Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Vännen min

Portrait de la Reine Astrid (Par Herman Richir)
In 1985, a Swedish historical novelist, Countess Anna Sparre, published her recollections of her friendship with Queen Astrid of the Belgians, niece of King Gustav V of Sweden. The book, Vännen min, has since been translated into French as La reine Astrid: mon amie à moi (1995) and as Astrid mon amie (2005). Under Anna's pen, Astrid's subtle personality comes to life. Tender, sensitive and loving, although not without her strict side, she was a loyal and devoted wife, mother and queen. Anna sensitively portrays Astrid's blossoming, through love, from a painfully shy, fearful, rather melancholic child into a radiant, dignified young woman, courageously assuming the role of royal consort under tragic circumstances. While carefully avoiding betraying confidences, Anna offers insight into her friend's spiritual depth and development, through her discussion of Astrid's conversion from Lutheranism to Catholicism. In a particularly haunting passage, Anna also mentions Astrid's mysterious premonitions of her death, shortly before her fatal car accident. However, she does not discuss the rumor that Astrid was expecting her fourth child at the time. Anna provides an affectionate portrayal of Astrid's beloved husband, King Leopold III, and father-in-law and dear friend, King Albert I. Throughout her life, the Countess remained close to Astrid's son, King Baudouin, who referred to Anna as an honorary aunt. By contrast, Anna found Astrid's mother-in-law, Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians, to be aloof and distant. This is surprising, since so many other personal accounts, such as the memoirs of Russian sculptress Catherine Barjansky, describe Elisabeth as natural, spontaneous, and extremely approachable. Perhaps Anna and Elisabeth simply had incompatible personalities? In any case, the rather derisive tone Anna adopts in Elisabeth's regard is one of the few aspects of the book I disliked. Otherwise, Vännen min is a noble, beautiful tribute to faithful friendship.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal

Here is a review in French of Michel Verwilghen's wonderful book Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal (2006). The article includes elegant photographs of Princess Lilian, Princess Esmeralda and Argenteuil, the home of the second family of King Leopold III from 1961 to 2002. I highly recommend Verwilghen's work to anyone who reads French. It is a careful, erudite history of the estate of Argenteuil, yet beautifully written, with humanity, poetry, passion and wit. Thanks to the charming style, the account is easy and fun to read, despite all the intricate details of changes of reign, transfers of ownership, legal disputes and political controversies. Verwilghen takes to task a number of malicious myths about Leopold and Lilian, such as the endlessly repeated story that they stole all the furniture from Laeken while moving to Argenteuil. Verwilghen also offers many astute, and often amusing observations regarding the political biases in the Belgian press. There are wonderful photographs in the book, including a few rare, touching images of an aged Princess Lilian with her granddaughter, Alexandra. Verwilghen's fascinating, moving, nuanced description of Lilian is probably the finest in print. Without falling into hagiography, he magnificently illustrates her faith, hope and charity.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas blessings...

...To all who have visited The Cross of Laeken in 2011. May the Prince of Peace grant you true and lasting joy.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Mother of Kings

A famous allegory of the young Countess Augusta Reuss-Ebersdorf (1757-1831), mother of King Leopold I, and grandmother of Queen Victoria, as Artemisia. The portrait was painted in 1775 by Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Elder. Augusta, who later married Duke Francis of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and bore him ten children, was considered one of the most beautiful women of her time, and her good looks seem to have been inherited by her Belgian descendants. Determined and ambitious, through her children's strategic marriages, she overcame the ruinous debts of her husband's family to become the ancestress of many European royal lines.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Sisters

The future Queen Astrid of the Belgians with her older sister, the future Crown Princess Märtha of Norway, mother of King Harald V. In her memoirs, Anna Sparre describes Märtha as being much more confident and outgoing than the young Astrid, and as the daughter most admired by their mother, Princess Ingeborg of Sweden. In fact, Anna believed that Ingeborg's constant praising of Märtha contributed to Astrid's insecurity and shyness.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"With my heartfelt hope that spring will bring quiet joy to you..."

On the eve of the accession of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth to the Belgian throne, I was delighted to come across this beautiful letter from Einstein to Elisabeth, then mourning the loss of her husband and daughter-in-law. I was also pleased that Einstein mentions another good friend of the Queen, the Russian sculptress Catherine Barjansky, whose memoirs of the Belgian royal family I have often featured here. 
Dear Queen, 
Today, for the first time this year, the spring sunshine has made its appearance, and it aroused me from the dreamlike trance into which people like myself fall when immersed in scientific work. Thoughts rise up from an earlier and more colorful life, and with them comes remembrance of beautiful hours in Brussels.
Mrs. Barjansky wrote to me how gravely living in itself causes you suffering and how numbed you are by the indescribably painful blows that have befallen you.
And yet we should not grieve for those who have gone from us in the primes of their lives after happy and fruitful years of activity, and who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.
Something there is that can refresh and revivify older people: joy in the activities of the younger generation—a joy, to be sure, that is clouded by dark forebodings in these unsettled times. And yet, as always, the springtime sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding; and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond reach of the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest form.
Have you ever read the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld? They seem quite acerbic and gloomy, but by their objectivization of human and all-too-human nature they bring a strange feeling of liberation. In La Rochefoucauld we see a man who succeeded in liberating himself even though it had not been easy for him to be rid of the heavy burden of the passions that Nature had dealt him for his passage through life. It would be nicest to read him with people whose little boat had gone through many storms: for example, the good Barjanskys. I would gladly join in were it not forbidden by “the big water.”
I am privileged by fate to live here in Princeton as if on an island that in many respects resembles the charming palace garden in Laeken. Into this small university town, too, the chaotic voices of human strife barely penetrate. I am almost ashamed to be living in such peace while all the rest struggle and suffer. But after all, it is still the best to concern oneself with eternals, for from them alone flows that spirit that can restore peace and serenity to the world of humans.
With my heartfelt hope that spring will bring quiet joy to you also, and will stimulate you to activity, I send you my best wishes.
[March 30, 1936]

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Portrait of Princess Juliane

