Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"St. Astrid of Küssnacht"

Top: the mountains overlooking Lake Lucerne; Bottom left: "The King's Cross". Bottom center: perhaps the most famous photograph of Astrid, featuring her soulful beauty. Bottom right: Queen Astrid's memorial chapel.
The other day, I linked to an article by Alexander Schwartzenbach on the reactions to the death of Queen Astrid in Belgium and Switzerland. It is well known that Astrid was idolized by the Belgian people during her lifetime as an icon of beauty, romance and kindness, and that her terrible early death plunged her subjects into deep mourning. Perhaps less well known is the way the Swiss, particularly the people of Küssnacht-am-Rigi, took her to their hearts. I have been asked if a cultus ever developed around the Queen's memory, since she appears to have been a model Catholic. To an extent, this did occur. Schwartzenbach describes how she entered folklore in Belgium and Switzerland as a tenderly revered tragic heroine, almost a saint or a martyr.

Central to the pious cult of Astrid's memory, of course, was the scene of the tragic car accident, heavily laden with Catholic symbolism. While the numberless flowers, wreaths and candles deposited there in the aftermath of the tragedy were universal signs of mourning, many of the mourners explicitly portrayed their visit as a pilgrimage. The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls, November 1 and November 2, 1935, saw the peak of this religious activity. Then, in June, 1936, came the solemn, poignant consecration of the Queen's memorial chapel and the "King's Cross", marking the place where Astrid died in her husband's arms. Msgr. Colle, chaplain of the Belgian Royal Court, offered Mass in the presence of Belgian war invalids, other Belgian mourners, and Belgian, Swedish and Swiss dignitaries. King Leopold was too overwhelmed with grief to attend, although there were rumors that he visited the site incognito as early as May, 1936.

The King Albert I Memorial Foundation

Registered in 1993 in Zurich, The King Albert I Memorial Foundation is the brainchild of Walter Amstutz, one of the monarch's younger climbing companions. By honoring outstanding achievements in the alpine world, so dear to the King, it honors Albert's memory. The Foundation held its Ninth Award Ceremony in St. Moritz just a few days ago, on August 28, 2010. 

The Foundation's website offers a wealth of interesting information and beautiful photographs of King Albert's mountaineering feats. Here is a summary of his climbing career:
Albert I, King of the Belgians from 1909 until his death in 1934, was an accomplished mountaineer. Through Charles Lefébure, Secretary of the Belgian industrialist Ernest Solvay, he was influenced in his youth by the mystical attraction which mountains can exert. It was Solvay who in 1916 donated funds for the construction of an emergency shelter situated at 4003 metres on the Hörnli ridge of the Matterhorn which bears his name. The prince started climbing at the age of 31 in 1905. Together with the Saas Fee guide Albert Supersaxo, he made the ascent of Piz Bernina (4048 m), descending afterwards through the Labyrinth, a daring initiation! Having thus overcome his initial reserve, and surely also his fear, he explored a number of classic routes, many in the company of Charles Lefébure and usually with guides. This passion did not fade when, in 1909, Albert I inherited the throne from his uncle Leopold II and became King of the Belgians. But the outbreak of the First World War with its terrible effect on Belgium brought his mountaineering expeditions to a temporary halt. It was during this period that his heroic stand in defending the armed neutrality of his country earned him the title of King Albert the Knight - Koning-Ridder.
Two years after World War I ended the Roi Soldat started climbing again, achieving very difficult ascents in Switzerland and in the Tirol. A biography of the Royal Army and Military History Museum in Brussels describes this second period, which lasted until 1928, when the King accomplished great mountaineering feats, including classic routes in the Aiguilles de Chamonix, the Central Alps and the Dolomites. This was followed by a third stage, which lasted until his death. Following the trend of the times, he placed increased emphasis on guideless climbing. During this period, in 1929, the King had received an invitation to attend the Anglo-Swiss Universities Ski Competition - the world's oldest team downhill ski race held in Mürren - as guest of honour. It was there that he met Walter Amstutz, who won the race that year. The two men, although 27 years apart in age, soon became close climbing companions.
There is also an impressive bibliography dealing with Albert's life and death. I encourage everyone to take a look!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Death of a Queen

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the tragic death of Astrid of Sweden (1905-1935), consort of the unluckiest of Belgian kings, Leopold III. Ironically, August 29, 1935 dawned bright and clear, promising an enjoyable alpine excursion to the royal couple. As Time reported:
For days it had been raining in Switzerland. Leopold of Belgium and Queen Astrid, vacationing in the Villa Haslihorn near Lucerne, sent their three small children back to Brussels. But next morning the sun came out hot and strong, with the promise of a fine day for a mountain climb, a sport of which Leopold was just as fond as his father. Hobnail boots, ropes and alpenstocks were piled into the back of the royal Packard touring car beside the chauffeur. In front Leopold took the wheel while Astrid sat beside him, holding a road map. They started down the lakeside road, keeping close to the curb because the pavement was slippery. In a second it was all over. Just before reaching Kussnacht, with the car rolling along at 50 m.p.h. Leopold turned his head to look at the road map. The right wheels of the car slipped through one of the 18-ft. openings in the concrete curb. For some 95 feet it careened along, the right wheels at times three feet lower than the left. Then it struck a young pear tree, swerved at right angles. The Queen and the chauffeur were thrown clear. The car rolled down the bank, caromed off another tree and into the shallow water of the lake.

