Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Royal Te Deum

A stirring scene from the last summer before the outbreak of World War I, as described by Brand Whitlock, American minister to Belgium.
The twenty-first of July is the Belgian National holiday, and on that day a Te Deum is always sung at Ste Gudule in honor of the foundation of the dynasty. The whole city was en fête, the black, yellow and red flag of Belgium—the old flag of that Belgium which for one short year at the time of the French Revolution was a republic, Les Etats Belges Unis, modeled after the young United States of America—was flying everywhere. The boulevards were thronged and the old streets of the lower town were filled with the Brussels crowd that is at most times so spontaneously, so almost naively, gay. From early morning long queues had stretched away down the streets before the theatres, that day opened freely to the public. The trains were crowded with people seeking the shade of Le Bois dc la Cambre, or La Forêt de Soignes, or en route to that great field at Stockel where the aviation meet was in progress that week. There, too, were great crowds in La Place de Parvis, before Ste Gudule, waiting for a glimpse of the royal family. "Uniforms and decorations," the Minister for Foreign Affairs had said, which meant for me the ordeal of evening-clothes in the bright glare of noonday.
The old cathedral or, to be more exact, since Brussels is not the seat of a bishopric, the old church (the collegiate) of St Michael and Ste Gudule, was crowded again for one of those scenes it had been witnessing for eight centuries. The soft light that fell into the nave that morning touched the brilliant uniforms of the representatives of the army, the Government, the Diplomatic Corps. There were judges in their scarlet robes, and priests and bishops in their sacerdotal garments; there were tonsured monks, and here and there the white robe of a Dominican friar or the brown of a Franciscan monk, his bare feet in sandals. From the entrance to the transept in the Treurenberg there was a double hedge of grenadiers in their tall bearskins, and a broad crimson carpet that led up to the altar; and at all the gray old pillars of nave and transept there were trophies of flags and banners. There was the stir and rustle of a happy throng, elated by all that light and color, a pleasant exhilaration, suppressed to a gravity by the place and the scene. Not only were all the personalities of the town there, but there were the mysterious presences of those historic characters that in other days had trailed their fleeting glories there.
We had taken our appointed places in the choir; there were the usual greetings, smiles, handclasps, the customary gossip. Then suddenly the drums began to roll, the trumpets blew and through the lofty arches there rang a voice in a military command, hard, like steel:
"Presentez armes!"
There was the sharp rattle of the muskets as the grenadiers came to "present arms." And then the unisonant cry:
"Vive le Roi!"
Their Majesties, accompanied by their suites, came slowly forward and up the steps into the choir, pausing for the reverence at the altar, then for the ceremonial bow to the representatives of the nations of the world, then to the representatives of Belgium, and passed to the two thrones placed for them on the right of the altar. The great organ began to roll, the three priests at the altar, in their gold chasubles, began to chant the Te Deum.
The royal family made an interesting picture; the King, in the Lieutenant-General's uniform he always wears, tall, broad-shouldered, tanned somewhat from his outing by the sea—they had just come from Ostend—behind the thick lenses of his pince-nez the King's intelligent eyes were taking in the scene, noting who were there; the Queen, frail, delicate, with the unconscious appeal of sweet girlish eyes, and the delicate, sensitive mouth, had the three royal children beside her: the two princes, Leopold, the Duke of Brabant, and Charles, the Count of Flanders, grave, fair, slender boys, in broad batiste collars and gray satin suits, and the Princess Marie José, with her pretty mischievous little face and elfish tangle of crispy, curling, golden hair— the child that all the painters and all the sculptors of Belgium have portrayed over and over.
I stood there and watched that most interesting family, a very model of all the domestic virtues, in its affection, the sober good sense of the young parents. And I thought of the other kings and queens and princes and princesses that had stood in that very spot: the two Leopolds, father and son, the first of this short dynasty, so unlike each other, so unlike the King who stood there on that July morning. Maximilian had been married at that altar, the Duchess of Parma had knelt there, and there Charles V had been crowned. ... I looked at that grave, slender lad, Prince Leopold of Belgium, Duke of Brabant, etc., etc., etc., gazing out of those wide, boyish, curious eyes at that scene of splendor; what were the thoughts just then in that child's mind; were there any conceptions of the tragic mutations of Belgian history? Would he one day, in other scenes like this, when others should have taken our places, stand there where his father stood, while priests sang Te Deums in his honor? 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Feast of the Annunciation

The Tragedy of Albert II

Here is a very sad article from La Libre Belgique describing how King Albert II was basically bullied into signing Belgium's euthanasia bill in 2002. (The paper, however, presents it as a good thing). How far we have fallen...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Tiara of Queen Elisabeth

Here is an article on the famous diamond and platinum Cartier tiara of Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians.  After her death, it passed to her son, King Leopold III, to be worn by his second wife, Princess Lilian. After Leopold's death, Cartier repurchased it from Lilian in 1987. There is a great deal of outrage on the internet at Lilian's sale of Elisabeth's tiara and other jewelry which had graced earlier Belgian royal ladies. Critics complain that the magnificent tiara, in particular, ought to have been left to Queen Paola and Princess Mathilde. The fact is, though, that it did not belong to Paola and Mathilde. At that point, it was Lilian's to dispose of as she saw fit. Unlike the jewelry used by other European royal houses, the adornments of the Belgian queens and princesses have never belonged to the state; they have always been the personal property of the ladies in question. In consequence, following the deaths of their owners, they have usually been dispersed, auctioned off or left to heirs outside Belgium. Today, the Belgian royal family has only two tiaras inherited from previous generations; all the rest of the jewelry of Queens Louise-Marie, Marie-Henriette, Elisabeth and Astrid has passed to other hands. This may seem unfortunate, but I find it unfair to single out Lilian for so much indignation, since the dispersal of Belgian royal jewelry is a tradition pre-dating her by far.

Interestingly, Lilian was related to the Cartier family by marriage. Jean-Jacques Cartier, who recently passed away, was married to Lilian's sister Lydia Baels. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Winter Sports

King Albert I, Queen Elisabeth and Princess Marie-José. A biography of the King, published in Flemish and French, concludes with these words:
He was brave, upright, generous, straightforward, humane, possessing complete self-control. He was an excellent sportsman, and he never shrank from any challenge, no matter how great. Every guide and every mountaineer respected, appreciated, loved and admired him. He spoke with equal goodhumour and understanding to everyone whether shepherd, taxi-driver, or the republican guide Tita Piaz. He shunned crowds and loved to savour in peace the beauty of the mountains and the splendour of Alpine slopes. Mountaineering was the only real leisure King Albert I allowed himself.

