Thursday, July 9, 2009

Princess Stephanie of Belgium

Princess Stephanie was the second daughter of King Leopold II and Queen Marie-Henriette. Born May 21, 1864, she spent a sad childhood at Laeken Castle. Like her sisters, she suffered severely from her parents' marital unhappiness and harsh educational methods. The later Princess Marie-José of Belgium recalled reading, as a little girl, Stephanie's youthful diaries. "She was a melancholy person....from childhood, she dreamed of a great love," Marie-José remembered (Regolo p. 21). Like her sisters (all in their different ways), Stephanie, starved of tenderness as a child, would, as an adult, stubbornly pursue love. Yet she did not win it before many vicissitudes and sorrows.

At 15, Stephanie was courted by Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary. The Belgian Sovereigns were determined on this prestigious match, and urged their daughter to accept Rudolf's hand. In 1881, the couple were married in Vienna. Their marriage initially seemed happy, and, in 1883, they had a daughter, Elisabeth ("Erszi"). Stephanie was a conscientious Crown Princess, often fulfilling official duties for the (frequently absent) Empress Elisabeth.
Sadly, however, Rudolf and Stephanie drifted apart. The Princess' deep piety and conservative opinions placed her in opposition to the Prince's liberal notions. Rudolf also led a dissolute life; as a result of his infidelities, Stephanie is believed to have contracted venereal disease. In any case, she became infertile. Meanwhile, she also suffered from a difficult relationship with her hostile mother-in-law, Empress Elisabeth. In 1889, her marriage ended in the infamous Mayerling tragedy. According to the official version, Rudolf and his young mistress, Marie Vetsera, committed suicide in a doomed lovers' pact at the Mayerling hunting lodge; the later Empress Zita, however, asserted they were murdered by French or Austrian agents as a result of a political plot.

The scandal arising from the tragedy was deeply humiliating to Princess Stephanie, and isolated her further from the Austrian court. To escape the situation, she undertook extensive travels through Europe. She also worked on her memoirs and oversaw the compilation of a history of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy ( a project begun by Rudolf). The final volume was published in 1902.

In 1900, Stephanie re-married. The choice of her heart was a Hungarian nobleman, Count Elemér Lonyay. Her parents were furious. King Leopold refused to recognize a mere count as his son-in-law, and disinherited Stephanie, stripping her of her Belgian royal titles. After Queen Marie-Henriette's death in 1902, Stephanie and her older sister, Louise (also disgraced and disinherited), tried to sue their father in court, demanding a share of their mother's wealth, but in vain. Later, after King Leopold's death in 1909, the princesses would sue the Belgian state, unsuccesfully attempting to obtain part of their father's fortune.
During World War I, Stephanie entered the service of the Red Cross. After the return of peace, she lived an extravagant life. As a result of gambling debts and disastrous business ventures, she lost most of her money during the 1920's. More vicissitudes would follow; during World War II, Soviet troops invaded her property in Hungary. She and her husband took refuge in the Benedictine abbey of Pannonhalma. Here, on August 23, 1945, Stephanie died. Estranged from her daughter, she willed much of her remaining wealth, as well as her personal archives, to the abbey. Her memoirs were eventually published under the title I Should Have Been Empress.

A sad life, but apparently her second marriage was happy, I certainly hope so!


Gubin, Eliane, and Dupont-Bouchat, Marie-Sylvie. Dictionnaire des femmes belges. 2006

Regolo, Luciano. La regina incompresa, tutto il racconto della vita di Maria José di Savoia. 2002.


MadMonarchist said...

Poor Stephanie! I really feel sorry for her, partly because of the extent to which she's often forgotten. People seem to want to build up the Rudolf-Vetsera affair into some romantic, forbidden love when the truth was (unfortunately) she was really little more than his flavor of the month. Stephanie, for all her suffering, seemed to be willing to soldier-on in the name of duty but, perhaps her husband was too much like his mother (I mean as far as putting personal issues before family & national ones). I hope she did finally find happiness because God knows the woman deserved better.

May said...

It is interesting how all the daughters of Leopold II were very determined women, bent on forging their own lives, but became steadier and better characters as they went from oldest to youngest (ending in the surprisingly normal Clementine, whose life seems to have been the happiest). It reminds me a bit of all those children's tales of three sisters, three princesses, etc.