This is a painting by the great Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun of Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1781-1860), an older sister of King Leopold I of the Belgians. The portrait was destroyed by bombs during the Second World War. As a young girl of fourteen, Juliane married Grand Duke Constantine of Russia, a brother of Tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I, converting to Orthodoxy and changing her name to Anna Feodorovna. The marriage was deeply unhappy, however, and soon fell apart. Anna subsequently had several lovers and illegitimate children.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Testimony of Felix Kersten, masseur of Heinrich Himmler

For some time, I have hesitated to use this account, because Dr. Kersten apparently had a tendency to distort the facts in order to portray himself in a more heroic light. However, I have never heard of his testimony regarding Leopold III being challenged, although it has often been neglected. It has been taken seriously by respected scholars, such as Jean Vanwelkenhuyzen, an eminent Belgian authority on the Second World War. It is discussed by Michel Verwilghen in Le mythe d'Argenteuil (2006) and by Christian Laporte in an article dated March 1, 1996, and published in Le Soir, a testimony all the more surprising and compelling since it comes from a paper traditionally hostile to Leopold III. Kersten's description of Heinrich Himmler's venom against the King squares with the revelations of General Alexander von Falkenhausen, military governor of Belgium during the Nazi occupation, and with the memoirs of Paul Schmidt, Hitler's interpreter. Both men indicated that there was no love lost between the Nazi hierarchy and their royal captive, despite continuing claims that Leopold sympathized with their regime. The recent television documentary, Léopold III, mon père, mentions that highly placed Nazi leaders, towards the end of the war, were considering the deportation and even the execution of the King of the Belgians. As is well known, Leopold and his family would indeed be deported to Germany at the time of the Allied landings in Normandy, although they managed to survive their ordeal. In the light of all this, Kersten's testimony seems plausible.

Dr. Felix Kersten's story is a fascinating one. A talented Finnish masseur of Estonian origin, he was approached by the SS to soothe the stomach cramps of Heinrich Himmler. Although Kersten appears to have exaggerated his role at times, he was also genuinely heroic in using his privileged position to save the lives of many. Himmler seems to have spoken quite freely in Kersten's presence, fulminating against the King of the Belgians on several occasions. Kersten, in turn, secretly kept a diary of his patient's confidences. In 1995, four documents relating to Leopold III were discovered among Kersten's papers by Professor Léon Masset of the University of Amsterdam and published in an issue of La Révue générale dedicated to the Second World War, with a commentary by Jean Vanwelkenhuyzen. King Leopold's devoted widow, Princess Lilian, was intrigued and pleased by the discovery of the documents concerning her late husband, as well as stunned by the fact that it had taken fifty years for the materials to come to light. According to Kersten's testimony, far from viewing Leopold III as a friend, Himmler saw him as an obstinate, bitter foe, a puppet of the Jews and the Roman Catholic Church. He was outraged that the King, the son of a Coburg father and a Wittelsbach mother, should have resisted the German invasion. He was furious that Leopold had rebuffed Hitler's attempts to entice him into collaborating with the Third Reich. Himmler also hated Leopold's sister, Princess Marie-José, for her opposition to Hitler. Like her brother, he insisted, she had betrayed her German blood. With a great deal of patience and tact, however, taking advantage of the fact that Himmler needed his services, Felix Kersten managed to persuade him to treat Leopold in a humane and dignified manner. By March, 1945, however, Himmler had changed his mind, and decided to have him killed. Kersten had to intervene once again to save his life.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Lady in Black

Queen Louise-Marie, I suppose in mourning?

Albert and Elisabeth

They shared a love of great passion and purity. Here, Elisabeth seems to gaze at her bridegroom in wonderment.

Küssnacht-am-Rigi

I came across this painting of the beautiful place near Lake Lucerne where Queen Astrid perished.

Albert of Belgium: Defender of Right



I recently read Emile Cammaerts' Albert of Belgium: Defender of Right (1935), a famous and beautiful biography of the brave, thoughtful, gracious and beloved third King of the Belgians. It is tinged with sadness by the terrible events of the First World War and by the violent, untimely death of the King in a mountaineering accident. Opening with his courageous decision to defend with arms Belgium's right and duty to be neutral, it tells the dramatic story of his life in a noble, rigorous and eloquent manner. His love for God, his fellow man, his family and the people of Belgium are all conveyed with poignant intensity. Rare and beautiful photographs and samples of the King's delicate, even handwriting, assist in bringing to life a rich and sensitive personality. Particularly moving are the pictures of the royal couple's pilgrimage to the Holy Land, including a beautiful scene of Albert and Elisabeth in the Garden of Olives. I was glad that Cammaerts emphasized the role of Catholicism in the lives of the King and Queen, as it tends to be overlooked today. It is generally known that Albert's mother, Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, was a fervent Catholic who gave her children a strict religious upbringing; it is less well known that her son continued his theological studies, on his own initiative, for several years after becoming heir to the throne. At his desk in Brussels, he kept a bronze cast of Cardinal Mercier's hand, holding a small crucifix, so that he could not raise his eyes from his work without seeing the image. A lady who hosted him during the war noticed that he kept a prayer-book on his night-stand and read a few pages every evening. The Imitation of Christ was always at his bedside. At the royal family's idyllic country retreat of Ciergnon, he used to go to Confession at the village church, humbly taking his place in line, and refusing to go before his turn. He was an ardent admirer of monastic and missionary discipline. Simple and conscientious in his daily religious practice, Albert was also capable of moments of mystical exaltation, as the author illustrates through the testimonies of his intimates. One morning, for example, during a Mass in the Belgian Congo, the King was deeply touched by the sight of a poor, ailing, miserable old negro, approaching Holy Communion alongside some white officers. It was one of the few times that Albert expressed strong emotion in public. On another occasion, when the King and Queen were shown, in Jerusalem, the site of Pilate's praetorium, they were so moved by the words of their learned guide, a Father of the École Biblique, that they both spontaneously knelt before the steps leading to the first station of the Via Dolorosa. The King of the Belgians, who would himself die tragically, only a year later, at the feet of a rustic crucifix in the Ardennes, contemplated the sacrifice of Christ where the King of Kings had suffered.  Cammaerts notes that he was never able to discover an instance of Albert acting against his conscience. Although some of his decisions may have been mistaken, the author indicates, the King never appears to have adopted a course of action he did not sincerely consider just as well as prudent. He was a man of rare nobility and sweetness of soul.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Little Sister