With his hands sprained, his lower lip slashed and a rib fractured, King Leopold crawled from the car and over to the body of his wife. He could see that she was already dead, her skull fractured, her chest gashed with broken glass. Aides following in a second car rushed hastily back for an ambulance while King Leopold, dazed and bloody, stood looking down at his dead Queen.
Witnesses reported the devastated King crying "Astrid! Astrid!" and clasping his wife's body to his heart. Later, he would confide to the Queen's best friend, Anna Sparre: "My life is over." In a voice broken by sobs, he asked his secretary, Robert Capelle: "Why did the good God take her away from me? We were so happy!" The death of his father, King Albert I, while climbing the cliffs of Marche-les-Dames, only 18 months earlier, had plunged Belgium into deep mourning, and now all the sorrowful scenes would be repeated. For the second time, in a year and a half, the Belgian royal family had met tragedy in the mountains.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Albert & Astrid

Here we see King Albert conversing amicably with his daughter-in-law, Princess Astrid, the future Queen Astrid of Belgium. The two were good friends, and, in fact, were alike in many ways.

Albert and Astrid were both members of collateral branches of their respective royal families. Albert had been the nephew of his predecessor, Leopold II of Belgium. Astrid was the niece of King Gustav V of Sweden. Neither Albert nor Astrid expected the role they were destined to play. Albert only became the heir to the Belgian throne at the age of 16. Astrid did not plan on marrying a Crown Prince.
Both Albert and Astrid felt inadequate for their public role. Throughout his life, Albert regretted the loss of his older brother, Baudouin. To his sister Henriette, during World War I, he declared: "If only Baudouin were alive! He would have done everything better than I!" Similarly, when Crown Prince Leopold of Belgium proposed to Astrid, she had difficulty, initially, imagining herself as a future Queen. As a result, despite her deep love for Leopold, she seriously hesitated to accept his offer. Encouraged, however, by her close childhood friend, Anna Sparre, she agreed to marry the Belgian prince.
Both Albert and Astrid were shy, sensitive, humble, serious, and religious. Each had a happy marriage and three children; two sons and a daughter. Both were devoted to Belgium and deeply loved by the Belgian people. Despite their misgivings, both fulfilled their public function admirably.

Mourning Queen Astrid

Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of Queen Astrid's death. Here is a long, but fascinating discussion (unfortunately only in French) of people's reactions to the tragedy in Belgium and Switzerland. I don't like everything in the article, but it raises a number of interesting points. I hope to post more on the topic soon.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Sixtus Affair

Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians with Princes Xavier and Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma
A doomed peace feeler during World War I.
The two Bourbon-Parma princes were brothers to the Empress Zita of Austria and so when her husband, Charles I, became Emperor of Austria and wanted to end the Great War peacefully it was only natural that they try to do so via Prince Sixtus and Prince Xavier who were officers in the Belgian army, led by King Albert I, who also wanted peace in Europe rather than fighting on to destroy the continent until one side had total victory and the other side total ruin. This is significant since King Albert had greater cause for anger and resentment than any other Allied leader, his country being the only truly innocent party involved. However, King Albert was very religious and Pope Benedict XV wanted a peace without victors and the only leaders who paid attention to him were King Albert and Emperor Charles of Austria.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

"A Crown of Thorns"

(*This is a follow-up to previous posts "Tragedy and Irony" and "Louis-Philippe: A Villain?", so please read those first.)

A while ago, Jorge asked me how Marie-Amélie felt about her husband's questionable taking of the French throne in 1830. I have touched upon her reaction to the July Revolution in previous posts, but I wanted to address the issue in more detail. I have tried to write this account many times in the past, without success. (There seems to be something about French history that tangles up my thoughts. Almost all the articles dealing with France on this blog have been very, very hard to write.) So, my apologies, this discussion is long overdue today, although perhaps it is appropriate, since this is the anniversary of Louis-Philippe's death. I will try my best to answer Jorge's question. I think Marie-Amélie's attitude to the sad events of 1830 can be summed up by her oft-quoted saying: "Since by God's will this Crown of Thorns has been placed on our heads, we must accept it and the duties it entails" (Dyson, p. 198).

She was, indeed, initially very distressed, and troubled in conscience, by the idea of displacing the legitimate heir to the throne, the little Henri V, grandson of Charles X. Steeped, from her earliest childhood, in the traditions of sacral, Catholic monarchy, she must also have been very upset by the liberal character of the revolution, and, in particular, by the separation of Church and State. After her husband's accession, she confided to her diary her grief at the sickening news of mobs desecrating churches, crosses and fleur-de-lis. In contrast to her sister-in-law, the formidable Madame Adelaide, who hated the senior Bourbons, for reasons of family tradition and liberal ideology, and enthusiastically welcomed the prospect of her brother's rise to power, Marie-Amélie reacted hysterically to the July Revolution. She shut herself up in her chamber, lamenting: "What a catastrophe. They will call my husband a usurper!"(Dyson, p. 193).  It was proposed that she and her sons and daughters enter the capital in state, in open carriages, but Marie-Amélie protested: "No! No! It would be repugnant to me, it would have an air of triumph, as if I were triumphing over my own relations" (Dyson, p. 196). 

