Friday, March 18, 2011

Defending the Saxe-Coburgs: Part IV

 (Continued from Part I, Part II and Part III)

Today, I would like to conclude our series on the rampant over-sexualization of the Saxe-Coburg dynasty with a consideration of the popular portrayals of the last two Kings of the Belgians, Baudouin I and Albert II. In Baudouin's case, the war of images has taken some strange, surprising turns. While his four predecessors, Leopold I, Leopold II, Albert I and Leopold III are increasingly, indiscriminately portrayed in an almost nymphomaniacal light, Baudouin I is more or less spared sexual slurs, with the exception of the insinuations of an illicit relationship with his step-mother, Princess Lilian, prior to his marriage. Baudouin is virtually universally described as a faithful husband. Even Paul Beliën moderates, to an extent, his usually utterly malevolent, brutal treatment of the Belgian dynasty, in his discussion of Baudouin. Although he alludes insidiously to the rumors of incest between Baudouin and Lilian, he refrains from casting doubt on the King's fidelity to Queen Fabiola. After shamelessly, mockingly denying the religious devotion of Albert I and Leopold III, he is willing to concede, indeed, even to over-emphasize, Baudouin's faith and spirituality. 

Why this sudden change? Why the unexpected respite from pornographic phantasmagoria? In a way, it is not surprising. For propaganda to be convincing, it must be repetitive, yes, but not too repetitive. A few figures in the Royal Family, such as King Baudouin or his nephew, the current heir to the throne, Prince Philippe, must be spared the worst slurs and stereotypes, in order to create the impression of a fair and balanced treatment. To portray every single Saxe-Coburg as a lascivious, promiscuous creature would seem too silly. Doubtless, too, some personalities lend themselves more easily than others to sordid misinterpretations. Unfortunately, for instance, the beauty of Leopold III rendered him especially vulnerable to salacious gossip. By contrast, the plainer image of Baudouin I probably played a role in protecting him from rumors of infidelity. Perhaps, portraying the son relatively favorably, while denigrating his forefathers, also subtly serves, by association, to present Baudouin's reign, and the weaker period of the Belgian monarchy it inaugurated, as morally superior to the earlier era of strong political and military leaders such as Albert I and Leopold III. 

Nevertheless, even Baudouin's public image is rather ambivalent. Although the emphasis on his fidelity to his God and his wife would seem to be positive, it may also serve to cast him in a negative light. In some accounts, for example, he is portrayed as a religious fanatic, a morbid ascetic, or a feeble, emasculated figure. In A Throne in Brussels (2005), Paul Beliën depicts Baudouin as a man possessed by a brooding, gloomy, unhealthy religiosity. As evidence, Beliën cites Baudouin's obsessive anxiety, as a child, over the eternal fate of his mother, suddenly and tragically killed in an automobile accident. In a vulgar, online pseudo-diary of his younger brother, the fictional Albert II casts aspersions upon Baudouin's virility. I am reminded of the seditious pamphlets satirizing the imaginary impotence of King Louis XVI of France. It is notable that the one suspicion of scandal surrounding Baudouin, the accusation of incest with Lilian, paradoxically also casts him in an emasculated light, by portraying him as a plaything of an ambitious, domineering, manipulative, sexually voracious step-mother. Again, I am reminded of French revolutionary propaganda, depicting Queen Marie-Antoinette as a power-hungry harpy who would not shrink from corrupting her own son, the heir to the throne, in order to maintain an iron grip upon his future kingdom.

What unscrupulous distortions of the truth! After such a traumatic loss, Baudouin's fears for his mother's soul seem very understandable, especially in a serious, sensitive child with deep spiritual inclinations. It is unfair to exploit his anxiety at such a time to suggest a lifelong morbidity of disposition. Despite his association with suffering and sadness, his widely publicized image as le Roi Triste, Baudouin was no depressive. Among others, his wife, Queen Fabiola, and his close collaborator, Count Michel Didisheim, have left moving testimonies of his fundamentally joyful disposition. According to Didisheim, Baudouin had a wonderful sense of humor and a keen wit; at times, his laughter would echo through the spiraling staircases of Laeken. Although slim, he ate heartily. He liked a glass of Bordeaux with his meals. He was fond of golfing and skiing. He clearly enjoyed life. Baudouin's ability to take unpopular moral stands, illustrated, most famously, during the abortion crisis of 1990, demolishes any notion of weakness of character. The King was most certainly not impotent; he fathered five children, although the Queen tragically lost all to miscarriage. As for his relationship with Princess Lilian, the young Baudouin undeniably adored his step-mother, but so did his brother Albert and his sister Joséphine-Charlotte. In any case, Baudouin's strict religious and moral principles, and his deep veneration for his father, qualities emphasized by friend and foe alike, should suffice to dispel any lingering rumors of an illicit intimacy with his father's wife. To paraphrase Jean Vanwelkenhuyzen's brilliant analysis of the matter: there is no smoke without a fire, but sometimes the fire is the work of arsonists.
Turning to the popular portrayals of Albert II, we find much more conventional depictions of a Belgian king, as a stereotypical, lecherous Saxe-Coburg. (I will not even reply to the vicious rumors of pedophile that forced the King to defend his reputation in court). As is well known, Belgian papier maché artist Delphine Boël claims to be the King's illegitimate daughter, the fruit of his supposed liaison with her mother, Baroness Sybille de Selys-Longchamps. As I have mentioned before, I find it unfortunate that Delphine not only made this public claim, but also poured fuel on the flames of scandal by bitterly denouncing the King as an irresponsible father, on the grounds that he simply wanted to wash his hands of her and bury the embarrassing issue. Many have since joined in this chorus of blame. If Delphine is truly Albert's daughter, I can understand her desire for recognition and sympathize with her sense of rejection, but, at the risk of sounding harsh, there are more important things than hurt feelings. I believe that the dignity and prestige of the monarchy ought to take precedence. Even when royalty have acted less than admirably, their position is deserving of respect. Not that they should be immune to all criticism, but lurid scandal-mongering and vitriolic public attacks are out of place. This is all the more so in a place like Belgium, where the monarchy is so vital to the country's precarious national unity. Even if Delphine is, indeed, the King's daughter, I would be cautious of hastily blaming the King for failing to recognize her. If he did so, it might simply encourage others, as happened after Albert II of Monaco acknowledged his out-of-wedlock children, to come forward with more paternity claims, probably false but damaging nonetheless. While the Monegasque princely house is quite secure, moreover, the Belgian monarchy is already endangered. The Grimaldis may be able to sail through gossip and rumor with flying colors; the Saxe-Coburgs need no further scandals.