King Leopold III and Queen Astrid.
Queen Astrid initiates Princess Joséphine-Charlotte into the sports every child of Scandinavian descent ought to be adept in...
Another shot of the happy mother and daughter.
Brother and sister: Prince Baudouin and Princess Joséphine-Charlotte. In her memoirs, Anna Sparre describes how Leopold and Astrid arranged for a fun and safe winter holiday for their two eldest children, then aged five and two, during the couple's tour of the Congo in 1933:
A new voyage was announced; an official visit to the Congo, this time. Princess Ingeborg was ill, and there was no question of entrusting the children to their grandparents. So they were placed in a well-reputed hotel in Gstaad, in Switzerland; they had already been there with their governess, as paying guests. Their parents knew they would be in good hands there: doctors, caretakers and teachers were at their disposal. Not to mention the good mountain air and the possibility to do skiing or skating with other children of the same age. The Princess brought them there herself, happy that no one knew how worried she was. She tried to convince herself that three months would pass swiftly. 
King of the slopes: the passion for skiing stayed with Baudouin all his life.

Princess Lilian proves herself to be truly one of the family.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Gracious Princess

Here is a thank-you note from Princess Joséphine-Charlotte, dating from the period of her family's exile in Switzerland. Unfortunately, I am not sure to whom this letter was supposed to be addressed, but it seems to have been directed at a group of people. I wonder if it was a Leopoldist group who had fêted the Princess in order to show support for her father? In any case, it is certainly true that Joséphine-Charlotte was a powerful symbol for the King's friends.  In 1949, she returned to Belgium, to raise support for her father. She also voted for her father's return in the popular consultation held in 1950 to end the Royal Question. On both occasions, her arrival sparked outpourings of royalist fervor. The King's supporters welcomed her with cries of "Vive la princesse!" and "Léopold!" The Leopoldist newspaper, «Le Cri du Peuple» also made great use of Joséphine-Charlotte's resemblance to her mother, the beloved, tragically lost Queen Astrid, with a series of photographs, and the caption: «Hier, ELLE nous a rendu le sourire de CELLE que nous avons perdue. Demain, ELLE nous rendra CELUI que nous attendons» ("Yesterday, SHE restored to us the smile of HER whom we have lost. Tomorrow, SHE will restore to us HIM whom we await.") It was a clever slogan, since Astrid's image was so often used against Leopold in propaganda hostile to the King. While in Belgium to further her father's cause, Joséphine-Charlotte also piously remembered her mother, visiting and meditating at the deceased Queen's tomb in the Royal Crypt of Laeken.

Very touched by the kind thought you had to celebrate my 21st birthday, I thank you all, with all my heart, for this testimony of sympathy.

Prégny, December 12, 1948

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Marie Antoinette (2006)

An interesting critique of Sofia Coppola's film from Tradition in Action.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Defending the Saxe-Coburgs: Part IV

 (Continued from Part I, Part II and Part III)

Today, I would like to conclude our series on the rampant over-sexualization of the Saxe-Coburg dynasty with a consideration of the popular portrayals of the last two Kings of the Belgians, Baudouin I and Albert II. In Baudouin's case, the war of images has taken some strange, surprising turns. While his four predecessors, Leopold I, Leopold II, Albert I and Leopold III are increasingly, indiscriminately portrayed in an almost nymphomaniacal light, Baudouin I is more or less spared sexual slurs, with the exception of the insinuations of an illicit relationship with his step-mother, Princess Lilian, prior to his marriage. Baudouin is virtually universally described as a faithful husband. Even Paul Beliën moderates, to an extent, his usually utterly malevolent, brutal treatment of the Belgian dynasty, in his discussion of Baudouin. Although he alludes insidiously to the rumors of incest between Baudouin and Lilian, he refrains from casting doubt on the King's fidelity to Queen Fabiola. After shamelessly, mockingly denying the religious devotion of Albert I and Leopold III, he is willing to concede, indeed, even to over-emphasize, Baudouin's faith and spirituality. 

Why this sudden change? Why the unexpected respite from pornographic phantasmagoria? In a way, it is not surprising. For propaganda to be convincing, it must be repetitive, yes, but not too repetitive. A few figures in the Royal Family, such as King Baudouin or his nephew, the current heir to the throne, Prince Philippe, must be spared the worst slurs and stereotypes, in order to create the impression of a fair and balanced treatment. To portray every single Saxe-Coburg as a lascivious, promiscuous creature would seem too silly. Doubtless, too, some personalities lend themselves more easily than others to sordid misinterpretations. Unfortunately, for instance, the beauty of Leopold III rendered him especially vulnerable to salacious gossip. By contrast, the plainer image of Baudouin I probably played a role in protecting him from rumors of infidelity. Perhaps, portraying the son relatively favorably, while denigrating his forefathers, also subtly serves, by association, to present Baudouin's reign, and the weaker period of the Belgian monarchy it inaugurated, as morally superior to the earlier era of strong political and military leaders such as Albert I and Leopold III. 

Nevertheless, even Baudouin's public image is rather ambivalent. Although the emphasis on his fidelity to his God and his wife would seem to be positive, it may also serve to cast him in a negative light. In some accounts, for example, he is portrayed as a religious fanatic, a morbid ascetic, or a feeble, emasculated figure. In A Throne in Brussels (2005), Paul Beliën depicts Baudouin as a man possessed by a brooding, gloomy, unhealthy religiosity. As evidence, Beliën cites Baudouin's obsessive anxiety, as a child, over the eternal fate of his mother, suddenly and tragically killed in an automobile accident. In a vulgar, online pseudo-diary of his younger brother, the fictional Albert II casts aspersions upon Baudouin's virility. I am reminded of the seditious pamphlets satirizing the imaginary impotence of King Louis XVI of France. It is notable that the one suspicion of scandal surrounding Baudouin, the accusation of incest with Lilian, paradoxically also casts him in an emasculated light, by portraying him as a plaything of an ambitious, domineering, manipulative, sexually voracious step-mother. Again, I am reminded of French revolutionary propaganda, depicting Queen Marie-Antoinette as a power-hungry harpy who would not shrink from corrupting her own son, the heir to the throne, in order to maintain an iron grip upon his future kingdom.

