Saturday, February 12, 2011

Defending the Wittelsbachs

In recent years, in step with Belgium's political disintegration, a number of tendentious and sensationalist books and articles have appeared on the Belgian royal family. In particular, the free-spirited and outspoken Queen Elisabeth (below), consort of Albert I and mother of Leopold III, has aroused attack. (I could write a whole article on the unfair accusations and lurid nonsense that have attached themselves to her reputation in certain quarters). Her Wittelsbach heritage, associated with the mental illness of Kings Ludwig II and Otto I of Bavaria, with the emotional instability of Empress Elisabeth and Crown Prince Rudolf, has been exploited at times, as if to create the vague impression that the blood of the Belgian royal house is somehow tainted.

To defend the Belgian royal family, it is necessary to gain a just appreciation of the Wittelsbachs, beyond the stereotypes of Wagnerian love and death, madness and despair. Certainly, like all families, the Wittelsbachs had their weaknesses; yet, like all families, they also had their strengths. As for Ludwig II and Otto I, their distant cousin, Marie-José of Belgium, the last Queen of Italy, contended that they had inherited their mental illness from their mother, a Prussian princess, rather than from their Bavarian father. This claim might seem to be merely a way of defending Marie-José's own family. I think not, though; the Italian queen was perfectly capable of criticizing her great-aunt Sisi's behavior, in her memoirs; she was also quite impatient of the romantic cult of her tragic forebear. In any case, in addition to troubled misfits, the house of Bavaria boasted genuinely noble characters.

Duke Karl Theodor, the brother of Empress Elisabeth, and the father of Queen Elisabeth, for example, was a gifted, deeply generous humanitarian. He dedicated his life to relieving the sufferings of others through medicine, becoming an internationally acclaimed ophthalmologist and caring for many for free. He raised his children with the same altruistic ideals; young Elisabeth, Belgium's future Reine-Infirmière, trained in nursing in her father's own clinic. He also cultivated a love of beauty and art; he was a wonderful pianist, and his daughter, Elisabeth, who inherited his passion for music, used to listen to the Duke play for hours, entranced. Again, the family's artistic sensibility is often associated with morbid emotionalism, with self-indulgence, with neurosis. Yet, as Count Sforza indicates in his memoirs, Makers of Modern Europe, Karl Theodor, on the contrary, actually seemed to derive the spiritual strength needed for his medical work from his music. Furthermore, the household of the Duke and his wife, the prayerful, loving, if rather autocratic Maria Josepha of Portugal, appears to have been a warm and united one, quite different from the unhappy ménage of Franz Josef and Sisi. In fact, this very family affection would become a source of bitter suffering for the Queen of the Belgians, cruelly divided from her Bavarian relatives during the First World War.

The Wittelsbachs also produced an array of admirable ladies, such as the sisters of Empress Elisabeth, Maria Sofia (above), the last Queen of Naples, and Sophie Charlotte, Duchesse d'Alençon (below). Maria Sofia is famed for her fearlessness in trying to defend the falling Kingdom of the Two Sicilies from Garibaldi's forces; her valor and devotion won her the respect even of her political foes. Even more moving is the tale of Sophie Charlotte, who died heroically in a terrible fire. Her self-sacrifice is poignantly related in a worshipful biography of her niece, Queen Elisabeth, who was only 21 at the time of the tragedy. (Interestingly, it was at Sophie Charlotte's funeral that Elisabeth first crossed paths with her future husband, Prince Albert of Belgium. The duchess had also been the mother-in-law of Albert's sister, Princess Henriette).

Her life and its ending may be summed up in these few words: "She died as nobly as she lived."

She perished, burnt alive in the terrible catastrophe of the Bazar de la Charite in Paris, in May 1897. The cinematograph was at that time a novel institution, and the operator, with inconceivable clumsiness, set fire to a room above the one in which the bazaar was held. The ceiling was all in flames before any attempt was made to clear the hall. There was a horrible struggle, in which the strongest had the advantage.

However, among the men whose brutal selfishness seems to have stifled all chivalrous feeling, there were a few who thought of the Duchess. They hastened to her help, imploring her to escape, even trying to drag her away by force; but she refused. "I shall stay to the last," she replied. "Save the others first." Some Sisters of the Order of S. Vincent de Paul would not leave her, determined to sacrifice their lives also, if need be. The Duchess remained standing; the Sisters knelt round her, praying. As the fire drew close to her she loosened her magnificent hair, which covered her like a cloak. And it was so that those who survived the disaster saw her for the last time.

