Thursday, December 30, 2010

Desolation at Argenteuil

Here is a rather sad slideshow of the estate of Argenteuil fallen into disrepair. The photographs date from 2004, two years after the death of Princess Lilian, and the same year that Jean-Marie Delwart purchased the property. Although I have nothing against Monsieur Delwart, I wish Argenteuil could have been maintained, as Lilian had hoped, as she left it, as a memorial to Leopold III and his second family. It seems tragic that such a rich chapter in Belgian royal history should slip into oblivion. I can understand why Madame Jeannine Degrève, the most faithful member of the household of Argenteuil, who had remained in Princess Lilian's service for 53 years, locked up the empty, deserted mansion for the last time with tears in her eyes.

It must have been even more painful for Prince Alexandre and Princess Esmeralda to see their youthful home stripped bare. While the state furnishings, borrowed in 1961, returned to Laeken, the children had to preside over the sale of many family treasures, including Princess Lilian's wardrobe and much of King Leopold's library, since they were unable to keep them at Argenteuil or accommodate them in their own homes. Their sister Marie-Christine's insistence on receiving her portion of her mother's inheritance in cash rather than in goods also made it necessary to sell family goods for profit. Furthermore, forced to empty Argenteuil in haste, Alexandre and Esmeralda could give only general instructions to those responsible for classifying the chateau's contents and setting items aside for sale. Objects of special historical value, intimately linked to the lives of past Belgian kings, were dispersed because Lilian's heirs could not oversee everything in detail.

Unfortunately, however, often unaware of these practical problems, many Belgians harshly criticized Alexandre and Esmeralda. In the press, they were portrayed as heartless, greedy individuals, crassly dilapidating the "national heritage" for money. The attacks seem quite unfair and ironic, as Lilian's heirs had battled, for months, to preserve Argenteuil, essentially intact, as a memorial to their parents' cultural, scientific and humanitarian work, and it was the Belgian state that had made this impossible... Ironically, too, there was a singular lack of public indignation at the government's sale of Argenteuil itself!

Photographs courtesy of Tatiana Faber

More photographs, of the interior of the mansion

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Albert I in the Holy Land

In 1933, to mark the 1900th anniversary of the Redemption, King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. With his usual piety and simplicity, the King was seen praying at all the sanctuaries; with his usual thoughtfulness, meditating upon the Gospel in solitude. A beautiful photograph taken by the Queen, and published in Le Roi Albert et les missions (1936), shows the King standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, intently reading his New Testament. As pictured above, the royal couple also visited the Garden of Olives. The King of the Belgians, who would himself die tragically, only a year later, at the feet of a rustic crucifix in the Ardennes, contemplated the sacrifice of Christ where the King of Kings had prepared for His Passion.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Royal Chapel of Argenteuil

In her Will, Princess Lilian of Belgium asked to be buried at the foot of her chapel at Argenteuil. This little Gothic gem had been erected in the Loire valley at the time of Henri IV. Centuries later, it was dismantled to facilitate a construction project, but was subsequently acquired by Count Paul de Launoit, a faithful counsellor of King Leopold III. The Count transported the pieces of the chapel to Belgium. In 1961, he reached an agreement with the Minister of Public Works, enabling the chapel to be reconstituted and donated to Leopold and Lilian.

The chapel was rebuilt in a a glade near the grassy esplanade to the south of the mansion of Argenteuil. In this intimate, mystical little sanctuary, Leopold and Lilian would practice their religion for decades. Princess Lilian, in particular, almost never attended any other place of worship. For forty years, her spiritual needs were served at Argenteuil by her confessors, including Henri Collart, S. J. and Raymond Thils, a brave military chaplain, greatly admired by the King and his wife, who had served in the Resistance during World War II.

Unfortunately, the Belgian government did not allow Lilian to be buried at Argenteuil as she had hoped. Prior to her funeral at Laeken, however, her children, Alexandre and Esmeralda, organized a memorial service in her beloved chapel to honor at least the spirit of her last wishes. Monsignor Édouard Massaux, rector of the Catholic University of Louvain, and a friend of the Princess, in his homily, described the viciously vilified Lilian of Belgium in the following terms:
"It is a great Lady who has just left us... All those who truly knew her well and who often spent time with her knew what she was, knew her brilliant intelligence, her opinions, her passions, her vast culture, her indefectible attachments, her courage in the many ordeals she endured, her great tolerance, her respect for the convictions of others, her unfailing fidelity to the causes dear to her. They knew her acceptance of living in the shadows for many years without the slightest resentment...her very great generosity towards the poor and the most disadvantaged, whom she aided financially, with attentiveness and in total discretion, even traveling abroad if it were necessary to do so."
Christian de Duve, Nobel prize winner and close collaborator of the deceased princess in her Cardiological Foundation, later remembered the precious moments he had spent in the humble but delightful medieval chapel:
"[A]llow me to recall with special emotion those intimate gatherings in the lovely Argenteuil chapel, where, each year, on the 25th of September, the military chaplain Canon Thils with the faithful Guy in attendance, celebrated the souvenir of the late King, and where, on June 10 of last year, we said our last goodbye to our beloved Princess."(Christian de Duve, "Princess Lilian: reminiscences", in Proceedings of the Princess Lilian Cardiology Foundation Symposium to commemorate its Patron, HRH Princess Lilian of Belgium, "Cardiology and cardiovascular surgery at the onset of the XXIst century," Acta Cardiologica- An International Journal of Cardiology, suppl. to volume 59, 2004, p. 16, quoted by Michel Verwilghen in Le mythe d'Argenteuil, 2006, p. 62)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

