And kings in general...
I'd rather not dwell on this silliness, but I find I must be strict for a bit. We're witnessing far too much scurrilous stereotyping of the Saxe-Coburg family. The campaign is spurred along by the eager publication of books, such as Paul Beliën's highly disingenuous, vituperative and sensationalist polemic, A Throne in Brussels: Britain, the Saxe-Coburgs and the Belgianisation of Europe (2005), which all too many seem to take at face value. Of course, using sexual slurs to discredit public figures is nothing new. Consider, for example, all the feverish, torrid, and, in fact, false accusations launched against Anne Boleyn, Marie-Antoinette, Queen Maria Carolina of Naples and Queen Louise of Prussia by their political opponents. The same process is underway today, in Belgium. We need not be conspiracy theorists to conclude that many people, in powerful positions, simply do not want this battered little kingdom to exist. There is no other explanation for the endless, paralyzing political problems, the bitter divisions, growing ever greater and ever deeper, that afflict a nation which has weathered the worst storms in history triumphantly. Therefore, it is not surprising that sordid little tales are sedulously spread, to undermine Belgians' respect for their monarchy. The Saxe-Coburgs are portrayed as lascivious, promiscuous creatures by definition. How accurate is this image?
Let's take a look at the six Kings of the Belgians, and examine some ghostly, shadowy rumors in the sober light of day. Oh, and by the way... the Belgian Royal Family dropped the name "Saxe-Coburg" after the First World War...The constant labeling of the reigning house, often in a rather contemptuous fashion, as the"Saxe-Coburgs", serves, subliminally, to insinuate into people's minds the idea that this is merely a foreign family, artificially imposed upon an artificial state, cobbled together in 1830 merely for extraneous, geopolitical reasons, another highly popularized myth.
Under Leopold I and Leopold II, the Belgian court still had something of the flavor of the ancien régime. Both kings married strictly for reasons of state. Not surprisingly, in consequence, both kings indulged in amorous adventures, to their pious queens' distress. However unfortunate, though, such behavior was commonplace throughout the royalty and aristocracy of Europe for centuries. It does not prove that the Saxe-Coburgs, per se, were extraordinarily lustful. True, Leopold II undeniably took his marriage vows even more lightly than most monarchs. Even within his family, though, his domestic life was unusually disastrous; his character, judging, most notably, by his dealings in the Congo, unusually corrupt. We cannot ascribe his failings to his entire dynasty. This clearly emerges, for instance, from the fact that his successors, Albert I and Leopold III, tried strenuously to reform the colonial administration, taking a deep, personal interest in the Congo's welfare, in sharp contrast to their predecessor.
I also find that even Leopold II's notorious liaison, in his last years, with the young Parisian courtesan, Caroline Delacroix, who ultimately made off with much of his ill-gotten colonial gains, is over-sexualized in many popular accounts. It is easy to see the King as a lascivious old man, besotted with a voluptuous young woman, and, sadly, this scenario was doubtless true to a considerable extent. Yet, more thoughtful accounts, such as the masterful character study of the pair by Xavier Paoli, suggest a subtler, more complex, more genuine, and, oddly enough, more staid romance. Paoli also makes clear that the lovers, despite everything, retained the glimmerings of a conscience. After the death of Queen Marie-Henriette, Leopold II and Caroline Delacroix took care to regularize their union, if only in God's eyes, through a secret religious marriage. Most sources report that the ceremony took place during the King's last illness, but Paoli thought it might have happened earlier.
We come now to Albert I. In his letters, in the reminiscences of various intimates, he emerges as a deeply pure, pious and prayerful soul, although this is often forgotten today, in the poisonous cynicism that has taken over much of Belgian historiography. For many reasons, I am convinced that every aspersion cast upon his private life is a violent outrage. Raised in the virtuous atmosphere of the Palace of Flanders, by pious and charitable parents, Prince Philippe of Belgium and Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a quietly devoted couple, Albert had strict, high moral principles instilled in him at an early age, as evinced by many contemporary accounts.
At 25, he married an enchanting young princess, the sweet, nimble, 24-year-old Elisabeth of Bavaria, daughter of the noted physician and philanthropist, Duke Karl Theodor. The couple shared many humanitarian, social, cultural and intellectual interests. Both highly intelligent and sensitive, husband and wife also had happily contrasting, complementary temperaments. Albert was thoughtful, reflective, reserved, steady, philosophic, realistic, a bit pessimistic; Elisabeth, lively, energetic, spontaneous, imaginative, impulsive, artistic, optimistic. Not surprisingly, then, they fell tenderly, deeply, undeniably in love. This is abundantly proven in their rich correspondence, dating from the time of their engagement and the early years of their marriage. We are far, very far from the floods of tears shed by Louise d'Orléans at her marriage to Leopold I, her terror at the approach of her wedding night; even further from the mutual revulsion of Leopold II and Marie-Henriette of Austria, from the bride's prayer for death to escape her unhappy marriage.
