Monday, May 30, 2011

Matriarch of the Royal Family

I am always amazed by how lively, friendly and cheerful Queen Elisabeth of Belgium looks in later photographs. The niece of Leopold II, wife of Albert I, mother of Leopold III, and grandmother of Baudouin I lived through four reigns and many tumultuous, tragic and emotionally exhausting events, including two world wars, but never lost her passion for life.

La Reine Musicienne 

Reading with her grandson, Prince Albert of Liège, and her grand-daughter-in-law, Princess Paola.

An elfin Queen with a parrot.

Friday, May 27, 2011

King Leopold's Soliloquy

Here is the full text of Mark Twain's scathing satire of the founder of the Congo Free State. As always, Twain is a brilliant writer; for a more balanced account of Leopold II, however, see here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

May 24-25, 1940: The Tragedy of Wijnendale

Today, we remember King Leopold III of the Belgians and his heroic but tragic refusal to accompany his government into exile in the last, desperate moments of the Belgian army's resistance to Hitler's onslaught. As is well known, the night before, in the Flemish castle of Wijnendale, where the King had established his headquarters, the four exhausted, harried Cabinet ministers, M. Pierlot, the Prime Minister, M. Spaak, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, General Dennis, the Minister of Defense, and M. Van der Poorten, the Minister of the Interior, who had been trying to convince the King to flee the country for days, made their final, futile appeal. Leopold insisted that his duty, as Commander-in-Chief, required him to remain with his army to the end. The ministers countered that his duty, as Head of State, transcended his duty as Commander-in-Chief. As Head of State, Leopold must avoid falling into the hands of the enemy at all costs. As King, however, Leopold firmly believed that he must remain with his people. In humanitarian terms, he was convinced that he could better assist the Belgians, during the rigors of a cruel occupation, by remaining in Belgium. Nothing could persuade him to flee. 

Please leave a comment to tell me whether you think the King made the right decision. I used to view it as absolutely correct, and hotly contested all suggestions that Leopold III should have departed into exile. Now I am not so sure. The King's motives were undeniably noble. He bravely risked life, limb and liberty to assist the Belgian army and people in their most terrible trial. Well aware that his decision to remain in Belgium during the Nazi occupation would place him in an endlessly difficult, complex and potentially compromising position, exposing him to the world's misunderstanding, scorn and derision, he bravely risked his reputation, too. Yet, since the King and the government must always act politically in concert, according to the Belgian constitution, the fracture between Leopold and his ministers created an anomalous, explosive situation, as emphasized in the recent RTBF documentary, Léopold III, mon père. The King's inviolability was threatened because his actions could no longer be covered by the government. Of course, Leopold realized that he could not act politically without his ministers; this is why he emphasized that his capitulation to the Germans on May 28, 1940, was a strictly military action. It is also why he had to refuse to reign under the Nazi occupation, insisting upon his status as a prisoner of war.

Nevertheless, the fateful parting of ways at Wijnendale set the stage for many disastrous controversies to come; the odious accusations of treason, leveled at the King by Pierlot and Spaak following the Belgian capitulation, further tensions and suspicions between monarch and ministers, over the next four years, despite an apparent reconciliation after Leopold was publicly vindicated by figures such as Cardinal van Roey and Admiral Keyes, the shattering rift sparked by the King's stern and unyielding memorandum to Pierlot, dated January 25, 1944, requiring a solemn apology for the ministers' accusations in 1940, and, finally, Leopold's dispute with the Allies over the validity of certain treaties, including agreements regarding shipments of Congolese uranium to the Americans to assist in the development of the atom bomb. The King contended that these treaties lacked validity, since they had been concluded without his signature, on the Belgian government's sole authority. In other words, the separation between Leopold and his ministers on May 25, 1940, initiated the chain of events known as the Royal Question, which shattered the King's reign and ultimately threatened to destroy the monarchy and cast Belgium into civil war. By remaining in Belgium, as his people's advocate during the Nazi occupation, Leopold III undoubtedly comforted and benefited the Belgians and saved lives through his humanitarian interventions. Yet, he also placed himself in an extremely delicate position, and, as it happened, imperilled the political structure of Belgium after the war. In Léopold III, mon père, his youngest daughter, and close, loving confidante, Princess Esmeralda, startled me by suggesting that her father might have been better advised to go into exile in London in 1940. She suggested that Leopold himself had been haunted by doubts, in later years, as to the wisdom of his decision at Wijnendale, and that he felt that the destiny of his entire reign had been played out in only a few hours, in that tragic castle. Yet, she added, it is hard to judge a decision taken at a moment of such tremendous physical and mental tension.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Modern Bride

