Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Royal Gift

Here is a charming story (thank you, Viola!) of a beautiful ivory brisé fan, purchased in Paris by Queen Louise-Marie of Belgium for her niece, Queen Victoria, in 1839. Apparently, Louise-Marie and Victoria were close friends, with a shared love of fashion. Over the years, the Belgian queen sent many elegant Parisian dresses and accessories to her delighted niece in England...The fan, in particular, had reputedly belonged to Marie-Antoinette, although this is uncertain.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The King's Consolation

In his difficult public role, King Albert I found great comfort in his family life. After nine years of marriage, he wrote to his wife, Elisabeth:
Je t'écris, non pour te congratuler d'être tombée sur on ours comme moi, mais pour les mille efforts que tu as faits pour moi et pour les beaux enfants que tu m'as donnés! Voilà déjà neuf ans que nous avons unis nos destinées et je ne veux point passer ce jour sans te dire combien je suis heureux avec toi et combien j'apprécie le bonheur que tu m'as apporté au foyer et qui dans la vie est toujours le plus précieux de tout...

I write to you, not to congratulate you for having stumbled upon a bear like me, but for the countless efforts you have made for me, and for the beautiful children you have given me! It is now nine years since we united our destinies, and I am determined not to let this day pass without telling you how happy I am with you, and how much I appreciate the happiness you have brought to my home - the happiness that, in life, is always the most precious of all... 
Such a tender heart!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my dear friends. God bless!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Accession of Albert I

Today marks the centenary of the accession of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth to the Belgian throne. On December 23, 1909, six days after the death of his uncle, Leopold II, Prince Albert swore his accession oath before Parliament, becoming the third King of the Belgians. Previous monarchs had taken the oath only in French; Albert innovated by doing so in Dutch as well. Belgians joyfully welcomed their retiring, studious, conscientious and progressive new sovereign and his lively, artistic, philanthropic, Bavarian-born consort. Their unassuming ways and happy family life, which stood in marked contrast to the haughty, aloof manners and irregular private life of Leopold II, had already won the young couple great popularity. In the years to come, this would only increase, thanks to the family's bravery during World War I.

Click HERE for excerpts from Albert's accession speech.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Young Victoria

I've not seen it yet, but here is an interesting review by Theodore Harvey.  The portrayal of Leopold I really sounds too harsh. He is not my favorite Belgian king but, like Mr. Harvey, I do think he was probably more than a mere coldhearted, selfish intriguer. He was actually Victoria's favorite uncle!
Emily Blunt portrays Victoria (1819-1901) in her last years as a princess and first years as a queen, an important time in any sovereign's life but a particularly interesting one in this case given the dramatic contrast between the suffocating imprisonment she endured under her mother the Duchess of Kent (1786-1861) (Miranda Richardson) and the confident authority she quickly demonstrated as Queen upon her accession in 1837 at the age of 18. Miss Blunt is probably prettier than the real Victoria was, but admirably captures her dutiful yet stubborn, refined yet passionate nature. Mark Strong as the Duchess's unpopular adviser Sir John Conroy (1786-1854) is the perfect villain; the viewer is likely to resent him as much as Victoria did. Some might find Jim Broadbent's exuberant performance as King William IV (1765-1837) a bit over-the-top, but I had no trouble being convinced by the intensity of his dislike of his sister-in-law. Thomas Kretschmann's portrayal of Victoria's uncle King Leopold I of the Belgians (1790-1865) is the only one I thought unfair; all he is allowed to do is scheme and vent, and I think there was probably more to Leopold (and more genuine affection for his niece and nephew) than that. But Rupert Friend's performance as Prince Albert (1819-1861), devoted to Victoria but firmly intent on using his gifts to play the substantial political and cultural role she is at first reluctant to grant him, is exquisite, and moviegoers watching him and Blunt together are likely to have no trouble understanding why the real Victoria would be so devastated by Albert's death two decades later. As a classical musician I was particularly pleased that the movie found time to demonstrate Albert's enthusiasm for the great composers of his time.

Leopold, Philippe and Charlotte

The three surviving children of King Leopold I and Queen Louise-Marie of the Belgians: Leopold, future King Leopold II, Philippe, father of King Albert I, and Charlotte, later to become the tragic Empress of Mexico.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Accession of Leopold II

On December 17, 1865, a week after his father's death, Leopold II, King of the Belgians, ascended the throne. Leopold II is no favorite of mine. Nonetheless, here is his accession speech:
"Gentlemen: Belgium has, like myself, lost a father. The unanimous homage which the nation renders to his memory worthily responds to the sentiments which he cherished towards it during his life."
I am equally moved and grateful. Europe herself has not remained indifferent to this affliction. Foreign sovereigns and princes have wished to take part in the last honors which we render to him whom they placed so high in their confidence and friendship. I thank them for myself and for Belgium.
" On this day, succeeding to a father so honored during his life and so regretted after his death, my first engagement before the representatives of the nation is to religiously follow the precepts and examples which his wisdom has left me, and never to forget the duties imposed on me by this precious inheritance.  If I do not promise to Belgium either a great reign like that which founded her independence, or a great king like him whom we mourn, I at least promise her a king Belgian in heart and soul, whose whole life belongs to her.
"The first King of the Belgians to which Belgium has given birth, I have from my childhood shared all the patriotic emotions of my country. Like her, I have watched with happiness the national development which has fecundated in her bosom all the sources of strength and prosperity. Like her, I love those grand institutions which guarantee at the same time order and liberty, and are the most solid foundation of the throne.
"In my thoughts the future of Belgium has always been blended with my own, and I have always regarded it with the confidence inspired by the right of a free, honest, and brave nation, which wills its independence, which has won it, proved Itself worthy of it, and will know how to preserve it.
" I have not forgotten, gentlemen, the marks of kind feeling which I received on attaining my majority, when I came to take part in your legislative labors, and, some months later, on the occasion of my marriage with a princess who shares all my sentiments for the country aud instils them into our children.
"I have been gratified to recognize in these spontaneous manifestations the unanimous accord of the populations. On my part, I have never made any distinctions between Belgians ; all are devoted to their country, and I comprise them in one common affection.
" My constitutional mission places me apart from the struggle of opinions. Leaving the country itself to decide them, I ardently desire that their differences may always be tempered by that spirit of national fraternity which unites, at this moment, round the same flag all the children of the Belgian family.
"Gentlemen, within the last thirty-five years Belgium has witnessed the accomplishment of things which, in a country of the size of ours, have rarely been realized in a single generation ; but the edifice of which the congress laid the foundations may rise, and will rise, higher still. My sympathetic co-operation is assured to all who shall devote to this work their intellect and efforts.
"By persisting in this course of activity and wise progress, Belgium will more and more consolidate her institutions at home, and will preserve abroad that esteem which the powers guaranteeing her independence, and other foreign states, have always accorded her, and have again this day so kindly testified. On ascending the throne, my father said to the Belgians: ' My heart knows of no other ambition than that of seeing you happy.' These words, which his whole reign has justified, I do not fear to repeat in my own name.
"Providence has vouchsafed to hear the wish they expressed. May He hear it again this day, render me the worthy successor of my father, and, I pray from my inmost soul, continue to protect our dear Belgium."
Curiously, Leopold would die on the 44th anniversary of his accession, on December 17, 1909. Strange coincidence! May God have mercy on his soul.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Louise-Marie's Deathbed

