Like her sisters, Stephanie and Clementine, Louise suffered from an unhappy childhood, marked by her parents' matrimonial discord. The girls' upbringing was cold and harsh. Their father was a glacial, autocratic, distant figure; bitterly disappointed by the loss of his son and heir, he had little love to spare for his daughters. Their mother was naturally blithe and charming, but, suffering deeply from her husband's coldness and flagrant infidelity, became a much grimmer character. She imposed an iron discipline on her daughters, insisting on impeccable conduct and severely punishing any transgression. (Stephanie, in her memoirs, later recalled being forced to kneel for protracted periods of time on dried peas with bare knees, and being locked up in a dark room for hours or even days). The girls received an "English upbringing," sleeping on hard beds, taking cold baths and living in spartan rooms.
Queen Marie-Henriette, however, was, at least, a more loving parent than King Leopold. Sincerely concerned for her children's spiritual welfare, she tried (with varying success) to inculcate her profound (even if stern and rigid) piety in the young princesses. She told them stories of her happy youth in Hungary, and entertained them by playing Hungarian gypsy music. She gave them a glimpse of her glamorous official life- before leaving for a state occasion, she would sometimes visit the girls, clad in her finery, a fairy-tale vision of regal splendor that moved little Louise to tears.
At 17, Louise married her second cousin, Prince Philip of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. It was, typically for the period, a purely political match, traumatic from the start. Even the wedding night was a fiasco, as nobody had instructed the poor girl in her marital duties. Traumatized, she fled the bridal chamber, escaping to the Laeken greenhouses. Philip tried to make his bride relax with alcohol and erotic art and literature. Under his tutelage, the timid and naïve young girl was transformed into a glamorous and sophisticated woman of the world. The couple settled at the Viennese court and had two children, Leopold and Dorothea. Sadly, repeating her parents' mistakes, Louise was a cold and distant mother. Her marriage also proved deeply unhappy. Like her mother, Louise found herself married to an autocratic and promiscuous man. Lively and spirited (and, apparently, quite oblivious to morality and propriety), she rebelled by flirting with abandon and taking lovers.
In 1895, Louise became romantically involved with a Croatian officer, Count Geza Mattachich, ten years her junior. They began a passionate affair. Louise wanted to divorce Philip and live freely with Geza. Her parents were horrified by the public scandal. The cynical King Leopold advised her to keep her affairs discreet, while the pious Queen Marie-Henriette desperately tried to remind her of her duties to God and family. It was all in vain. Louise was determined to live openly with her lover, and eloped with him to Nice. Prince Philip pursued the pair and challenged Mattachich to a duel, but was wounded and returned home in disgrace.
Meanwhile, Louise's extravagant expenses had landed her hopelessly in debt. Her estranged family refused to help. Desperate for money, she was forced to publicly sell all her belongings. Even so, she was short of funds and resorted to buying jewelry on credit and then selling it immediately at half price for cash. She even forged her sister Stephanie's signature on promissory notes when the shops refused to accept her own. Nevertheless, she could not satisfy her creditors, who finally burst into her home and seized everything they could find.
The lovers decided to return to Austria in secret. They took refuge in Mattachich's step-father's castle in the Croatian mountains. The authorities, however, discovered their whereabouts and plotted to arrest the pair. Mattachich was ordered to Zagreb for a medical check-up, apprehended upon his arrival, and, without any evidence, sentenced to six years' imprisonment for embezzlement. To halt her escapades, Louise was forced into a lunatic asylum. During her confinement, she was largely ignored by her family. Stephanie maintained secret communication with her sister, and her aunt, the Countess of Flanders (mother of King Albert I) tried to help her, but her other relatives abandoned Louise to her fate.
After four years in jail, Mattachich was rehabilitated and released. He traveled to Linderhof, Saxony, where Louise was confined, and engineered her escape. Together, the lovers fled to Paris. Utterly destitute, they lived in an attic. Emperor Franz Josef tried to persuade King Leopold to pay his daughter's debts, but he coldly replied: "My daughter is dead." After Queen Marie-Henriette's death, in 1902, the miserly King denied his daughters their share of their mother's inheritance. Louise and Stephanie sued their father in court, demanding half his capital, but lost the case. The princesses, however, had gained popular sympathy, and, to appease the violent criticism of his financial dealings, Leopold offered Louise a country estate and an annuity of 50,000 francs if she would leave her lover. She obstinately refused.
In 1907, a court in Gotha finally granted Philip and Louise a divorce. The lovers continued to struggle with financial problems. When King Leopold died in 1909, he left most of his fortune to his last mistress (whom he had, eventually, married morganatically), Madame Vaughan, and to Belgium (via a new foundation, the "Royal Trust.") The princesses were denied their share, and Louise and Stephanie tried to contest the settlement by suing the Belgian state. Again, they lost in court, but, in 1913, the government assigned them a sum of 6 million francs. The outbreak of World War I, however, delayed the payment of the money. During the war, Louise and Geza suffered many vicissitudes, living first in Germany and later in Hungary.
After the return of peace, the pair moved back to Paris. Louise wrote her memoirs, attempting to clear her name. In 1923, Geza died. On March 1, 1924, Louise passed away. Defiant to the end, she clasped a picture of Geza to her heart as she lay dying. Shortly before, she had written: "I knew much misery, humiliation, and physical pain, but I also knew love, and whatever adversities I faced, when you had real love in your life you can say you truly lived."
May God have mercy on her. Louise's wild life reminds us that truth is stranger than fiction!
Princess Louise of Belgium: "Eve after the Fall of Man," published at The Royal Articles.
Louise, Princess of Belgium, My Own Affairs, translated by Maude M.C. Ffoulkes: 1921
Gubin, Eliane, Dupont-Bouchat, Marie-Sylvie. Dictionnaire des femmes belges. 2006.