A younger sister of Queen Louise-Marie of the Belgians, Françoise d'Orléans, the daughter of Louis-Philippe and Marie-Amélie who died as a toddler. Her grieving mother consoled herself with the thought that her child was now a saint in heaven. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Remembering Queen Elisabeth

Königin Elisabeth von Belgien, Queen of Belgium

Today is the anniversary of her death. The widow of King Albert I succumbed to heart failure on November 23, 1965, after a very long and fruitful life. Overcoming crushing sorrow, she had survived her beloved husband by 31 years. May she rest in peace with her loved ones!

Voice of a King

Here are two more recordings of the voice of Leopold III. Many thanks to Daniel Wybo for very kindly providing the following links:

~The swearing-in of Leopold III, as fourth King of the Belgians, on February 23, 1934

~On July 22, 1950, upon returning to Belgium after six years of exile, the King paid tribute to the heroism of the Belgian army in 1940

Friday, November 18, 2011

Monday, November 14, 2011

Umberto and Maria José


In response to questions, I wanted to share some thoughts on the troubled marriage of King Umberto II of Italy and Queen Maria José, daughter of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium.  For a more in-depth account, I can recommend this article by Cristina Siccardi, as well as the biographies of Umberto and Maria José by Luciano Regolo.

As a young bride, Maria José suffered from many nasty rumors. Evil tongues mocked her thick, curly hair by calling her la Négresse blonde, whispered that her children were not Umberto's, or suggested that they had been conceived artificially, since the princess had been unable to become pregnant for four years... The rumors were unsubstantiated, although Maria José loved to form friendships with artists and intellectuals and her bold, unconventional ways, like those of her Wittelsbach mother, probably fostered gossip. It is also probably true that Maria José and her husband were basically incompatible. The marriage had been arranged by the Belgian and Italian royal families to strengthen the friendship between their countries dating from the First World War.  The Treaty of Versailles also left very few Catholic reigning houses to provide suitors for Maria José. From childhood, she was raised by her mother to see Umberto as the perfect Prince Charming, arousing expectations of a great love which were later sadly disappointed. 

Umberto and Maria José had deep admiration, respect and affection for one another, but Umberto seems to have had trouble relating to his wife romantically. My impression is that he loved her, but was not in love with her. Umberto was always concerned and solicitous for his wife, but tended to be reserved and distant towards her. After the fall of the Italian monarchy and the exile of the Savoys, Maria José found  Portugal, the royal family's refuge, too depressing. She also had difficulty relating to her husband on a daily basis. While Maria José was much more open, Umberto tended to hide his feelings of deep sorrow and humiliation, to withdraw into silence. His wife came to believe that he needed space to deal with his inner turmoil. Accordingly, she moved to Switzerland, where she felt more cheerful.  Health reasons also contributed to her decision. The royal couple, however, always maintained cordial relations, and continued to visit one another. Umberto, who shared Maria José's cultural interests, assisted his wife with her prestigious historical research on the House of Savoy, and wrote her beautiful letters. Every month, he sent her a bouquet of red roses with an affectionate note. When Umberto was dying of cancer, his wife was at his side and they spent many tender hours together, holding hands.

There have been many rumors that Umberto was unfaithful, or even bisexual, but I am skeptical, to say the least, as many of these claims seem to have been fomented by the fascists, who saw the handsome, popular young prince as a potential threat to Mussolini. It is also known that Umberto was deeply religious and Maria José praised him in the highest terms, after his death, as a man of great moral rectitude and personal virtue who never lost his dignity or rigor, even amidst the most atrocious sufferings. In the end, I feel that the King and Queen had a good marriage.