Upon becoming engaged to Elisabeth, Albert promised her infinite love, and unfailing fidelity. Albert had an intense commitment, not only to his wife, but, even more importantly, to marriage itself. More than mere love letters, his missives to his bride are ethical lessons, expressing an edifying ideal of conjugal affection, respect, loyalty and collaboration. Not only in his private life, but also in his public life, Albert evinced this commitment to marriage, as the foundation of the family, and, therefore, as essential to the health of society. During his tour of the Congo in 1909, he noted in his diary various criticisms of the colonial legal code, regretting, for instance, that it failed to adequately penalize adultery. It's unlikely that the King would fail to live up to his own principles in a matter he regarded as so important. This was a man so conscientious, that he regularly exposed himself to danger and hardship in the trenches, even beyond the call of duty; on one occasion, he collapsed, with sheer exhaustion, at the side of a road. This was a man so rigorous, so stern, that he preferred to lead his entire nation, which he deeply loved, to devastation and death, rather than betray his international obligations, as shown by an early draft of a wartime letter to his Bavarian brother-in-law, Count Toerring.
Indeed, for many years, nobody cast doubt on Albert's fidelity. On the contrary, Albert and Elisabeth were revered for their domestic virtues. After the King's ghastly, accidental death at Marche-les-Dames, however, evil tongues soon began to whisper...There were torrid tales of trysts in various castles, of illegitimate children, and even of crimes of passion: it was suggested that the King had been killed by a jealous husband, by an abandoned mistress, or even by the Queen herself (!), in increasingly lurid and improbable scenarios. It seems unfathomably tasteless, and bizarrely at odds with the general mood of awe and sorrow, throughout the world, at the King's passing, to spread such scurrilous stories about a man no longer able to defend himself, who had served his country so magnificently, and who had just died so tragically.
The gossip, moreover, was unsubstantiated. Although the rumors have persisted to this day, Patrick Weber notes, there's no solid evidence that the King had any affairs, at all. (And Weber is certainly not shy about discussing genuine liaisons, which he invariably relates in an open, non-judgmental fashion; he even wrote a whole book on the topic). Even Paul Beliën, who normally relishes salacious details, resorts to a suspicious vagueness in this matter, while nonetheless boldly proclaiming that Albert became unfaithful towards the end of his life. This idea, however, makes no sense. After so long, so strong a commitment to marriage and family, why would Albert suddenly throw his moral principles to the winds, in his last years? Virtue becomes easier, not harder, with practice. How does gold turn into dross?
The children of Albert and Elisabeth, King Leopold III of the Belgians and Queen Marie-José of Italy, movingly maintained that their parents' love never dissipated; if anything, it only deepened through the years. Other distinguished, thoughtful and sincere contemporaries of Albert and Elisabeth paint a picture of a very simple, sober, orderly and upright couple, quietly devoted to each other throughout their marriage. Furthermore, in his last years, rather than degenerating, Albert apparently improved. As Charles d'Ydewalle indicates, he became more and more physically austere, giving up smoking his Italian cigars, and drinking nothing but water after 1915. As he grew older, his dislike of gluttony was extended to those who indulged in it. In the light of this temperance; this asceticism, even, debauchery seems incredibly implausible. In her memoirs, Albert's daughter also relates that he began to see problems in a more and more elevated manner during his final years. She describes his efforts to conquer faults of character. Irascible from childhood, often frustrated with the iron fetters of his constitutional position, he nevertheless succeeded in overcoming his fits of impatience. How could he take such care to avoid these venial sins, while blithely committing mortal sins, in the same general period? (Yes, mortal sins; I feel that the permissive attitudes of our day make it hard for some people to understand the gravity of unchastity, for a believing, practicing Catholic, especially in those traditional times). This brings us to a final point: during his last years, it seems, Albert became more and more devoted to God. The wise and noble Abbot of Orval, who knew the King well, mentioned his efforts to be prepared, at any moment, for divine judgment, and testified to his great peace of conscience. He also suggested that the King's private life, if anything, was even more beautiful than his public life; perhaps, because only in private did his faith have free rein.
(to be continued)