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, class, ethnicity, and religion. Young Prince Albert anticipated all the difficulties of his future position. His daughter, Marie-José, in her memoirs, quotes a letter he wrote his wife, Elisabeth, not long before his accession. In the letter, he implores her aid and support (which she gave him wholeheartedly) 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:
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 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 a high ambition, and the recompense for many pains...
Albert saw Elisabeth's collaboration as essential in carrying out his task:
You have everything necessary to fulfill the role of 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 that unites us and could find such fruitful new avenues.
Despite the sacrifice it involved, Albert undertook his role with idealism and hope:
Embellished by work and effort, I believe 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, one even closes one's eyes, once and for all, having earned tranquillity and peace of conscience.
A very serious King.
(the quotes in the original French, taken from Marie-José's memoirs, may be found here)