I came across this picture of the two marriages of Princess Marie-Christine of Belgium, to Paul Drucker (1981) and Jean-Paul Gourges (1989). The bride's rather brashly contemporary style on both occasions is a striking contrast to the quiet, traditional dignity of her niece Princess Mathilde's wedding dress.

I wish I could find wedding photographs of Marie-Christine's younger sister, Princess Marie-Esméralda, but I gather that hers was a very private ceremony.

The Bravery of Albert I

First-hand testimony of the King's courage and humor under fire, from the diaries of Hugh Gibson, Secretary of the American Legation in Belgium during World War I.
We were leaving the battery and were slipping and sliding through the cabbages on our way back to the road, when we met the King on foot, accompanied only by an aide-de-camp, coming in for a look at the big guns. He stopped and spoke to us and finally settled down for a real talk, evidently thinking that this was as good a time as any other he was likely to find in the immediate future.
After talking shop with the two colonels, he turned to me for the latest gossip. He asked me about the story that the German officers had drunk his wine at the Palace in Laeken. I told him that it was generally accepted in Brussels, and gave him my authority for the yarn. He chuckled a little and then said, in his quiet way, with a merry twinkle, "You know I never drink anything but water." He cogitated a minute and then, with an increased twinkle, he added, "And it was not very good wine!" He seemed to think that he had quite a joke on the Germans.
As we talked, the sound of firing came from the German lines not far away, and shrapnel began falling in a field on the other side of the road. The Germans were evidently trying to locate the battery in that way. Most of the shrapnel burst in the air and did no damage, but some of it fell to the ground before bursting and sent up great fountains of the soft black earth with a cloud of grey smoke with murky yellow splotches in it. It was not a reassuring sight, and I was perfectly willing to go away from there, but being a true diplomat, I remembered that the King ranked me by several degrees in the hierarchy, and that he must give the sign of departure. Kings seem powerless to move at such times, however, so we stayed and talked while the nasty things popped. His Majesty and I climbed to a dignified position on a pile of rubbish, whence we could get a good view up and down the road, and see the French guns which were in action again.
A little later Ferguson, who was standing not far away, got hit with a little sliver, and had a hole punched in the shoulder of his overcoat. It stopped there, however, and did not hurt him in the least. He looked rather astonished, pulled the little stranger from the hole it had made, looked at it quizzically, and then put it in his pocket and went on watching the French guns. I think he would have been quite justified in stopping the battle and showing his trophy to everybody on both sides.
The King was much interested in all the news from Brussels, how the people were behaving, what the Germans were doing, whether there were crowds on the streets, and how the town felt about the performances of the army.
He realised what has happened to his little country, and made me realise it for the first time. He said that France was having a hard time, but added that perhaps a sixth of her territory was invaded and occupied, but that every bit of his country had been ravaged and devastated with the exception of the little bit by the sea coast and Antwerp itself, which was getting pretty rough treatment, in order to put it in shape to defend itself. He spoke with a great deal of feeling. And no wonder!
Then to change the tone of the conversation, he looked down at my pretty patent leather shoes, and asked in a bantering way whether those were a part of my fighting kit and where I had got them. I answered: "I got them several months ago to make my first bow to Your Majesty, at Laeken!" He looked around for a bit at the soggy fields, the marching troops, and then down at the steaming manure heap, and remarked, with a little quirk to his lips, "We did not think then that we should hold our first good conversation in a place like this, did we?" He smiled in a sad way, but there was a lot more sadness than mirth in what he said.
Guy d'Oultremont came up and said something that I did not understand, and we started back toward the headquarters. We stopped opposite the inn, and the two colonels were called up for a little more talk.
Just then a crowd of priests, with Red Cross brassards on their arms, came down the road on their way to the battlefield to gather up the wounded. With his usual shyness the King withdrew a few steps to seek shelter behind a motor that was standing near by. As we talked, we edged back a little, forcing him to come forward, so that he was in plain sight of the priests, who promptly broke out in a hearty "Vive le roi!'' He blushed and waved his hand at them, and, after they had passed by, shook hands with us and followed them on foot out on to the field. In modern warfare a King's place is supposed to be in a perfectly safe spot, well back of the firing line, but he does not play the game that way. Every day since the war began, he has gone straight out into the thick of it, with the shells bursting all around, and even within range of hostile rifle fire. It is a dangerous thing for him to do, but it does the troops good, and puts heart into them for the desperate fighting they are called upon to do. They are all splendidly devoted to him.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