[T]he virgin knelt down with great veneration in an attitude of prayer, and her back was turned to the manger, but her face was lifted to heaven, towards the east. Thus with her hands extended and her eyes fixed on the sky she was standing as in ecstasy, lost in contemplation, in a rapture of divine sweetness. And while she was standing thus in prayer, I saw the child in her womb move and suddenly in a moment she gave birth to her son, from whom radiated such an ineffable light and splendour, that the sun was not comparable to it, nor did the candle, that St. Joseph had put there, give any light at all, the divine light totally annihilating the material light of the candle, and so sudden and instantaneous was this way of bringing forth, that I could neither discover nor discern how, or by means of which member, she gave birth. Verily though, all of a sudden, I saw the glorious infant lying on the ground naked and shining. His body was pure from any kind of soil and impurity. Then I heard also the singing of the angels, which was of miraculous sweetness and great beauty. . . . When therefore the virgin felt, that she had already borne her child, she immediately worshipped him, her head bent down and her hands clasped, with great honour and reverence and said unto him, Be welcome my God, my Lord and my Son. . . 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

December 23, 1909: The Accession of Albert I

On December 23, 1909, six days after the death of his uncle, Leopold II, Prince Albert of Belgium swore allegiance to the Constitution before Parliament, becoming the third King of the Belgians, just two days before Christmas. By a joyful, yet sobering coincidence, then, Belgian Catholics celebrated the accession of their new, earthly King, only two days before hailing the birth of their heavenly King! Leopold I and Leopold II had taken the constitutional oath only in French; Albert innovated by repeating it in Dutch. The people heartily welcomed their retiring, studious, conscientious and progressive young sovereign and his lively, artistic, philanthropic consort, born Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria. Already blessed with three children, Prince Leopold (b. 1901), Prince Charles-Theodore (b. 1903), and Princess Marie-José (b. 1906), their warmth and domestic virtues, contrasting vividly with the deceased King's coldness and flagrant scandals, had already earned Albert and Elisabeth widespread love and veneration. The royal couple's heroism amidst the horrors of World War I would only enhance these popular sentiments. During their own reign, the King and Queen would pass into legend.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Tragedy of Baudouin I

John J. Conley, S. J., discusses King Baudouin's courageous moral stand in the tragic abortion crisis of 1990. It is a very interesting account, with passages from the monarch's letters and diaries revealing his inner torment at this saddest moment of his reign. (King Leopold III, however, surrendered to the Nazis after 18 days of fighting, not 10 days, and the popular consultation held in 1950 concerned Leopold's return from exile to resume his royal functions, not the maintenance or abolition of the monarchy itself.) Although many would disagree with me, I actually think Baudouin inherited much of his backbone and moral fibre from his much-maligned father, and from his even more maligned step-mother, the indomitable Lilian de Réthy!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"L'affaire des meubles de Laeken"

Empire-Furniture at the Royal Palace of Brussels, with old Beauvais tapestry, a wedding present by French king Louis Philippe to his son-in-law, Leopold I. Photo courtesy of the Belgian Royal Household
Since we just commemorated the Golden Wedding of King Baudouin I and Queen Fabiola, perhaps it is appropriate to examine an infamous affair of state, obscured by malicious gossip, rumor and misunderstanding, which erupted in the aftermath of the royal marriage: the fate of the furnishings of Laeken Castle, following the departure of the groom's father, King Leopold III, with his second wife, Princess Lilian, and their three children, Alexandre-Emmanuel, Marie-Christine, and Marie-Esmeralda, to the country estate of Argenteuil, a government property near Waterloo. For the first nine years after his abdication, Leopold and his second family had continued to live at Laeken with Baudouin in close and cordial harmony. Political pressure, however, had ultimately obliged Leopold, Lilian and their children to leave Brussels. The move took place during the honeymoon of Baudouin and Fabiola.

Unfortunately, it provoked yet another series of tragic and tiresome calumnies of Leopold III, who had already been driven to abdication by unfair charges of betraying his country and allies during World War II. Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens, who had offered King Leopold little support during these sad events, and who disliked Princess Lilian, accused the couple of plundering the furnishings of Laeken and installing them at Argenteuil. In his memoirs, he insinuated that Baudouin and Fabiola had returned home to an empty palace! Endlessly repeated by politicians, journalists and even some historians, this version of events has become deeply entrenched in the public mind. In Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal (2006), however, Michel Verwilghen demonstrates in meticulous detail, on the basis of official documents, that this account cannot be true.