People remarked upon Marie-Amélie's sorrowful appearance. She looked pale and wan, with a tear-streaked face, her usual quiet dignity quite upset. Shortly before her husband's accession, she was saddened to receive a note from her great-niece, little Louise d'Artois, sister of Henri V, saying the family counted on Marie-Amélie to use her influence in the boy-king's favor. There was, however, not much Marie-Amélie could do. Beset with scruples, she did attempt to persuade her husband to take the child in his arms and make a last appeal to the Parisians to accept and acclaim the boy as their sovereign. Louis-Philippe, however, claimed that such an attempt, in the violent political mood of the moment, would merely have provoked the murder of both himself and Henri. Revisiting the episode, in long, self-justificatory monologues, as an old man, he would insist: "I would not even have been able to cross the bridge to reach the Chamber of Deputies. They would have hurled us both into the water..."(d'Huart, p. 548). 

Despite her heartbreak, however, and pangs of remorse, Marie-Amélie gradually reconciled herself to her new position as Queen, by convincing herself that Louis-Philippe had no choice but to accept the throne, and that he was acting from motives of pure patriotism, by sacrificing his domestic peace and comfort to save France from anarchy.  In her journal, she noted that her chaplain had consoled her by telling her that her husband was obeying the call of duty, under the volatile circumstances (d'Huart, pp. 400-401). He was, nevertheless, widely branded as a treacherous usurper, and his consort did her best to persuade people otherwise, writing letters to the sovereigns of Europe in his defense. Marie-Amélie and her children would always stoutly maintain that Louis-Philippe, despite the intrigues of revolutionary conspirators on his behalf, had never wanted to become King.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

St. Louis IX, King of France, and the Fleur-de-lis

Another lovely article from Marie-Jacqueline. The King's feast-day is tomorrow.

Fanciful as this may sound, I've long thought that Louise-Marie d'Orléans, the first Queen of the Belgians, looked like a fleur-de-lis, with her fair complexion and golden curls. In particular, in this portrait, she reminds me of the pattern of golden lilies on an azure ground:

She was much admired for her piety and hailed as a "daughter of St. Louis". It is, therefore, sadly ironic that it was during her father Louis-Philippe's reign that the fleur-de-lis was removed from the royal coat of arms. (Her eldest brother was a partisan of the measure.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Family of the Count and Countess of Flanders

In Amours royales et princières, Patrick Weber writes that the Belgian royal family has had a tradition of brothers with diametrically opposed characters. This was certainly true for Leopold II and Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders, rivals who seemed to share only a taste for irony and sarcasm. In contrast to Leopold's ambitious overseas ventures and unhappy private life, Philippe and his wife, Princess Marie, a Catholic Hohenzollern, enjoyed a relatively retiring, peaceful and harmonious (if rather monotonous) existence together, in the shadow of the court. Due to Leopold's lack of a surviving male heir, however, they would become the ancestors of all the Belgian kings to come. Here are some of my favorite images of the family of Philippe and Marie. They all look so stoical!
The Countess of Flanders with her four children: Baudouin, Henriette, Josephine and Albert (on his mother's knee). I have posted on Princess Marie before; she was a strong, religious and artistic woman. She was a loving wife and mother, but very strict and proper, although later, as a grandmother, she was much more indulgent. Albert always spoke of her with great regard, but seems to have found her extreme conservatism too restricting, especially in his youth. He was attracted to liberal tutors whose opinions were diametrically opposed to hers, and felt he needed to break free of her "pietistic" outlook. He also commented: "My mother is a saint, but a saint of ice!" 

Baudouin and Henriette, the two eldest siblings in the family. They were very close and Henriette, in her diary, portrayed Baudouin as nothing less than a saint. Their mother was more critical of him, complaining of a certain weakness or lack of energy in his character. Nonetheless, most accounts of Baudouin paint a picture of a gifted, conscientious youth, pious and despising worldly vanities. Henriette and her mother were both deeply upset by Baudouin's early death and the subsequent efforts of gossip-mongers to besmirch his reputation. In response, the saddened Countess of Flanders paid tribute to the "pure memory" of her child.

I love this photograph of a little Henriette. The future Duchesse de Vendôme, staunch and opinionated royalist historian of France, already looks so decided! 
Josephine and Albert, the two youngest siblings in the family, also very close to each other, like their older counterparts. Josephine and Albert were the "modern" element in the family, according to Albert's daughter Marie-José. Josephine, who eventually became a nun, would outlive her parents and all her siblings, dying in 1958. In her old age, she fascinated Princess Lilian, the second wife of her nephew, King Leopold III, with her memories of the distant past. 