May 21, 1864: The Birth of Princess Stéphanie

Today is the birthday of Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, the second daughter of King Leopold II and Queen Marie-Henriette, and an often forgotten victim of the Mayerling tragedy. (Above is a photograph of Princess Stéphanie with her husband, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary). I have discussed the Princess in more detail in the past, HERE and HERE. Finally, HERE are some beautiful paintings of Stéphanie.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Duke of Brabant Pays Visit to Seattle Sidewalk Counselors

Given the pro-life stance of King Baudouin I, this story about his nephew, Prince Philippe, the current heir to the Belgian throne, is particularly interesting:
"On the morning of Saturday March 8 [2008], about 15 people, including Sarah Schaper, were praying in front of the Planned Parenthood on E. Madison St. in Seattle. Some of those praying held signs which said, 'God Loves You and Your Baby”, 'Stop Abortion', and 'I Regret My Abortion.' One sign was a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
A Yellow Cab stopped in front of the vigil attendees. A lady got out of the back seat. She asked for permission to take Sarah’s photo. Two men got out of the cab and photographed others in the group.
The lady told Sarah, 'We have a prince.' Prince Philippe, the crown prince of Belgium, introduced himself, took a photo of Sarah and said, “God bless you.”
May God bless Prince Philippe and his family!"

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Art Collection of Princess Maria Gabriella

As we remember King Umberto II and Queen Maria José this month, it is interesting to see the magnificent, historic art collection of their daughter, Princess Maria Gabriella, sold at Christie's in 2007. Above is a silver bowl, depicting putti playing in a landscape, a Silver Wedding gift to Maria Gabriella's maternal grandparents, King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians. On the back, the bowl is dated October 2, 1925, and engraved with the facsimile signatures of the three children of Albert and Elisabeth: 'Leopold' for Leopold III, King of the Belgians; 'Charles-Theodore' for Charles-Theodore, Count of Flanders, Prince of Belgium, and 'Marie-José' for Maria-José, Queen of Italy. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011


Henry Otto Wix - 'View of Cuernavaca', watercolor, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Here are some glimpses of the landscape, town and churches of Cuernavaca, the vibrant Mexican "city of eternal spring" associated with two Belgian princesses. The unfortunate Empress Carlota of Mexico, daughter of King Leopold I and Queen Louise-Marie of the Belgians, adored Cuernavaca and spent vacations there, at the spectacular Borda Gardens, with her husband, Emperor Maximilian I. It was also from Cuernavaca that she set out for Europe to appeal, in vain, for support for her husband's doomed cause. Over a century later, Carlota's great-niece, Queen Maria José of Italy, daughter of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians, moved to Cuernavaca. In 1991, the aged, tired, depressed Queen arrived from Switzerland, initially for a brief vacation, at the invitation of her youngest daughter, Princess Maria Beatrice, and her son-in-law, Argentinian diplomat Luis Reyna Corvalàn, then living in Cuernavaca. Like her great-aunt Carlota, however, Maria José fell in love with the city, and she decided to settle there for a time.