The first Queen of the Belgians, surrounded by her grieving family, passed into eternity strikes me the bed is so small and simple.

Despite the fact that she had suffered from family tragedies and a long, exhausting battle with consumption, Louise-Marie's last words were of gratitude to God: Que Dieu est bon de me laisser mourir au milieu de tout ce que j'aime! ("How good God is to let me die amidst all I love!")

(Photo credit: Georges Jansoone)

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Remarkable Testimony

In 1993, to mark the tenth anniversary of the death of Leopold III, one of his intimates, the internationally acclaimed scientist Christian de Duve (winner of the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine), published a remarkable tribute ("Un grand seigneur droit et généreux") to the late King in La Libre Belgique. It caused gnashing of teeth in certain quarters.
Un souvenir domine et résume tous ceux que je conserve précieusement de mes rencontres avec le roi Léopold. Celui d'un grand seigneur. Déjà sa prestance physique en imposait. Quand il entra dans une pièce, tout se rapetissait autour de lui. Il parlait peu et n'élevait jamais la voix. Mais personne n'aurait osé l'interrompre quand il prenait la parole. Il fixait son interlocuteur d'un regard bienveillant où perçait l'ombre d'un sourire teinté d'ironie. Mais il fallait pas s'y méprendre. Si d'aventure quelqu'un ou quelque chose suscitait son indignation, sa nuque se raidissait, ses yeux prenaient une lueur d'acier. Sa voix, toujours aussi douce, créait une distance invisible et, sans perdre de sa parfaite courtoisie, il mettait fin à l'entretien.
Grandeur morale aussi. Le mot "compromis", si nécessaire cependant dans la pratique politique quotidienne, ne faisait pas partie de son vocabulaire. Une chose était juste et s'imposait, ou elle était injuste et donc inacceptable. Je soupçonne qu'une de ses grandes consolations après les épreuves qu'il dut subir fut qu'une fois privé des devoirs de sa charge, il put se permettre le luxe d'être entièrement lui-même. Ce qui ne l'empêchait pas de suivre avec inquiétude et pessimisme les compromissions, les lâchetés, les malhonnêtetés ou, tout simplement, les faiblesses de certains dirigeants. Il tenait profondément à la Belgique, à laquelle il restait lié par son serment constitutionnel, et il souffrait de la voir de plus en plus divisée.
Curiosité, enfin, pour toutes les choses de la nature.
Heureux ceux qui ont eu le privilège de participer à un de ces rares moments où le Roi se laissait aller à parler de ses expéditions, des ses recherches, de ses lectures.
Heureux ceux aussi qui ont eu l'honneur de lui exposer leurs travaux et à répondre à ses interrogations, toujours pertinentes et bien informées. Heureux ceux qui ont pu voir les innombrables cahiers dans lesquels il a noté durant toute sa vie, d'une écriture admirable de finesse et de régularité, tout ce qui l'avait intéressé- et aussi, hélas! tout ce qui l'avait déçu ou tourmenté.
Oui, le Souverain disparu il y a voici dix ans était un grand seigneur. Il était aussi un personnage profondément humain et généreux, ne connaissant ni la haine, ni la méchanceté, ni la soif de vengeance, tout en restant scrupuleusement droit, honnête et intransigeant sur les principes.
One memory dominates and resumes all those I conserve preciously of my meetings with King Leopold. That of a grand seigneur. His sheer physical presence was imposing. When he entered a room, everything around him seemed to shrink. He said little and never raised his voice. But no one would have dared to interrupt him when he began to speak. He fixed his interlocutor with a kind look, pierced by the shadow of a smile tinted with irony. But make no mistake. If something or someone happened to arouse his indignation, his neck stiffened, his eyes took on a steely glint. His voice, still as gentle as before, created an invisible distance and, without losing his perfect courtesy, he put an end to the meeting. 
Moral grandeur, too. The word "compromise," although so necessary in daily practical politics, was not part of his vocabulary. Something was just and had to be done, or it was unjust and therefore unacceptable. I suspect that one of his great consolations, after the ordeals he had to endure, was that, once he was deprived of the duties of his charge, he could permit himself the luxury of being entirely himself. But this did not prevent him from following, with anxiety and pessimism, the compromises, the  acts of cowardice and dishonesty, or simply the weaknesses of certain politicians. He deeply loved Belgium, remaining bound to it by his constitutional oath, and he suffered to see it more and more divided. 
Curiosity, finally, for all the things of nature.
Happy those who had the privilege of participating in one of those rare moments when the King let himself go, talking about his expeditions, his research, his reading.
Happy those who had the honor to explain their work to him and answer his questions, always pertinent and well-informed. Happy those who were able to see the innumerable journals where he noted, throughout his life, in a handwriting admirable for its refinement and regularity, everything that had interested him, and also, sadly! -  everything that had disappointed or tormented him. 
Yes, the Sovereign who died ten years ago now was a grand seigneur. He was also a deeply human, generous person, knowing neither hatred, nor cruelty, nor the thirst for vengeance, while remaining scrupulously upright, honest and intransigent on principles. 
(cited by Michel Verwilghen in Le mythe d'Argenteuil)  

