Tuesday, November 23, 2010

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. 

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