Works of Mercy

Königin Elisabeth von Belgien in Schwestertracht, Queen of Belgium as nurse
Here is a description of Queen Elisabeth's charitable works during World War I:
It is difficult for anyone who had even the slightest experience of the field hospitals in the early days of the War to think or write calmly of the scenes they witnessed. Yet the Queen, who was not of robust physique and has that sympathetic temperament which makes it difficult to witness suffering, shrank from nothing. There was hardly a field hospital in the whole of Belgium that she did not visit at some time or other during the War.
She not only visited them, but took part in the actual nursing, often assisting in the dressings and in the work of the wards. Her Majesty did a great deal of her nursing under Doctor Depage, who had helped her in her training. Her previous experience, when assisting her father, Duke Charles Theodor, stood her in good stead. From her girlhood she had been used to sick beds and the consolation of suffering, so now she passed through ward after ward, bringing cheer and comfort in her train.
As the field hospitals travelled from place to place where they were most needed, the Queen did her utmost, and inspired others to do their utmost, too, to find suitable buildings in which they could carry on their magnificent work. She was intensely anxious that there should be full equipment for both the wounded and the staff. Often bedding was impossible to procure in sufficient quantity, and the wounded slept on straw. Her Majesty organized house-to-house collections for bedding, and, when the hospital was at Furnes, she gave twenty beds with spring mattresses for the use of the most serious cases.
Once when it had proved exceptionally difficult to get supplies, the Queen, attended by only one lady-in-waiting, went from house to house to see what could be obtained. The inhabitants of the place were for the most part more than willing to give, but the exigencies of war had left them with little. Few recognized the slender, gentle-voiced lady, who pleaded for the wounded soldiers, as their Queen. One good woman, who had given all but the bed on which she herself slept, was so overcome when she learned of her visitor's identity, that she hurried after her up the street, dragging her one mattress behind her as a final offering !
The Queen visited the hospital at Furnes twice regularly every week, and her visits were made without ceremony of any kind. She was never accompanied by more than one lady and, as a rule, by a Belgian medical officer. Her interest in the patients was felt and appreciated by everyone in the hospital.
Her thorough knowledge of surgery and medicine made her able to understand and appreciate the methods of nursing, and she never failed to pay due tribute to the staff for their efforts and for the extraordinary ingenuity with which they carried out serious operations with wholly inadequate materials.
In one hospital in four days there were admitted nearly four hundred patients, many of them with wounds necessitating grave operations, yet all the surgeons had to work with were two scalpels, a finger saw, and a few forceps !
From bed to bed the Queen would pass, a slight figure always plainly clad, usually in black, with a word for each of the men who had suffered in her country's cause. To each she spoke — to Belgians, French, and Germans (for there were usually a few Germans brought in with the rest), as Her Majesty made no distinction. They were suffering ; they had made the supreme sacrifice for what each believed to be the right, and in that place of pain at least there was no room for bitterness.
In the early days of the War, the Queen expressed a hope that Belgian women who could write both English and German would force themselves to forget their wrongs, and, for the sake of humanity, attend hospitals to write letters for prisoners other than Belgians. She realized how the anxiety of many a soldier's home would be alleviated if news, however slight, reached their homes. In the Queen's mind, as in the minds of her noble fellow- workers in the cause of the Red Cross, a wounded man had no nationality ; he suffered, and that was enough to evoke all that was humanly possible to ease his pain, both mental and physical.
Sometimes the King accompanied the Queen on her visits of mercy — always in his soldier's uniform without decorations of any kind. Together they would go round the hospitals, not so much as a King and Queen visiting their subjects, but as a kindly, simple man and woman, eager to do what they could for their fellow-creatures. Her Majesty was deeply interested in the visits which Madame Curie, the world-famed scientist, paid to the hospital at Furnes, where she stayed to work for a week, bringing her X-ray equipment for the use of the hospital. To aid Madame Curie in her much-valued labours on behalf of the wounded, there was fitted up for her a radiographic department with the aid of thick curtains and much brown paper. Here this remarkable woman worked with untiring zeal, taking radiographs of innumerable cases. Her daughter was assiduous in helping to develop the plates, and thus enabled Madame Curie to achieve work of the utmost value.
At a later stage in the War, the Queen took a deep interest in the marvels of plastic surgery, which enabled so many poor fellows to take up their work in the world after leaving the hospital. At one hospital some very severe facial cases were being treated, and the head surgeon, anxious to spare the Queen some terrible sights, begged her not to visit that particular ward. Her Majesty was not, however, to be deterred by the awful disfigurements. "They suffered for their country," she remarked, "and the Queen of that country should be the last to shrink from them." She spoke to each man in turn, pressing his hand in kindly sympathy before she turned away.
Passing month by month from hospital to hospital. Her Majesty constantly encountered those pitiful screams of homeless refugees who, with houses shelled and villages laid waste, straggled to the frontier. They would be met carrying their few poor possessions on their backs, or pushing wearily their hand-carts before them. Little children, hardly old enough to realize the horror which had befallen them, might be seen pushing perambulators filled to overflowing with what could be gathered up of the few remaining household possessions. Old men staggering under sack-loads of clothing and bedding and women burdened with the strangest assortment of miscellaneous goods, were fleeing from misery into darkness. The Queen saw them all, and with tears in her eyes would stop to speak to them as they passed. They could not tell her where they were going, for to half of them their destination was unknown. They only knew that their homes had been destroyed by the enemy and that now they must seek an unknown country and an unknown future.
These processions distressed the Queen even more than the scenes at the hospital, for there at least all that was possible was being done. For these poor refugees there was nothing Her Majesty could do except to give a child a caress or slip some silver coins into a woman's hand. Her Majesty sought no recognition and, in her war work, was content to be taken for an ordinary member of the Red Cross. But to the refugees she would sometimes reveal her identity if she thought that by so doing she could give some slight comfort or even shadow of encouragement to the poor creatures."I will think of you, I will pray for you daily," she would tell them, as they trudged on their desolate road. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Portrait of Princess Clémentine

Princess Clementine

A painting of the youngest daughter of Leopold II, by Emile Wauters (1846-1933).

Thursday, November 10, 2011

November 10, 1926: The Wedding of Leopold and Astrid

Hochzeitsfoto von Astrid von Schweden und Leopold von Belgien / La Reine Astrid
...Je suis heureuse comme tout que tu reviens bientôt. Je t'embrasse de tout coeur. Embrasse notre petit chéri! Ta petite Loulou qui t'adore. 
~Queen Astrid to King Leopold III, August 24, 1935, five days before her death, in a loving message quoted by Michel Verwilghen in Le mythe d'Argenteuil (2006)
Today is the anniversary of the religious wedding of the future King Leopold III and Queen Astrid of the Belgians. On November 4, 1926, Prince Leopold of Belgium, eldest son and heir of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth, had married Princess Astrid of Sweden, niece of King Gustav V, in a civil ceremony in Stockholm. On November 10, the religious wedding followed in Brussels. Both handsome, shy, sensitive, thoughtful, and noble people, Leopold and Astrid had fallen passionately in love. Since Astrid was still a Lutheran, however, a papal dispensation was required for the marriage, and the religious ceremony was limited to a blessing, rather than a Nuptial Mass. The princess also had to promise to raise her children in the Catholic Faith. 

Both sons of Leopold and Astrid, Baudouin and Albert, would become Kings of the Belgians, while their daughter, Josephine-Charlotte, became Grand Duchess of Luxembourg. It is often claimed that Leopold and Astrid also had a fourth, unborn child, who perished together with his mother in the tragic car accident in Küssnacht-am-Rigi, Switzerland on August 29, 1935. Astrid's best friend, Anna Sparre, however, makes no mention of a pregnancy in her account of the queen's death. Apparently, the queen's namesake and biographer, Astrid Bammens, also discounts the rumor, and, certainly, there was never an official announcement of a pregnancy. 