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Man Who Would Not Be King

I always find it interesting to consider alternate historical scenarios...Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was by no means the only candidate for the newly established Belgian throne in 1831. Prior to Leopold's election, for example, the Belgian National Congress offered the crown to Louis, Duc de Nemours, second son of King Louis-Philippe of France. During the Belgian Revolution, the Duc de Nemours had accompanied the French army that aided in the overthrow of Dutch rule. His eldest sister, Louise-Marie, would become Belgium's first queen consort in 1832. But imagine if the Orléans prince had become the country's first king? Belgium would likely have become a mere vassal of France. This is exactly the outcome the British feared. By threatening war if the Duc de Nemours became King of the Belgians, they compelled Louis-Philippe to decline the throne for his son.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Death of Leopold I

On December 10, 1865, the first King of the Belgians, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, died after a lingering illness. Although he had ruled a predominantly Catholic country for over 30 years, he remained firmly Protestant to the end. Charles d'Ydewalle, biographer of Leopold's grandson, King Albert I, gives a melancholy account of Leopold's passing:
The death-bed of Leopold I was a sad one, with something puritanical and cold about it. In his death agony, he called: "Charlotte...Charlotte..." but no one knew whether he was calling to his daughter, the Empress of Mexico, or to that first Charlotte of Claremont and those enchanted years whose happy memories once more unfolded before his darkening eyes.
"Do you regret the sins you have committed, Sire?" asked his daughter-in-law. He sighed heavily, and answered: "Yes..."
"In the name of the love you bear for the Queen's memory," went on the wife of Leopold II, "will you not be converted to her religion so that you may meet her again in Heaven?"
"Nein..." he whispered.
Thus died the first King of the Belgians.
The same day, the Monitor eulogized the deceased Sovereign, whose political and diplomatic abilities had secured Belgium's place among the independent nations of Europe and had won him the title "Nestor of Kings."
Brussels, December 10, 1865.
An immediate mourning is about to spread over Belgium.
The first of our kings, the founder of our national dynasty, his Majesty Leopold I, died this morning at the Palace of Laeken, at a quarter before twelve o'clock, surrounded by his august family, whose grief we will not attempt to portray.
History will tell what was the sovereign who, in the times of grave uncertainties, did not hesitate to respond to the wish of the nation, by coming to strengthen and fix its destinies ; who, during a reign of nearly thirty-five years, at an epoch so troubled as was ours, knew how to call to himself the love and veneration of the Belgian people, and to win the high esteem and respect of sovereign monarchs and peoples ; who, true to his solemn pledges, was minutely scrupulous in the observance of our constitutional compact, and in reward for this duty, so religiously fulfilled, and the services which he did not cease to render to the country, carries with him the gratitude of a whole nation united to bless his memory; who, finally, leaves to the august heir of the crown, with his great and noble example, a free, happy, and prosperous kingdom, which has acquired its place among the family of European nations.
Belgium will long weep the loss she has sustained ; she will ever preserve the remembrance of a King who was for her a devoted friend, a constant support; but her too just regrets will not cause her to forget her legitimate hopes.
The country does not die, and if on all sides is raised the doleful cry—
The King is dead! —
All Belgians, mastering their affliction, and rallying round the throne, will re-echo the shout
—Long live the King !

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Last Queen of Portugal

Amélie of Orléans (1865-1951), consort of the doomed Carlos I. She was the great-niece of Queen Louise-Marie of the Belgians and seems to have strongly resembled her in character.
Those who knew her all described her as a very friendly, subdued and caring woman with an open and friendly style who cared deeply for the unfortunate. Medical causes dominated much of her extensive charity work. She worked to spread awareness for the prevention of tuberculosis, sponsored sanatoriums and more available pharmacies. The Queen was also artistically minded and enjoyed literature, the opera and theatre and occupied her time writing in her diary and painting. However, she was also a competent woman and acted as regent of Portugal while the King was away on foreign trips. For all of her charity work and support for the Church she was given the Golden Rose in 1892 by His Holiness Pope Leo XIII.
Queen Amélie's most heroic moment came with the Lisbon regicide on February 1, 1908. Revolutionaries fired at the royal carriage, killing the King instantly and mortally wounding the Crown Prince, Dom Luis. The Queen, however, amazingly unharmed, managed to save the life of her youngest son, Dom Manuel (Manuel II), by defending him with her bouquet of flowers...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Prince Philippe Speaks

Keynote speech delivered June 18, 2007, at Tsinghua University, Beijing.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sorrow...and Joy

Prince Alexandre of Belgium, who died suddenly on Sunday, was buried this morning in a chapel adjacent to the Royal Crypt, at the Church of Our Lady in Laeken. The sober, discreet funeral ceremony was attended by the Belgian royal family, and by others wishing to pay their last respects to the Prince.