It is true that Leopold and Lilian transferred some furnishings from Laeken to Argenteuil. In fact, they were more or less obliged to do so, as Argenteuil, at that point, was largely unfurnished. Thus, as he had a perfect right to do, King Leopold installed part of his personal property in his new home. It is also true that he transferred to Argenteuil some state property, pieces he particularly loved for their historic value. Yet, even this is not outrageous. The furnishings were merely moved from one government estate to another; it is not as though the public patrimony was actually depleted. In any case, Leopold and Lilian certainly did not leave Laeken empty! On the contrary, even after their departure, the official inventories of the Castle of Laeken and the Royal Palace of Brussels listed hundreds and hundreds of lavish furnishings; over a thousand pieces, in fact, the personal property of King Leopold. In 1975-1976, a commission evaluated the furnishings owned by Leopold, but left at the royal palaces, at nearly 19, 000, 000 Belgian francs of the time! At Argenteuil, Leopold and Lilian simply lacked the space to accommodate these treasures. Accordingly, in 1977, the former King sold them to the Belgian state. If anything, he was a victim rather than a villain in all these transactions!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Marriage of King Baudouin I and Queen Fabiola

Today is the 50th anniversary of the magnificent wedding of Baudouin I, King of the Belgians (1930-1993) and his Spanish-born, aristocratic consort, Doña Fabiola de Mora y de Aragón (1928-). The couple were married in Brussels on December 15, 1960, just ten days before Christmas! We do not really know the details of how Baudouin and Fabiola met, although the late Cardinal Suenens, Archbishop of Malines and one of the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, claimed, many years later, to have played a major role in bringing them together. 

In any case, Baudouin and Fabiola proved to be a deeply devoted couple. Sadly, they remained childless, but stoically bore this sorrow. For nearly 33 years, the popular, unassuming King and Queen tenderly supported each other in their difficult public role, serving Belgium with admirable dedication. If Baudouin and Fabiola were criticized at times for their perceived lack of glamor, this slightly stodgy image may actually have worked in their favor by helping to shield them from even the suspicion of scandal. And, whatever the critics might say, the charming bride in her beautiful Balenciaga gown certainly cut an elegant figure!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Vlaams Belang

A disturbing article on a controversial topic. The leaders of the VB pose as wholesome defenders of freedom and family values, but are they? For my part, I absolutely detest the way this party has hijacked conservative causes in Belgium by linking them to the Flemish separatist agenda. As a result, many well-meaning people, who might be able to draw Belgium out of its current moral, political and religious mire, are alienated from their king and country.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Empress Elisabeth of Austria

A tribute to the beautiful aunt, godmother and namesake of Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians. Apparently, the memory of her glamorous but troubled forebear was always something of a trial for her great-niece, Princess Marie-José of Belgium, the last Queen of Italy. To her biographer, Luciano Regolo, Marie-José humorously described her long-standing irritation with the romantic cult of the tragic empress. Once, at a dinner in Paris, with a group of historians, the Italian queen had endured the sentimental posturing of her neighbor at table, who nostalgically sighed "Sissie...oh Sissie..." throughout the entire evening. When he began rhapsodizing over the empress's eyes, Marie-José lost patience. "Pardon me," she inquired, ironically, "did you perhaps know her?" The man turned purple and fell silent.

Here is an interesting contrast between Elisabeth of Austria and Elisabeth of Belgium, from the memoirs of Count Sforza. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Madonna of Bruges

A Michelangelo in Belgium. To quote Mary Ann Sullivan, of Bluffton University:
Scholars have speculated that this work was first conceived for an altar in the Siena Duomo commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini. At some point Michelangelo must have been persuaded to sell the sculpture to an affluent Bruges gentleman, Jan de Moscron, who in 1514 donated the work as part of a sumptuous altar to the Church of Our Lady. It is also speculated that the sculpture had originally been conceived with a lower viewing angle, which would explain the odd proportions and the downcast eyes of both Jesus and Mary. During Michelangelo's lifetime, this work was the sole sculpture by him outside of Italy although today both the Louvre and the Hermitage own works by him...
Unlike many depictions of the Madonna and Child, this work is sober and serious. Symbolically, it illustrates the traditional idea that the Virgin was aware of her Child's tragic destiny; her pensive gaze seems to reflect this. In addition, Jesus steps down from her lap as if he too is aware of his future role. Here he seems ready to walk and to begin symbolically the journey that will lead to his Passion.

(Image credits and permissions, HERE and HERE.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hugh Gibson: A Diplomatic Diary

The World War I diaries of diplomat and humanitarian Hugh Gibson, Secretary of the American Legation in Brussels, may be read here. Gibson worked for Herbert Hoover's Commission for Relief in Belgium and attempted to prevent the execution of Edith Cavell. His account is very interesting and contains many touching testimonies to the heroism of the Belgian king, queen, army and people. At the same time, the style is sober and avoids the excessive panegyrics of much of the literature of this period.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Lilian of Belgium: The Lights and The Shadows

Here are some interesting articles, courtesy of La Libre Belgique, on Lilian Baels (1916-2002), the ravishing Flemish commoner who secretly married the widowed, captive King Leopold III amidst the torment of the Second World War. The articles (in French) date from the aftermath of Lilian's death, which took place on June 7, 2002, exactly a year after she had published her husband's posthumous memoirs. I find it very sad that Lilian is still often seen as a vulgar, ambitious, spiteful trollop. She was not perfect or saintly, and had a potentially difficult personality. Yet, I believe, as many of her intimates have testified, she was a genuinely noble lady; courageous, dignified, intelligent, cultured and generous. These articles give a glimpse of some of the lights and shadows of this much misunderstood princess:

~"Lilian, princesse de Belgique"
~"Trois questions à Herman de Croo, Président de la Chambre"
~"Simple et digne"
~"Des funérailles sobres pour Lilian"
~"Ma mère telle qu'on l'a peu connue"

Friday, December 3, 2010

"Our Lady of Belgium" (1916)

