Monday, February 2, 2009

The King's Humanity

King Albert I was a very human person. Despite the iron will, rigor, and stoicism which made him a great leader in war and peace, he had a delicate and sensitive soul; a personality which combined warmth, kindness, tenderness, sincerity, and humility.

Countless anecdotes illustrate these qualities. For instance, to a gardener at Laeken, who was bowing to the King so much that he was forgetting to do his work, Albert said: "Mon ami, je ne suis qu'un homme comme vous." ("My friend, I am only a man like yourself.")

Albert's tenderness of heart appears clearly in his affection for his wife, Elisabeth, and for their children. From a young age, apparently, Albert nurtured an ideal of a close and loving conjugal union; as a boy, he is said to have told his uncle, King Leopold II: "I shall marry a princess with small hands and small feet." "Is that all?" his uncle asked. "No," said Albert, "I shall love her."

As it turned out, he did marry a small, refined princess, for whom he cared tenderly. His letters to Elisabeth, (quoted extensively by their daughter, Marie-José, in her memoirs) testify to the depth and delicacy of his feelings. On one occasion, he wrote to Elisabeth:
Bien aimée, c'est comme cela que tu t'appelleras toujours pour moi, car il n'y a que toi qui aies une place dans mon coeur. Et cette place est si grande qu'il n'en reste point d'autre.
Beloved - that is what your name will always be for me- for there is no one but you who has a place in my heart. And this place is so large that there is none left over.
Albert was sincerely concerned, not only for his family, but also for the members of his entourage. On one occasion, one of the King's collaborators was ill. The telephone rang at the man's house and his wife rushed to answer. At the other end of the line was King Albert. "Que votre mari se soigne bien, qu'il prenne telle et telle précaution..." ("Your husband should take good care of himself, he should take this and this precaution...") The King added: "Ne croyez pas que je lui demande de se bien soigner pour qu'il reprenne plus vite son service près de moi, c'est dans son intérêt, car il est mon ami." ("Do not think that I want him to take good care of himself so that he can resume his work with me sooner; it is in his interest, because he is my friend.")

On the same note, Albert reproached members of his entourage, for not reporting back to him, when he had inquired after the health of a collaborator who had been unwell: "Vous semblez croire que je fais demander ainsi des nouvelles de X. pour faire plaisir aux siens. Mais non, c'est parce-que je l'aime bien et que je suis peiné de le savoir malade." ("You seem to think that I made inquiries about the condition of X. just to please his family. No, it is because I like him and because I am grieved to know that he is ill.")

The tenderness evident in his private life also characterized his public life. Many accounts reveal his deep love for his people; a love which inspired his rule. Franz Anseel related:
"Lorsqu'il parlait, des petits cultivateurs des Flandres ou de la Wallonie qu'il allait, lors de sa rentrée en Belgique après l'armistice, surprendre dans leur pauvre foyer dévasté par l'affreuse tourmente, sachant qu'ils avaient tout perdu, jusqu'à leurs fils morts en Allemagne ou tombés sur les champs de bataille, et qui lui disaient qu'à présent qu'ils avaient pu revoir leur Roi, ils oubliaient toutes leurs misères - des larmes, de vraies larmes de brave homme embuaient les yeux d'un bleu clair, et il se taisait un moment, incapable d'en dire davantage..."
"As he spoke of the small farmers of Flanders and Wallonia whom he had, at the time of his return to Belgium, after the armistice, found in their poor homes, devastated by the frightful torment, people who knew they had lost everything, including their sons, who had died in Germany or fallen on the battlefields, people who told him that, now that they had been able to see their King again, they would forget all their miseries - tears, tears which were truly those of a brave man filled his clear blue eyes, and he was silent for a moment, unable to speak of it further..."
J. Leclercq, in Albert, Roi des Belges, wrote of the King and the Queen:
Quand il se produisit une catastrophe, ils ne se bornaient pas à se montrer sur les lieux pour une visite d'apparat; leur souci n'était pas de soigner leur popularité, mais d'obéir à l'attrait de leur coeur. Et leur souci était de savoir ce qu'ils pourraient faire pour les victimes...
When a disaster occurred, they did not limit themselves to visiting the affected place for an official visit; their concern was not to take care of their popularity, but to obey the impulse of their heart. And their concern was to know what they could do for the victims...
Pierre Nothomb, in his Roi Albert, wrote:
A ceux-ci il envoyait son médecin, à celui-là, des médicaments, à un autre, discrètement, de l'argent: et c'était chaque fois après avoir noté ou fait noter soigneusement les charges de la famille à secourir, son genre de vie, ses besoins... Sa délicatesse était infinie...
To some, he sent his doctor; to others, medicines, to others, discreetly, some money; and, each time, he did this after ensuring that careful note was taken of the obligations of the family to be helped, their way of life, their needs... His delicacy was infinite... 
In 1928, Albert and Elisabeth were preparing for an official visit to the Belgian Congo. Shortly before their departure, they received word that a yellow fever epidemic had broken out in Matadi and Boma. There was great anxiety in the Congo, and the risk of a general panic which could seriously compromise the success of voyage. The royal couple were advised to postpone the trip.

