Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Death of a King

Today is the anniversary of the tragic and untimely death of Albert I, King of the Belgians. According to official documents, a chance slip from a craggy precipice, during a solitary rock-climbing excursion on Saturday, February 17, 1934, cut short the life of this beloved monarch, at the age of 58. In her memoirs, his daughter, Queen Marie-José of Italy, gives an affecting account of the terrible event:
February 17, 1934!
The news of the fatal accident reached me on the morning of the 18th, but without details. A mountaineering accident in Belgium, how was this possible?
With his affectionate delicacy, Umberto gave me to understand that all hope was lost. Struck by the suddenness of the shock, I could not take in the extent of my misfortune. Immobility was intolerable to me; I walked up and down. Umberto remained at my side, trying to comfort me.
Death had surprised my father in a wild and solitary place, among the cliffs of the Meuse. To prepare for his summer ascensions, he was climbing, during the afternoon of February 17th, the steep crags of Marche-les-Dames; in particular, the one known as the "Cliff of the Good God." The rock to which he had attached his rope gave way unexpectedly, so that he fell from a dizzying height. Hurled backwards, he shattered his temple against a ledge twelve metres below the cliff, but rolled thirty metres further. His body was not found until late in the night, buried under a heap of dead leaves.
My mother, overcoming her grief, wrote to me: "My immense sorrow does not prevent me from thinking of yours. I know how unhappy you are. Papa loved you so much. I hope that this shock has not damaged your health, doubly precious at this moment (I was expecting my first child). My grief is infinite, and the void, each day, will feel greater."
On the morning of Sunday, February 18, Belgians heard the awful news at Mass. Grief, shock and disbelief swept through the country, and, indeed, the world. Widely loved and admired for his heroism during World War I, and graced with a modest, affable personality, Albert was deeply mourned far beyond Belgium's frontiers. Meanwhile, in Brussels, amidst the moving and imposing funeral ceremonies, the people filed past silently to pay their last respects to their dead King, lying in state in a candle-lit chapel of flowers in the Royal Palace.

On February 22, as the funeral cortege made its way from the palace to the Cathedral of St. Gudule to the Church of Our Lady of Laeken, vast, sombre crowds lined the route. Thousands knelt and prayed as the gun-carriage, bearing the King's coffin, passed by. "Au revoir, Albert," one old man was heard to whisper. After the Requiem Mass, celebrated by Cardinal van Roey, Archbishop of Malines, in the black-draped cathedral, Albert's body was conducted to the Church of Our Lady of Laeken, where the final Benediction took place. Then, to the strains of funeral music and the booming of artillery, the third King of the Belgians was laid to rest in the royal crypt.

Because King Albert was an expert climber, and died alone, without witnesses, many have questioned the official version of his death. To add to all the suspicion, no autopsy, apparently, was ever performed on the King's body, nor was there any thorough judicial inquest into his death. The unfortunate result has been that, ever since that sad winter day in 1934, a wide variety of sensationalist rumors of murder and suicide have repeatedly flared up. Tragically, the speculation has often become quite cruel and vulgar, with torrid theories of secret love affairs and crimes of passion. I find it all highly distasteful. True, a disturbing element of mystery will always surround the King's last moments. After all, nobody saw him lose his grip and fall from the cliffs, that was all a later reconstruction. Yet, surely, rather than revelling in macabre, lurid speculation, it is better to pray for his soul?

Albert Einstein's letter of condolence to Queen Elisabeth

Paul Claudel's tribute to the King, February 18, 1934

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