A little gem of a novel about Queen Elisabeth. Although tinged with the hagiographic tone typical of Great War literature, it offers a very touching and sensitive portrayal of Elisabeth's spiritual development.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Belgian Tiara

A magnificent gift from the court of Leopold II to Pope Pius IX. To quote the Exiled Belgian Royalist:
By tradition Belgium has always been a Catholic country but in those days (1860-1870) religious faith in Belgium was especially strong and the Belgians were, overall, not happy with the Italian liberal-nationalists invading the States of the Church, effectively to depose Pope Pius IX from his position as the local king in Rome. Hundreds of Belgians bravely volunteered for service with the Papal Zouaves, the army of the Pope named after the flamboyant style of their uniforms, grey and red, the style taken from Algerian fashion that was introduced by the French army during their North African service. The first papal military commander and the Belgian Minister of War for the Pope were veterans of service in North Africa and this probably explains why the general dressed his soldiers in Algerian style uniforms. However, as you read in the previous post, the assignment the Pope gave to Bishop Xavier de Merode was really an impossible one (everyone must have known that) and ultimately unsuccessful.
When it was over and the Pope lost his political authority he secluded himself inside the walls of the Vatican in protest. Many Catholic powers tried to show the Pope that they still respected his authority even while political circumstances forced them to come to terms with the new Kingdom of Italy. One of these was the court of King Leopold II of the Belgians. The Ladies of the Royal Court raised funds for the design of a very unique and magnificent papal tiara for Pius IX. This was a way many countries showed support for the authority of the pope, by sending him a new crown. The “Ladies of the Royal Court of the King of the Belgians” (then Leopold II) presented the crown to the Pope on June 18, 1871. The crown, often known as the “Belgian Tiara” was not like any other. It was designed by Jean-Baptiste Bethune of Ghent with a unique shape for the three jewel-encrusted crowns and the tiers decorated with the words, “CHRISTI VICARIO - IN TERRA - REGUM”.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Madame Royale (2010)

A magnificent review of a magnificent book: Gareth Russell on Elena Maria Vidal's second novel, Madame Royale, tracing the tormented but heroic life of Marie-Antoinette's daughter.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Queen Astrid: An Inspiration

Another beautiful tribute to the fourth Queen of the Belgians. She clearly continues to inspire many people.

Here is a contemporary description of her youth, from my other blog, Sword and Sea.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

November 28, 1916: The Birth of Lilian Baels

Today is the birthday of Princess Lilian of Belgium, the lovely but controversial second wife of King Leopold III. She was the daughter of Flemish ship-owner, lawyer and Catholic politician Henri Louis Baels and his wife, Anne Marie de Visscher, both living in London at the time of the baby's birth. Like everything else about Lilian, even her full given name and place of birth are matters of dispute. According to her birth certificate, prepared in London, in the district of Islington, and sub-district of Highbury, on January 17, 1917, she was born November 28, 1916, at her parents' home, 5 Highbury New Park, Islington, London, and named Mary Lilian Lucy Josepha Monique. According to her marriage contract, drawn up in Brussels on December 5, 1941, she was Mary-Lilian-Henriette-Lucie-Joseph-Ghislaine. A strange discrepancy, since name changes were only legalized in Belgium much later, in 1987. To add to all the confusion, a family tradition had it that Lilian was, indeed, born in London, but in Highgate, not Islington! 

Friday, November 26, 2010

Queen Astrid to the Belgian Nation

In the past, I have mentioned Queen Astrid's charity drive during the hard winter of 1934-1935. Here is the famous open letter that she addressed to the Minister of State, Henri Jaspar. It was published in the papers in February 1935, a year after the accession of her husband, King Leopold III. Although the Belgian queens, beginning with Louise-Marie d'Orléans, had always been noted for their charitable works, never before had a royal consort addressed the nation in such a direct and determined manner as did the supposedly shy Bernadotte princess:
Monsieur le Président, I thank you for your willingness to contribute, by your devotion and your experience, to the success of the aid I wish to see brought to the children, to the adults, to the elderly who are suffering most cruelly from the crisis and from poverty. Many initiatives in this regard, I know, are already manifesting themselves in all classes of society. But the time has come to do more. Those who are less afflicted by the privations will understand the distress of the unfortunates by seeing them suffer from cold, from hunger and from illnesses caused by poor nutrition. The times are hard for all. Nevertheless, I have the firm hope that those who have the means will consent to make a sacrifice. In this way, they will relieve many misfortunes. Let some give money, however little it may be. Let others give objects. You will want to examine, Monsieur le Ministre, in what forms these gifts can then be gathered and distributed, as equitably as possible, by using the benevolent competition of works which so many activities in this domain deploy. It is not in vain, I am persuaded, that we will appeal to the spirit of solidarity, still so alive in our country. For my part, I will receive, with gratitude, at the Belle-Vue Palace, all that the generosity and the heart of our fellow-countrymen will suggest to them to offer to lessen sufferings before which no one can remain insensible. (Translated from"L'Appel de la Reine de 1935", Marie-Louise Libert-Vandenhove, in Astrid: 1905-1935, 2005, Christian Koninckx, p. 117)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Royal Prayer Cards

For the family of Leopold III, after Queen Astrid's death. The first card shows the King, the Queen Mother Elisabeth, and the royal children, Princess Josephine-Charlotte, Prince Baudouin and Prince Albert. The second simply shows a tender scene of the King with his children, outlined in the colors of the Belgian flag.

