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? 


Christina said...

What a beautiful account! There is something about eye-witness accounts that are so touching and this is particularly lovely.
Thank you for posting it.

May said...

The Belgian royal family were so admired at that time. Since then, what a downfall.