As I have discussed before, Astrid converted to Roman Catholicism four years after her marriage, in August, 1930, a month before the birth of her eldest son, Prince Baudouin. Astrid's childhood friend Anna Sparre relates in her memoir, Vännen min (1985), that the princess took her conversion deeply to heart, writing Anna a sober, sincere letter describing the ceremony and declaring that her decision to become a Catholic gave her peace of soul. Astrid also touchingly described her conversion, and her first Confession, in a letter to her mother, Princess Ingeborg of Sweden, noting her happiness at finally being able to go to Communion with Leopold. Upon becoming engaged to the handsome Belgian prince, a delighted Astrid had written to her youthful religious educator and mentor, the Lutheran Archbishop of Uppsala, Nathan Söderblom, that Leopold's soul was even more beautiful than his appearance. Now, it seems, Astrid was glad to be more fully spiritually united to Leopold, by embracing his religion. It is comforting to think that the young woman who would suffer such a terrible death, only five years later, had attained such purity, peace and joy in her short life.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Little Princess Marie-José

Another precious royal baby.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

October 25, 2001: The Birth of Princess Élisabeth

Yesterday was the tenth birthday of Princess Élisabeth, the eldest daughter of Prince Philippe and Princess Mathilde, and Belgium's first queen regnant-to-be. The royal household issued some new photographs for the occasion.
Best wishes to the Princess and her family!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Carlota and Zita

This is a good article as far as the lives of the holy Emperor Karl of Austria and his family are concerned, but I was rather hurt by the disparaging comparison of poor Carlota of Mexico with Empress Zita:
Carlota, born Princess Charlotte of Belgium, was nearly insane with ambition. Save for her insistence, poor Maximilian, a Romantic dreamer who wished nothing so much as to be able to dream forever, almost certainly would not have accepted the crown of Mexico when it was proffered. Carlota never had a child, or at least none by her husband. After Maximilian was shot the world saw little of her. Driven truly mad by the loss of the Mexican throne, she lived all the long decades of her remaining life in seclusion at one of her family’s chateaux in Belgium, still believing she was a reigning empress.
Coronation Hungary 1916

Friday, October 21, 2011

"A Passion for Self-Sacrifice"

In his biography of Albert I, which I am finding to be quite a bittersweet read, Emile Cammaerts draws a comparison between the Belgian king and one of his relatives on his mother's side,  the martyred hermit Meinrad of Einsiedeln.
Like most royal personages, he had many Christian names: Albert, Leopold, Clément, Marie, Meinrad. Now, St. Meinrad was supposed to be a member of the Hohenzollern family who, after founding the monastery of Einsiedeln in the ninth century, lived for a long time as a hermit in the company of two ravens and a squirrel. His namesake led a very different life, but remained nevertheless fond of solitude, an ardent admirer of monastic and missionary discipline, simple in his habits and frugal in his diet. His devotion to his people had developed into a passion for self-sacrifice. He shared the Saint's untiring patience and courage, with his delicate and almost feminine sympathy not for men only, but for beasts and even for trees (Emile Cammaerts, Albert of Belgium: Defender of Right, Macmillan Company, New York, 1935, p. 423).

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Two Marriages



A Day in the Life

Here is a description of the Royal Family's austere life during the early years of the reign of Albert I, by M. Vital Plas, one of the tutors of the young Princes. In later years, the King and Queen only drank water in private and followed a vegetarian diet. The King also gave up smoking.
The King rose very early and walked in the park, after which he took a light breakfast between 7 and 8 A.M., and began to work. The Queen breakfasted somewhat later. Her children came to her about ten o'clock; they were in the habit of bringing her flowers, this at the King's suggestion...Luncheon was taken at twelve, en famille; some members of the royal household took part in it, and on occasions the King or the Queen invited a visitor who had been received in the morning...There were only two courses and dessert. The King always insisted on a separate course of vegetables which the children were obliged to eat, whether they liked it or not. "It is necessary for your health," he told them. They drank wine mixed with water, or beer, sometimes a glass of champagne, when there was a guest.
Coffee, smoking and talk followed, but the King never allowed the Queen to stay long, as she was ordered to rest for an hour. When she delayed he urged her to go, leading her by the shoulder to the door.
The King resumed work with his secretaries or one of the ministers, and gave audiences until dinner when he had no ceremony to attend. The Queen either received her friends or went to a concert, an art exhibition, a hospital, or visited the sick privately. When they lived at Laeken, which they much preferred to the Brussels palace, they returned as early as possible in the afternoon. The King used to take motor rides in the neighbourhood. Before or after dinner, he and the Queen would walk arm in arm in the park; they visited the children's gardens and the beehives which supplied the Palace with honey.
Dinner was served at seven-thirty; it was frugal and strictly intimate, neither strangers nor members of the household being invited. It was short and the children went to bed soon afterwards. When the parents had not to attend some theatre or concert, they spent the evening reading and retired early. Sometimes there was music. (Quoted by Emile Cammaerts in Albert of Belgium: Defender of Right, Macmillan Company, New York, 1935, pp. 402-403)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Faith

Queen Elisabeth at prayer.