On a happier note, today is also the 10th wedding anniversary of Prince Philippe and Princess Mathilde. Best wishes to Belgium's future King and Queen!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

"In My Native Land Set Free"

I came across this patriotic piece by Belgian poet and historian Emile Cammaerts (author of, among other works, Albert of Belgium: defender of right and The prisoner at Laeken: King Leopold, legend and fact), published in The War Illustrated, on December 21, 1918. The context was the euphoria of liberation and the return of peace at the end of World War I. I particularly liked the way Cammaerts balances (as far as might be expected, given the exaltation of the moment) the merits and defects of his people, capable of both pettiness and greatness. I found his mixture of realism and idealism interesting and touching.
It may seem absurd, but we only truly appreciate what we have missed for a long time. It is not necessary to be a globe-trotter to be a patriot, but it may be sometimes useful to stay away from home to realise how dependent one is on familiar sights and sounds. I do not suppose that Englishmen love their country more than Frenchmen or Belgians do ; but, being great travellers, they are certainly given more opportunity to become conscious of it. So that the old and very human paradox remains true — that the best way of finding out something is to run away from it.
I experienced this feeling each time I used to go back to Belgium to spend there my holidays after a few months' absence. The land and towns appeared to me fairer than I left them, clothed with a new light, bathed in the shadows of old memories. My recent return, however, was different. Belgium had been cut off from the world, trampled upon by the oppressor, threatened for four long years with destruction. More than once her fate had trembled in the balance, and it needed a stubborn and blind faith — the only faith worth having — to believe, all through this time that the hour of complete liberation and full reparation would strike at last. So that it was not the "dear old country" this time.
A Wonderful Coincidence
It was during the last wonderful November days, in the soft pure light of winter, a floating mirage, a dream come true. After crossing for many miles the zone of destruction along the Yser, the heap of wreckage which once was Dixmude, the solitude which once was Ypres, the huge morass covered with yellow reeds, once the brightest meadows in Flanders, Bruges appeared like an oasis beyond the desert. Beflagged Bruges, with bells pealing and the old belfry chimes playing just the same tune, and her towers and her canals where swans' feathers still float under the old bridges.
There is something providential in the fact that the liberation came when it came, before the destruction wrought by the offensive from Ghent to Tournai could spread over the rest of the country. Another month of war, perhaps another fortnight, might have involved Antwerp, Brussels, Namur, thrown several million of refugees on the high road and struck at the very heart of the country.
That Bruges should be the first large town in which King Albert made his entry is also a wonderful coincidence. For Bruges is the very gate of peace, the narrow gate sanctified by centuries of tradition and worship. In spite of the large guns and motor-vans stationed in the square, the old atmosphere was preserved, and the helmeted soldiers tramping in the moonlight did not seem out of place.
Barring one or two accidents, the town is untouched. The British airmen ought to be congratulated on their work. While the port and the approaches of the Zeebrugge Canal are badly damaged by their periodical bombardments, only a few bombs were dropped on the town.
Like cliffs rising from the sea, with their towers pointing to heaven, Belgium's ancient towns rose before us. After Bruges, Ghent with St. Nicolas, St. Baron and the gilded belfry. After Ghent, Antwerp'and her great cathedral. Truly we never saw such sights before. We used only to compare, to criticise, to look at the mistakes made by over-zealous restorers, at the ugly creations of modern architects. We never realised that so many treasures were left, that so much harmony could grow out of glaring contrasts. It was not merely a mirage, a dream, it was a resurrection. The grey veil was lifted, the shroud unfolded, and Belgium rose again more beautiful than ever. It was as if the sound of Easter bells filled the wintry sky.
Life is Greater than Art
I am told that the first Belgian soldier who entered the Grand Place in Brussels exclaimed : "It's all right! The Town Hall is still there, as crooked as ever !" He used the French words, "de travers." Those who know the Hotel de Ville will remember that the tower does not sit in the middle of the building, but grows a little to the right, thus breaking the hall's perfect symmetry. This apparent irregularity has been much commented upon ; some have praised it, others have deplored it. But the man did not care; he was only too pleased to find the place just as he left it four years ago. Artistic perfection is not to be considered in such circumstances. What a disappointment it would have been to find things altered, even for the better ! Those very mistakes and irregularities make towns and people more human, more living. They give a sense of reality more delightful than any fancy. The rough French was good to hear again, mixed with Flemish expressions.
Belgium is far from being perfect. It is not the country of pure style and lofty ideals. It does not merely stir our admiration. It is somewhat shy and awkward, very genuine, sincere, and strong. It was a relief to find it, as the tower on Brussels Town Hall, still a little "de travers." I thought, a few years ago, that the great square in Brussels looked better before the time of its restoration, but I no longer regret the past. When King Albert appeared on the balcony over the Grand' Place flooded with light, the old corporation banners flying from every house, while the crowd shouted to greet him from the square, from every window, even from every roof, who could find in his heart room for any regret ? Life is greater than art, souls are more precious than stones.
Heroism of the People
The people also have not changed. The clock of history has stopped for them. Their ideas, their aspirations, their feelings are out of date. They go back to those terrible days of August, 1914, when Belgium became a prison. They have heard very little of what happened outside. They still sing "Tipperary," and the flags they have hoisted are the flags of Liege. All their energy has centred on two questions : To keep alive and to remain loyal. Most arduous and anxious questions when the only way out of material difficulties pointed to Berlin. Their whole activity, their whole energy, has been absorbed in deepening the gulf between the invaders and themselves, and in alleviating as far as possible the growing misery of the masses. They have grown older, very much older, with constant worry, under the weight of threats and persecutions. Their hair has turned grey and white, but they have kept their heads erect. There is not one of them, directly or indirectly, who has not taken his or her share in the struggle. Many have been fined ; many more have gone to prison or to Germany ; hundreds have given their life for the common cause. But what we never realised outside is the light-hearted way in which the most peaceful, the most quiet of them played their part.
When we heard that the Germans had condemned a hundred thousand people to various penalties in one year, we thought that almost all of those who infringed regulations had been detected. We did not know — as we do now — that the German police was practically powerless in the face of an almost universal will to break the law. Through these last years people never ceased reading and circulating forbidden papers, sheltering prisoners of war, helping recruits to cross the frontier, and hiding requisitioned articles. The number of those who were detected is only a small portion of those who defied German decrees. It was their way of waging war; for the wool, the copper, the leather which escaped the search-parties could not be used to equip the enemy army, or to provide it with munitions.
A Symbolic Scene
This attitude of mind can only be fully appreciated by those who have relations and friends in Belgium ; for it is not only the number of law-breakers which is amazing, it is the transformation brought about in their temper. They will meet people who, in ordinary circumstances, would never have dreamt of exposing themselves to the slightest inconvenience, or of sacrificing the least of their everyday comforts, who gaily risked deportation, imprisonment, or even worse for the common cause.
The Belgians, it is true, are just the same as four years ago ; but they have given us the opportunity of improving our knowledge of them. Under the stress of circumstances their apparent pettiness and selfishness have gone, and their true character stands revealed. They do not strike heroic attitudes, they do not utter heroic words, but in their simple, open-hearted way they have done as much for the triumph of justice as the soldiers in the trenches.
I shall never forget the scene in the Town Hall when Burgomaster Max, freshly arrived from Germany, welcomed King Albert to Brussels, after his long absence, and when the King, in a trembling voice, congratulated the first citizen of his capital on the great example of patriotism he had given to the people. It was a short and impressive scene. All the more impressive because it had a symbolic meaning. All over the country, at the same moment, the Belgian soldiers were greeted by their relations and friends. In every Belgian home, as in the Brussels Town Hall, every soldier and every civilian had some story to tell. In spite of the long years of separation, they realised that they had suffered, fought, and conquered — together.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Death and the Queen