"Defend, Lord, by the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Royal Family from all adversity, and cover it with Thy perpetual benediction"
"Lord, preserve them for Belgium, which loves them so." 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Life of Prince Albert

Here is a short biography of the idealistic consort of Queen Victoria. As is well known, both Victoria and Albert were very important people in the lives of their uncle and aunt, King Leopold I and Queen Louise-Marie of the Belgians.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


In Antwerp. 

The Death of Queen Elisabeth

Today is the 45th anniversary of the death of the third Queen of the Belgians, born Elisabeth Gabriele Valerie Marie, Duchess in Bavaria. The widow of King Albert I succumbed to heart failure on November 23, 1965, at the venerable age of 89. It is a touching coincidence that the old Queen passed away only four days after the feast of her patron saint, Elizabeth of Hungary, whom she greatly admired. The year before her death, the beloved heroine of the trenches and the field hospitals of World War I had also attended a review of the surviving Belgian veterans of 1914-1918. Weak as she was, she had insisted on coming, but had been obliged to watch the review from her car, propped up with cushions and blankets. It had been a very emotional occasion. Both the aged Queen and the dwindling group of veterans seemed to sense that this would be their last meeting on earth. 

Newsreel of Queen Elisabeth's funeral may be watched here. Her loss was a cruel blow to her eldest son, King Leopold III. Their relationship had been very close. Throughout all the troubles of Leopold's life, he had always counted on his mother's unfailing love and support. After the news of her death reached him at Argenteuil, his nine-year-old daughter, Esmeralda, was astonished to see tears streaming down his face. It was the first time she had witnessed him weeping. Still unaware that her grandmother had passed away, the little princess asked the reason for her father's sadness. "Since last night," he replied, "I no longer have a mother." (Quoted by Michel Verwilghen in Le Mythe d'Argenteuil, 2006, p. 298). Esmeralda, too, was then deeply affected, as she had been very fond of her grandmother. By contrast, Elisabeth's estranged second son, Prince Charles, who had long resented his mother's preference for Leopold, refused to attend her funeral. The ceremony, however, was one of the rare public appearances of King Leopold III and his second wife, Princess Lilian, in the company of King Baudouin I and Queen Fabiola. (Rare, that is, since the division between the two kings, father and son, following Leopold's abdication and departure from Brussels). Remembering her artistic, poetic mother-in-law's passion for orchids, Lilian placed an orchid between Elisabeth's joined hands at her lying-in-state. (Lilian's daughter, Esmeralda, relates this thoughtful gesture in her memoirs, Léopold III, mon père). 

Elisabeth's daughter, Queen Marie-José of Italy, rather charmingly told her biographer Luciano Regolo that she always had trouble taking her mother's death seriously. The Belgian queen had been so full of life that Marie-José continued to feel as though she were still alive and might walk in at any moment, returned from the foreign travels she loved. In these sombre days of November, the month dedicated to the dead and the Holy Souls in Purgatory, let's hope and pray that this brave and generous lady may, indeed, live eternally with God, and return in glory at the Resurrection. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Red Archduchess

The first cousin once removed of both King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, Archduchess Elisabeth Marie was the only child of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his wife, Princess Stephanie of Belgium. Scandal and tragedy surrounded Elisabeth Marie on both sides of her family. Her father and his mistress, Mary Vetsera, were found mysteriously killed at Mayerling when the little girl was only five. The assassination of her troubled paternal grandmother, the famous Empress Sissi, followed less than a decade later. Meanwhile, Elisabeth Marie's maternal grandfather, King Leopold II of Belgium, outraged public opinion with his exploitation of the Congo and irregular private life. His eldest daughter, Elisabeth Marie's aunt, the flighty Princess Louise of Belgium, also shocked Europe with her romantic misadventures; for a time, she was even confined to a lunatic asylum.

In spite of this disastrous family history, Elisabeth Marie was mentioned as a possible bride for Prince Albert of Belgium in his youth, much to the horror of his sister Henriette. Understandably, the pious and proper daughter of the staid Count and Countess of Flanders thought the young lady had too unstable a background for the marriage to be a success. Thankfully, nothing came of the idea. Elisabeth Marie went on to generate scandals of her own, becoming estranged from her mother, the long-suffering Stephanie, and espousing socialism and spiritualism. I am very glad she was never Queen of the Belgians! I doubt even the capable King Albert would have been able to manage such a difficult consort. I also can only imagine how enemies of the Belgian monarchy would have seized upon Elisabeth Marie's eccentricities to undermine the throne. The princess Albert did marry, Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria, was fortunately a much more stable character. Nevertheless, she, too, had that zany Wittelsbach streak, which could alarm even her most fervent admirers. Just as Elisabeth Marie of Austria became known as the "Red Archduchess," so Elisabeth of Belgium, during the Cold War, would enthusiastically visit Communist countries, becoming known as the "Red Queen."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Happy Occasion for Princess Lilian

Here is a charming clip of Lilian de Réthy, the beautiful but vilified second wife of Leopold III, celebrating her 43rd birthday at the family's log cabin in the Alps. (Lilian's birthday is coming soon, on November 28). The royal couple's niece, Princess Maria Gabriella of Savoy, is one of the guests at the party. Like her mother, Queen Marie-José of Italy, and grandmother, Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, Maria Gabriella was close to Leopold and Lilian, once again giving the lie to the black legend that the Princesse de Réthy was hated by almost everyone.