What unscrupulous distortions of the truth! After such a traumatic loss, Baudouin's fears for his mother's soul seem very understandable, especially in a serious, sensitive child with deep spiritual inclinations. It is unfair to exploit his anxiety at such a time to suggest a lifelong morbidity of disposition. Despite his association with suffering and sadness, his widely publicized image as le Roi Triste, Baudouin was no depressive. Among others, his wife, Queen Fabiola, and his close collaborator, Count Michel Didisheim, have left moving testimonies of his fundamentally joyful disposition. According to Didisheim, Baudouin had a wonderful sense of humor and a keen wit; at times, his laughter would echo through the spiraling staircases of Laeken. Although slim, he ate heartily. He liked a glass of Bordeaux with his meals. He was fond of golfing and skiing. He clearly enjoyed life. Baudouin's ability to take unpopular moral stands, illustrated, most famously, during the abortion crisis of 1990, demolishes any notion of weakness of character. The King was most certainly not impotent; he fathered five children, although the Queen tragically lost all to miscarriage. As for his relationship with Princess Lilian, the young Baudouin undeniably adored his step-mother, but so did his brother Albert and his sister Joséphine-Charlotte. In any case, Baudouin's strict religious and moral principles, and his deep veneration for his father, qualities emphasized by friend and foe alike, should suffice to dispel any lingering rumors of an illicit intimacy with his father's wife. To paraphrase Jean Vanwelkenhuyzen's brilliant analysis of the matter: there is no smoke without a fire, but sometimes the fire is the work of arsonists.
Turning to the popular portrayals of Albert II, we find much more conventional depictions of a Belgian king, as a stereotypical, lecherous Saxe-Coburg. (I will not even reply to the vicious rumors of pedophile that forced the King to defend his reputation in court). As is well known, Belgian papier maché artist Delphine Boël claims to be the King's illegitimate daughter, the fruit of his supposed liaison with her mother, Baroness Sybille de Selys-Longchamps. As I have mentioned before, I find it unfortunate that Delphine not only made this public claim, but also poured fuel on the flames of scandal by bitterly denouncing the King as an irresponsible father, on the grounds that he simply wanted to wash his hands of her and bury the embarrassing issue. Many have since joined in this chorus of blame. If Delphine is truly Albert's daughter, I can understand her desire for recognition and sympathize with her sense of rejection, but, at the risk of sounding harsh, there are more important things than hurt feelings. I believe that the dignity and prestige of the monarchy ought to take precedence. Even when royalty have acted less than admirably, their position is deserving of respect. Not that they should be immune to all criticism, but lurid scandal-mongering and vitriolic public attacks are out of place. This is all the more so in a place like Belgium, where the monarchy is so vital to the country's precarious national unity. Even if Delphine is, indeed, the King's daughter, I would be cautious of hastily blaming the King for failing to recognize her. If he did so, it might simply encourage others, as happened after Albert II of Monaco acknowledged his out-of-wedlock children, to come forward with more paternity claims, probably false but damaging nonetheless. While the Monegasque princely house is quite secure, moreover, the Belgian monarchy is already endangered. The Grimaldis may be able to sail through gossip and rumor with flying colors; the Saxe-Coburgs need no further scandals.

I have no idea whether Delphine's paternity allegation is true or false. In contrast to other cases, I do not think there would be anything impossible or improbable about Albert II having a child out of wedlock. Although they were thankfully reconciled, it is certainly true that the royal couple's marriage has known painful times. The King admitted it in his Christmas Speech, in 1999. Queen Paola also acknowledged it in an interview to mark her 65th birthday, in 2002. Furthermore, Albert was not particularly religious in his younger years, and his willingness to sign any law, even if it flagrantly violates the tenets of his faith, suggests a certain moral flexibility. (Not that I would be too hard on him, though, as Belgian monarchs have little political power anymore). Whether Delphine is his daughter, however, is another matter altogether, and it is important to note that her claim has never been formally verified. Therefore, the Belgian media's constant references to her as the King's illegitimate daughter, as if it were a confirmed fact, are out of place. I also think we ought to be chary of over-interpreting the King's words in his Christmas Speech. His reference to his past conjugal crisis, since it occurred so soon after the rumors of a love child became public, is routinely taken as an implicit recognition of Delphine as his daughter; unnecessarily so, in my opinion.  

I also find it sad that the sensation surrounding Delphine has displaced, in the minds of many, the royal couple's quite beautiful reconciliation. Many couples have marital problems, and it is not necessary to invoke the mythical "lust of the Saxe-Coburgs" to explain the crisis of Albert and Paola, but fewer have the generosity to forgive one another and begin afresh. On the whole, I suspect that the Belgian Royal Family, in contrast to their widely promoted image, have probably been one of the least scandal-ridden dynasties in Europe. The marriage of Albert and Paola, restored beyond hope, provides yet another example, albeit in a surprising way, of the domestic virtues of this much-maligned branch of the House of Wettin.

Meeting Albert and Elisabeth

Over two years ago, when I first started this blog, I posted excerpts from Mary Roberts Rinehart's sensitive portrayal of the Belgian sovereigns during the First World War. Here are the links, if anyone is interested:

~A Talk with a King

~A Talk with a Queen

As we've been discussing some of the rather grotesque attacks on this couple, it's nice to have a reminder of the brave and gracious people they were.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Day

With warmest thanks to Fountain of Elias, here is a famous prayer attributed to the great Apostle of Ireland:

I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

I arise today through the strength of Christ with His Baptism,
through the strength of His Crucifixion with His Burial
through the strength of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
through the strength of His descent for the Judgment of Doom.

I arise today through the strength of the love of Cherubim
in obedience of Angels, in the service of the Archangels,
in hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
in prayers of Patriarchs, in predictions of Prophets,
in preachings of Apostles, in faiths of Confessors,
in innocence of Holy Virgins, in deeds of righteous men.

I arise today, through the strength of Heaven:
light of Sun, brilliance of Moon, splendour of Fire,
speed of Lightning, swiftness of Wind, depth of Sea,
stability of Earth, firmness of Rock.

I arise today, through God's strength to pilot me:
God's might to uphold me, God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me, God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me, God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me, God's shield to protect me,
God's host to secure me:
against snares of devils, against temptations of vices,
against inclinations of nature, against everyone who
shall wish me ill, afar and anear, alone and in a crowd.
I summon today all these powers between me (and these evils):
against every cruel and merciless power that may oppose
my body and my soul,
against incantations of false prophets,
against black laws of heathenry,
against false laws of heretics, against craft of idolatry,
against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
against every knowledge that endangers man's body and soul.
Christ to protect me today
against poison, against burning, against drowning,
against wounding, so that there may come abundance of reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right,
Christ on my left, Christ in breadth, Christ in length,
Christ in height, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.
Salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is of the Lord.
Salvation is of Christ. May Thy Salvation, O Lord, be ever with us.

Please pray for a friend of my family, who is Irish, and very ill.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tragedy in Japan

Flag of Japan
All my sympathies, condolences and prayers are with the Imperial Family and people of Japan at this terrible time.