Queen Elisabeth of Belgium was legendary for her valor in wartime. Her husband's biographer, Charles d'Ydewalle, for example, describes her fearlessness (even recklessness) in visiting the trenches during World War I. When King Albert accompanied her, she took sensible precautions, but, left to her own devices, Elisabeth would think up all sorts of mad schemes. Shelling would start and the officers would desperately point out a dug-out where she would fling herself, laughing...

In view of all this, I was quite surprised at her daughter Marie-José's testimony of Elisabeth's terror of death in her old age. I don't mean to detract from her courage, but it is an interesting insight into the complexity of her personality.
Mia madre, nonostante la sua temerarietà e intraprendenza, aveva un sacro terrore della morte. Da quando aveva saputo di soffrire di cuore, bastava un piccolo raffreddore perché cadesse in panico. Le faceva paura sopratutto il fatto di affrontare la morte da sola; estremamente realista, s'impressionava di tutto ciò che riteneva inspiegabile e misterioso. Molte volte mi telefonò a Merlinge: Figlia mia, sento che sto per morire.  Poi veniva a casa mia ed era in perfetta salute. 
My mother, notwithstanding her daring and enterprise, had a holy terror of death. Ever since she had discovered she had a heart condition, a slight chill was enough to send her into a panic. What frightened her, above all, was the fact of confronting death alone; extremely realistic, she was awed by everything she found inexplicable and mysterious. Many times, she telephoned me at Merlinge: My child, I feel I'm dying. Then, she would come to visit me, and was in perfect health. (Quoted by Luciano Regolo in La regina incompresa: tutto il racconto della vita di Maria José di Savoia, 2002, p. 358)

Monday, November 30, 2009

The First Sunday of Advent

May God bless everyone in this holy season.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sad News

Little Alexandre with his big sister, Josephine-Charlotte

Prince Alexandre Emmanuel of Belgium, son of King Leopold III and Princess Lilian, passed away today. He was only 67 years old.The sad news has been officially confirmed by the Royal Palace. Apparently the Prince, who had suffered from heart problems since childhood, died of a pulmonary embolism.

Strange, I was just thinking of Alexandre recently...all my condolences go to his widow, Princess Léa, his sisters, Princesses Marie-Christine and Marie-Esmeralda, and the whole royal family of Belgium.

May his soul, and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Alexandre and his wife, Léa

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Birthday of Lilian Baels

On November 28, 1916, Miss Mary Lilian Baels was born in London. She was one of the eight children of Hendrik Baels, an affluent and ambitious Ostende lawyer (later, a prominent Belgian politician, with the Catholic party), and his wife, Anna Maria Devisscher. Apparently, the Baels family were also involved in the fish trade, and, many years later, after Lilian's marriage to King Leopold III, this would lead to malicious remarks. The bride was mockingly dubbed "Shrimp Queen" and "Lady Codfish"...

Nonetheless, it was a rare woman who came into the world on that winter day in 1916. "As beautiful as a Greek night," according to Charles d'Ydewalle. "The most beautiful woman in the world," for the Count of Paris. Certainly, but she was also much, much more. In the words of the French comedian Jean Piat, an intimate of Leopold and Lilian: "Curiosity, vivacity, kindness, humor, intelligence and...destiny. She unites it all" (quotes from Le mythe d'Argenteuil by Michel Verwilghen).

Stubborn, imperious and demanding Lilian may have been at times, but nobody is perfect. And Belgium owes a great deal to the woman who (in the darkest moments of the country's history) loyally and lovingly raised two of her Kings. May she rest in peace.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Princess Lilian Through Her Son's Eyes

The birthday of Lilian Baels, second wife of King Leopold III, is coming up in a few days...Here is an interesting tribute to this beautiful, talented, but much-maligned woman by her son, Prince Alexandre Emmanuel.
Princess Lilian was a secret person but enjoyed listening to people who sometimes forgot they were confiding to her. But there is an indirect way to understand her personality. For many years, more than I can recall, she enjoyed the environment of objects, even works of art, that expressed a certain quality of life. Wherever we lived, she created a sort of "impregnation of space" that gave the visitor an impression of evidence and uniqueness. Argenteuil is certainly the home where she invested the most energy and spirituality. In a way, it was like a signature.
(Preface to the catalogue Princess Lilian of Belgium. Château d'Argenteuil. Amsterdam, Sotheby's, 2003)
Unfortunately, I do not have any good pictures of Argenteuil I can post here, but, to gain a vivid impression of the elegant environment Lilian created, click HERE. The article (a review of Michel Verwilghen's excellent book Le mythe d'Argenteuil) is in French but photos speak across language barriers...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Petite Reine"

Here is a beautiful poem in honor of Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians.

