died of typhoid fever when he was 3, in 1916. They dubbed him “the White Prince” for his dignified beauty, impeccable reputation, elegant manners, aristocratic posture and kind tactfulness . If Romania ever had an autochthonous gentleman, that was him.
Prince Barbu A. Ştirbey was born on 4 November 1872 into a family of Romanian aristocrats of whom his grandfather had been ruler of Wallachia between 1849 and 1856. He graduated from the “Louis le Grand” high school and completed his law studies at the University of Paris. He married his second cousin Nadejda Bibescu in Geneva, then he returned to Romania and took charge of his family estate. He turned the Buftea Palace near Bucharest into a thriving business hub with a preserve factory, a vineyard nursery, a mill, a dairy farm and a cotton wool factory, introducing the planting of cotton and rice in the Old Kingdom and becoming one of the richest men in Romania .
And yet his greatest feat was to irretrievably fall in love with Marie, the Crown Princess today considered “a lady Diana of the interwar years” . It happened in 1907, during the peasants’ uprising, when Ştirbey visited the aristocratic refugees gathered at the Sinaia royal palace. He fell for Marie the instant he saw her, apparently, a love that was to rule the course of his life, including his actions, loyalty to the crown and patriotic decisions, for decades.
Probably aware of his intense relationship with the Crown Princess, certainly appreciative of his excellent abilities as a farmer and industrialist, King Carol I appointed him Administrator of the Crown Estates in 1913, and thus facilitated his accession to the position of a pivotal decision-making actor within the Romanian monarchy for a couple of decades. Indeed, after the coming to the throne of the unifier King, he became the main advisor of Ferdinand.
Two contributions by Ştirbey stand out in the history of those decades. First, he convinced King Ferdinand to join the Entente/Allies (i.e. France, Britain and Russia) during World War I, instead of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire), thus ensuring his country’s positioning on the winning side of the war. Secondly, during the war, in 1917, while the Court had taken refuge in Iaşi, he sensed the Bolshevik danger and wrote up the King’s speech in which he promised agrarian reforms; once given, the speech satisfied the crowds and thus precluded any potential Bolshevik “contamination” within the ranks of the Romanian army and people.
Without a doubt, Prince Barbu Ştirbey contributed to the making and maintenance of Greater Romania, not only by dint of his position as the King’s main advisor, but also by his skilful guiding of the influential and wilful Queen through the intricacies of Romanian (and international) politics . And yet this romantic, terribly influential and at the same time down-to-earth character in Romanian history was, apparently, rife with contradictions: “In a country of talkative people, I haven’t met a quieter man, in a society concerned with obtaining effect I haven’t seen a man displaying more modesty . . . Still, behind this banal appearance a tremendously interesting personality was hidden, with penetrating astuteness, exceptional ability and great ambition; a bizarre mixture of wilfulness and laziness, decisiveness and fatalism, indifference and slyness. Brave, at times even daring, even though he preferred shadow to light, a lover of combinations, even though never practising plotting, Ştirbey was the type of the Romanian boyar who knew how to be flexible and sneak by” – reminisces former prime minister I.G. Duca in his Political Memoirs .
His disappearance is just as enwrapped in mystery as his activities were discreet. He died in 1946 of – reportedly – hepatic cancer, the next day after a reception at the Soviet Embassy headed by feared A. I. Vyshinsky, where he had been sent to appease the Soviet assault upon Romania and had been given to drink a cocktail... At the end of the day, Prince Barbu Ştirbey served his country irreproachably via his loyal lifetime love for the unequalled Queen. Lancelot could have been reincarnated...
Notes & Sources
 “Barbu A. Ştirbey”. Wikipedia. Accessed 15 Jan 2019. <https://ro.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbu_A._%C8%98tirbey>