The Life of Albert I

An excellent summary from The Mad Monarchist. I will be discussing Emile Cammaerts' biography of the King soon, so I am pleased to take this opportunity to review the facts of his life.
The future third King of the Belgians was born Prince Albert Leopold Clement Marie Meinrad on April 8, 1875 to Prince Philippe Count of Flanders and Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. On the surface he would have seemed unlikely to ever become a monarch. He was the second son out of five siblings in his own family and his own father was the third son of the first Belgian king. However, after the death of the only son of King Leopold II and the death of his father and older brother Prince Baudouin, Prince Albert became heir to the Belgian throne. He was only 16 when his father became heir to the throne but even by that time he had the makings of a great monarch. His parents ensured that he was well grounded and sincerely religious. He was serious and studied hard and from the first moment he knew he would become king someday he set to work preparing himself for that task. The reputation of the Belgian monarchy had suffered during the reign of Leopold II and Albert was determined, even as a young man, to set a new tone.
Part of this new tone was to be the domestic life of the Royal Family. In 1900 he married Duchess Elisabeth of Bavaria in Munich, beginning what would be a very long, happy and fruitful marriage marked by mutual respect and devotion. The succession was also quickly secured as the following year Princess Elisabeth gave birth to the future King Leopold III. In 1903 another son was born, Prince Charles Theodore, giving Belgium an “heir and a spare”. In 1906 the family was completed with the birth of Princess Maria Jose, the future Queen of Italy. Albert was a very devoted husband and father who set a fine example in his private life. This, in itself, was quite significant given the unhappy marriage of King Leopold II and Queen Marie Henriette of Austria. Together, Albert and Elisabeth would project a united front of domestic fidelity.
Prince Albert also made himself familiar with every section of Belgian society. He studied the problems of the working class and came up with recommendations to improve their working and living conditions. A firm believer in the principle of “go thyself”, in 1909 he traveled to the recently annexed Belgian Congo to see the situation for himself and what conditions were like for the natives. He had, perhaps, learned from the experience of his uncle, King Leopold II, that it was not safe to simply take the word of officials as to what life was like in the central African colony. He took seriously his duties to all of his future subjects, Belgians and Africans alike, and when he returned home presented a detailed report and recommendations on improving the lives of the natives and for further modernization in the Congo. His role in the rapid improvement in conditions in the Congo is not often stated but it was significant.
Later that year, in December 1909, King Leopold II passed away and his nephew was formally sworn in as King Albert I of the Belgians. Whereas Leopold II wanted his reign to be known for grandeur and greatness, King Albert I, at least in his own life, was best known for his simplicity and moderation. He was a hard working monarch not at all enthralled by pomp and ceremony. He was also a very humble man, reluctant to accept any praise or adulation no matter how well deserved. He wanted peace, prosperity and contentment in Belgium but he was not blind to the growing threat across the border in Germany. He tried to strengthen the Belgian army and give them more up-to-date weapons but was hampered by an uncooperative government and the fact that Germany itself was the source of most of their rifles and artillery. In 1912 his generals estimated that it would not be until 1918 that the military was fully prepared to successfully defend the national territory. As we know, Belgium was not to have that long.
In August of 1914 the ultimatum arrived from Germany stating that Belgian neutrality would be violated and that if resistance was met Germany would consider Belgium an enemy. No effective resistance was expected. King Albert I, however, boldly rejected the ultimatum, famously stating that “Belgium is a country, not a road”. A very upright and moral man, he had no other option. Belgium was bound to neutrality by treaty and if the Belgians had simply stood aside and allowed the Germans to pass through in order to attack France this would be a violation of that neutrality, not only by Germany but by Belgium as well as they would be passively cooperating in the invasion of France. Despite the impossible odds arrayed against them, King Albert I took command of the Belgian army and led a heroic defense of his country. The tall, serene soldier-king of “brave little Belgium” was tailor-made for the newspapers of the day and he quickly became a hero amongst the Allied nations for the stubborn defense of his country. The German timetable was upset and French and British forces had just enough time to rally in front of Paris to defeat the invasion force at the First Battle of the Marne.
King Albert, after being forced to withdraw from Antwerp, pulled back behind the Yser River and established a defensive line on the last corner of his native soil from which the Germans could never dislodge them. It was important to him to remain at the front, with his soldiers, on Belgian soil. He oversaw the rebuilding of the army which had been shattered in the initial invasion and in time they were better armed and equipped than they were at the outset. This was an extraordinary feat considering that almost the entire country was under German occupation and the sector the Belgians had to defend, the Flanders coast, was easily the most miserable on the western front, low, open and constantly waterlogged. As commander-in-chief he also had to oversee the operations of the Belgian colonial forces in Africa, where they met much success. It was a very trying time for the King, but his deep and sincere faith helped sustain him. A devout Catholic, King Albert impressed the importance of religion on his children and when Pope Benedict XV called for a peaceful end to the war he was the only Allied head-of-state to take the issue seriously. Unfortunately, his efforts to arrange peace with the Emperor Charles of Austria-Hungary were thwarted by the other Allied powers.
In 1918, since Belgian troops could only legally be commanded by their King, Albert was made commander of “Army Group Flanders” made up of the Belgian army and elements of the British II Army and French VI Army and he led these forces in a series of successful advances as part of the overall “Grand Offensive” or “Hundred Days Offensive” which brought the war to a successful conclusion by the Allies. There were wild celebrations in Brussels as the King rode in at the head of his army to liberate the country. However, there was no rest for the King as he immediately set to work rebuilding the devastated Belgian economy. He implemented government reforms such as universal suffrage and at the peace conference in Paris obtained reparations payments for Belgium but also showed his magnanimity by opposing overly-harsh treatment of the Germans. He could see, if none of his fellow Allied heads of state could, that the downfall of the German princes and the dissolution of the Hapsburg empire would dangerously destabilize all of central Europe. Alas, his warnings in this area went unheeded.
The interwar years were a period of recovery and King Albert I was kept very busy. He became the first reigning European monarch to visit the United States, paying tribute to the men of the AEF who helped clinch the Allied victory in the war, he opened the first national park in Africa in the Belgian Congo and he showed solidarity with the Dutch-speaking community of Flanders whose region had suffered the most in the war. He also saw his son Leopold married to Princess Astrid of Sweden and his daughter married to Crown Prince Umberto of Italy. When he did have some time for himself he loved mountain climbing. He was climbing in the Ardennes, near Namur, when, on February 17, 1934 he died in a tragic accident. His sudden death was a cause of great mourning and it is probably accurate to say that he was the most beloved King the Belgians ever had up to that time. He was upright, hard working, devoted to his God, his family and his country, courageous in the face of disaster and humble in the face of praise and adulation. He was a great man and a great king.

A Tribute to Leopold III

Beautifully made, with some wonderful live footage, very stirring.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

October 11, 1927: The Birth of Princess Josephine-Charlotte

I had never noticed before that the first child of King Leopold III and Queen Astrid , the older sister of Kings Baudouin and Albert II, and the future Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, came into the world just a day after her uncle, Prince Charles of Belgium, celebrated his birthday.