A postcard of Philippe and Marie, their daughters Henriette (top right) and Josephine (bottom left) and their son Albert, with their respective spouses, Prince Emmanuel d'Orléans, Duc de Vendôme,  Prince Karl Anton of Hohenzollern and Elisabeth, Duchess in Bavaria. Afflicted by deafness, and, perhaps, harmed by his lack of an active public life, the Count of Flanders became quite a difficult character. It's said that Albert actually had a better relationship with his uncle Leopold than with his own father. Philippe also didn't like Elisabeth, apparently. During the courtship of Albert and Elisabeth, the Count made disparaging remarks about the romance, and about his son's bride, complaining, for instance, that she was too short! This may sound unkind, but, on the whole, I think Philippe and Marie were a good couple; they were not perfect people but they had a solid marriage and home life and raised four very admirable children. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

"The Saintly Queen"

Here are the funerary statues, by Antonin Mercié, of King Louis-Philippe and Queen Marie-Amélie at the Chapelle Royale de Dreux. (Photographs courtesy of "Real politik"). I think the likenesses are masterful; in particular, the artist wonderfully captures Marie-Amélie's expression, conveying her goodness, wisdom, sorrow and nobility. I am reminded of a passage in C. C. Dyson's bittersweet account of her last years in exile at Claremont House:
Her demeanour was a lesson in itself. Dignity that was not without grace, supreme distinction, perfect affability, kindness, an instinctive tone of authority all declared the true Queen. A word from her to a child had more effect than severe punishments or reprimands. Her religion was a loveable religion. An old general of the Algerian wars was influenced by her to resume the practice of religious observance, and came to the Communion table in the Claremont Chapel with tears in his eyes. When her grandchildren grew older she set aside an hour a day to spend with them, and they never forgot her sayings and the advice then given to them. 
Those who saw her pray or receive the Sacraments, or heard her speak on some solemn subject, were deeply impressed, and used to call her "the saintly Queen." (C. C. Dyson, The Life of Marie-Amélie, Last Queen of the French: 1782-1866, 1910, pp. 294-295)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Royals en Route

Here are some terracotta statues of various Belgian royals and friends of the royal family at the Brussels Metro Stuyvenbergh. The likenesses aren't always the best, and the whole collection seems slightly depressing (or is it just my mood?) Anyway, I thought they were interesting to see. Above, we have King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth, of course, and here is Elisabeth sitting down:
I thought she looked lovely there. Now for a sculpture of King Leopold III and Queen Astrid. It is a bit grim, and not my favorite portrayal of this couple. The figures and features are alright, but the expressions seem wrong for Leopold and Astrid:
The purpose of the collection is to pay tribute to Queen Elisabeth, who spent her last years nearby, at Stuyvenberg Castle. 25 sculptures represent the great lady at different stages of her life, along with some of her nearest and dearest. I like the idea of populating the metro with works of art and I like the idea of honoring Queen Elisabeth, but somehow, it all gives me a sad feeling of transience. Yes, yes, I'm probably just being morbid...

St. Leopold of Babenberg, Margrave of Austria

Here is the story of St. Leopold of Babenberg (1075-1136), patron saint of Austria, and of three Belgian kings. To quote:
A man of strong convictions, Leopold's stand in the investiture controversies made him the preferred candidate among the Bavarians for the position of Holy Roman Emperor in 1125.  However Leopold refused the nomination and the glory of the empire, in favor of governing Austria. Through wise governance and faith in God, he succeeded in securing the blessings of peace and justice for his people.  He was a much loved ruler, faithful husband and generous father.
"The mild margrave" died during a hunting accident in 1136 and was buried in the church of the Augustinian canonry, the Nativity of Our Lady, where he was genuinely mourned by his people.  For nearly 900 years St. Leopold has been honored and venerated in his native Austria.  His feast day, November 15th, is still one of the most important celebrations at Stift Klosterneuburg and the annual pilgrimage, held on the Sunday preceding the feast day, still draws thousands.
In Belgium, November 15, the feast day of St. Leopold (and St. Albert) is celebrated as the "King's Holiday."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Royal Family of Naples

Here is a painting, dated 1783, by Angelica Kauffman, of King Ferdinand IV and Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, and six of their many, many children. Their heir, the future King Francis I, stands second from the left, beside his father. The baby princess Maria Amalia, mother of Belgium's first queen, Louise-Marie, sits in the cradle on the knees of her big sister Luisa. Note the Arcadian landscape and informal poses, representing a break with past portrayals of the Bourbons.
Here is a family medallion, dating from 1802/1803, depicting Queen Maria Carolina with her daughters Maria Christina, Maria Amalia and Maria Antonia and her son Leopoldo. (Photograph courtesy of Wolfgang Wögerer). 

