Not long before ascending the throne, Albert of Belgium wrote to his sister, Princess Josephine: "I hope that this Cross, a so-called 'crowned' state in life (cette croix qui est une situation dite 'couronnée,' ) does not fall too soon upon my shoulders." He did not view his kingship as a pleasure, but rather as a duty.
All too often, monarchs are portrayed as a useless burden on their country, living in luxury at the people's expense. It is forgotten that a sovereign's position entails a great deal of sacrifice. Who would want to devote his or her whole life to complex and difficult questions of public policy, war, and peace? To be surrounded by intriguing courtiers and politicians?
These difficulties are compounded in the case of a country like that which Albert inherited in 1909. Belgium was small, weak, surrounded by predatory neighbors, divided by language, ethnicity, class, and religion. Young Prince Albert anticipated all the difficulties of his future position. His daughter, Marie-José, quotes, in her memoirs, a letter he wrote his wife, Elisabeth, shortly before ascending the throne. In the letter, he implores her aid and support (which she gave him wholeheartedly) in fulfilling the duties of kingship, as he cannot trust anyone else.
Despite his realistic understanding of the difficulties he would face as King, Albert undertook the role courageously. In the years and months before his accession, he strenuously and thoughtfully strove to prepare himself for rulership. Some excerpts from his letters to Elisabeth illustrate his state of mind:
"Je ne puis le dissimuler, le moment est venu de travailler jusqu'à crever pour acquérir, non pas une capacité, ce qui est impossible, mais un savoir suffisant pour exclure du moins le ridicule de la fonction que la fatalité doit m'infliger plus tard.Je crois, j'espère que je saurai me mettre au travail, j'entends par là, n'avoir plus d'autre objectif que ce qui se rapporte au perfectionnement de soi-même. Si pourtant j'arrivais malgré tout à me rendre utile à mon pays, ce serait la réalisation d'une bien haute ambition et la recompense de bien de peines...""I cannot deny it, the time has come to work to exhaustion, in order to acquire, not an ability, which is impossible, but a knowledge sufficient to exclude, at least, ridicule from the function which destiny will inflict on me in the future.I believe, I hope that I will be able to put myself to work, I mean by that, no longer to have any other objective than that which relates to self-improvement. But if I could succeed, despite everything, in rendering myself useful to my country, it would be the fulfillment of quite a high ambition, and the recompense of many pains... "
Albert saw Elisabeth's collaboration as essential in carrying out his task:
"Tu as tout pour remplir le rôle de reine: coeur, intelligence, tact, et grâce. Fais-le! C'est vraiment du fond du coeur un appel que je t'adresse au nom de l'amour si sincère qui nous unit et qui pourrait trouver des voies nouvelles si fécondes.""You have everything necessary to fulfill the role of a Queen: heart, intelligence, tact, and grace. Do it! It is, truly, an appeal from the depths of my heart, that which I address to you, in the name of the sincere love which unites us and which could find such fruitful new avenues."
Despite the sacrifice it involved, Albert undertook his role with idealism and hope.
"Embellie par le travail et l'effort, je crois que la vie devient plus belle. C'est le combat de tous les jours: on poursuit un idéal, on va vers un but, on finit, je crois, par savoir ce que l'on veut, et j'imagine même qu'on ferme une fois les yeux ayant mérité la tranquillité et le repos de la conscience.""Embellished by work and effort, I believe that life becomes more beautiful. It is the battle of every day; one pursues an ideal, one goes toward a goal, in the end, I believe, one comes to know what one is seeking, and, I imagine, that one even closes one's eyes, once and for all, having earned tranquillity and peace of conscience."
A very serious King.