Monday, October 10, 2011

October 10, 1903: The Birth of Prince Charles


Today is the birthday of Prince Charles Theodore Henri Antoine Meinrad, the second son of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth, and the younger brother of King Leopold III, in whose stead he reigned from 1944-1950. The spare heir was named after his philanthropic maternal grandfather, Duke Karl-Theodor in Bavaria. Unfortunately, however, as I have mentioned before, I find Charles of Belgium to have been a far less admirable character. Nonetheless, the birth of the future Regent deserves to be commemorated.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Lilian's Deer

Like her husband, King Leopold III, Princess Lilian of Belgium loved nature. For years, she faithfully tended a large herd of deer in the magnificent park at Argenteuil. (Two finely carved marble stags with bronze antlers crowned with gilded stars, designed at Lilian's request and mounted on plinths, also adorned the esplanade behind the chateau). Visiting the park and admiring the herd became a hospitable ritual for the Princess' guests, as described poetically by journalists Marcel Jullian and Claude Désiré in Un couple dans la tempête (2004). Even in her old age, the frail but intrepid Lilian continued to care personally for the herd, feeding the animals as part of her afternoon routine. 

On October 22, 1997, as related by Michel Verwilghen in Le mythe d'Argenteuil (2006), her temerity in this regard led to a serious accident. As she was emptying a bucket of grain onto the soil, an elderly stag, one of her favorites, whom she called "my friend",  hurtled the Princess into the air with his antlers. Miraculously, she managed to avoid being stabbed, but fell to the ground, badly bruised and unconscious. After some time, she revived, but found herself unable to rise, her hips and shoulders in sharp pain. No help was at hand, since Lilian had left the chateau alone. Weakly, between fainting spells, she called for assistance, but the staff of Argenteuil, hundreds of meters away, could not hear her. 

Towards evening, however, two worried gendarmes, Henri Dutrieux and Alain Pierlot, began a search for their missing mistress. Around the corner from her car, amidst a few deer ambling peacefully through the grass, they found the Princess, immobilized on the ground, where she had been suffering for over an hour. Still lucid, however, Lilian herself gave instructions as to her care. A gendarme returned to the chateau to sound the alert and to find a stretcher, where the Princess was cautiously placed. Transported by ambulance to the Cliniques Universitaires Saint-Luc, she was diagnosed with a fractured hip and right shoulder and hospitalized for over a month, while her loyal housekeeper, Madame Jeannine, remained comfortingly at her side. After returning home, Lilian had to spend a few more weeks confined to her room. 

Barely recovered, however, the Princess fearlessly resumed her evening ritual of feeding the deer, even offering them apples by hand. Unable to dissuade her from going out alone, her anxious entourage gave her a portable telephone, but she never used it. Meanwhile, she continued to suffer from the scars of the accident. Despite physical therapy, her right arm and hand remained stiff and painful. Writing even a few words became difficult. Relief finally came, in a mysterious manner, after an injection in the biceps to prepare for cataract surgery. Always curious about medicine, the Princess asked various specialists why this apparently unrelated treatment might have soothed her arm, but nobody had a rational explanation for the pleasant surprise. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Smiling Astrid

A Valiant Woman

Here is my article on Queen Elisabeth at Lost in the Myths of History. In addition, here is a vignette from M. Poincaré after a visit to La Panne in November 1914, following the Battle of the Yser, during the Great War:
"I enter a bright drawing-room very simply furnished. The Queen, dressed all in white, receives me most graciously. Delicate and frail, it seems as if she should have been broken by the storm; but she has an indomitable soul; she has given herself wholly to her husband, her children and Belgium. She only lives for her family and her adopted country. She talks to me of the war with unflinching resolution. The young Princes and the little Princess are in England. She telegraphs to them every day, using a cable jealously guarded by our French soldiers, and she mentions this with gratitude. This royal misfortune so valiantly borne, in the bright surroundings of this seaside resort, seems at the same time imposing and pathetic."(Quoted by Emile Cammaerts in Albert of Belgium: Defender of Right, Macmillan Company, New York, 1935, p. 269)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Little Prince Albert

Here are some recollections of the future Roi Chevalier, by a German governess, who knew him as a child from 1877 to 1882. After his death in a mountaineering accident in 1934, she published her recollections:
My thoughts sadly linger on the young boy who passed a happy youth in Brussels in his father's Palace. The family usually spent the summer at the Amerois, and the little Prince's greatest joy was to romp in the meadows and among the bushes. He sometimes built small waterfalls by piling up stones across the brooks. He was absorbed in his games. Among my memories I see his crude drawings: trees and flowers, but mostly engines and railways. I still hear him, standing on a train made of chairs, his hair waving in the wind, shouting 'Départ pour Charleroi!' blowing his whistle and urging little Princess Joséphine to take her seat.
A great refinement of feeling, simplicity, kindness and a strong sense of justice, which distinguished his parents, were already noticeable in the child. All those who knew him remarked on his frankness; nothing would have induced him to tell a lie- a good omen for the future. (Quoted by Emile Cammaerts in Albert of Belgium: Defender of Right,  Macmillan Company, New York, 1935, p. 36)
These tender thoughts somehow seem especially poignant coming from a German, in the light of the fate of Belgium in the world wars.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sisi and Valerie

My post on Queen Elisabeth's aunt and cousin at Lost in the Myths of History.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Young Princess Elisabeth


Today, the Feast of the Guardian Angels, is her wedding anniversary.
The Princess, slight and tender, looked less than her height by the side of her stalwart fiance, who smiled tenderly down at her as the cheers of the crowd rose again and again. One chronicler described the Princess as being "small for a Queen," but true queenliness is an affair of spirit rather than of the body. Time has shown that, in the most trying circumstances, Queen Elizabeth has exhibited a truly regal dignity and a bearing that proclaims her Royal by more than birth. With delicate but regular features, her soft colour heightened by the emotions of the occasion, her chestnut hair surrounded by a diamond diadem,  she presented a radiant figure in her ermine mantle which she later removed to reveal her flowered silk robe. She made a lovely picture, which none who saw her that night will ever forget.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Lady with a Bouquet

Friday, September 30, 2011

Splendor of the House of Orléans

A few images of the in-laws of King Leopold I. Above, we see Ferdinand-Philippe, the eldest son and heir of King Louis-Philippe who died in a dreadful carriage accident. Below are Ferdinand-Philippe's younger brother, Louis, Duc de Nemours, and his wife, Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Koháry.
Two Victorias: the iconic British monarch (right) with her cousin, the wife of the Duc de Nemours.

