Princess Marie was a member of the non-reigning, Catholic branch of the Hohenzollern family; this made King Albert a relative of Kaiser Wilhelm II, his opponent during World War I. Marie's brother, Karl, was elected King of Romania, as Carol I, founding a new royal dynasty.
Marie spent her childhood in the austere castle of Sigmaringen; a strict sense of duty was inculcated in her at an early age. Queen Victoria of England arranged her marriage to Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders, the second son of King Leopold I of the Belgians. The Count and Countess divided their time between the Palace of Flanders in Brussels, near the royal palace, and their country estate, Les Amerois, in the Ardennes.
Marie-José remembered the Countess of Flanders as a kind and loving grandmother:
Chez Grand-Maman, il y avait beaucoup de jeunesse, on pouvait rire et s'amuser en toute liberté. Myope et timide, la bonté même, elle nous laissait gambader, courir et faire des sottises sans jamais nous réprimander, même lorsque mes frères eurent l'idée saugrenue d'enduire de beurre un des trois loulous qui graissa tout sur son passage, jusqu'aux froufrous des dames d'honneur!
In Grandmother, there was a great deal of youth, we could laugh and enjoy ourselves with full freedom. Near-sighted and shy, kindness itself, she let us leap about, run, and do silly things, without ever reprimanding us, even when my brothers had the bizarre idea to coat with butter one of the three little dogs, who greased everything in its path, including the frilly dresses of the ladies-in-waiting!
Princess Marie was a gifted artist. At the Amerois, she would spend hours working on etchings and paintings of the countryside. Her love of nature was inherited by her son, King Albert. It is interesting to note that Marie's grandson, Prince Charles of Belgium, was also an amateur painter, his talent probably came from his grandmother.
One of the Countess' sketches
Princess Marie had a strong, upright, and devout character. She raised her children with a rigorous sense of the duties of their privileged position. Her charity and generosity towards the poor were proverbial. A deeply religious person, she was very concerned to preserve the moral purity of her children. Unfortunately, her brother-in-law, King Leopold II, was known for his irregular private life; it is said that the Countess would not allow his mistress' name to be mentioned in front of her daughters. Similarly, she disliked it when her son, Albert, associated with his uncle; she feared that Leopold would be a corrupting influence on the young Prince.
Preoccupied, from his youth, with questions of political and social progress, Albert regretted his inability to discuss these issues with his mother; it seems that the two generations held quite different views. Princess Marie's deep Catholic faith, and conservative opinions, placed her in opposition to Albert's very liberal tutors, whereas young Albert was interested in the new ideas.
Nonetheless, King Albert always spoke of his mother with veneration. Even in his last days, he would still recall the moral teaching she had given him, noting, especially, that she had taught him simplicity. Furthermore, despite his liberal education, Albert was always a practicing Catholic, and, in the years immediately preceding his accession to the throne, developed a very deep and tender piety. He surely derived this piety from his mother, as well as from one of his tutors, who was, actually, a fervent Catholic, General de Grunne. (The King's biographer, Charles d'Ydewalle, underscores De Grunne's religious idealism: "He came to the Machine Age clad in the spiritual armor of the thirteenth century, with the heart and mind of a crusader.")
Marie-José summed up the traits Albert derived from his mother:
De cette mère il avait... hérité les vertus dominantes: sens du devoir, droiture, modestie, tout comme la grande pudeur de ses sentiments, l'absence totale du souci de paraître, le mépris de toute coquetterie, à tel point qu'une personne de la Cour déclara un jour que mon père devait prendre des leçons de vanité!...De sa mère...quelque chose dans le regard de direct et doux: tous deux étaient myopes.
From this mother, he had...inherited his dominant virtues: sense of duty, integrity, modesty, as well as his delicate discretion in expressing his feelings, his total lack of concern for appearances, his contempt for all flirtation, to the point that a courtier declared, one day, that my father should take lessons in vanity!...From his mother....something direct and gentle in his eyes; both were near-sighted.
A good mother is so important....
The Countess with her grand-daughter, Marie-José
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D'Ydewalle, Charles. Albert and the Belgians: Portrait of a King.
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Maria José, Queen, Consort of Umberto II, King of Italy. Albert et Elisabeth de Belgique, mes parents.