Monday, September 27, 2010

Poignant Souvenirs

In 2005, royal commentator Sue Woolmans discussed her travels in Brussels, giving a lively account of her visits to a number of exhibitions on the Belgian and Russian dynasties. Although I'll admit that her contemptuous attitude towards King Leopold III, whom she mockingly dubs "the careless driver," made my blood boil, I still enjoyed the article, particularly the description of an exhibit on Queen Astrid:
This exhibit was done with much care and love and told her life story room by room. Each room had film footage on show as well, most of which I hadn’t seen before. There was a section dedicated to their tour in Congo, one to the Astrid effect – similar to the Diana one, one to her fashion sense, one to her children, and of course, one on her death. Heaps of photos. Items were lent from the Brussels palace but also much from the collection of Grand Duke Jean and included:
furniture from the playhouse she used as a child
exercise books
her wedding outfits inc shoes
several dresses inc one lovely pink affair with lots of feathers
loads of hats
jewellery – some costume, some real inc an emerald choker given to her by Queen Elisabeth on the birth of her first child
official letters from Leopold to various officials announcing their marriage and her death
personal letters inc one to Charles from Leopold after her death talking about the children, and an affectionate one from Albert to Astrid
postcards sent by Astrid to Josephine-Charlotte when they were on tour in the Congo, one of which began “Chère petite Joe”. Also the last postcard she ever sent the children from Switzerland
This exhibition was moving. I had tears in my eyes by the end. And I visited it twice.
How I wish I could have been there. It sounds as though this exhibition was the one entitled "Astrid et nous, regards croisés," held at the Royal Palace and the BELvue Museum to mark the 100th anniversary of the Queen's birth in 2005-2006.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The People's Will

A recent poll, published in La Libre Belgique, suggests that most Flemings and Walloons want to remain united within the Belgian state:
According to the newspaper only 12 percent want a split of the Kingdom of Belgium. Even the Flemish aren’t really keen on a separate state. Just 22 percent desire the final end of Belgium and the birth of an independent Flanders. On the other hand 40 percent of all Belgians would like to see the unitary state back, which existed until the early 1970s. Obviously, they have enough of the internal border that is dividing the country along the languages. 32 percent favour handing over more power to the existing regions.
Reassuring as the results sound, however, there is a danger of becoming complacent. I highly doubt that "The People's Will" is really the deciding factor here. It is important not to underestimate the power of destructive but determined minorities.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Haunting Memories

A sad but fascinating series of news featurettes commemorating the 75th anniversary of Queen Astrid's death on August 29, 2010. (There is no proof, however, that Astrid was pregnant when she died.)

Tomorrow, September 25, 2010 is also the 27th anniversary of the passing of Astrid's husband, King Leopold III. May they both rest in peace +

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pierre Joseph Redouté

Searching for information on Queen Marie-Amélie, I stumbled across a charming website on the life and work of the celebrated Belgian botanical artist Pierre Joseph Redouté (1759-1840). A humble man, he is nonetheless considered to have been possibly the greatest floral illustrator of all time. His royal patronesses included Queen Marie-Antoinette and both of Napoléon's empresses, Joséphine and Marie-Louise. Despite hardships and reversals of fortune, Redouté was an inveterate survivor, managing to lead a relatively peaceful life and pursue a brilliant career, even in the turbulent, tragic times of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. During his later years, Redouté enjoyed the support of Louis-Philippe and Marie-Amélie and taught flower painting to their artistically talented eldest daughters, Louise and Marie d'Orléans. He dedicated his masterpiece, the "Choix des Plus Belles Fleurs," a 36-part series of albums featuring exquisite, hand-colored stipple engravings of the loveliest flowers and fruits, to the two young princesses. Louise, as we know, would become the first Queen of the Belgians.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Queen Astrid: The Mother

The beautiful young Duchess of Brabant, with her two eldest children, Princess Josephine-Charlotte and Prince Baudouin. It is said that, at the birth of her first son, the heir to the throne, Astrid proudly proclaimed: "Now I truly feel Belgian!" 