Princess Clémentine, the youngest sister of Queen Louise-Marie of the Belgians. Apparently, while still a child, Clémentine's grace and dignity aroused the admiration of King Charles X of France, whose throne her father would later take. At a ball at the Palais Royal, the home of the Orléans family, the King is said to have remarked to Louis-Philippe, shortly before the July Revolution: "Were I thirty years younger, your daughter would be Queen of France." 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Faith of the Duc de Nemours

Here is a description of the second eldest brother of Queen Louise-Marie, Prince Louis, Duc de Nemours, who was once considered a candidate for the Belgian throne, prior to the choice of Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. According to the oral tradition of the Orléans family, his mother prayed, during his childhood, that he would become "another St. Louis".
The Duc de Nemours was the one who responded most of all to his mother's religious teaching. After his death his biographer, the academician, René Bazin, said, speaking of his noble life: "To what did he owe his unflinching pursuit of the ideal, his firmness and dignity in all vicissitudes? To his birth a little, but chiefly to his faith. His royal blood gave him the natural instinct to serve his country; the Catholic religion prevented his being deceived as to the best means of serving her, or from shrinking from the severity and duration of the service demanded. The Duc de Nemours was a believer, and acted up to his belief. He loved the ancient liturgy, the tradition and ritual of his church. He spoke little of his profoundest feelings, but he lived them, and they consoled him in the hour of death." (C. C. Dyson, The Life of Marie-Amélie last queen of the French, 1782-1866, 1910, p. 167)

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Black and Gold

In contrast to the charming Dalton miniature of Queen Louise-Marie, we have this rather grim portrait of her husband, King Leopold I. I like the contrast between the black and the gold. The portrait also aptly conveys Leopold's melancholy in later life, as described by Charlotte Brontë in her novel, Villette, inspired by her experiences in Belgium:
Well do I recall that King—a man of fifty, a little bowed, a little gray ; there was no face in all that assembly which resembled his. I had never read, never been told anything of his nature or his habits : and at first the strong hieroglyphics graven as with iron stylet on his brow, round his eyes, beside his mouth, puzzled and baffled instinct. Ere long, however, if I did not know, at least I felt, the meaning of those characters written without hand. There sat a silent sufferer—a nervous, melancholy man...
Some might say it was the foreign crown pressing the King's brows which bent them to that peculiar and painful fold; some might quote the effects of early bereavement. Something there might be of both these, but these as embittered by that darkest foe of humanity—constitutional melancholy.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Miniature of Queen Louise-Marie

Louise of Orleans Dalton 1840
Commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1840, this miniature watercolor on ivory is the work of Magdalena Dalton, née Ross. After Louise-Marie's death in 1850, King Leopold I wrote to his niece in an effort to locate the Ross miniature of his wife "with red ribbands in her hair". Victoria responded that the original was with Louise-Marie's mother, the former Queen of the French, Marie-Amélie. Listing several other copies, Victoria offered to help Leopold obtain one if he so desired. 

Victoria had worn a miniature of "Aunt Louise" in a bracelet even before meeting her for the first time in 1835. As I have mentioned before, the two queens were close. In her journal, Victoria described Louise-Marie as follows : "so kind & good; the more one sees her, the more one must love her; she is so thoroughly unselfish," adding that the Belgian queen was "the dearest friend, after my beloved Albert, I have." High praise, surely!

September 25, 1983: The Death of Leopold III

On September 25, 1983, Leopold III, King of the Belgians from 1934 to 1951, died suddenly, at the age of 81, after a heart operation at the Cliniques Universitaires Saint-Luc, in Woluwé-Saint-Lambert. His loss was a great grief to his family, particularly to his loyal wife, Princess Lilian, and to his beloved youngest daughter and confidante, Princess Esmeralda, who was only 26 at the time. Although his old enemies, the socialists, boycotted the ceremonies held in his honor, his death was also a deep sorrow to many of his people, especially his veterans, who had fought and suffered with him in World War II. 

By a sad coincidence, the King passed away only three months after his younger brother, Prince Charles, Regent of Belgium from 1944 to 1950, with whom he had never truly been reconciled since the tragic divisions of the Royal Question. Despite their long estrangement, Charles' death had deeply affected Leopold, as noted by Princess Esmeralda in a recent television documentary. For the first time since his abdication, he had returned to the Royal Palace, the scene of so many of the most painful memories of his troubled reign, to pay his last respects to Charles privately, at his lying-in-state. (Neither Leopold nor Lilian would attend Charles' state funeral; Alexandre and Esmeralda represented their father on this occasion). An aide-de-camp, Colonel Guy Weber, saw the King praying before his brother's bier, pale, deeply moved, his hands trembling. Leopold returned to Argenteuil sad and tired. The death of a younger family member also seems to have reminded him all the more keenly of his own mortality. Always an avid photographer, he took a picture of Alexandre and Esmeralda in mourning, explaining he wanted to be able to imagine how they would appear the day of his own funeral...

Only a few months later, Leopold would follow his brother into eternity. His widow, however, would survive him for nearly two decades, piously cultivating his memory at Argenteuil. Her passing, on June 7, 2002, exactly one year after publishing her husband's account of the crises of his reign, Pour l'Histoire, would signify the end of an era; in a sense, the closing of the chapter of the Royal Question.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Elisabeth and Astrid

These are two of my favorite photographs of two of my favorite queens of all time, Elisabeth and Astrid of Belgium, who were mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. They had much in common. Both were devoted wives to their kings. Each had three children, two sons and a daughter. Each was charitable and beloved by the people. It is ironic, though, that Astrid became so much more popular than Elisabeth, since Elisabeth did much more for the country than Astrid was able to do in her short time as crown princess and queen.