This Japanese disaster makes me even more impatient with the Belgian tempest-in-a-teapot that has been dragging on for so many months. While others are struggling with genuine tragedies, it is all the more ridiculous to fritter away one's time and energy on artificial problems and frivolous grievances.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Defending the Saxe-Coburgs: Part III

(Continued from Part I and Part II)
Ever since Paul Reynaud's tragic, unjust indictment of the King, on May 28, 1940, an endless series of personal attacks have been launched at Leopold III. In the aftermath of Reynaud's venomous broadcast, accusing the King of betraying the Allies, the man who had been hailed by the world as a hero only a few weeks earlier began to be vilified as a coward, a traitor and a libertine. There were rumors, for instance, that he had a Nazi mistress planted on him by the Gestapo. During the Nazi occupation, lewd pamphlets circulated through Belgium, sometimes with the connivance of the German authorities. Other, more clever troublemakers produced damaging forgeries in the name of intimates of the King, such as his secretary, Count Robert Capelle. After the liberation of the country, during the controversy over the King's wartime conduct, the tradition of personal attacks continued. According to authors such as Roger Keyes and Jean Cleeremans, a special agency was even set up in London to spread scandalous stories about Leopold. Every effort was made to portray the King and his second wife, Princess Lilian, as a decadent, self-indulgent and morally enervated pair, as the Belgian equivalents of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, if not worse.

The royal couple, for example, were accused of "honeymooning" in Austria at the home of a "notorious Nazi". The legend has persisted to this day, appearing in many publications and flaring up all over online forums. In an interview, transcribed in Le Soir, on September 3, 1998, upon the publication of his biography of Princess Lilian, Evrard Raskin insidiously asked why Lord Keyes, in his defense of the King, had "willfully ignored" this episode. The question seems highly disingenuous, since far from "willfully ignoring" the charge, Keyes actually answers it at great length. In Échec au Roi (1986), he demonstrates, in detail, that the King had to travel to Vienna to see a specialist for a delicate jaw operation. His new bride accompanied him on the trip, but it was no fun to travel with the Gestapo on their trail. In addition, Lilian had to care for a husband unable to eat normally for some time following the procedure. It does not seem to have been a very idyllic "honeymoon". Keyes also disputes the claim that the King's host was a "notorious Nazi"; on the contrary, he says, the man in question actually had Allied connections. The journey through hostile territory, moreover, gave Leopold something of an opportunity to reconnoitre. Are these conflicting versions of events merely a case of Keyes' word versus Raskin's? I think not. It's significant that Raskin resorted to pretending that Keyes had ignored the alleged pleasure trip, rather than offering counter-evidence to try to refute Keyes' account. To me, this suggests that Raskin lacked counter-evidence to provide. Besides, is it likely that the same King who took such pains to maintain his passive resistance to the occupying power, evading all efforts to lure him into collaboration, would compromise himself so carelessly by blithely vacationing in Hitler's homeland, by fraternizing with a pillar of Hitler's régime?

By far the most infamous and implausible accusation, though, is the claim that King Leopold, during his visit to Berchtesgaden in November, 1940, to press for the release of Belgian prisoners of war, and for better treatment of the Belgian civilian population, consorted with call-girls, obligingly placed at his disposal by the Gestapo! This allegation, supposedly emanating from an interrogation of a Gestapo official, has been repeated by authors such as Evrard Raskin and Paul Beliën. I would rather not mention such a vile claim, let alone dignify it with a response, but it is important to see how low Leopold's enemies have been willing to stoop. Keyes describes how Leopold's opponents, presumably using the hope of more lenient treatment as leverage, tried to provoke damning "testimonies" against the King from captive Germans, who were themselves compromised by collaboration with the Nazi régime. General Alexander von Falkenhausen, the military governor of Belgium during the occupation, for his part, related that he had been pressured, in prison, to bear false witness against Leopold III. The version of events which, he claimed, some supposed Belgian officials had attempted to cajole him into confirming, like the story of the escorts at Berchtesgaden, cast Leopold in a ridiculously hedonistic light: the King was supposed to have celebrated his own imminent deportation to Germany, in June, 1944, by drinking a bottle of champagne in the General's company. If the Gestapo official in question did, indeed, tell such a disgusting tale, I suspect that similar pressure was behind it. In any case, in his memoirs, written long after the fact, in perfect liberty, Herr Schmidt, Hitler's interpreter, noted the Belgian monarch's stiff, reserved, dignified manner, his adroit skill in avoiding compromising himself, during his visit to the German chancellor. He also indicated that the King specifically, and rather disdainfully, refused the Führer's offer of personal favors...

Unfortunately, the attacks did not come to an end with Leopold's abdication in 1951. As I have mentioned before, in the decades to come, many rumors of conjugal discord and infidelity would swirl around Leopold and Lilian. In 1962, despite the laws protecting the personal lives of private citizens, including the former King of the Belgians at this point in his career, a particularly vulgar and virulent press campaign, combined with the tacit acquiescence of the public authorities, would oblige Leopold to submit a stern protest to the Belga news agency.  Like many other couples, Leopold and Lilian may well have had moments of marital friction. Yet, Michel Verwilghen notes, the lurid tales tended to emanate from the political class. This milieu had much to justify: the rejection of a monarch who had previously been cleared of all charges of treason by a commission of inquiry consisting of eminent jurists, and who had been restored to his royal prerogatives by the majority vote of his people. To compensate for the absence of solid, irrefutable accusations of political misconduct, would charges of personal misconduct not be very helpful? Furthermore, from the beginning of his career, Leopold had been known as an idealist. Even before ascending the throne, for instance, he had irritated colonial interest groups by insisting on responsible rule of the Congo. During the early years of his reign, he had alienated many party politicians by condemning their selfishness; these tensions would later be complicated by his wartime differences with his ministers and allies. "Le monde politique ne pardonna pas au Roi son souci du bien commun et sa grande moralité politique"*. To discredit, as a moral leader, a man who was a reproach to many, would smears not be highly useful? In Leopold's regard, too, the political world and the press did not have much of a record of truthfulness. For example, Prime Ministers Gaston and Mark Eyskens, aided by journalists, promoted the extravagant, absurd, false, but incredibly persistent rumors that Leopold and Lilian had "pillaged" Laeken during their move to Argenteuil. In such a treacherous environment, are we to believe rumors of extramarital affairs?

What of the supposed love children attributed to the King? In A Throne in Brussels (2005) Paul Beliën claims that Count Michel Didisheim, a distinguished Belgian civil servant, is an illegitimate son of Leopold III, fathered during his marriage to the beautiful and beloved Queen Astrid, no less. The claim is based only on the fact that Didisheim "resembles" the late King. In a weaselly footnote, Beliën admits that Didisheim's supposed royal paternity has never been proven. Nevertheless, he says, he has it on the authority of "sources in Brussels" which he considers reliable. The rumor also figures in De Kroon Ontbloot (2008), a sensationalist book by Noël Vaessen, a disgraced former aide to Prince Laurent, the youngest son of King Albert II and Queen Paola. On October 16, 2008, after the appearance of both books, Michel Didisheim issued a press release, published in La Libre Belgique, denying that he was the son of Leopold III. Nevertheless, the claim has recently been reiterated by Leo van Audenhaege.