Stealing the Mystic Lamb

There is a new, non-fiction thriller on the many thefts of Jan van Eyck's famous Ghent Altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.  
Since its completion in 1432 the 12-panel folding Ghent Altarpiece, housed in the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, has been looted in three different wars, burned, dismembered, forged, smuggled, illegally sold, censored, hidden, attacked by iconoclasts, hunted by the Nazis and Napoleon, used as a diplomatic tool, ransomed, rescued by Austrian double-agents, and stolen a total of thirteen times. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Queen Marie-Henriette in Spa

After a dramatic and tragic life, she tried to find peace and comfort in quiet retirement with her circle of friends and her love of horses, music and theatre. Les Musées de la Ville d'eaux  discusses the last years of the consort of King Leopold II at the Hôtel de Midi in Spa. (The article is in French, but still readable in other languages via Google Translate).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"A Beautiful Friendship"

On the 105th anniversary of the birth of Astrid of Sweden, consort of King Leopold III, here is a wonderful review of Countess Anna Sparre's memoirs of her childhood friend. It is all the more welcome, as even Astrid's memory, formerly so cherished, has been under attack lately. (Sadly, Anna's book is only available in Swedish, French and Dutch). To quote:
Those memories take the reader through noble and royal households at the turn of the century and during the first World War. It talks of life among the privileged within Swedish society, the development of a good-hearted but shy girl into a kind and caring young woman, and later into a loving wife, mother and Queen. The book concludes, of course, with the tragic accident that robbed Belgium of its most precious crown jewel. Touching, emotional, and yet with almost ruthless honesty, Anna Sparre talks of the last letter she received of her friend, two days after the news of her death was made public, her reaction of disbelief to the news, her sorrow, the memories of the funeral and the conversations with a grief-stricken Leopold.
Many biographies have been written about Astrid, Queen of the Belgians, but this book is more than a biography. Although such personal accounts often run the risk of turning into a hagiography, this book does not have any such tendency. Sometimes a bit critical and even derisive, it portrays a beautiful friendship between two women who are each other’s opposites. It gives a unique insight in what Queen Astrid was like, and how people from her immediate environment reacted to the news of her untimely death. [Read full review]

Monday, November 15, 2010

The King's Holiday

Today, Belgium celebrates the "King's Holiday" (Fête du Roi / Koningsfeest ). This beloved tradition, dating from 1866, honors the services rendered by the monarch to the nation. November 15 was chosen for this celebration as it is the name-day of Leopold (in the Germanic calendar) and of Albert (in the general calendar). Upon his accession to the throne in 1951, Baudouin I decided not to change the date, and neither has Albert II.

From 1944-1950, during the exile of Leopold III (and the regency of his brother, Prince Charles), the name "Dynasty Holiday" was used. This term, however, was erroneous, as noted in a circular from the Ministry of Interior in 1953.

According to custom, the King does not attend the public celebrations in his honor!

(Photo: The Royal Palace of Brussels by night. Credits)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Royal Rhododendrons

I just discovered that there are beautiful Belgian azalea hybrids named after King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth and King Leopold III and Queen Astrid. Charming!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Talk with General von Falkenhausen

In 1960, Jo Gérard, author of a number of popular works on the Belgian monarchy and the Royal Question, interviewed General Alexander von Falkenhausen, military governor of Belgium during the Nazi occupation, at his chalet in Nassau. As governor, Falkenhausen had attempted to moderate the Germans' treatment of the Belgians. Towards the end of the war, he was even dismissed from his post and imprisoned by the Nazis for conspiring against Hitler. Nevertheless, after Germany's defeat, the General was put on trial by the Allies and sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment for atrocities committed during the Nazi occupation of Belgium. A few weeks into his sentence, however, he was released, after overwhelming evidence came to light that he had tried to save as many Belgian and Jewish lives as possible. As he left Belgium, where he had been imprisoned, and crossed the border into Germany, he told a group of journalists: "Ungrateful Belgium, you shall not have my bones." Nine years later, Jo Gérard would visit this veteran Prussian aristocrat and warrior, wittily remarking: "Instead of your bones, I come to ask for your memories." The interview covered many topics, spanning across the General's entire life. I was especially interested by Falkenhausen's thoughts on the Belgian royal family. During his imprisonment by the Allies, the General related, he was pressured to testify falsely against Leopold III: 
-Does General von Falkenhausen have a testimony to add to the dossier, already so voluminous, of the Royal Question?
- In the prison camp where I had been interned, I received, on September 10, 1945, a visit from two delegates of the Belgian judicial authorities, or, at least, these policemen introduced themselves as such. They said to me: "You were at Laeken Castle, on the night of June 6-7, which preceded the day of the deportation of King Leopold? "Yes," I answered. The two men then asked: "Is it true that the Sovereign, to manifest the joy this decision caused him, drank, in your company, a bottle of champagne, since he was so happy to become a 'martyr of patriotism' in the eyes of his people and the Allies?" I answered, without hiding my astonishment: "Champagne? Certainly not! We drank nothing, the King and I." They told me: "But a palace lackey is definite, you drank champagne, that night; this man remembers it all the better, since he served it to you himself!" I retorted to the two policemen: "Confront me with this 'lackey'". They were silent; then, one of them murmured: "He's dead..." 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembrance Day

May all the victims of the First World War, and all other wars, rest in peace, never to be forgotten. Here is a moving tribute from Matthew Palardy to the fallen of the various nations. And here are some thoughtful reflections, from the Mad Monarchist, on the First World War, so disastrous for Europe and Christendom. The Belgian monarchy was one of the few to survive the conflagration.