A Congolese Martyr

Here is the story of young Isidore Bakanja, flogged to death for wearing the Carmelite scapular.
Blessed Isidore was born in 1887 at northeast Republic of the Congo, and at a young age was hired as a domestic boy. Many of the Belgian plantation owners and their agents were avowed atheists, who hated the missionaries because of the latter's defense of the natives' rights and their denouncing of injustices perpetrated against them. "Mon pere" was a pejorative name given to priests and to all that had to do with religion. Isidore soon experienced the hatred of the agents for Catholicism. He asked for leave to return home; permission was refused. He was told to stop teaching his fellow workers how to pray: "You'll have the whole village praying and no one will want to work", one agent shouted at him. Isidore was told to discard his scapular. When he did not, he was twice flogged.  
The second time, the agent flew into one of his rages. He jumped at Isidore, tore the scapular from around his neck and threw him to the ground. He had two servant boys hold Isidore by his hands and feet and a third domestic flogged him. The whip was made of elephant hide with nails protruding at the end. The writhing Isidore asked for mercy. "My God, I'm dying", he muttered. But the colonizer kept kicking Isidore in the neck and head, and ordered his domestic to scourge him harder still. After 100, those assisting lost count of the number of blows. Isidore's back was one open wound; some of his bones were exposed. After scourging he was thrown, legs chained, into a hut for processing rubber. He could not even move to relieve himself.  
Since an inspector was due, Isidore was banished to another village. But because he could not walk, he fell by the wayside and hid in the forest. He dragged himself before the inspector, who was horrified at the sight of this modern Job. The inspector himself left a written account of his impression: "I saw a man come from the forest with his back torn apart by deep, festering, malodorous wounds, covered with filth, assaulted by flies. He leaned on two sticks in order to get near me -he wasn't walking; he was dragging himself". The agent appeared on the scene and tried to kill "that animal of mon pere", but the inspector even physically prevented him. He took Isidore to his own settlement, hoping to help him heal. But Isidore felt death in his bones. He told someone who had pity on him: "if you see my mother, or if you go to the judge, or if you meet the priest, tell them that I am dying because I am a Christian".  
Two missionaries spent several days with him. He devoutly received the last sacraments. He told them the reason for his beating: "The white man did not like Christians.... He did not want me to wear the scapular.... He yelled at me when I said my prayers". The missionaries urged Isidore to forgive the agent; he assured them that he had already done so and that he nursed no hatred for him. This "animal of mon pere", this convert of two-and-a-half years proved that he knew what it meant to follow Jesus - even to the point of being flogged like him, even to the point of carrying the cross, even to the point of dying. The missionaries urged Isidore to pray for the agent. "Certainly I shall pray for him. When I am in heaven, I shall pray for him very much". His agony - more painful than the actual flogging - lasted six months. He died on either 8 or 15 August 1909, rosary in hand and the scapular of Our Lady of Mt Carmel around his neck - EWTN

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Happy Feast Day!

Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de grâce. Le Seigneur est avec vous. Vous êtes bénie entre toutes les femmes, et Jésus, le fruit de vos entrailles, est béni. Sainte Marie, Mère de Dieu, priez pour nous, pauvres pécheurs, maintenant et à l'heure de notre mort. Amen.
Wees gegroet Maria, vol van genade. De Heer is met U. Gezegend zijt Gij boven alle vrouwen, en gezegend is de vrucht van Uw lichaam, Jezus. Heilige Maria, Moeder Gods, bid voor ons, arme zondaars, nu en in het uur van onze dood. Amen. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

Every Driver's Worst Nightmare

An awful story, from the life of Albert I:
When Albert was returning by automobile to Brussels from Louvain in January [1921?] his vehicle knocked down two children in the village of Kesselds; a girl of five was killed outright and a boy of eight, seriously injured.
Albert, who was in the car, was greatly perturbed and carried the body of the little girl to her parents' cottage and sought to console them in their loss. He fetched two doctors to attend the injured boy. They had dashed out into the road from behind a truck which obscured the oncoming car and were under the wheels of the royal automobile before the driver saw them. (Wanda Larson, Elisabeth: A Biography: From Bavarian Princess to Queen of the Belgians, 1997, p. 87)
In a strange way, it almost seems a foreshadowing of the tragic accidents that would claim the lives of Albert himself, and his daughter-in-law, Astrid, in the not-so-distant future.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Charity of Queen Louise-Marie

In his Vie de Louise d'Orléans, Reine des Belges (1851), Paul Roger describes the charitable works of the consort of Leopold I. She was well known for her generosity and kind heart from an early age. Her father, King Louis-Philippe, used to tell the story of how, while still Duc d'Orléans, he liked to visit, each morning, a beautiful peach-tree in the gardens of Neuilly. One day, Louise's little brother, the Duc de Nemours, accidentally knocked the finest peach off the tree. Terrified of his father's wrath, he confided to his sister what had happened. The princess comforted him tenderly, then took the blame upon herself. (Soon afterwards, the Duc de Nemours plucked up his courage and told his father the truth). 

Many years later, as Queen of the Belgians, Louise's servants and entourage likewise knew her as a gentle and forgiving mistress. According to Roger, "her charity was inexhaustible, and she had a manner of obliging so ingenious, so delicate, that it doubled the worth of the benefit." (p. 49). During her reign, Flanders was stricken by famine and poverty ran rampant through Belgium. Louise's help was sought everywhere. The royal patroness of many philanthropic, religious and educational institutions, the Queen also multiplied her private gestures of charity. Her tenderness and generosity won her the reputation of a fairy godmother. In Brussels and in the provinces alike, when people heard a tale of woe, they would exclaim: "If only the Queen knew!" After her death, the cry became: "If only the Queen were still alive!" (p. 52).