Another photograph of Astrid, Josephine-Charlotte and Baudouin. I love this image; it is so tender and Astrid looks so happy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"No Crystal Ball"

Some may have noticed I've said very little about Belgium's ongoing political crisis. I feel a bit awkward discussing the issue, since I'm an outsider. Still, I must say it will be a terrible tragedy and loss if Belgium falls apart. Hugo Biets, alderman of Tongeren, cut to the heart of the matter in an address to mark Armistice Day in 2006. (The speech is published in Dutch and French at ProBelgica). Like Biets, I often wonder: if Belgium splits up, what will become of such commemorations? Who will remember all the heroic men and women, Flemings and Walloons, combatants and noncombatants alike, who sacrificed their lives in defense of united Belgium in both world wars? The soldiers, doctors, nurses, resistance fighters, political prisoners, the victims of oppression, deportation, torture and execution? I also wonder: what will become of the memory of Belgium's kings and queens, who dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to their realm? Whatever their qualities or failings as individuals, I firmly believe they have all shared an intense, generous patriotism. What will happen to their monuments and memorials? Will the Royal Crypt of Laeken, for example, become merely a forlorn relic of a past régime? What of Queen Astrid's memorial chapel in Switzerland, where King Albert II commemorated the 75th anniversary of his mother's tragic demise, less than a month ago? Will there be a Belgian National Day in 2011? Let's hope so. Yet, sadly, I cannot help feeling more and more pessimistic.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Was Madame Adelaide Married?

Forgive my ignorance here, but I am attempting to gather accurate information about Princess Adelaide of Orleans, sister of King Louis-Philippe and aunt of Queen Louise-Marie of the Belgians. I had heard that there was a rumor that she had been married in America and had children, but that the story was false. I was perplexed, however, to come across this wild tale, which seems to support the story with many details. I am looking into the matter further, but some versions mention no marriage, while others suggest the lady in question was actually married twice. So what is the truth? Was Madame Adelaide married at any time, anywhere, to anyone? And if so, to whom?

Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows

V. Pray for us, most Sorrowful Virgin,
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray.

O God, in whose Passion, according to the prophecy of Simeon, a sword of grief pierced through the most sweet soul of Thy glorious Blessed Virgin Mother Mary: grant that we, who celebrate the memory of her Seven Sorrows, may obtain the happy effect of Thy Passion, Who lives and reigns world without end. Amen.
~Litany to Our Lady of Sorrows

Today is also the birthday of King Umberto II of Italy, husband of Princess Marie-José of Belgium.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Joy and Sorrow

Today, we commemorate three anniversaries, two happy and one tragic:-

~The religious wedding of Leopold III, King of the Belgians, and Miss Mary-Lilian Baels (1941). As we all know, this marriage caused bitter controversy and contributed to Leopold's political troubles, but it also brought him much joy and consolation, not to mention three children. Lilian would be his wife for 42 years- over half of his life!
~The birthday of Princess Paola Ruffo di Calabria, the present Queen of the Belgians (1937). Blessings to her, and I hope Belgium's dire political woes don't spoil her birthday completely!
~The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Arlington (2001). My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their loved ones.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Murder of an Empress

The Mad Monarchist remembers the assassination of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837-1898). Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians, of course, was her niece and namesake.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Piety of Albert I

Albert I, King of the Belgians from 1909 to 1934, was a very devout Catholic. The son of a profoundly religious mother, he developed, as a young man, a deep and tender piety, based upon a critical conscience, and related to his ideals of altruism and courage. Throughout his reign, Albert derived moral strength and inner serenity from his faith.

A few excerpts from the King's correspondence illustrate the nature of his religious devotion. When his former tutor, General de Grunne, entered, in his old age, the Benedictine monastery of Maredsous, Belgium, King Albert wrote him a beautiful letter in which he speaks of the joy of giving oneself to God:
"Puissiez-vous compter à Maredsous beaucoup d'années dans le confort suprême de l'âme que donnent aux natures touchées par la grâce, la foi dans la toute-puissance de Dieu et la confiance dans ses bienfaits."
"May you spend at Maredsous many years in the supreme comfort of soul that is given, to natures touched by grace, by faith in the omnipotence of God and trust in His goodness."
To another friend, a Chinese diplomat, who also became a Catholic monk, Albert wrote:
"Se consacrer entièrement au service de Notre Seigneur donne, seul à ceux qui sont touchés par la grâce, la paix de l'âme qui est le bonheur suprême ici-bas."
"Consecrating oneself entirely to the service of Our Lord gives, to those who are touched by grace, the peace of soul which is the highest happiness of this earth."
(Quoted in Albert 1er, insolite, Jo and Hervé Gérard, 1984, p. 243)
Dom Albert van der Cruyssen, Abbot of Orval, Belgium, and military hero of 1914-1918, in a commemorative speech given in 1936 for the war dead of the Battle of the Yser, testified to the (then recently deceased) King's piety, integrity, valor, and charity in deeply moving terms:

