Sunday, August 29, 2010

Death of a Queen

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the tragic death of Astrid of Sweden (1905-1935), consort of the unluckiest of Belgian kings, Leopold III. Ironically, August 29, 1935 dawned bright and clear, promising an enjoyable alpine excursion to the royal couple. As Time reported:
For days it had been raining in Switzerland. Leopold of Belgium and Queen Astrid, vacationing in the Villa Haslihorn near Lucerne, sent their three small children back to Brussels. But next morning the sun came out hot and strong, with the promise of a fine day for a mountain climb, a sport of which Leopold was just as fond as his father. Hobnail boots, ropes and alpenstocks were piled into the back of the royal Packard touring car beside the chauffeur. In front Leopold took the wheel while Astrid sat beside him, holding a road map. They started down the lakeside road, keeping close to the curb because the pavement was slippery. In a second it was all over. Just before reaching Kussnacht, with the car rolling along at 50 m.p.h. Leopold turned his head to look at the road map. The right wheels of the car slipped through one of the 18-ft. openings in the concrete curb. For some 95 feet it careened along, the right wheels at times three feet lower than the left. Then it struck a young pear tree, swerved at right angles. The Queen and the chauffeur were thrown clear. The car rolled down the bank, caromed off another tree and into the shallow water of the lake.

With his hands sprained, his lower lip slashed and a rib fractured, King Leopold crawled from the car and over to the body of his wife. He could see that she was already dead, her skull fractured, her chest gashed with broken glass. Aides following in a second car rushed hastily back for an ambulance while King Leopold, dazed and bloody, stood looking down at his dead Queen.
Witnesses reported the devastated King crying "Astrid! Astrid!" and clasping his wife's body to his heart. Later, he would confide to the Queen's best friend, Anna Sparre: "My life is over." In a voice broken by sobs, he asked his secretary, Robert Capelle: "Why did the good God take her away from me? We were so happy!" The death of his father, King Albert I, while climbing the cliffs of Marche-les-Dames, only 18 months earlier, had plunged Belgium into deep mourning, and now all the sorrowful scenes would be repeated. For the second time, in a year and a half, the Belgian royal family had met tragedy in the mountains.

At 10:15 PM, in the Lucerne railroad yard, two funeral cars were added to the train that travels regularly between Milan and Brussels. Astrid's body, in a plain oak coffin, was placed in a baggage car that was quickly turned into a chapel. She was accompanied by two Catholic nuns. The king and his party were alone in the last car. As the funeral train crossed the Belgian frontier, the church bells in the nearest village began to toll in mourning and as the train progressed the tolling was taken up in the next village. After the train arrived in Brussels on Saturday morning, a simple black and silver hearse took the coffin from the train to the palace where the dead queen's body was removed and placed on a bed of white silk, covered with flowers and strewn with violets. Thousands of Belgians, of all stations in life, entered the Thinker's Hall of the palace and filed by to catch a glimpse of Astrid's pale, bandaged face. Only her face was visible to the visitors. The forehead and right cheek were covered with bandages giving her the appearance of a wartime nurse at rest.

The funeral services, held the following Tuesday, brought the people of Belgium to the streets of Brussels. Still stunned by the magnitude of the tragic event that had befallen them, the mourners wept openly in the streets for their queen. The bells of Sainte-Gudule, which rang for the royal marriage only nine years before, now tolled slowly and dismally. Crowds of people stood silently and bareheaded to watch and listen for the funeral procession to the burial site in Laeken, Belgium. Flags were at half-staff everywhere. There was an endless steam of people who made their way to the palace to express their sympathy (Things Happen in Threes, by Ray Hahn).

On the day of the crash, Belgian Premier, Paul van Zeeland, voiced the nation's grief:
Our queen is no more. We have lost her only for a few hours, but already the greatness of the void she left has caused a deep impression of anguish and consternation. It was hardly nine years ago that she came to us, like a fairy princess in an atmosphere of grace, love, youth and happiness. Who would not have envied her - beloved Queen, gifted woman, mother of three fine children? Yet a single moment was enough for a tragic accident to sweep away everything - both the reality of the present and the promises of the future. Is there really some mysterious law that insures that everything that is the greatest, the purest, the most beautiful should last only for a short time?
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

To mark the 75th anniversary of his mother's death, King Albert II will be paying tribute to Queen Astrid today at her memorial chapel in Küssnacht-am-Rigi. I wish I were there! 


Viola said...

That story is so sad. I would like to know more about Queen Astrid - I only know that she was very beautiful and fashionable.

May said...

She was beautiful inside and out.

BelgieRoyalist said...

The poor king! Their story makes me cry. Not for Queen Astrid who went to Heaven but for the King who had such misfortune. There was no misery in life God did not spare him.

May said...

One misfortune fed another. I always wonder how the Royal Question would have played out if Astrid had been alive. I doubt, for instance, that the royal family would have been deported to Germany, if she had been around, because surely this would have jeopardized Germany's relations with Sweden? And if the King had been in Belgium at the time of liberation, he would have been in a much stronger position in relation to his political opponents.