Of course, I cannot list all Louise's benefactions here, but I wanted to share a few touching anecdotes mentioned by Roger. On one occasion, while she was visiting the Ardennes with King Leopold, a priest arrived and implored Louise's aid for an impoverished family: "I come to recommend to Your Majesty a family of honest farmers from Beauraing; the father has three sons and four daughters; two of the sons are married, the militia claims the third, the only support of an old, ailing father, and they are unable to pay for a replacement." "Monsieur le curé," said the Queen, "my resources are meagre at the moment; many misfortunes are brought to my attention, many unhappy people claim my assistance. Still, I have a little money in reserve here, perhaps it will be enough." Louise was able to give the priest two bills of 500 francs, enabling the family to pay for someone else to take the place of their third son in the militia (p. 50). 

On another occasion, the Queen visited a model farm where Durham bulls were being raised. She overheard a poor peasant admiring the cattle and naïvely exclaiming: "Ah! If only I had one of those creatures, things would be go better at home...my wife and children wouldn't have to fear poverty any more!" Deeply moved, the Queen discreetly made some inquiries regarding the family in question. A few weeks later, the peasant's wish came doubly true...Not one, but two fine Durham cows arrived at his cottage, alleviating his family's plight (p. 51). 

Yet another time, a church in a Brabant town was missing a bell large enough to summon the faithful from afar. The parish priest and the inhabitants were struggling to pool their resources to buy one, but in vain. The Queen, on a visit to the city, learned the unfortunate state of affairs. Quietly, she arranged for a suitable bell to be purchased and delivered to the town, much to the wonderment of the people, who christened it the "Louise-Marie" (pp. 50-51). While her husband was establishing his realm as a respected sovereign nation in Europe, Louise was inaugurating a tradition of royal humanitarian work which would be admirably maintained by future Belgian queens and princesses. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Suffering Souls

Poignant words from Princess Clementine, taken from a letter to her sister Stephanie after visiting their cousin, Leopold III, at Laeken, following Queen Astrid's death. Here is why I will NOT tolerate dismissive, smirking criticism of the King:
Léopold est splendide de résignation chrétienne, quoique totalement anéanti. En arpentant à ses côtés le vieux parc aimé, j'ai pu sonder la beauté de cette âme endolorie. Léopold est le digne fils d'Albert. On retrouve en lui cette noble fierté au sein du malheur. La vue des pauvres enfants fend le coeur. L'aînée est ahurie. Les petits pleurent en appelant leur mère. 
Leopold is splendid with Christian resignation, although totally devastated. As I walked, at his side, through the beloved old park, I was able to sound the beauty of this grieving soul. Leopold is the worthy son of Albert. There is that same noble pride in the bosom of misfortune. The sight of the poor children melts the heart. The eldest is stunned. The little ones weep, calling for their mother. (Clémentine, princesse Napoléon: 1872-1955, Dominique Paoli, 1992, p. 209) 

Monday, August 9, 2010

Compiègne, August 9, 1832: The Wedding of Leopold and Louise

Today is the anniversary of the first, and most important, of Belgian royal weddings: the nuptials of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, first King of the Belgians, and Princess Louise-Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte-Isabelle d'Orléans, eldest daughter of Louis-Philippe, King of the French. The marriage was celebrated with great magnificence at the Château de Compiègne, on August 9, 1832, exactly two years to the day after the bride's parents, in the aftermath of the July Revolution, had ascended the French throne. Leopold and Louise had three wedding ceremonies: civil, Catholic and Protestant. Bride and groom left Compiègne a few days later, traveling to Laeken in triumph, amidst a sea of French and Belgian tricolor flags, acclaimed by Belgians eager to welcome their new Queen. 

Physically, morally, spiritually, Leopold and Louise presented a striking contrast. He was dark, she was fair. He was a seasoned, middle-aged soldier and statesman, a widower and an experienced lover, an ambitious man of the world, rather hardened by years, sorrows and disappointments; she, a shy, innocent, tender young girl, who had dreaded the idea of becoming Queen, weeping copiously at the thought of separation from her parents, brothers and sisters, the only loves she had ever known. He was a Lutheran, and, reputedly, a Freemason, she a devout and pious Catholic. 

Yet, by the standards of the time, their marriage proved a success. Despite her initial reluctance to marry Leopold, Louise gradually fell deeply in love with her husband. Although he never returned her passionate devotion, and felt free to seek romance elsewhere, Leopold did cherish Louise as a dear friend and a clever political ally. He was profoundly grieved by her untimely death in 1850. 

