Sunday, January 18, 2009

Princess Lilian of Belgium

(Adapted from the Wikipedia article on Princess Lilian)

Princess Lilian of Belgium, sometimes known as the Princesse de Réthy, was the second wife of King Leopold III of the Belgians. The future royal consort was born Mary Lilian Baels, on November 28, 1916, in England, where her family was living at the time. She was one of the eight children of Henri Baels, a Flemish lawyer (later to become a prominent Belgian politician), and his wife, Anne Marie de Visscher. Lilian was initially educated in English, but upon her parents' return to Belgium, she attended a school in Ostend, where she learned Flemish. She would later continue her studies in French in Brussels. In addition to academic work, Lilian participated extensively in sports, including skiing, swimming, golfing, and horseback riding. Above all, however, she enjoyed, as did her father, literature and the arts. She completed her education by attending a finishing school, the Holy Child, in London. Mary Lilian grew up into a young woman of great beauty, charm, intelligence, and accomplishment. At the age of 20, she was presented to King George V and Queen Mary of England at Buckingham Palace.

In 1933, Lilian saw her future husband, then Crown Prince Leopold of Belgium, for the first time. The students at the Institute of the Sacred Heart in Brussels, where Lilian was enrolled at the time, had been allowed to attend a military review conducted by King Albert, close to the school. On this occasion, Lilian, together with her classmates, saw Prince Leopold riding at the head of his regiment, saluting his father, the King. Soon afterwards, when the students in Lilian's class were given the task of writing an essay on a topic of their choice, Lilian decided to write on Prince Leopold. Some years later, after Leopold's accession to the throne, and tragic loss of his wife, Queen Astrid, Lilian would have the occasion to meet the King, and his mother, Queen Elisabeth, at public ceremonies and social events.

Following the Nazi invasion of Belgium, on May 10, 1940, Lilian's mother entered the service of the Red Cross, during the Belgian and Allied campaign against the invaders. Lilian aided her in her task, transporting Belgian and French wounded by car to the hospital of St. John in Bruges. Lilian also helped to evacuate the elderly from an asylum in Alost, which was inside the combat zone, and threatened by enemy fire. Meanwhile, Lilian's father, the Governor of West Flanders, worked hard to alleviate the plight of war victims and refugees.

On May 18, Henri Baels went in search of the Belgian Minister of the Interior, mistakenly thinking he had left for France, in order to obtain his signature for an important relief measure. Unfortunately, the journey was made in vain, as the Minister in question had not, in fact, entered France. Moreover, Baels was seriously injured along the way in a car accident. He was admitted to a hospital in Le Havre. Meanwhile, Mme. Baels decided to bring her daughters to safety in France (especially as two of Lilian's sisters were ill at the time, one with tuberculosis). Lilian drove the family car. By pure chance, Lilian, her mother, and sisters, were reunited with Governor Baels in a hospital in Poitiers! Baels was subsequently, and unfairly, accused of deserting his post as governor by fleeing to France. Although he was vindicated, once the circumstances of his departure from Belgium were revealed to King Leopold, he and his family would suffer from slanderous (and politically motivated) accusations of cowardice for years to come.

In 1941, during the Nazi occupation of Belgium, Queen Mother Elisabeth sent a letter to Lilian, who had been living with her family in France, inviting her to visit her at Laeken Castle. Here Lilian met Leopold, now a prisoner of war, held under house arrest, yet again. This meeting was followed by several other visits, with the result that Leopold and Lilian fell in love. Nonetheless, when Leopold proposed marriage to Lilian in July, 1941, the young woman, aged 24, declined his offer. "Kings only marry princesses," she said. Queen Elisabeth, however, prevailed upon Lilian to accept the King's offer. Leopold and Lilian were married on September 11, 1941, in a secret religious ceremony in the chapel of Laeken, and later, on December 6, 1941, in a civil marriage. The reason for the initial extreme discretion was the spouses' original intention to keep their marriage a secret until after the war. Lilian, however, was soon expecting her first child, necessitating a civil marriage. Leopold assigned his new bride, who declined to be Queen, the titles of Princess of Réthy and Princess of Belgium.

Lilian proved to be a devoted wife to Leopold and an affectionate step-mother to his children by Queen Astrid. The royal children were very fond of her, immediately beginning to call her maman. Lilian showed great courage and abnegation during the royal family's deportation to Germany by the SS in 1944 and prolonged imprisonment under harsh conditions. During this period, Leopold and Lilian homeschooled the royal children, and remained calm and composed, despite the constant fear that they would be massacred by their jailers as a vindictive measure on Hitler's part.

Tragically, however, Lilian would later become the victim of a series of cruel and vulgar personal attacks. The aim of these attacks was to discredit Leopold, by association with Lilian. Accordingly, throughout the post-war "Royal Question," when Leopold was falsely accused of collaboration with the Nazis, and, eventually (despite his vindication by a commission of eminent jurists), forced to abdicate by political agitation, Lilian was viciously attacked by politicians and the press. She was presented as an unscrupulous social-climber, who had seduced the King to place herself on the throne. Her family were also slandered; her father, for instance, was persistently (and despite all proofs to the contrary) accused of cowardice, Nazi sympathies, and collaboration with the enemy. Such attacks would continue, after Leopold's abdication, in 1951, and his eventual retirement with his wife, and second family, to Argenteuil, a Belgian country estate, in 1960, and even after Lilian's death in 2002. As a result, she continues to suffer from a bad reputation in Belgium.

Nonetheless, Lilian was known, and loved, by her circle of close friends as a woman of great beauty, charm, elegance, intelligence, brilliance, courage, kindness, and humor. She was especially admired for the steadfast courage and dignity with which she faced decades of personal attacks. She was a great intellectual; together with her husband, King Leopold, she cultivated the friendship of prominent individuals from the fields of literature, philosophy, science, and medicine. Strict and demanding towards herself, she could also be excessively severe with her intimates. Yet, she was a loyal, upright, and devout woman. In the words of one of Queen Elisabeth's ladies-in-waiting, Lilian was "a true princess in the full sense of the term." Following her son Alexander's successfully heart surgery in the 1950's in the United States, Lilian founded a Cardiological Foundation, which has saved the lives of several thousand people.

Lilian died peacefully at Argenteuil, in 2002, and was buried, contrary to her wish, in the royal crypt at Laeken. In her will, she had expressed the desire to be buried at Argenteuil, and to maintain the estate as a memorial to Leopold III. None of Lilian's last wishes, however, were respected by the Belgian government, which was determined to efface the memory of Leopold's years at Argenteuil.

Following Princess Lilian's death, a cardiological reunion was organized in her honor. On this occasion, distinguished doctors and surgeons, such as Michael DeBakey, a close friend of Leopold and Lilian, paid tribute to the Princess, her extraordinary personality, and her contributions to medicine.


Jean Cleeremans, Jean. Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l'occupation.
Jean Cleeremans, Jean. Un royaume pour un amour: Léopold III, de l'éxil a l'abdication.
Jacques Franck, Jacques. "Souvenirs de la Princesse Lilian," published in La Libre Belgique, 29 October 2003
Dujardin, Vincent, et al. Léopold III.
Keyes, Roger. Echec au Roi: Léopold III, 1940-1951.
Claude Désiré and Marcel Jullian. Un couple dans la tempête.
Michel Verwilghen. Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal.
Patrick Weber. Amours royales et princières.

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