Recently, I posted on Queen Astrid and Diana, Princess of Wales, who are all too often falsely compared. Today, I would like to discuss another pair of tragic royal women- Queen Astrid and Princess Lilian of Belgium- who are all too often falsely contrasted.
A black legend has pursued Lilian, just as a golden legend has surrounded Astrid. Lilian has been portrayed as devilishly scheming, selfish and ambitious; Astrid, as angelically innocent, altruistic and humble. Leopold III has been accused of betraying Astrid's memory by marrying Lilian; one would think he had divorced the Queen to wed the alluring young commoner...
Despite some striking differences, however, Astrid and Lilian were similar in many ways. The contrasts are obvious. Astrid was born a Swedish princess; Lilian, a Flemish commoner. Shy, quiet, and emotionally vulnerable, Astrid gradually grew in confidence after her marriage. Bold, assertive, and incredibly resilient, Lilian became hesitant and indecisive with the passing of the years; many bitter experiences of betrayal had left her unsure of whose advice to trust. Astrid died violently at the tragically young age of 29; Lilian passed away peacefully at 85.
Nonetheless, there are many parallels between the two ladies. Both tall, slim brunettes, Astrid and Lilian shared remarkable beauty, intelligence, elegance and charm. Both were devoted wives to King Leopold III, and each bore him three children. Both mothers strove to provide the royal family with a tender home environment. Each was also deeply concerned with the plight of the less fortunate. During the economic crisis of the 1930's, Astrid was famous for her charity work. After her son's heart operation, in 1958, Lilian took a great interest in cardiac patients, and established a Cardiological Foundation which has saved the lives of thousands of people.
Both Astrid and Lilian were noble, warm and loving women. True, Lilian was undeniably a stricter, more demanding, and less understanding character. Yet, she was not the "iron woman" of the black legend, she, like Astrid, had a sensitive and tender heart. When her first grandchild, Alexandra, was presented to her, she dissolved in emotion before the baby. It is important to remember that Astrid had a strict side as well; the golden legend shrouding her memory has sometimes reduced her to an image of saccharine sweetness. Her childhood friend, Anna Sparre, however, recalled that the apparently timid and fragile young woman could, on occasion, be swiftly transformed into a "goddess of Justice," fierce and stern, when she had to defend a wronged loved one (Sparre, p. 114).
Finally, Astrid and Lilian shared profound religious faith. Raised as a Lutheran, Astrid converted to Catholicism out of deep conviction, confiding to Anna: "My soul has found peace" (Sparre, p. 128). Despite many portrayals of Lilian as merely a glamorous, sophisticated worldling, she was also very religious. At a commemorative service after her death, one of her chaplains testified to her deep faith and remembered that she had earnestly asked him one day: "How should a Christian view death?" She had listened to his reply very attentively, at length, and, afterwards, had asked him to deliver the sermon at her funeral (Verwilghen, p. 63).
In "Souvenirs de la Princesse Lilian," an article published, on October 29, 2003, in La Libre Belgique, Jacques Franck remembered the Princess in moving terms:
Le temps permettra-t-il jamais de faire le vrai portrait de la femme qui disait encore, quelques semaines avant de mourir, « personne ne me connaît»? Rien de ce qui a paru sur elle jusqu'à ce jour ne rend justice à la richesse de sa personnalité, l'étendue de sa culture dans plusieurs domaines, la force de son caractère, le charme de sa présence, la délicatesse de sa bonté, que peuvent attester aussi bien sa femme de chambre Janine, qui resta 51 ans à son service, que les gendarmes qui assuraient la protection d'Argenteuil, enfin sa terrible exigence envers elle-même qui avait entraîné une incontestable exigence envers les autres: qui n'a pas les défauts de ses qualités?
Will time ever permit there to be drawn, the true portrait of the woman who was still saying, a few weeks before she died, "nobody knows me?" Nothing which has been written on her, hitherto, does justice to the richness of her personality, the breadth of her culture in many fields, the strength of her character, the charm of her presence, the delicacy of her kindness, which can be attested to by her chambermaid, Janine, who remained in her service for 51 years, as well as by the guards who provided the security at Argenteuil- finally, her terrible strictness towards herself, which led to an undeniable strictness towards others: who does not have the vices of their virtues?
Astrid became an icon of the ideal royal consort; Lilian, a target for the vilest of anti-monarchist attacks. What is the true contrast between the two women? Perhaps, that the Queen's goodness has been generally acknowledged, while the Princess', tragically, has been denied, neglected, outraged.
Sparre, Anna. Astrid mon amie. 2005
Verwilghen, Michel. Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal. 2006.