Margherita's parents had a brief marriage. Prince Ferdinand died when Margherita was only 4 years-old and her brother Thomas barely a year old. For a time, the widowed Princess Elisabeth was interested in a possible marriage with her widower brother-in-law, King Victor Emmanuel II. But the King dismissed the idea as absurd. Elisabeth, upset with such rebuff began a relationship with her chamberlain and married him secretly less than a year after the death of her husband. This created a huge scandal. King Victor Emmanuel was so infuriated that he ordered her and her new husband into exile, forbidding her from seeing her two children. However, the exile didn't last long and she was allowed back again at court. Realizing that she made a mistake in marrying her chamberlain, she devoted herself and her time in raising her children.
The young Margherita, a lovely girl with a pretty smile, grew up to be religious and conservative, showing great interest in the arts. She was an excellent conversationalist and gained considerable popularity, especially among the Italian masses. She was so devoted to her homeland that she refused a proposal of marriage from Prince Karl of Romania. Instead, the now 17-year-old Margherita was married to her cousin Umberto, the 24 year-old heir to the Italian throne. They were married on April 22, 1868 at the Royal Palace in Turin. A year after their marriage, Margherita gave birth to the couple's only child, a son, Prince Victor Emmanuel of Naples.
When Umberto and Margherita visited the Netherlands, Margherita attracted admiring glances from the people, and Queen Sophie of the Netherlands wrote about the couple: "The Prince and Princess Royal of Italy are here. She is a lovely child, white, small, delicate, graceful - he is a brute and it is impossible not to feel pity for that young and naive creature. Just now her dresses, her jewels, the release from governess and schoolroom make her happy. Lovely as she is, he seems to have no admiration for her..."
In 1878, King Victor Emmanuel II died, and Umberto and Margherita were crowned as the new King and Queen of Italy. Months after their succession, the royal couple made a trip throughout Italy to greet their subjects. The young Queen, with her charm and affability, was able to win the hearts of her people.
Only few people within the court knew the real state of the royal marriage. Since 1864, Umberto had been in liaison with the much older Eugenia Attendolo Bolognini, Duchess of Litta. It turned out that she was the love of his life. Margherita had known about her husband's mistress even at the start of their marriage. She had to put up to that, but nevertheless, Umberto tried to be a good husband to her, and the marriage was still considered a harmonious one.
Queen Margherita promoted the arts and culture, introduced the chamber music in Italy, and founded the quintet of Rome. She was also a keen mountaineer and became the first woman to climb the highest peak of Monte Rosa, the Punta Gnifetti. The mountain hut there was named after her.
She had a magnificent and lavish collection of jewelry, but the most famous was her large collection of pearls. She was called the "Queen of Pearls" and her portraits show her always wearing a profusion of these. She was described by the Crown Princess of Prussia as "certainly lovely and fascinating" and "a very charming and graceful creature. So amiable." Wherever she would go, everyone was charmed by her. With her beauty and elegance, she was among the most admired women of her day, along with the Empress of France and the Empress of Austria.
On July 29, 1900, while King Umberto and Queen Margherita were on a visit in Monza, the King was assassinated. He was shot four times by an anarchist named Gaetano Bresci. He claimed he wanted to avenge the people killed due to the suppression of the uprisings in Milan by Gen. Fiorenzo Bava Beccaris. The King had given honor to Beccaris in the belief that the uprising was a form of socialism aiming to shake the monarchy to its foundation.
The Queen was staying in Villa Reale when the assassination of the King took place and his body was brought there. Her son Victor Emmanuel was now the King of Italy.
After her husband's death, Margherita, now the Queen Mother, devoted her time to charity work and promoting the arts and culture. She encouraged artists and writers, and founded more cultural institutions. As the Queen Mother, she showed great support to her son and his wife, Elena.
Politically, she favored Fascism, which at that time was the only movement that opposed Socialists and Bolsheviks. In October 1922, the quadrumvirs visited her in her villa at Bordighera to pay their respects prior the March on Rome.
Queen Margherita died in in her villa in Bordighera on January 4, 1926. Her remains were then taken to Rome to be interred at the royal vault in the Pantheon. Margherita was deeply mourned by the people. It took a long time for the funeral train to reach its destination because of the crowd of people trying to get close and throw flowers to her coffin.