For several reasons, I find the story highly implausible. First, Leopold adored Astrid. In Vännen min (1985), the Queen's closest companion, Anna Sparre, emphasizes that the King was a completely devoted husband. (And Anna was not one to over-romanticize the past. In fact, she can be quite critical, at times, in her recollections of her friendship with Astrid. For instance, she portrays Astrid's mother-in-law, Queen Elisabeth, rather derisively, something I found to be out of place). Second, Michel Didisheim's mother, Claire Maigret de Priches, seems to have been a lady of high character. An Allied agent during the Second World War, she was deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp, to be starved and tormented by Nazi doctors, who injected typhus into her blood to develop serum. According to a fellow inmate, she bore these terrible experiences with great courage and kindness. I doubt that such a heroine would have been a woman of easy virtue. Third, Michel seems to have been the eldest legal child of Baron René Didisheim and Claire Maigret de Priches, born barely more than nine months after their marriage. Are we to believe that Claire had a tryst with the then Duke of Brabant, around the same time as her wedding night? It's a bit grotesque...And the fact that Michel Didisheim, a littérateur with a keen interest in European royalty, wrote a novel about Valerie Schwalb, an illegitimate great-grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, proves precisely nothing...

Leo van Audenhaege also made headlines last month with a totally weird new allegation, regarding a supposed wartime affair with an "ice princess", the married Austrian skating champion Liselotte Landbeck. According to Van Audenhaege, the young and pretty Liselotte was invited to Laeken to teach the royal children to ice-skate, during the winter of 1939-1940, and Leopold and Liselotte "fell in love at first sight", possibly consummating their relationship on the very first night after they met, at the palace. The result, the author continues, was the birth of an illegitimate daughter in Antwerp a year later. Supposedly, Liselotte's hospital room was "filled with flowers from Laeken" and a signed photograph of the "biological father" of her baby was also prominently on display. Incredibly implausibly, despite all this indiscretion, the story was allegedly kept a dark secret for over 70 years; so dark, in fact, that even Leopold's daughter-in-law, Princess Léa, who has doubtless heard many rumors in her time, was extremely surprised at this "revelation".

It all sounds very suspicious to me. Why would Liselotte Landbeck even be needed to teach the royal children how to ice-skate? I would actually be very surprised if Joséphine-Charlotte, Baudouin and Albert did not already possess this skill. The Belgian royal family were famously athletic, and, surely, this was not the first time the ponds at Laeken had iced over! Even if the children did not know how to skate, surely someone in the royal entourage could have given them lessons? Skating is hardly an arcane art. Could the children's much-loved Dutch governess, for instance, not have served the purpose? The Dutch are famous for their feats on the ice. Furthermore, is it likely that the King, who was quite slow, prior to the war, in his advances towards a much more beautiful, single woman, Lilian Baels, whom he could legitimately court, would fall head over heels in love with Liselotte Landbeck, already married to another, at their first meeting? Is it probable that Leopold and Liselotte would tryst at Laeken, of all places, under the eyes of all the palace staff? (Even Leopold I and Leopold II, who genuinely had affairs, met their mistresses elsewhere). Is it credible that the King, while his reputation was in an extremely fragile position, amidst the flurry of scandalous stories circulating in the wake of Reynaud's indictment, would advertise that he had fathered an illegitimate child, by sending his mistress loads of flowers and a signed photograph, to be seen by doctors, nurses, patients and passers-by?

The semi-satirical Belgian paper, Humo, claims to have interviewed the supposed daughter, Ingeborg Verdun, who allegedly lives in the United States under an assumed name, but Leo van Audenhaege has apparently refused to reveal Ingeborg's current identity, or the location of her mother, merely claiming that Liselotte, now very elderly and frail, lives in southern climes. Supposedly, this discretion is motivated by a concern to protect these ladies from press attention, but it is also all very convenient, since it makes it much harder for a third party to verify Van Audenhaege's story. Frankly, too, if Ingeborg Verdun is willing to expose the entire royal family of Belgium, including a deceased and already much-maligned man, to such lurid press attention, she ought to have the decency and integrity to face the same sort of publicity herself, especially when unheard-of allegations are being made. Furthermore, even if Ingeborg Verdun has, indeed, claimed to the the daughter of Leopold III, it's not necessarily true...Consider, for instance, the elaborate imposture of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.

In fact, the story of Ingeborg Verdun seems incredibly implausible, even aside from everything else, for this simple reason: if it is true, then WHY was it not eagerly unearthed and widely publicized long ago, particularly during the torrential mudslinging of the Royal Question? It would have been very useful to Leopold's enemies to be able to charge him with frittering away his time with a mistress- an Austrian mistress, too, one of Hitler's fellow country-women- while his people were embroiled in war and occupation. Instead, they resorted to trumping up nonsense of Nazi mistresses, honeymoons in Vienna and call-girls at Berchtesgaden. It all sounds quite desperate...

To the allegations concerning Michel Didisheim and Ingeborg Verdun, Leo van Audenhaege has added yet another rumor. He claims that Leopold had a third illegitimate child, a son, conveniently left unnamed, by a young Frenchwoman, during the 1950's. In the press, Van Audenhaege blustered: "What I say is 100% certain. Nobody will be able to refute this". How can anyone be 100% certain about such matters in the first place? Was Mr. van Audenhaege present at the conception of the child? Has he performed a DNA test? Apparently, Prime Minister Achille van Acker (above) reported the birth of the supposed son, among other lurid rumors regarding the royal couple, in his private papers. Achille van Acker, however, was a highly devious individual, a bitter opponent of Leopold III, and a man with a vile mind. During the Royal Question, he tried to frame his Sovereign, accusing him of conniving at his own deportation to Germany, based upon the false testimony of a treacherous friend of the King, Victor van Straelen. (Fortunately, the commission of inquiry investigating Leopold's conduct was able to refute these claims, by demonstrating that the testimonies of all the other witnesses, including Cardinal van Roey, and the rest of the evidence relating to the deportation contradicted Van Straelen's account). It was Achille van Acker, too, who tried to suborn Princess Lilian, offering her ample sums and luxurious advantages, if only she would abandon her husband in exile and return to Belgium with Prince Baudouin. It was Achille van Acker, moreover, who fomented the despicable allegations of an incestuous relationship between Baudouin and Lilian. This is how the Prime Minister, hardly the chivalrous gentleman, referred to the Princess: "Une intrigante qui a la moitié de son derrière sur le trône, et qui se tortille pour y installer l'autre"**. There you have the man. Achille van Acker is not a reliable source concerning Leopold III.