How striking to think that, without the union of Leopold and Louise, none of the future generations of the Belgian royal family would ever have existed! The marriage had great political significance in its own time, too. In 1831, France's traditional enemy, Great Britain, jealous of her sphere of influence in the Low Countries, had prevented Louise's brother, the Duc de Nemours, from accepting the Belgian throne. Fearing French influence and, potentially, annexation by France, Flemings were also alarmed by the prospect of an Orléans prince becoming their king. An Orléans princess as queen consort, however, was much less threatening. Thus, Louise brought her husband French support, consolidating Belgium's newly won, precarious independence, while maintaining the balance of power between Britain and France and peace between Flanders and Wallonia. 

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Views of beautiful Küssnacht-am-Rigi, Switzerland, on the north shore of Lake Lucerne. Tragically, this is where lovely young Queen Astrid of the Belgians (with her unfortunate husband at the wheel) died in a car accident. A memorial chapel was built at the site of the crash, see HERE for photos.
Courtesy of Simon Koopmann.
Courtesy of Andrew Bossi.

According to legend, this is where Wilhelm Tell shot the tyrannical Austrian bailiff with his crossbow. The district's name apparently derives from the Latin Cossiniacum, referring to the estate of the Roman noble, Cossinius. Over time, however, it has been corrupted to Küssnacht ("kiss night" in German). Certainly an evocative name for a place where a great love was lost forever.

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Catholic Queen

August 29, 2010 will mark the 75th anniversary of the tragic death of Astrid, Queen of the Belgians. Here is an account of the (originally Lutheran) princess' conversion to Catholicism, taken from the memoirs of Lars Rooth, a Swedish Jesuit who had served with British Intelligence in World War II. During this period, he spent time in Belgium. He later wrote movingly of Astrid:
...This Swedish princess, who had married Leopold, had become most popular, and you could find a photo of her in almost every window in Belgium at that time- she had become a symbol of patriotism and of Catholicism.

Here I must relate a story that one of the Jesuits in Sweden told me years later. He had been approached by Astrid when she was a princess of Sweden and the fiancée of Leopold's. She came to our parish in Stockholm and told the priest that she wanted to become a Catholic. Fortunately, she met the right man, Fr. Ansgar Meyer, who asked her why? Well, she said, I am going to get married to prince Leopold, become the crown princess of Belgium and later queen of a Catholic country, so it seems reasonable for me to join that church. Father Meyer asked her if she had any other reasons or if she had studied the teaching of the Catholic Church at all. When he got a negative answer, he told her to leave things as they were. If later on, she were to take a personal interest in the Catholic Church, she could always ask someone for instruction. As it was, Astrid did later contact a priest in Belgium and became a convinced Catholic. If she had been received before the marriage, she most likely would have become just a nominal Catholic, without much interest in religion.

(More Joy Than Pain, Lars Rooth, 1991, pp. 84-85)
Another account, from a Catholic journal of the period, described the fruits of her conversion in Sweden:
We made mention last week of the sad death of Astrid, the Belgian Queen. Since that time many stories have come to us which show the unmistakeable effect the sincerity of her conversion had upon her own people in Sweden. It was to be expected, of course, that her marriage, and especially her conversion, would not meet with the universal approval of the Swedish public. Once, however, the Queen had made up her mind about the truth of Catholicism she let nothing stand in her way, not even the possibility of losing the love and esteem of her own people. Last June when she was on a visit to Sweden she appeared officially at Mass in St. Eugenia's church. The effect of this act was a greater respect for the Queen, and a greater tolerance toward the four thousand Catholics in Sweden. None, perhaps, will miss Queen Astrid more than the Catholics in Sweden for whom she had a very deep affection.

(The Ave Maria: October to December 1935, John O'Conner, 2005, p. 441)

A true daughter of St. Bridget!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, Queen of France

August 9 will mark the 180th anniversary of the rise to the French throne of Louis-Philippe d'Orléans and Marie-Amélie of Naples, the parents of Queen Louise-Marie of Belgium. (Interestingly, it will also be the 178th anniversary of Louise-Marie's marriage to Leopold I and her rise to the Belgian throne). Therefore, this fine article on Marie-Amélie's first cousin, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte of France, the only surviving child of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, is most timely. The July Revolution of 1830, which made Marie-Amélie queen, drove Marie-Thérèse into exile, after a reign of twenty minutes as the consort of her cousin, the hapless Louis XIX.

In her historical work on the French monarchy, Henriette of Belgium, Duchesse de Vendôme, devotes a number of touching passages to the tragic but heroic Marie-Thérèse. Henriette describes this royal orphan as a beautiful soul, but emotionally scarred by the terrible traumas of her youth, and often misjudged due to her reserved, taciturn ways. Henriette also asserts that Marie-Amélie (the daughter of Marie-Antoinette's favorite sister, Queen Maria Carolina of Naples) was the person who best understood Marie-Thérèse's inner suffering and moral worth. She emphasizes that the two princesses shared a deep mutual respect, affection and trust. A bitter irony, as politics would tragically drive them apart, before dooming both to die as exiled French queens.