Reinvigorated by the climate and the energy of the place, touched by the warmth of the people, she regained her humor, curiosity, fighting spirit and love of life. (She said that her beloved old dog, Alaska, was also restored by his new environment). She spent four culturally active, sociable years, in a modest, welcoming, single-storey villa, at 1005 Palmira Avenue, becoming increasingly close to Maria Beatrice and her husband, before before returning to Switzerland to live with her son, Victor Emmanuel, and his wife, Marina Doria. According to Luciano Regolo, Maria José's home in Cuernavaca clearly reflected her spirit: her reserved, but constant sentiments, her cult of history and art, her preference for lively colors and her cheerful irony. She was assisted by a small, but loyal and affectionate entourage: a talkative lady-in-waiting, Madame Claudine Estrayer, a French-speaking secretary, Monsieur Dominique Voghel, who kept the Queen in contact with the courts and cultural institutions of Europe, a Spanish teacher, and medical, security and household staff, including the Queen's majordomo, Juan, and her housekeeper, Zenaida Isabel. Many distinguished visitors, ranging from Mexican ministers to European ambassadors, as well as her own nephew and niece, King Albert II and Queen Paola of the Belgians, came to pay their respects to Maria José in Cuernavaca.

AlarconStCVMaria José had vivid childhood memories of her great-aunt Carlota, whom she had visited as a little girl with her parents. Albert and Elisabeth had taken their daughter to pay their respects to the tragic, deranged, exiled empress, living in seclusion in the Flemish castle of Bouchout. According to her later account, recorded by her biographer, Luciano Regolo, Maria José doubted Carlota's insanity. During Maria José's childhood visit, the old lady, after appearing lost and vacant, suddenly changed completely when Albert and Elisabeth, who were talking among themselves, were trying to remember the name of a newly appointed minister of state. Interrupting the conversation, Carlota supplied all the particulars of the person in question. The little princess was stunned; whereupon, Carlota turned and confided to her: "I will tell you a secret: when you want to escape from your past, pretend to be mad. Nobody will ask you any more indiscreet questions". In her last years, following her move to Mexico, Maria José's interest in Carlota's life would deepen.

The Queen also became increasingly intrigued by Mexican history, archaeology and culture in general. She was fascinated by the pre-colonial period, and tended to sympathize with the native populations rather than the Spanish conquistadors. (In this respect, she resembled her brother, King Leopold III of the Belgians, who was also sharply critical of many colonial methods, once again giving the lie to those who portray the entire Belgian royal family as ruthless imperialists). Maria José also developed a great admiration for the Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata, devouring biographies of her hero, laying flowers at his tomb, and proudly displaying a large portrait of him on her wall. Some suggested to her that it was inappropriate for a queen to honor a revolutionary. The always broad-minded Maria José, however, viewed the matter differently. Zapata, she believed, deserved every respect, since he had been willing to die for his ideals of "land and liberty", ideals which raised him above partisan differences. Maria José also had a more humorous encounter with Mexican history on a visit to Oaxaca. The local authorities were enthusiastically praising President Benito Juarez, who had been responsible for the execution of Emperor Maximilian I. Amused by the irony of her situation, the Queen carefully avoided reminding her hosts that the figure in question had killed her great-uncle...