Finally, the 1950's opened with messages of passionate tenderness, overflowing with love for his wife and family, from Leopold to Lilian, and closed with the King's noble tribute to the Princess, on the eve of the wedding of Baudouin and Fabiola. Leopold reminded his son of all he owed Lilian, who had shared her husband's ordeals with the greatest courage, while giving her step-son the affectionate and vigilant care that his own mother, so mourned by all, had not been able to provide herself. It seems rather a surprising admonition on such an occasion. In marriage, a man leaves his father and mother to cleave to his wife, and yet, Leopold saw fit to emphasize the family's debt to Lilian even at this moment. Afterwards, amidst the cruel press campaign against Leopold and Lilian, the former King of the Belgians reiterated the same sentiments of respectful gratitude towards his second wife. Many beautiful photographs from the 1950's also bear witness to the harmony and joy of the royal family in this period. It is during these years that Achille van Acker supposedly claimed that Leopold was having extramarital affairs, spending millions of francs on mistresses, fathering illegitimate children, and even contemplating divorcing Lilian. I think not. In my opinion, Princess Esmeralda described her parents' marriage much better: "Leur seul tort fut de s'aimer"!***

*"The political world did not forgive the King his concern for the common good, or his great political morality".
**"A schemer who has half of her rear on the throne, and is wriggling to set the other half there".
***"Their only fault was to love each other!"

(to be continued)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Obituary of Princess Lilian

A touching tribute to this royal patroness of cardiology by the legendary Denton Cooley.
One morning during my visit, the Princess invited me to accompany her to a golf club to hit golf balls. She drove us to the club in a Lamborghini convertible—with an impressive ability and at racecar speed. She could hit golf balls better than most men, was accomplished with a shotgun in bird hunting, spoke 4 languages, and was a charming hostess. She was an impressive person.
I also spent leisure time with King Leopold. The King was attractive, well educated, and also an accomplished golfer. The day after hitting balls with Princess Liliane, I was the King's partner in a golf tournament. The course was located on the actual battlefield of Waterloo. Therefore, I had a personal walking tour of the battlefield with the King as my guide. Several chatêaus still existed on the adjacent hill where the commissioned officers of the English, Prussian, and French armies had been billeted. According to the King's description, the evening before the final battle, the officers—after having dinner, playing cards, and drinking brandy—were informed by an attendant that the battle would commence the following morning at 10:00 A.M. That would give the valets and servants time to groom and saddle the officers' horses, polish the officers' boots, and prepare their uniforms. They then mounted their horses and watched the battle from the hillside. At the time, I thought to myself, “How civilized!”

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Astrid Sofia Lovisa Thyra

She is usually remembered as a tragic queen, but her years, though few, were rich in joy and good works.

Queen Elisabeth has long been a target of poisoned arrows, but lately, some authors, such as Mark van den Wijngaert, have taken to attacking even Queen Astrid, who has traditionally been spared. The general point of these attacks seems to be to create the impression that she was somehow "fake". It's very nasty, as ALL who knew Astrid testified that she was only too genuine, all sincerity and spontaneity.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Defending the Saxe-Coburgs: Part II

We must not trust every word of others or feeling within ourselves, but cautiously and patiently try the matter, whether it be of God. Unhappily we are so weak that we find it easier to believe and speak evil of others, rather than good. But they that are perfect, do not give ready heed to every news-bearer, for they know man's weakness that it is prone to evil and unstable in words. ~Thomas à Kempis

With all the discussion of unhappy and unfaithful royal marriages, it is forgotten that there have also been many devoted ones. Notable examples are St. Louis IX of France and Marguerite of Provence, Charles I  and Henrietta Maria of England, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, Louis-Philippe and Marie-Amélie, Tsar Alexander III and Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, Emperor Charles I and Empress Zita of Austria-Hungary. Sadly, however, stories of virtue tend to be neglected, while stories of vice are frequently featured in popular accounts of the lives of past monarchs. As a result, many credit lurid rumors about royalty hastily and uncritically, assuming that all kings, more or less, are libertines. In Belgium, these prejudices are feeding the current campaign to portray the reigning Saxe-Coburg dynasty as lascivious and promiscuous. In my opinion, the campaign is often unfair; in a previous post, I gave my thoughts on the attacks on the first three Kings of the Belgians: Leopold I, Leopold II and Albert I. Over the next few weeks, I hope to discuss some of the gossip surrounding their successors: Leopold III, Baudouin I and Albert II.

Leopold III has the general reputation of an inveterate libertine. This image has been reinforced by authors such as Evrard Raskin, Paul Beliën, and, most recently, Leo van Audenhaege. Granted, no man is immune to temptation. Yet, I tend to disbelieve the accusations of promiscuity. Authors such as Roger Keyes, Jean Cleeremans, Georges-Henri Dumont, Jo Gérard and Michel Verwilghen all contradict these charges. However deeply entrenched in the public mind, by endless repetition, the scandalous allegations have often emanated from suspicious sources, at suspicious times. Before the Second World War, Leopold III did not have a reputation for libertinism; quite the opposite. A neutral witness, the American ambassador to Brussels from 1938-1940, Joseph E. Davies, described the young, handsome, athletic King of the Belgians as a noble man of great moral intensity, completely devoted to his duty and to his family, chaste, irreproachable, above even the suspicion of scandal. In The Prisoner at Laeken: King Leopold, legend and fact (1941), written to defend the King from charges of treason during the Nazi occupation, Emile Cammaerts noted his sterling record, prior to the war. In the glare of modern publicity, he argued, Leopold had led a spotless life; how could such a man turn, overnight, into a scoundrel? What sense would such an argument make, if the King had already been known for corrupt habits? In Amours royales et princières: mariages, liaisons, passions et trahisons de la cour de Belgique (2006), Patrick Weber also indicates that the lurid rumors about the King surfaced later in his career. In fact, the legend of Leopold's libertinism evolved amidst a flood of other venomous accusations, amidst the many calumnies promoted by his political opponents, a fact which ought to put us on our guard in the first place. Nor does debauchery accord with the King's lofty, uncompromising idealism, his profound piety, or his spiritual serenity.

There is evidence that Leopold III cared deeply about chastity: his alarm, for instance, during the Nazi occupation, at the prospect of the deportation of young Belgian women to Germany. Appalled by the perils facing these girls, and, in particular, by the threat to their virtue, the King intervened strenuously, and, in large measure, successfully, to ward off the danger of deportation, much to Hitler's fury. In L'éducation d'un prince: entretiens avec le roi Léopold III (1984),  the King, on a similar note, reflected sadly upon prostitution in the developing world. In Échec au Roi: Léopold III, 1940-1951 (1986), Roger Keyes notes that Leopold, like his parents, was worried by the irregular private life of his troubled younger brother, Charles. According to Keyes, Leopold's chastity was one of the reasons why his father preferred him to Charles. In Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal (2006), Michel Verwilghen mentions Leopold's distress at his daughter Marie-Christine's scandals. Most famously, the King insisted on marrying his wartime sweetheart, Lilian Baels. Although the young lady was beneath his station, and the occupation was a constitutionally difficult time for the Sovereign to take a wife, he did so. (Incredibly, he is criticized for this decision; while portraying Lilian as a trollop, many simultaneously blame the King for not treating her as such. The logic of these arguments escapes me). Not only Keyes, Dumont and Gérard, who are sympathetic to the King, but also Jan Velaers and Herman van Goethem, who can be quite critical of him, indicate that the couple's religious and moral principles made marriage imperative.