(Photo credit)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

New Pages

Some may have noticed that I have removed from the sidebar the lists of links to posts on the different Belgian kings and queens. I have moved these lists of links to separate, stand-alone pages which can still be accessed from the sidebar, just under "A Note on Reviews." I hope this will make the right column of the blog a little less long and complicated.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Marriage of King Leopold III and Queen Astrid

On November 4, 1926, Prince Leopold of Belgium (1901-1983), eldest son and heir of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth, married Princess Astrid of Sweden (1905-1935), niece of King Gustav V, in a civil ceremony in Stockholm. On November 10, the religious wedding would follow in Brussels. Both handsome, shy, sensitive, thoughtful, and noble people, Leopold and Astrid had fallen passionately in love. Since Astrid was still a Lutheran, however, a papal dispensation was required for the marriage. (Interestingly, it was the mirror image of the union of King Leopold I and Queen Louise-Marie, where the groom was Protestant and the bride Catholic). The princess also had to promise to raise her children in the Catholic Faith. Both her sons, Baudouin (1930-1993)  and Albert (1934-), would become Kings of the Belgians, while her daughter, Josephine-Charlotte (1927-2005), became Grand Duchess of Luxembourg.

Here is a beautiful video on the marriage of Leopold and Astrid, incorporating archival footage of the happy young couple:

Here are some related posts:

~ Photographs of the young couple
~Description of their civil wedding in Stockholm
~ A first-hand account of their idyll, by a friend of the royal family
~ Leopold's accession to the throne
~ Astrid's charity work
~Astrid's conversion to Catholicism, in 1930
~Astrid's death
~The legend of the tragically lost Queen

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

November 3, 1901: The Birth of Leopold III

"What a memory! One of the most beautiful of my life, hearing the first cry of my first child! You were so pretty, and later, so handsome! But this, you do not like people to tell you, or, at least, not too bluntly. Since then, so many joys, so many sorrows!"

~Queen Elisabeth

On this day in 1901, the future Leopold III, King of the Belgians, was born in Brussels. Named Léopold Philippe Charles Albert Meinrad Hubert Marie Miguel, he was the first child of Prince Albert of Belgium and his bride, Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria. In looks and personality, Leopold would prove to be a perfect blend of both parents, mingling his father's kindness and intellect with his mother's grace and charm. His notorious great-uncle, King Leopold II, usually a cold, distant man, was overjoyed at his arrival, as no male heirs had been born in the royal family for many years. On June 7, 1902, the little prince was baptized at the Church of St. Jacques-sur-Coudenberg, where his funeral would be held in 1983. The King was his godfather.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Feast of All Souls

The Day of the Dead (1859) by William Bougereau

Out of the depths I have cried to thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice. Let thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication. If thou, O Lord, wilt mark iniquities: Lord, who shall stand it. For with thee there is merciful forgiveness: and by reason of thy law, I have waited for thee, O Lord. My soul hath relied on his word: My soul hath hoped in the Lord.

From the morning watch even until night, let Israel hope in the Lord. Because with the Lord there is mercy: and with him plentiful redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities (Psalm 129, Douay-Rheims Version)

Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal Church, those in my own home and within my family.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha

A magnificent if melancholy tribute to the consort of Queen Victoria. In looks, personality and sad destiny, he reminds me of his Belgian cousin, King Albert I. (The Belgian Albert was blond, though).

The Family of Leopold I

Leopold I, King of the Belgians (1790-1865) had several families. By Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1796-1817), he had two babies, lost to miscarriage, and a son who died at birth, followed shortly thereafter by his mother. By Louise-Marie of Orléans (1812-1850), Leopold had four children: Prince Louis-Philippe, Crown Prince of Belgium (1833-1834), Leopold II, King of the Belgians (1835-1909), Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders (1837-1905) and Princess Charlotte, Empress of Mexico (1840-1927). In his later years, by his young, brash and unpopular favorite, Arcadie Claret Meyer, the King has been alleged to have had two sons, George and Arthur, who were both created Barons von Eppinghoven. 

The Exiled Belgian Royalist gives interesting summaries of the lives of Leopold's children by Queen Louise. Their three surviving offspring, Leopold II, Prince Philippe and Empress Carlota were all very different personalities. Leopold II had the intelligence and satirical eye of both parents. He possessed his father's political shrewdness, financial sense and ambition, albeit, unfortunately, without his tact and charm. A tireless colonial imperialist and builder of monuments, Leopold II may have inherited his insistence on grandeur partly from his mother, although he sadly lacked her counterbalancing humility and sweetness. Queen Louise complained of the Belgians' petty ways; her son, however much one may dislike many of his methods, undeniably strove, as he saw it, to make Belgium great. 

By contrast, Leopold's brother Philippe had Louise's retiring manner, her love of home and family, her propriety and piety. Despite his admirable traits, however, I have to admit that I find him less interesting than his more dynamic brother and sister. It is Carlota whom I probably find to be the most appealing of the siblings. She seems to have united so many of the best qualities of the first King of the Belgians and his Queen; beauty, brilliance, grand aspirations, energy, determination and charisma, but also kindness, gentleness and charity. What a pity her promising life was so tragically marred. 

