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)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, and informative, as usual.