Monday, December 6, 2010

The Queen Who Never Was

Today is the anniversary of the civil wedding of Leopold III and Lilian Baels. The ceremony took place on December 6, 1941, less than three months after the couple's secret, religious wedding in the chapel of Laeken. Lilian was already expecting her first child, Prince Alexandre, who would be born in July, 1942. Leopold and Lilian had reversed the normal order, prescribed by the Belgian Constitution, of the civil and religious wedding ceremonies, and the King would later be severely castigated for this violation of the law. Given the bizarre, difficult circumstances, however, the irregularity was understandable. The King was a prisoner of war; the country was occupied by the Nazis, who might not even permit a royal marriage to take place. The government, whose approval was needed for a dynastic union, was in exile in London. The suffering Belgians might resent their King's idyll. By opting, initially, for a simply sacramental marriage, the couple had hoped to conceal their union until the return of peace. The bride's pregnancy, however, made it impossible. 

Yet, amidst war and occupation, in the government's absence, the King did not think it appropriate to impose a new Queen and new royal heirs upon the country. As Cardinal van Roey, Archbishop of Malines, emphasized in his pastoral letter of December 6, 1941, Lilian herself had renounced the title and rank of Queen. In a similar vein, the King drew up a document, declaring his desire that none of the descendants of his second marriage should have the right to succeed to the throne. By contrast, his new bride and their children should have the right to all of his other ancestral titles; Royal Highness, Prince and Princess of Belgium, Duke and Duchess of Saxony, Prince and Princess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. (For mentioning his German titles, the King was later, ridiculously, accused of harboring traitorous, Hitlerite sympathies!) 

In constitutional terms, however, Leopold and Lilian lacked the authority, on their own, to decide matters of regal status and succession. Accordingly, the King added: "As soon as my liberty as a Sovereign is restored to me, I will ask the Government of the time to realize my intentions legally." Strangely, the King's intentions would not be realized legally for fifty years. During a constitutional revision in 1991, Prime Minister Wilfried Martens would finally clarify the issue, officially stating that the offspring of Leopold and Lilian had no rights to the throne.

After the civil ceremony, the King introduced his three eldest children, Princess Josephine-Charlotte, Prince Baudouin, and Prince Albert to their new step-mother. The children adored the beautiful, clever, vivacious young woman and immediately started calling her maman. By all accounts, it was the beginning of nearly twenty years of a close, tender family life, happily restored after the tragedy of Queen Astrid's death. The Queen Mother, Elisabeth of Bavaria, was also very fond of Lilian.

Outside the gates of Laeken, news of the wedding provoked mixed reactions. Some Belgians reproached Leopold for considering his personal happiness at a time of national disaster, others sympathized with his situation, sending flowers and congratulations to the palace. Unfortunately, however, the marriage would prove to be an important tool in the hands of the King's political opponents, particularly after the war. Rather like Queen Marie-Antoinette of France, Princess Lilian of Belgium was viciously vilified, by politicians and journalists bent upon toppling her husband, as the maleficent beauty behind the throne, as a veritable Whore of Babylon! 

5 comments:

MadMonarchist said...

This aspect of the European legal system always baffled me. Where I live if a legitimate clergyman declares you man & wife the law says you are married. Of course it also never made sense to me that someone could be entrusted with the job of being sovereign of a nation but not trusted to choose his own wife without government approval.

Theresa Bruno said...

I applaud King Leopold for proceeding with his wedding delicately. While I can see that some people would be bitter that their king remarried in a time of war, I would have found it a happy diversion from the horrors of World War II.

Love happens, despite war and hardship. You can hardly expect anyone not to marry their beloved during a time of war, royal or not.

Matterhorn said...

MM, I also don't understand this insistence on having a civil marriage first. As for the government approval, it was not really even specifically required by the constitution, but came from an interpretation of the rule to the effect that no "political" act of the King would have validity without ministerial approval. A dynastic marriage was seen by many jurists as such an act.

Theresa, I agree, I would have also found it a hopeful moment. And at that time, nobody knew how long the war would last- were Leopold and Lilian supposed to wait forever?

Anonymous said...

I am afraid you all forget, that not the wedding itself, but the birth of Prince Alexanders, 7 months after the wedding, was a major setback in Flemish moral.

Matterhorn said...

Yes, the birth of Prince Alexander, 10 months after the religious wedding, and 7 months after the civil wedding, caused more controversy. But this post is about the marriage itself, which had already sparked hostile reactions in the country.

By the way, I prefer if those who wish to leave a comment also leave a name.