Feast of All Saints

Omnípotens sempiterne Deus, qui vivórum domináris simul et mortuórum, omniúmque miseréris quos tuos fide et ópere futúros esse prænóscis : te súpplices exorámus ; ut, pro quibus effúndere preces decrévimus, quosque vel præsens sæculum adhuc in carne rétinet vel futúrum jam exútos córpore suscépit, intercedéntibus ómnibus Sanctis tuis, pietátis tuæ cleméntia, ómnium delictórum suórum véniam consequántur. Per Dóminum nostrum Jesum Christum, Fílium tuum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitáte Spíritus Sancti, Deus, per ómnia sæcula sæculórum. Amen.

Almighty and everlasting God, who hast dominion both of the quick and the dead, who likewise hast mercy upon all men, whom by reason of their faith and works thou hast foreknown : we commend unto thee all those for whom we now do offer our prayers, whether in this world they still be held in the bonds of the flesh, or being delivered therefrom have passed into that which is to come ; beseeching thee that at the intercession of all thy Saints they may of thy bountiful goodness obtain the remission of all their sins. Through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord : Who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Blessings to all. If I may ask, please pray for me. I am struggling with a very difficult situation. 

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Heated Debate

Over at The Elizabeth Files, Claire Ridgway has been recalling the anniversary of the trial of Mary Queen of Scots. Always a topic to arouse passion and controversy:-

Mary Queen of Scots- Tragic Heroine?
The Trial of Mary Queen of Scots

Whatever one thinks of Mary, she is an important figure, not only in her own right, but as the forebear of many other doomed monarchs, such as Charles I, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. I believe the Belgian royal family are her direct descendants as well.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Carlton House

Here is a brief history of the palatial London residence of the decadent Prince Regent, later King George IV. It was here that Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, the future founder of the Belgian royal dynasty, married Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, on May 2, 1816, in the Crimson State Room, pictured below.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Claremont House

As a follow-up to yesterday's post on the romance of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, here is an article on Claremont Park, their home in Surrey. After Charlotte's death, Leopold continued to live at Claremont until he became Belgium's first king. He retained control of the estate, however, for the rest of his life. After the 1848 Revolution in France, Leopold placed Claremont at the disposition of his exiled parents-in-law, the former King and Queen of the French, Louis-Philippe and Marie-Amélie.

In his Vie de Louise d'Orléans, Reine des Belges (1851), Paul Roger tells a touching anecdote of the filial piety and selflessness of Leopold's second wife, Louise-Marie, the daughter of Louis-Philippe and Marie-Amélie. A mysterious malady was ravaging the Orléans colony at Claremont, already an ill-omened place, due to Princess Charlotte's tragic death in childbed at this once happy scene of conjugal bliss. Louise-Marie, herself in delicate health, insisted on visiting and taking care of her ailing relatives, refusing to leave their bedside, despite the dangers of exhaustion and infection. A friend tried to persuade the Belgian queen to be more careful to avoid over-exerting herself, but she answered bravely: "We live in hard times...we must be able to suffer and think only of those dear to us!"

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Idyll of Leopold and Charlotte

A lively account of the tumultuous and tragic romance of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, future King of the Belgians, and Charlotte Augusta of Wales, the heir to the British throne. The rebellious, tempestuous Charlotte was a night-and-day contrast with the docile, tranquil Louise-Marie d'Orléans, Leopold's second wife! Personally, I would find Louise-Marie much easier on the nerves, but Leopold always pined nostalgically for his days with Charlotte.
The character of Prince Leopold contrasted strongly with that of his wife. He was at this time twenty-six years of age, and as the younger son of a minor prince had pursued a career as a soldier and diplomat. Leopold had served with distinction in the war against Napoleon. He had shown considerable diplomatic skill at the Congress of Vienna. Leopold was now to try his hand at the task of taming a tumultuous Princess. Cold and formal in manner, collected in speech, careful in action, he soon dominated the wild, impetuous, generous creature by his side. There was much in her, he found, of which he could not approve: she quizzed, she stamped, she roared with laughter. Charlotte had very little of that self-command which is especially required of princes. Her manners were abominable, while Leopold having moved, as he himself explained to his niece many years later, in the best society of Europe, being in fact "what is called in French de la fleur des pois." There was continual friction, but every scene ended in the same way. Standing before him like a rebellious boy in petticoats, her body pushed forward, her hands behind her back, with flaming cheeks and sparkling eyes, she would declare at last that she was ready to do whatever he wanted. "If you wish it, I will do it," she would say. "I want nothing for myself," he invariably answered; "When I press something on you, it is from a conviction that it is for your interest and for your good."
To everyone's surprise the couple led a domestic and scandal-free life probably mainly due to Leopold's diplomacy and knack for handling his young wife. This was quite a change in comparison with Charlotte's parents and most of her royal uncles. The couple spent most of their time divided between Camelford House, their London residence, and Claremont Park, a country house in Surrey. Sir Thomas Lawrence came to Claremont House to paint Leopold and Charlotte. The government allocated the sum of sixty thousand pounds to pay for the couple's household, a modest income for the heir to the throne, but still a coupe for Leopold as the penniless younger son of a minor princely house. Charlotte gladly adopted many of her husband's tastes, and joined him in reading, studying and religious observance. This model existence made Charlotte and Leopold tremendously popular among the London crowds.