But Albert and Elisabeth were not alarmed at the news. Jo Gérard records:
Le Roi réflechit un instant. Puis, avec sa simplicité grave:
"La fonction d'un roi est d'être là où son peuple souffre. Ma présence là-bas les reconfortera. Je pars, et la Reine part avec moi. Tenez la nouvelle cachée jusqu'à ce soir, pour ne pas attrister nos populations aujourd-hui."
The King thought for a moment. Then, with his grave simplicity, he said:
"The function of a king is to be there, where his people are suffering. My presence there will comfort them. I am going, and the Queen is going with me. Keep the news secret until this evening, so as not to upset our people today." 
The epidemic, fortunately, swiftly came to a halt.

Albert's humanity was derived from a natural kindness, which his daughter, Marie-José, speaks of in her memoirs; she believed he had inherited this trait from his mother, the Countess of Flanders.

Yet, Albert's humanity, it seems, also came from a supernatural source: his deep Faith and Charity. Nowadays, we hear alot about "caring for others" and "humanitarianism" but little about true Catholic charity. We are often told to love man for man's sake alone; rarely to love man for God's sake. But in Albert's case the love of man and the love of God appear to have been firmly linked.

Some anecdotes make this clear. Nothomb related a conversation, during which he told the King about his two sons, who were serving in the Army. The King suddenly said:"Il y a deux vocations magnifiques pour ceux qui veulent vraiment être en contact avec le peuple: celle d' officier et celle du prêtre."("There are two splendid vocations for those who want to truly be in contact with the people: that of the officer and that of the priest.")

Another story (recorded by Jo Gérard) illustrates the relationship between Albert's religious faith and his love of his people:
Il vient d'un de ses familiers qui se souvient d'un matin d'Afrique ou Albert, à la messe, se montrait ému, presque jusqu'à l'exaltation, à la vue d'un miserable vieillard nègre, sale et malade, qui s'approchait du banc de communion parmi les officers blancs.
One of his intimates recalls a certain morning in Africa, when Albert, at Mass, was moved, almost to the point of exaltation, at the sight of a poor old black, sick and dirty, approaching the Communion rail alongside the white officers.
The account continues: "(It was at such moments) that the Catholicism of his parents seemed truly divine to him."

I think King Albert had a magnificent, beautiful soul; his was a rare kind of humanity rooted in Charity.


Gérard, Jo & Hervé. Albert 1er insolite: 1934-1984. 
Graham, Evelyn. Albert King of the Belgians.
Leclercq, Jacques. Albert, Roi des Belges.
Marie-José, Queen, Consort of Umberto II, King of Italy. Albert et Elisabeth de Belgique, mes parents.
Nothomb, Pierre. Le Roi Albert. 


Lucy said...

The King sounds like a very sensitive and caring person. His gentleness is reflective of the way he cares for God, his people, and his country. Thank you.

May said...

Yes, there is something very touching about him.