A chapel has been erected near the spot in memory of the victims. Kneeling there in devout meditation one is less moved to pray for the Duchess of Alencon than to feel her presence as a heavenly spirit, gracious and protecting.

If the Wittelsbachs had their frailties, they also had magnificent qualities. Theirs is actually quite a splendid heritage for the Belgian royal family!


MadMonarchist said...

Mental illness is extremely widespread (only in recent years have we found out just how widespread) and no family, royal or otherwise, is untouched by it. However, it seems to me that the reputation of the Belgian Royal Family has been one of very sane, sober, moderate and thoughtful people. Given the nature of the country they have had to be expert at making a realistic evaluation of the situation at any time, very subtle and very considerate. I would also question just how widespread the famous "insanity" of the Wittelsbachs was. In the cases of Sissi and Rudolf I would be careful to avoid confusing bad judgment, being willful or self-absorbed with suffering from an actual full blown mental illness. Not everyone who makes bad decisions or behaves oddly is crazy.

May said...

The Belgian royal family did have quite a steady, good reputation, traditionally, but now all too many seem eager to fire "cheap shots" at them, and to latch on to whatever seems likely to weaken their image, including, in some cases, the Wittelsbach connection.

I agree with you about the "insanity" of the Wittelsbachs not being so widespread; that was one of the points I was trying to convey. I also would not say Sisi and Rudolf were crazy, but I do think they were rather emotionally unbalanced.

May said...

Marie-José used to complain that whenever she or her mother did something unconventional, people would go: "Ah, those Wittelsbachs, they're all crazy!" I've seen similar comments and got tired of it.

Even Elisabeth's husband, King Albert, has been attacked on psychological grounds; much has been made of his supposed "moodiness" and "insecurity", whereas both Leopold III and Marie-José emphasized their father's inner serenity in coping with the challenges life cast his way.

Christina said...

What a wonderful and fascinating post! Thank you, Matterhorn.
I had no idea that Queen Elizabeth trained in her father's infirmary; or what an interesting man he was.

There is something charming and quite disarming about some of the Wittelsbachs' eccentricities and I think, in Sisi's case, her instability was exaggerated because of the sense of imprisonment she felt in the stifling Austrian Court. Perhaps, in a freer and simpler life, she would not have appeared so unstable.
I can image how desolate Queen Elizabeth felt, separated from her Bavarian relations - I think Alix, Empress of Russia, felt that, too, when separated from her Hessian friends and relations.
Thank you for a really interesting post!

Anonymous said...

Both King Maximilian II and Queen Marie had a lot of Hesse-Darmstadt blood in their veins. Marie's two grandmothers were princesses of that family, while Maximilian's two grandmothers also had H-D blood (one was a princess of H-D and the other was the daughter of one). Maybe such concentration of blood produced some effect in the genetics of their Bavarian descendants.
However, all royals have intermarried across the centuries, so why they are not all mentally ill? Strange.


May said...

Thank you, Christina!

Jorge, that's a good question. Maybe there was something odd in the makeup of the Hesse-Darmstadts? Did they have other family members or relatives with such problems?

Gareth Russell said...

Matterhorn, this is an absolutely magnificent article and I'd like to link to it, if you would allow? Really an incredible set of stories and a fantastic defence of the Wittlesbach dynasty!

May said...

Be my guest, Gareth! I am honored.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there was anything wrong in the Hesse blood, but maybe too much concentration can provoke mental disorders in some individuals. The Spanish Habsburgs intermarried so much that several members of the family were born with terrible deformities, incapacity to have children, etc. Not all descendants are affected, of course.


May said...

Thank you, Jorge. Yes, I remembering hearing about those Habsburgs. I suppose the in-breeding accentuates whatever vulnerabilities are in the family, weaknesses which might never come to the fore otherwise.

Anonymous said...

This article speaks of events and people that were exceptions, but the Wittelsbach madness is well documented which is most likely the result of inbreeding that occured to preserve royal ties. Crown Prince Rudolf grandmothers were sisters and 4 of his 8 great grandparents were of the Wittelsbach clan- we know what means.......lots of 1st cousin lovin.

May said...

I don't think I denied that the Wittelsbachs had mental and emotional problems in the family, I was just pointing out that there was also much more to this dynasty than many seem to remember and that people ought to avoid stereotypes.

As Mad Monarchist said, I think we should also be careful of confusing full-blown "madness" with other kinds of psychological weakness or odd behavior.