For further reading, Elena Maria Vidal's blog Tea at Trianon is a goldmine of information on Marie-Thérèse and her family. I also highly recommend her sensitive and beautifully written novel, Madame Royale, based on the life of this brave lady. Here is an informative talk by Dr. Susan Nagel, author of the acclaimed biography of the princess, Marie-Thérèse: Child of Terror. While I don't agree with everything she says, I still found the lecture very interesting. Finally, here is a beautiful video tribute to Marie-Thérèse.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Glamor of Lilian Baels

She may never have been Queen of the Belgians, but she was the Queen of Fashion. Here is a press release dating from Sotheby's 2003 auction of Lilian's magnificent wardrobe and jewelry collection. To quote:
The collection, which was maintained to perfection and stored in more than 20 wardrobes, features exquisite items capturing the distinctive styles of the early 50s, groovy 60s and classic 70s. With more than 200 pairs of shoes, 100 hats, 400 pairs of gloves, riding habits and boots in every colour and fabric, handbags by Hermès, pairs of silk stockings in original wrappers and delicate handkerchiefs, no detail was considered too small. 
Kerry Taylor, specialist in charge of the sale, said: "Princess Lilian had close relationships with all of her couturiers and their vendeuses, and was one of Dior's first clients. This combination resulted in a splendid wardrobe and I doubt I will ever see another collection which is so diverse, stylish and in pristine condition. The quality of the gowns is astonishing and reflects an age of elegance when a woman's primary interest was to look good and go shopping. As Consort to King Leopold III of Belgium, it was important that she dressed to befit her status and wore lavish gowns for official occasions. Once worn, these gowns were set aside and carefully maintained by her maid, Madame Jeanine. 
"Although the collection includes dozens of museum-quality pieces such as an Yves Saint Laurent for Christian Dior silver satin gown dating from 1958 (est: L5,000-6,000), there are many affordable and understated clothes by Givenchy and Balenciaga with estimates starting at just L200. An example of a very wearable ensemble is a delightful lemon wool suit by Chanel, with ikat silk contrasts, dating from the late 1950's (est: L600-800)." 
Lilian's children were introduced to the world of haute couture at an early age:
Princess Marie-Esmeralda said: "I have wonderful memories of visiting Paris several times a year with my mother. We would leave Brussels in the car and my mother would spend the morning at Christian Dior at the Avenue de Montaigne. This was the beginning of the 60's and I was six or seven years old, it was a magical environment for a young girl. I clearly remember my amazement as the Dior staff attended her, their arms heavy with precious embroidered cloths. After trying the clothes on, we would lunch together at Plazza. Amusingly, the same ritual would happen at Chanel, Givenchy and Balenciaga." 
Princess Lilian's collection of jewels provided the perfect accompaniment to her stunning evening wear and some 60 lots will be offered in Sotheby's sale. Highlights include a gold and enamel bracelet by Schlumberger, in its original box, estimated at L6,000-12,000; a gold chain, also in its original box, by Cartier, (est. L2,500-3,500) and a pair of gold and diamond earclips, by Cartier, which is estimated at L2,000-3,000.
Lilian was clearly a woman who loved grandeur!

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Chaplain's Testimony

Here is a description of Léopold III by Rev. Collart, one of his chaplains during his later years at Argenteuil.
J'ai pu voir transparaître, dans la limpidité de son merveilleux regard, la simplicité et la chaleur de ses paroles, toute la grandeur d'un de nos semblables qui s'est situé tellement au-dessus de nous. Le langage du croyant au prêtre, du confident à l'ami, quand on a cherché ensembles des réponses à des questions lancinantes, quand on a eu si souvent l'occasion de prier ensemble, on ne peut pas ne pas se connaître. Aussi est-ce avec une tranquille assurance que je puis certifier ceci: jamais il n'a failli à l'image de l'homme exceptionnel que ses fidèles ont gardée de lui. Il savait sans préoccupations personnelles déceler où était le bien de ceux qu'il voulait servir. Il ne flattait pas, il savait tenir un langage ferme et vrai quand il entrevoyait où et comment il fallait s'orienter pour assurer le bonheur et la liberté de son peuple et je l'entendais volontiers reprendre à son compte les paroles du vieux Caton au peuple romain qui s'égarait: "Je voudrais vous être agréable, je souhaiterais vous faire plaisir, mais je préfère essayer de vous sauver." 
The translation is a bit rough, because it is mine:
I was able to see transpire, through the limpidity of his marvelous gaze, the simplicity and warmth of his words, all the grandeur of one of our fellow men who is placed so far above us. The language of the believer to the priest, of the confidant to the friend, when we searched together for answers to tormenting questions, when we had, so often, the occasion to pray together, it is impossible not to know one another. So it is with a tranquil assurance that I can certify this: never did he fail to live up to the image of the exceptional man his faithful followers kept of him. He was able, without personal preoccupations, to discern where the good of those he wished to serve lay. He never flattered, he knew how to use a firm and true language when he saw where and how he had to orient himself to ensure the happiness and liberty of his people and I used to hear him take up, for his own, the words of Cato the Elder to the Roman people who were going astray: "I would like to be agreeable to you, I would like to please you, but I prefer to try to save you." (Quoted by Jean Cleeremans in Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l'occupation, 1987, p. 16)