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cardinal Mercier

Here is a collection of wartime letters and speeches of Cardinal Mercier, Archbishop of Malines. He achieved a heroic reputation among Catholics and non-Catholics alike for his bold, fearless denunciations of the German occupiers. He was also seen as a compassionate, beatific man of God. I will admit, however, to harboring some reservations about Mercier. Doctrinally, it is claimed that he was a mentor of the radical Cardinal Suenens, and he was suspected of Modernism in his day. While some portray this simply as hysterical Vatican witch-hunting, and Mercier himself condemned the heresy, there are some odd facts which make me skeptical of him. You would expect a Prince of the Church to be eager to assist in bringing about an end to World War I, which was destroying the remnants of Christendom, but apparently this was not the case. On the contrary, Marie-Rose Thielemans, in her editions of the war diaries and letters of Albert I, contends that the Cardinal's intransigent political attitudes actually obstructed the King's peace efforts, which depended upon Church support. In his diary, Albert voiced his frustration with Mercier, and even complained that the Archbishop was fraternizing with freemasons. Finally, although Mercier professed great devotion to the Belgian mystic Berthe Petit, who pleaded for the solemn consecration of Belgium to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary, he was curiously reticent in fulfilling her request. He agreed to dedicate Belgium privately to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart, but the solemn, public consecration never took place. This always strikes me as a strange omission coming from an ostensible champion of God, King and Country.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Leopold & Astrid

During the post-war "Royal Question," Leopold's political enemies repeatedly opposed the memory of the immensely popular Queen Astrid to her husband. In anti-Leopoldist propaganda, the Queen was always portrayed as the much-regretted pure et sainte Astrid, while the King was reviled as a traitor, a pro-Nazi, and a libertine. His second wife, Princess Lilian, was similarly branded a fascist sympathizer and an unscrupulous adventuress. One propaganda poster, which promoted the idea of Leopold's abdication in favor of his son, Prince Baudouin, featured a soulful picture of Queen Astrid, with the caption: Majesté, vous demeurez notre Reine, votre fils sera notre Roi ("Your Majesty, you remain our Queen, your son will be our King").

This is sheer demagoguery. I am not denigrating Astrid; on the contrary, I think she was a wonderful woman of great purity, humility, and generosity. Her popularity was fully merited. Yet there is a contradiction in the opposition of Leopold and Astrid. The couple were always known for their deep mutual love. It is an insult to Astrid's memory, as well as to Leopold, to present the King as a worthless scoundrel. The implication is that Astrid foolishly bestowed her love on a villain. Those who try to exalt Astrid at Leopold's expense indirectly undermine the Queen's prestige as well.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Tragedy and Mystery

As in the case of the tragedy of Marche-les-Dames, the lack of a public inquiry into Queen Astrid's death gave rise to dark conspiracy theories.
Because the details of the accident were never made public, speculations and rumours surrounded the tragic death of Queen Astrid. She was said to be pregnant with her fourth child, something that was never confirmed. It was argued that perhaps the car had been sabotaged, and the accident was in reality an assassination attempt by the Gestapo, who, according to rumour, may also have been responsible for the death of King Albert. Some theories even went as far as claiming that the real King Leopold had been killed in the accident as well, but he had been replaced by a German look-alike, on the orders of Adolf Hitler. Although none of the rumours can be confirmed, nobody really seems to know the truth either. Only King Leopold could say what had happened, but he was never officially questioned, and refused to talk about the accident at all times.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Condolence Letter

As Léopold III was himself no stranger to sorrow, it's interesting to see the delicate manner in which he consoled others who lost loved ones. Here is a condolence letter by the 75-year-old former King of the Belgians to a friend of Claudio Barbier, a renowned young Belgian alpinist who had been mysteriously killed climbing the cliffs of the Meuse. (The news must have given Léopold something of a chill, since his own father had been mysteriously killed climbing the cliffs of the Meuse.)
Domaine d'Argenteuil 
Waterloo, June 11, 1977.
Dear Monsieur Bourgeois,
I have just learned from the press of the accidental death of Claude Barbier.
This sad news has moved me all the more, as I personally knew this man, who was so particularly sympathetic.
It was enough for me to meet him once to retain the memory of a personality very endearing for his qualities of simplicity and integrity.
I can fully imagine what your pain must be at losing such a dear friend.
As for his inconsolable fiancée, I would like you to tell her how much I was moved by the message you were asked to give me. Please convey to her the expression of my deep sympathy and please tell her that, when time has been able to appease, a little, her great grief, I would be happy to meet with her and talk with her of the career of the man whom she mourns today.
Please believe, both you and your wife, dear Monsieur Bourgeois, in my most cordial remembrance.
(s) Léopold