Some authors, such as Evrard Raskin, have insinuated that Leopold married Lilian merely under "pressure" from the Primate of Belgium, Cardinal van Roey, and from Queen Mother Elisabeth, who did not want a Catholic monarch to "live in sin". (Raskin, however, admitted to lacking precise details as to this supposed episode. Apparently, he had not been authorized access to the Cardinal's archives at Malines, and the Queen's notes were not yet available for study). The King did consult with the Cardinal before the wedding, but what "pressure" could the prelate, realistically, have brought to bear, other than reiterating the laws of the Church, which Leopold and Lilian already knew? Throughout history, monarchs have kept mistresses, and no amount of clerical intervention has been able to prevent it. Van Roey would have been powerless, if the interested parties themselves had not respected Catholic morality. Nor ought we to view Lilian's insistence on marriage as driven merely by ambition, as Raskin also suggested. (As a side note, it's important to realize that Raskin, a former Volksunie deputy, disliked Lilian in any case, on ethnolinguistic grounds, for "betraying" her Flemish roots by opting for French culture. His venom, therefore, is not surprising. I can recommend reading Verwilghen's critique of Raskin's biography of Lilian, in Le mythe d'Argenteuil). The dire political circumstances of Lilian's marriage do not suggest that she accepted the King's proposal out of ambition; quite the opposite. As for Leopold, although few might think it today, he had, in his parents' union, a very pure, very noble ideal of love, which he fervently admired. From his earliest years, he venerated his father; by his own testimony, he desired to emulate him in all matters, public and private. In consequence, as I believe that King Albert I was a virtuous man, I think it's most likely that King Leopold III strove to be so, too.

In fact, perhaps he strove only too hard. Based upon the confidences of one of the King's intimates, in 1937, Victor Serge noted in his diary that Leopold had refused to remarry, following the death of his first wife, Queen Astrid. His scrupulous conscience overwhelmed with guilt at having caused her death, albeit involuntarily, the King had resolved to inflict solitude upon himself forever, as a penance. Of course, he was being overly strict with himself, and he did eventually decide to remarry, but his readiness, for principled reasons, to deny himself even the legitimate consolations of wedlock, gravely undermines the notions of his supposedly irresistible attraction to women, his supposedly voracious, amoral sexual appetites. Serge also described Leopold's life as very pious, dutiful and austere. Later, there were tales of pleasure parties in Paris during this period; I think not. From his youth, as his companion Alfred Willemart noted, Leopold had tremendous self-control. At the age of nine, for example, after dislocating his elbow in a car accident, he bravely underwent a painful operation to reset the bones, his teeth clenched, without a murmur. As a teenager, during the First World War, he gladly shared the dangers and hardships of the Belgian army, as a private in the trenches. It's hard to believe that such a disciplined person would indulge in sensual excess.

It is also worth noting that Leopold was intensely shy and modest, facts which are often overlooked. In her memoirs, his sister Marie-José relates his embarrassment, as a youth, at the feminine attention attracted by his stunning beauty. On on occasion, he blushed to the ears, merely upon overhearing a flirtatious group of girls comment on his good looks. Decades later, it seems, he still felt uncomfortable with such compliments. Marie-José also recalled her brother's embarrassment at the risqué remarks of Lady Asquith during her wartime visit to the Belgian sovereigns. The officers present smiled at her teasing manner, but the young prince blushed. During this period, Leopold was actually known for his reserve around women; before meeting Princess Astrid of Sweden, ladies never seemed to arouse his interest. It seems highly unlikely that he would later become a Don Juan.

(to be continued)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Grandmother of the Kings

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Here is a lovely post on a revered ancestress of the Belgian royal family, Maria Amalia of Naples, the "Queen of the French." As readers may recall, I have discussed her quite a bit in the past. Like her Belgian descendants, she had to make the best of political circumstances which often left much to be desired. Like her Belgian descendants, too, she was placed in the awkward position of being a Catholic monarch in a secular state. 

Friday, March 4, 2011

Defending the Saxe-Coburgs

And kings in general...

I'd rather not dwell on this silliness, but I find I must be strict for a bit. We're witnessing far too much scurrilous stereotyping of the Saxe-Coburg family. The campaign is spurred along by the eager publication of books, such as Paul Beliën's highly disingenuous, vituperative and sensationalist polemic, A Throne in Brussels: Britain, the Saxe-Coburgs and the Belgianisation of Europe (2005), which all too many seem to take at face value. Of course, using sexual slurs to discredit public figures is nothing new. Consider, for example, all the feverish, torrid, and, in fact, false accusations launched against Anne Boleyn, Marie-Antoinette, Queen Maria Carolina of Naples and Queen Louise of Prussia by their political opponents. The same process is underway today, in Belgium. We need not be conspiracy theorists to conclude that many people, in powerful positions, simply do not want this battered little kingdom to exist. There is no other explanation for the endless, paralyzing political problems, the bitter divisions, growing ever greater and ever deeper, that afflict a nation which has weathered the worst storms in history triumphantly. Therefore, it is not surprising that sordid little tales are sedulously spread, to undermine Belgians' respect for their monarchy. The Saxe-Coburgs are portrayed as lascivious, promiscuous creatures by definition. How accurate is this image? 

Let's take a look at the six Kings of the Belgians, and examine some ghostly, shadowy rumors in the sober light of day. Oh, and by the way... the Belgian Royal Family dropped the name "Saxe-Coburg" after the First World War...The constant labeling of the reigning house, often in a rather contemptuous fashion, as the"Saxe-Coburgs", serves, subliminally, to insinuate into people's minds the idea that this is merely a foreign family, artificially imposed upon an artificial state, cobbled together in 1830 merely for extraneous, geopolitical reasons, another highly popularized myth. 
Under Leopold I and Leopold II, the Belgian court still had something of the flavor of the ancien régime. Both kings married strictly for reasons of state. Not surprisingly, in consequence, both kings indulged in amorous adventures, to their pious queens' distress. However unfortunate, though, such behavior was commonplace throughout the royalty and aristocracy of Europe for centuries. It does not prove that the Saxe-Coburgs, per se, were extraordinarily lustful. True, Leopold II undeniably took his marriage vows even more lightly than most monarchs. Even within his family, though, his domestic life was unusually disastrous; his character, judging, most notably, by his dealings in the Congo, unusually corrupt. We cannot ascribe his failings to his entire dynasty. This clearly emerges, for instance, from the fact that his successors, Albert I and Leopold III, tried strenuously to reform the colonial administration, taking a deep, personal interest in the Congo's welfare, in sharp contrast to their predecessor.