Petite Reine

Par delà le champ de bataille,
Derrière la zone de feu,
Quand les obus et la mitraille
Sifflent, en croisant dans l’air bleu

Leurs rigoureuses trajectoires ;
Quand la mêlée aux rangs pressés,
Sous l’aile ardente des victoires,
Grouille autour des corps entassés,

Une frêle et noble infirmière
Aux yeux tendres, au cœur viril,
Vaque à sa tâche coutumière,
Insoucieuse du péril.

De ville en ville, avec vaillance,
Elle a suivi tous les combats,
Et d’ambulance en ambulance
Disputé sa proie au trépas.

Elle vient à qui la réclame,
A son aspect l’espoir refleurit,
Et d’ambulance en ambulance
Disputé sa proie au trépas.

Elle vient à qui la réclame,
A son aspect l’espoir refleurit,
Et son sourire est un dictame
Qui réconforte et qui guérit.

Elle sait le mot qui fait vivre
Malgré les cruautés du sort,
Elle sait le mot qui délivre
Et rend moins amère la mort.

Sa main panse, sa voix console,
Tout subit son charme apaisant ;
Et c’est son cher nom qui s’envole
Des lèvres de l’agonisant.

Petite Reine qui naguère
De ton palais familial,
Pour soigner les maux de la guerre,
Avais fait un vaste hôpital,

Toi, qui, souriante et sereine
Comme l’étoile du matin,
Dresse ta grâce souveraine
Devant les assauts du destin,

Dont la douce pitié se penche
Sur le front pâle des mourants
Et qui calmes de ta main blanche
La fièvre aux accès délirants,

Toi, que l’Univers entier prône,
- Héroïne sans le savoir  –
Et qui mets la gloire du trône
Au-dessous de l’obscur devoir,

Toi, dont la tendresse infinie
A des trésors inépuisés,
Petite Reine, sois bénie
Au nom de tous les cœurs brisés !

~ A. Vierset.

I will post a translation in the comments box.

(Image: old postcard of Queen Elisabeth and Princess Marie-José)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The King Returns to Brussels, 1918

"Sire, you shall return to your capital...." Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren had written to King Albert I during the dark days of World War I. On November 22, 1918, eleven days after the Armistice, these words finally came true. Click HERE for a detailed account of the magnificent day.
The capital by its enthusiastic reception witnesses its admiring gratitude to the sovereign who returns to it covered with glory of the purest quality, to its Queen, who lived throughout the war among our soldiers, lavishing upon them treasures of kindness and devotion without limit; to the Princes, who symbolize in our eyes the future of our country, and to the heroic and victorious troops who chased the enemy from our country and thanks to whom Belgium regains her place among the free and independent nations.
Long live the King, Queen, royal family and the Belgian armies! Long live the Allies!
~ Burgomaster Adolphe Max 

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Queen Astrid Memorabilia

At the Queen Astrid thread of the Alexander Palace Forums, I found some pictures of her clothes and accessories. As most photographs dating from Astrid's lifetime are black and white, it is interesting to see how colorfully she dressed.
A few of her hats.
Part of the fabric of one of her dresses.
Her satin wedding slippers.

Leopold III at Berchtesgaden

On November 19, 1940 Leopold III, then a German prisoner of war, met with Hitler at Berchtesgaden. The Belgian monarch had reluctantly agreed to the meeting (arranged by his sister, Crown Princess Marie-José of Italy) in a desperate attempt to obtain better conditions for his conquered army and people. The interview, however, was a disaster. Here is the account (in French translation) of the meeting by Hitler's interpreter, Paul Schmidt, from his memoirs Statist auf Diplomatischer Bühne, 1923-1945. 
...Hitler received him with a rather icy civility. I clearly noticed that the king was making an effort to control himself. When he sat down in the office, with a face revealing a curious mixture of unease and tension, I had the feeling he was cursing the initiative his sister had taken.
Hitler tried to warm up the atmosphere a bit by asking a few personal questions. He always had, on these kinds of occasions, courteous words which betrayed his Austrian education. "I greatly regret the circumstances of our visit...Do you have any personal desire I could satisfy?" "I have no personal desires to formulate for myself," responded Leopold in the rather disdainful tone of an imprisoned monarch before a conqueror's tribunal, which indicated he had other desires to put forth.  
But he strove, at first, to prepare Hitler, by thanking him for what he had already done, in particular for authorizing Belgian refugees to return to their homeland. He added his personal thanks for the accommodations accorded him and, more especially, for the return of his children from Spain. Leopold was not a good diplomat. He expressed his thanks well, but his tone was not convincing.
Hitler launched into one of his long monologues on the political situation...At one point, Hitler rather abruptly asked how Leopold imagined future relations between Germany and Belgium. Quite cleverly, the king responded with another question: would Belgium preserve her independence at the conclusion of peace?
 Hitler did not like precise questions...(and launched into) prolonged reflections on the future of Europe, but Leopold...demanded a precise definition of internal independence. Hitler, faced with this insistence, became openly impatient. He attacked Belgium's previous attitude with a certain warmth, accusing her of having violated her neutrality. In the future, Belgium would have to align herself with Germany, militarily and politically.
"Am I to understand that Belgium's political independence will be guaranteed in exchange for political and military accords between herself and the Reich?" asked Leopold, at once raising doubts as to the possibility of such a solution, given the Belgians' love of liberty, which he underscored. He insisted upon unfettered independence, basing his demand on the fact that it had long been recognized by the English, and on the certitude that the Belgians would naturally turn in the direction which would assure their autonomy...
From this moment on, Hitler was completely closed to all Leopold's other desires. He was visibly annoyed that the King of the Belgians, in contrast to other heads of state, did not eagerly accept his offer of collaboration with Germany. These other desires principally concerned the prisoners of war. "We need manpower," said Hitler. "Naturally, the officers will remain in captivity until the end of the war." Leopold made further desperate efforts to win a few small concessions in the realm of food supply and internal administration. On both these points, the response was negative.
Henceforth, the bad mood was unmitigated on both sides. Leopold became more and more laconic and several times I got the impression he was no longer even listening...His face closed, he allowed Hitler to let flow torrents of words, no longer reacting, except for form...
Hitler would probably have preferred to put an end to the visit immediately. But a tea was planned for the king and his entourage. He broke up the meeting long before the appointed time, and received Leopold at his home...(During the tea, despite his disappointment) he opened a map to try to win the sovereign over to his views on a close collaboration between the two countries. In the course of a long monologue on the European order, he indicated that Belgium, if she allied herself with Germany, would receive not only a military guarantee, which would dispense her from ever needing an army again, but also territorial gains in northern France, as far as Dunkirk and Calais.
The king remained silent. Had he even heard? Naturally, I attached particular care to the translation of his response. But I had before me only a disappointed, apathetic man...
...Later events proved my impressions had to have been correct. Hitler never saw Leopold again. Nothing changed in Belgium. The administration did not alter and the food situation remained as bad as before. The Belgian prisoners were only liberated at the end of the war. Leopold himself remained a prisoner and, before the end of hostilities, was deported to Germany over his protests.
Hitler never forgave him for refusing to accept his offers at Berchtesgaden. "He is no better than other kings and princes!" he said from time to time, whereas before this visit, he had often had words of praise for "King Leopold, who prevented useless bloodshed in 1940"...
So much for those who accuse Leopold of having a "friendly interview" with Hitler!