Cuernavaca Catedral de madrugada

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A May Flower

May 3 was the birthday of Princess Élisabeth of France (1764-1794), the martyred sister of King Louis XVI; May 10 will be the anniversary of her death. As I have discussed before, her distant relative, Princess Henriette of Belgium, worked for her cause of beatification and authored a lovely biography of her. 

Here is a moving prayer by Princess Élisabeth:
Adorable heart of Jesus, sanctuary of the love that led God to make himself man, to sacrifice his life for our salvation, and to make of his body the food of our souls: in gratitude for that infinite charity I give you my heart, and with it all that I possess in this world, all that I am, all that I shall do, all that I shall suffer. But, my God, may this heart, I implore you, be no longer unworthy of you; make it like unto yourself; surround it with your thorns and close its entrance to all ill-regulated affections; set there your cross, make it feel its worth, make it willing to love it. Kindle it with your divine flame. May it burn for your glory; may it be all yours, when you have done what you will with it. You are its consolation in its troubles, the remedy of its ills, its strength and refuge in temptation, its hope during life, its haven in death. I ask you, O heart so loving, the same favour for my companions. So be it.
O divine heart of Jesus! I love you, I adore you, I invoke you, with my companions, for all the days of my life, but especially for the hour of my death. 
O vere adorator et unice amator Dei, miserere nobis. Amen.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Interview with Princess Maria Gabriella

This month, it seems appropriate as usual to remember the May King and May Queen of Italy. Here is an interesting interview (in Italian) of their second daughter, charming Princess Maria Gabriella, the historian of the family.  After the exile of the house of Savoy, in 1946, and their move to Portugal, Maria Gabriella's parents separated; their three daughters remained in Cascais with their father, while their son lived in Switzerland with his mother. The princesses only visited the Queen about once a year! An affectionate and attentive parent, the King raised his daughters with the help of an Irish governess. Maria Gabriella absorbed her father's humanitarianism, his concern for the poor and the needy, along with her mother's intellectualism, her love of beauty and culture. The King and Queen had different approaches to their faith. Umberto was a deeply observant Roman Catholic. Maria José, although a sincere Christian, also felt the need to explore other religions and philosophies. (In this respect, she reminds me of her mother, Queen Elisabeth of Belgium). She was interested in yoga. Maria Gabriella, however, followed her father's example, always remaining traditional in her spirituality. Her devotion to her faith would prevent her from accepting the hand of the Shah of Iran, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, who proposed marriage to the Italian princess during her youth, on condition that she publicly abjure Catholicism and convert to Islam. Although assured that she could continue to practice her Catholic faith privately after her marriage, Maria Gabriella declined the Shah's proposal. (Thank goodness, as she would otherwise have been swept up in the Iranian Revolution!) The Savoys, however, remained on friendly terms with Reza Pahlavi. Like her mother, Queen Maria José, Maria Gabriella has since devoted her life to researching and illuminating the history of her family, becoming a guardian of the memory of the house of Savoy.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Lilian's Jewels

An enjoyable display. (I wasn't too thrilled by all the comments that follow, though; there is the usual anti-Lilian venom and some of the facts are garbled. Why do so many people think that Lilian was pregnant when she secretly married King Leopold III in September, 1941? No, Prince Alexandre was born ten months after the wedding...)

Princess Lilian apparently attracted a great deal of popular ire by wearing jewelry which had belonged to her husband's tragically deceased first wife, Queen Astrid, so idolized by the Belgians. I do not quite grasp why wearing Astrid's jewels is supposed to have been so outrageous; after all, Lilian had "inherited" the Queen's husband, so why should she not have "inherited" some of her accessories, too? Still, it was clearly a psychological error. Be that as it may, however, here are pictures illustrating Lilian's use of Astrid's jewels. Above, we see Astrid wearing a diamond and emerald tiara, a gift from her parents-in-law, King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth, on the birth of her eldest son, Prince Baudouin. Below, we see Lilian wearing the same piece, as a necklace.