I also find that even Leopold II's notorious liaison, in his last years, with the young Parisian courtesan, Caroline Delacroix, who ultimately made off with much of his ill-gotten colonial gains, is over-sexualized in many popular accounts. It is easy to see the King as a lascivious old man, besotted with a voluptuous young woman, and, sadly, this scenario was doubtless true to a considerable extent. Yet, more thoughtful accounts, such as the masterful character study of the pair by Xavier Paoli, suggest a subtler, more complex, more genuine, and, oddly enough, more staid romance. Paoli also makes clear that the lovers, despite everything, retained the glimmerings of a conscience. After the death of Queen Marie-Henriette, Leopold II and Caroline Delacroix took care to regularize their union, if only in God's eyes, through a secret religious marriage. Most sources report that the ceremony took place during the King's last illness, but Paoli thought it might have happened earlier.
We come now to Albert I. In his letters, in the reminiscences of various intimates, he emerges as a deeply pure, pious and prayerful soul, although this is often forgotten today, in the poisonous cynicism that has taken over much of Belgian historiography. For many reasons, I am convinced that every aspersion cast upon his private life is a violent outrage. Raised in the virtuous atmosphere of the Palace of Flanders, by pious and charitable parents, Prince Philippe of Belgium and Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a quietly devoted couple, Albert had strict, high moral principles instilled in him at an early age, as evinced by many contemporary accounts. 

At 25, he married an enchanting young princess, the sweet, nimble, 24-year-old Elisabeth of Bavaria, daughter of the noted physician and philanthropist, Duke Karl Theodor. The couple shared many humanitarian, social, cultural and intellectual interests. Both highly intelligent and sensitive, husband and wife also had happily contrasting, complementary temperaments. Albert was thoughtful, reflective, reserved, steady, philosophic, realistic, a bit pessimistic; Elisabeth, lively, energetic, spontaneous, imaginative, impulsive, artistic, optimistic. Not surprisingly, then, they fell tenderly, deeply, undeniably in love. This is abundantly proven in their rich correspondence, dating from the time of their engagement and the early years of their marriage. We are far, very far from the floods of tears shed by Louise d'Orléans at her marriage to Leopold I, her terror at the approach of her wedding night; even further from the mutual revulsion of Leopold II and Marie-Henriette of Austria, from the bride's prayer for death to escape her unhappy marriage. 

Upon becoming engaged to Elisabeth, Albert promised her infinite love, and unfailing fidelity. Albert had an intense commitment, not only to his wife, but, even more importantly, to marriage itself. More than mere love letters, his missives to his bride are ethical lessons, expressing an edifying ideal of conjugal affection, respect, loyalty and collaboration. Not only in his private life, but also in his public life, Albert evinced this commitment to marriage, as the foundation of the family, and, therefore, as essential to the health of society. During his tour of the Congo in 1909, he noted in his diary various criticisms of the colonial legal code, regretting, for instance, that it failed to adequately penalize adultery. It's unlikely that the King would fail to live up to his own principles in a matter he regarded as so important. This was a man so conscientious, that he regularly exposed himself to danger and hardship in the trenches, even beyond the call of duty; on one occasion, he collapsed, with sheer exhaustion, at the side of a road. This was a man so rigorous, so stern, that he preferred to lead his entire nation, which he deeply loved, to devastation and death, rather than betray his international obligations, as shown by an early draft of a wartime letter to his Bavarian brother-in-law, Count Toerring. 

Indeed, for many years, nobody cast doubt on Albert's fidelity. On the contrary, Albert and Elisabeth were revered for their domestic virtues. After the King's ghastly, accidental death at Marche-les-Dames, however, evil tongues soon began to whisper...There were torrid tales of trysts in various castles, of illegitimate children, and even of crimes of passion: it was suggested that the King had been killed by a jealous husband, by an abandoned mistress, or even by the Queen herself (!), in increasingly lurid and improbable scenarios. It seems unfathomably tasteless, and bizarrely at odds with the general mood of awe and sorrow, throughout the world, at the King's passing, to spread such scurrilous stories about a man no longer able to defend himself, who had served his country so magnificently, and who had just died so tragically. 

The gossip, moreover, was unsubstantiated. Although the rumors have persisted to this day, Patrick Weber notes, there's no solid evidence that the King had any affairs, at all. (And Weber is certainly not shy about discussing genuine liaisons, which he invariably relates in an open, non-judgmental fashion; he even wrote a whole book on the topic). Even Paul Beliën, who normally relishes salacious details, resorts to a suspicious vagueness in this matter, while nonetheless boldly proclaiming that Albert became unfaithful towards the end of his life. This idea, however, makes no sense. After so long, so strong a commitment to marriage and family, why would Albert suddenly throw his moral principles to the winds, in his last years? Virtue becomes easier, not harder, with practice. How does gold turn into dross?    

The children of Albert and Elisabeth, King Leopold III of the Belgians and Queen Marie-José of Italy, movingly maintained that their parents' love never dissipated; if anything, it only deepened through the years. Other distinguished, thoughtful and sincere contemporaries of Albert and Elisabeth paint a picture of a very simple, sober, orderly and upright couple, quietly devoted to each other throughout their marriage. Furthermore, in his last years, rather than degenerating, Albert apparently improved. As Charles d'Ydewalle indicates, he became more and more physically austere, giving up smoking his Italian cigars, and drinking nothing but water after 1915. As he grew older, his dislike of gluttony was extended to those who indulged in it. In the light of this temperance; this asceticism, even, debauchery seems incredibly implausible. In her memoirs, Albert's daughter also relates that he began to see problems in a more and more elevated manner during his final years. She describes his efforts to conquer faults of character. Irascible from childhood, often frustrated with the iron fetters of his constitutional position, he nevertheless succeeded in overcoming his fits of impatience. How could he take such care to avoid these venial sins, while blithely committing mortal sins, in the same general period? (Yes, mortal sins; I feel that the permissive attitudes of our day make it hard for some people to understand the gravity of unchastity, for a believing, practicing Catholic, especially in those traditional times). This brings us to a final point: during his last years, it seems, Albert became more and more devoted to God. The wise and noble Abbot of Orval, who knew the King well, mentioned his efforts to be prepared, at any moment, for divine judgment, and testified to his great peace of conscience. He also suggested that the King's private life, if anything, was even more beautiful than his public life; perhaps, because only in private did his faith have free rein. 

(to be continued)