The Queen's Appeal

Above, we see a photograph of Queen Astrid visiting a poor family in Kortrijk. Like her husband, King Leopold III, Astrid was deeply concerned with social problems, made all the more dire by the economic crisis of the 1930's. In February, 1935, the Queen organized a nationwide collection of food, clothing, and supplies for the impoverished Belgian miners and their families.  Her close friend, Anna Sparre, in her book, Astrid mon amie, recalls the Queen's remarkable initiative:
The winter that year was difficult for the population; unemployment was more rampant than ever, aid was insufficient and there were numerous complaints. A delegation of miners was received in audience by the King. It was a dignified, moving moment: the King and the Queen listened to them as they described, in a realistic and direct manner, their joyless existence, and the poverty that reigned in the mining region. "Our children are the victims of it, they are hungry and cold, Madame. Our children are dying of hunger." 
The Queen listened, horrified, and promised, spontaneously, to do what she could. 
Astrid immediately addressed an open letter to the Minister of State, Henri Jaspar, and to the Belgian people, imploring their aid in this tragic situation. The letter was published, and become known as "The Queen's Appeal."
The very next day, money and aid began to flow in. The Queen herself, along with a rapidly constituted committee, composed of ladies who had volunteered to help, was on the go at the Belle Vue. An unending line of generous people wound through the palace, armed with packages and bags, money and cheques. Department stores, societies, businesses, and individuals from all over the country joined in the Queen's very personal initiative... 
Money, food, clothing, shoes, candles, blankets - even hats and eyeglasses - were swiftly collected. The Queen played an essential role during the distribution of the aid:
The Queen visited, in person, the districts in the most crying need; her appearance alone, when she emerged from the car, in the middle of a village, greeting the people with a wave of her hand, was enough to give them hope and confidence. The newspapers followed her activities, and, every day, gave reports on donations and relief measures, but, above all, they noted the popular reactions in the areas where she appeared. They described her immense popularity; she became a symbol of a power synonymous with generosity. "She is our good Fairy, who personifies, at the same time, Power and Goodness." 

The first three months of that year were entirely devoted to this massive collection and to the organization of a permanent aid program for the needy of the mining region. The Queen unceasingly exhorted her people to generosity; and the unfortunate, to maintain their morale and keep up their courage. She defended their cause, she granted interviews, she made herself seen and heard; people believed her and trusted her word. With the King's support, she had set in motion a trend which took off; its results continued to be felt for a long time afterwards. 
I found the story of "The Queen's Appeal" very inspiring and touching. This episode from her - tragically short - reign illustrates Astrid's tenderness, realism, intelligence, and generosity.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

St. Elizabeth of Hungary

She was an ancestor of Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. 
Elizabeth had always shown a strong inclination toward piety as well as a great love of helping the needy and downtrodden. She opened a hospital for the poor in one of her castles and ran a soup kitchen. She was passionately in love with her husband, which is one of her most appealing aspects - she was a saint but she was also very much a woman.
In her memoirs, Queen Marie-José of Italy, daughter of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, recalls that her mother admired this saint and encouraged the young Marie-José to read Comte de Montalembert's famous Vie de Sainte Elisabeth de Hongrie (1836). I think the Belgian queen definitely resembled her distant forebear in her charitable works, and also in her passion for her husband!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Birthday of Queen Astrid

On November 17, 1905, the short life of Astrid, future Queen of the Belgians began. She was the youngest of the three daughters of Prince Carl and Princess Ingeborg of Sweden. She was a timid, tender little girl, always very dear to her family.

Also, I cannot believe it, but I missed the (religious) wedding anniversary of Leopold and Astrid on November 10! (Somehow I had the idea it was later in the month). But if you want to see pictures of their engagement and marriage, click HERE and HERE.