I have no idea whether Delphine's paternity allegation is true or false. In contrast to other cases, I do not think there would be anything impossible or improbable about Albert II having a child out of wedlock. Although they were thankfully reconciled, it is certainly true that the royal couple's marriage has known painful times. The King admitted it in his Christmas Speech, in 1999. Queen Paola also acknowledged it in an interview to mark her 65th birthday, in 2002. Furthermore, Albert was not particularly religious in his younger years, and his willingness to sign any law, even if it flagrantly violates the tenets of his faith, suggests a certain moral flexibility. (Not that I would be too hard on him, though, as Belgian monarchs have little political power anymore). Whether Delphine is his daughter, however, is another matter altogether, and it is important to note that her claim has never been formally verified. Therefore, the Belgian media's constant references to her as the King's illegitimate daughter, as if it were a confirmed fact, are out of place. I also think we ought to be chary of over-interpreting the King's words in his Christmas Speech. His reference to his past conjugal crisis, since it occurred so soon after the rumors of a love child became public, is routinely taken as an implicit recognition of Delphine as his daughter; unnecessarily so, in my opinion.  

I also find it sad that the sensation surrounding Delphine has displaced, in the minds of many, the royal couple's quite beautiful reconciliation. Many couples have marital problems, and it is not necessary to invoke the mythical "lust of the Saxe-Coburgs" to explain the crisis of Albert and Paola, but fewer have the generosity to forgive one another and begin afresh. On the whole, I suspect that the Belgian Royal Family, in contrast to their widely promoted image, have probably been one of the least scandal-ridden dynasties in Europe. The marriage of Albert and Paola, restored beyond hope, provides yet another example, albeit in a surprising way, of the domestic virtues of this much-maligned branch of the House of Wettin.


MadMonarchist said...

King Baudouin a gloomy gus? Odd, he's smiling from ear to ear in almost every picture I've seen of the man. Lately I've also noticed some ridicule for the late king based on his high regard for Crown Prince Philippe -who of course these slimeballs have labeled as bafoon for no reason at all so anyone who thought well of him must have been a bubble off too. For some there is no depth too low. They are really grasping at straws. Your Royal Family is the national extension of your own family and you love them -warts and all. And, as someone who loves the Grimaldis, I can say with all honesty the Saxe-Coburgs are downright dull when it comes to the "scandal" department. These sort will always find something to criticize. You can see that just in comparing the current crop, the King has had some scandals so he's portrayed as immoral while Philippe, who has had none, is portrayed as stuffy and prudish. No one, no family, is flawless, but even if such a thing did exist these types would still find something to complain about. It's infuriating.

Matterhorn said...

Yes, I thought of those photos of Baudouin, too!
There really has always been an effort to make him out to be somehow weak- not a man in his own right. Even at the beginning of his reign, there were cartoons joking about reducing the size of the crown to fit his head and so on, and rumors to the effect that Leopold III was still really the one ruling, through his son. Even much later, some authors spoke of a supposed "dyarchy".

In reality, Baudouin was a very forceful character, despite his meek appearance, as can be seen in his ability to take unpopular stands, over the Congo and over the abortion crisis.

MadMonarchist said...

Absolutely and it was that very strength of character, shown in those two instances, that makes him probably my favorite reigning monarch of the post-WW2 era.

Matterhorn said...

Some people like to put his refusal to sign the abortion law down to "Fabiola's influence", but honestly...She probably encouraged him, but he was the one who made the final decision. And the Congo business occurred before he married her. Whatever people think of the speech he gave there, everyone ought to agree that it would have taken backbone to go on record with his "unpopular" views, especially at that inflammatory moment.