Monday, August 29, 2011

August 29, 1935: The Death of Queen Astrid

August 29, the feast of the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, is the anniversary of the tragic death of Belgium's most beloved queen, the radiant Astrid of Sweden, wife of Leopold III and mother of Baudouin I and Albert II.  Here is the most moving account of the tragedy I have ever seen:
In August, 1935, the Royal couple were spending a few care-free days at their villa - Hazlihorn - at Horw, on the left bank of the lake at Lucerne. On the 29th - a wonderful day of blazing sunshine - they decided to motor to a spot where they could enjoy a little climbing. Neither had been driven by fear or memories to desert a sport that had already cost Belgium a king. They, too, loved the hills and rocks and mountains.
The Royal party left the villa in two cars at about 9.30. King Leopold was driving his own powerful two-seater, with the Queen at his side, and the chauffeur in the dicky-seat at the back. The second car, following at a discreet distance, contained four members of the Royal household. They crossed the town of Lucerne and took the road leading to Kussnacht and the Lake of Zub. It was a fine, broad, modern, gently-curving road, bordered by rich orchard lands reaching down to the lake. The King, a competent driver, was doing little more than 30 miles an hour, a reasonable speed upon a thoroughfare so smooth and splendid. The road was clear. The last thing in the world one would have suspected was danger. No doubt the King and Queen were admiring the beauty of the day and view, chatting animatedly.
Suddenly, at about ten o'clock, came disaster, swift and terrible. The right wheels of the Royal car mounted the concrete border of the footpath. Along this it ran for nearly twenty yards until the King, it is surmised, lost control. The car lurched to the right, slid down a steep embankment, and then, about twenty yards farther on, struck a tree. So violent was the impact that the Queen was thrown out and dashed against its trunk. Continuing its stampede, the car crashed into a second tree - this time hurtling out the King - and ended its wild run in the lake below. Fortunately at this point the lake was shallow, and the life of the chauffeur was spared.
The horror-stricken occupants of the second car, accompanied by a group of peasants, rushed to the rescue of the Royal victims. Astrid they found lying where she had fallen. She was still breathing, but her skull was fractured, and she was beyond all human aid. Leopold, dazed and injured, had reeled to his feet, standing as though in a dream. Let the words of an eye-witness tell of those poignant moments: "The King appeared dazed, unaware of what had happened. Then he saw the dying queen lying a crumpled heap on the grass nearly ten yards away. He stumbled towards her, wiping the blood from his face as he did so, and, sinking to his knees, gathered her in his arms and kissed her again and again. He spoke her name, but she could not answer. And in his arms she died."
Belgium heard the news about midday. The heart of the nation stood still. Few could believe that such a calamity had overtaken the country so soon after the disaster to King Albert, but the message of the loud speakers, the headlines of the newspapers and the tolling of the bells combined to prove to the people of Belgium that it was all too bitterly true. They wept openly in the streets. And through tear-misted eyes they read the hasty proclamation of M. van Zeeland, their Prime Minister: "Still under the impression of the tragic death of King Albert, Belgium to-day mourns her Queen, whose youth, grace and kindliness have conquered the people. The country is overwhelmed. Sharing the terrible grief of the King, it remains faithfully at his side. It feels tenderly towards the young princes who are left motherless."
The cause of the calamity was problematical. When the fatal car was dragged from the lake experts discovered that its tyres were burst, but that there was no defect in steering gear or brakes. Some supposed that the accident was due to the bursting of a tyre when the car mounted the raised pavement and the King tried in vain to return to the road. Another theory was that the King and Queen were consulting a map, or were distracted by the beauty of the scenery...
In a little room in the Royal Palace she lay in State in a white coffin, a posy of sweet violets in her hands, a rosary on her breast. In the circle of candlelight her lovely, calm face - framed in silk bandages to hide her wound - looked almost ethereal. Everywhere in the palace, as the populace passed through to pay tribute, there was silence and the fragrance of flowers. In the early mornings, when the palace gates were closed against the crowds, King Leopold would come to her, a sad, lonely figure.
On Tuesday, September 3, 1935, they laid her to rest in the Royal crypt at Lacken, next to the tomb of King Albert, still freshly covered with the national flag. The procession through the streets was a heart-breaking one. Crowds who had waited all night in the gloaming of the black-draped street lamps could scarcely control their emotion. King Leopold walked bareheaded, his arm strapped to a broken rib, his face clouded with pain and grief, behind the coffin shrouded in an ermine-trimmed pall of the Belgian colours and purple. Behind him came the representatives of Royalty and the nations, including the present King George VI. Even on the last stage of the tragic journey, when all save he rode in carriages, King Leopold insisted upon tramping on foot the weary miles. Sometimes he staggered, and many believed that he would fall. But he marched on steadfastly behind his Queen, loyal, faithful and adoring to the end.


Aimée said...

Did you read the account of Astrid's friend, Anna Sparre? Well, silly question, you probably have! I thought that was so moving too. I could just see the happiness of the couple a few days before the accident, and then... Such a shame, such a waste! I'm sure Leopold never forgave himself.

May said...

Yes Aimée, Anna's account is very beautiful and sad.