(Elsewhere: Le Fleur de Lys Too)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Majestic Marie-Henriette

A wonderful painting of Marie-Henriette of Austria, future Queen of the Belgians at the wedding of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (future Edward VII) and Alexandra of Denmark in 1863.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Obituary of Queen Louise-Marie

An obituary of the first Queen of the Belgians, published in 1850 in The Gentleman's Magazine, paints a fascinating and moving portrait of this remarkable woman. Whatever one thinks of her father's actions towards the elder branch of the Bourbon family, she is to be admired...
Oct. 10. At Ostend, aged 38, Her Majesty the Queen of the Belgians.
Louise Marie Thérèse Charlotte Isabelle, Princess of Orléans, was the... daughter of the late King Louis-Philippe and Queen Marie Amélie, and was born at Palermo on the 3d of April, 1812. It is well known how deeply the education of his children engaged the attention of the late King of the French. His family has ever been a model of union, good morals, and domestic virtues. Personally simple in his tastes, order and economy were combined with a magnificence becoming his rank and wealth. Under the able and discreet management which marked the early and subsequent education of his family, those virtues and benevolent tendencies which in after-life constituted the principal charm of her highly useful career exhibited themselves in the youthful days of the Princess of Orléans, and procured for her the love and esteem of all who came within her influence.
On the 11th of August, 1832, the Princess of Orleans was wedded to Leopold, King of the Belgians. The nuptials were celebrated at Compeigne. From the moment she became Queen Consort the august lady commenced that uninterrupted career of boundless charity and benevolence which, for the last eighteen years, has made her the idol of the Belgian people. The quantity of work performed in the Queen of the Belgians' own family, and by others under her superintendence, in the shape of clothing for the poor in inclement weather, was enormous ; and, in the ever-recurring lotteries on behalf of the poor, scarcely an exhibition took place in which the Queen did not contribute articles of clothing, screens, chair-covers, and little nic-nacs in Berlin wool, &c. But it was not only for her charities that the deceased Queen was revered by the people. She was destined to play a not unimportant, although a very unostentatious, part in Belgian politics. The King being a Protestant and herself a Catholic, she constituted herself a sort of link between the Catholic party and the throne. When the Catholic party evinced a disposition to exceed the limits enjoined by a just toleration, the Queen stepped in as a mediatrix ; and when, on the other hand, the liberal party showed a tendency to apply too tight a rein to the Church, the same good offices were never refused.
Louis-Philippe had the highest opinion of her intelligence, and used always to speak of her as "my Louise." In June 1832, when a terrible insurrection was raging in Paris, it was considered necessary for the King, who was at Neuilly, to go to the Tuileries ; but the Queen and royal family, alarmed for his safety, objected to his going alone. There was, however, no male member of his family to accompany him, his two sons, the Ducs d'Orléans and d'Aumale, being already at the Tuileries. At last the King, irritated at the opposition made to him, said, " Well, then, Louise shall accompany me;" and the young princess joyfully set forth. At Laaken, after her marriage, the Queen led a simple life, and employed a good deal of her time in active occupation...The King generally passed his evenings in the private apartments of the Queen, and she frequently read to him. The last two works she read to his Majesty were Lamartine's " Histoire des Girondins," and Thiers' " Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire." Their Majesties exchanged observations on different passages, and sometimes had a discussion. What the Queen said was always remarkable for justice, depth, and à propos. English was the language which the royal couple employed in their conversations : indeed, all their intimate communications were carried on exclusively in that language. Although her Majesty did not meddle in politics, she studied all political questions, even the most difficult. She caused the ex-tutor of one of her brothers to keep her constantly informed of the intellectual movement of Paris, and made him send her, immediately on their appearance, every publication of any importance. She assiduously read the newspapers, even those of the advanced opposition, both of Belgium and France. In every visit she made to Paris she received the well-known M. Michelet, who had been her professor of history : yet at the time she did so he had become noted for his violent opposition to the Government of Louis-Philippe, and for his extreme democratic opinions.
The Queen was a great letter-writer. Every day from that on which she quitted her family on her marriage, up to her fatal illness, she wrote to the Queen, her mother, and every day her mother wrote to her. Her Majesty composed her letters all at once; those of her royal parent were commenced in the morning and kept open till post-hour, her Majesty noting anything that occurred—sending, in fact, a sort of journal. After the Revolution of February, when for eight days it was not known what had become of the ex-King of the French and his Queen, the Queen of the Belgians suffered the most poignant anxiety, and this emotion had a most lamentable effect on the disease which had long been undermining her health. The death of her brother the Duke of Orleans, and of her sister the Princess Marie, had previously been terrible blows to her. She most tenderly loved both, and kept up a daily correspondence with the latter. On the death of the princess, the Queen, her mother, caused a notice of her to be printed for the family (only twelve copies were struck off) ; and this notice was made up chiefly from the letters of the two royal sisters. These letters are described as profoundly affecting, and the manner in which she spoke of the death of Madame Mallet, their governess is, in particular, indescribably touching. After the death of the princess, the Queen, in addition to the duily letter to her mother, wrote every day to some other member of her family. She also at the same time kept up a constant correspondence with Her Majesty Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Kent, and the Princess of Prussia. When absent from the King, her husband, for however short a period, she wrote to him almost every day—twice a day, even when both were in Belgium—and the King replied to every one of her letters.
The Queen has left behind her three children, Leopold, Duke of Brabant, and heir to the Crown, born April 9, 1835; Philippe, Count of Flanders, born March 24, 1837; and the Princess Marie Charlotte, born June 7, 1840. Her first born, Prince Louis-Philippe, died in early infancy.
The remains of this illustrious and amiable personage were on Thursday, the 17th Oct. interred in the cathedral church of Laaken. The Cardinal Archbishop of Malines and tbe clergy received the King at the entrance to the church. The King entered first, with Queen Amelie leaning on his arm. The King's sons, the Duc de Brabant and the Comte de Flandre, accompanied by the Princess Clementine, followed, and then came the Duc de Nemours, the Prince de Joinville, the Duc d'Aumale, and the Prince Augustus of Saxe Coburg Gotha. The Royal party was accompanied by the Duc de Cazes.