Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Queen Astrid Church

The archives of the Catholic Herald contain a number of interesting articles on the Belgian monarchy, particularly King Leopold III and his family. Here is a brief mention of plans to build a Catholic church dedicated to St. Bridget in Brussels, in Swedish style, to honor the late Queen Astrid, a Catholic convert born a Princess of Sweden. The article is dated July 30, 1937. Does anyone know if the plans came to fruition?

Astrid vs. Lilian

La Duchesse de Brabant et ses enfants, future Queen Astrid of Belgien with Josephine & Baudouin
The two wives of Leopold III are perennially compared, with Astrid usually being praised and Lilian blamed. (I once saw a really nasty comment on a royalty forum, to the effect that Leopold went from filet mignon to rat's meat!) Astrid was probably the most loved woman in Belgian history while Lilian was the most hated. But is there anyone here who prefers Lilian? If so, I would be interested to hear your reasons.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Ball for Daphné

One of the grandest celebrations of Argenteuil's days of glory as a residence of King Leopold III and his second family was the ball given for his daughter, Princess Marie-Christine, in the summer of 1971. Born February 6, 1951, Marie-Christine, fondly known as "Daphné" since childhood, had grown up into a handsome, if willful, young woman and her parents decided it was time to launch her into society with a splendid coming-of-age party. Organized by her talented, forceful mother, Princess Lilian, it was to be the first ball in the history of Argenteuil. Family friction arose over the invitations; Daphné's brother, Prince Alexandre, had hoped to include certain members of his own circle, while Lilian preferred to give precedence to European nobility and families of foreign heads of state. As a result, Alexandre did not attend the party! Nevertheless, it was a glamorous affair, hosted outside, to accommodate twenty-five round dinner tables, under a big tent tastefully decorated with flowers. In attendance, among many other notables, was Princess Maria Gabriella of Savoy, Marie-Christine's cousin and a good friend of Leopold and Lilian. Meanwhile, Givenchy dresses set off the beauty of Daphné, her mother, and her younger sister Esméralda. Daphné wore a white gown adorned with hand-embroidered daisies. At table, she sat with a grandson and namesake of Charles de Gaulle. The ball continued all night, as Lilian danced with the Count of Paris and Leopold with his daughters. The festivities ended around sunrise with a traditional onion soup. (Le mythe d'Argenteuil, Michel Verwilghen, 2006, pp. 291-292).

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Cult of Queen Astrid


A description by Phyllis Jenkins of the Glasgow Herald, dated April 9, 1936, less than eight months after Queen Astrid's death in a car accident.
The Royal Palace itself expresses the sorrow of the people as well as the sorrow of their young king. Never in my life have I seen any building look so lifeless and sad as this enormous grey palace with its closed and sightless windows. Were the blinds always drawn that way or is it a normal protection against the early spring sun? I cannot say. But in any case the impression that emanates from this vast building is one of emptiness, desolation, as if the life and soul that once animated its rooms and galleries has fled, leaving a lifeless shell in place of a smiling palace. 
And then there is the evidence of the shop windows. Hardly a window display - whether it be of haberdashery, jewellery, or fancy cakes - but it has its framed portrait of the Queen, and in every house I have visited so far the Queen's portrait holds the place of honour.
I was told a charming tale the other day, and as its authenticity is vouched for it deserves retelling. A stranger mounts the front platform of one of the many tramcars, and from time to time asks information from the driver. What is the name of this church? What is the population of Brussels? Intrigued by the stranger's accent and questions, the driver finishes by asking the nationality of his passenger.
"Swedish," answers the stranger. 
"Ah! Then monsieur is from Her country!" Thereupon he stops his tram, opens the doors, and announces to the occupants that "Monsieur est Suédois." Everyone has his word to say on the qualities of the late Queen. But meanwhile the stationary tramcar is holding up the traffic and a policeman rudely asks the driver for an explanation. The driver leans out, and, indicating the stranger, explains that "Monsieur est Suédois." The policeman salutes and then, quietly to the driver, "Roulez, quand même," (Get a move on all the same).
While I am all in favor of the people's devotion to their kindhearted Queen, I hate the way the cult of Astrid was later used to vilify Leopold and his second wife.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Belgium and Leo XIII

In Leo XIII: A Light from Heaven (1961), Brother William J. Kiefer, S.M. discusses the time that Joachim Pecci, future Pope Leo XIII, spent as papal nuncio to Brussels. There he found Church and State in great ferment, and became the target of many calumnies, from both secular and ecclesiastical enemies. Nonetheless, he was able to do a great deal of good, particularly in the field of Catholic education. He won the regard not only of the devout Catholic queen, Louise d'Orléans, but also of her husband, Leopold I, a Protestant Freemason. In turn, Pecci developed a special, life-long attachment to Belgium. His social teachings as Pope must surely have influenced the Christian humanism of figures such as Albert I and Leopold III.
His mission nearly came to a tragic end before it had properly begun. On his way to Brussels, he went by way of Mechlin to visit Cardinal Sterckx, the archbishop. While crossing a canal bridge near Vilvorde the horses took fright and were about to plunge into the water when a priest of the neighborhood courageously seized them by the reins. Pecci refused to ride any further, but left the coach and walked all the way to the capital, where the king joked pleasantly with him about his accident and his coming into Brussels on foot.
The division among the religious and political parties of Belgium with their perpetual intrigues, rendered the post of nuncio to Belgium extremely delicate and difficult...Parties of all sorts, some anti-Catholic, came into being. The country became a hotbed of secret societies conspiring against the monarchical institutions of Europe.
The task was almost insurmountably difficult for any nuncio coming to Brussels, as can be gathered from a long letter Lambruschini wrote as a private instruction for Pecci in which he refers to the complete separation of Church and State. The Pope had already condemned the novelties and systems of Lamennais. Archbishop Pecci was to see that teachers were no longer under the influence of this man, whose errors had caused the bishops of Belgium to create the University of Louvain. At the time of the new nuncio's appointment, the bishops had a bill before the government asking for recognition of the university as a legally incorporated body. Pecci was instructed to see that the bill was withdrawn as the time was not propitious for it. There were constant conflicts between various parties, Church and state, prelates and laity. The parties were struggling for power, and this caused heated opinions and policies, even in other countries of Europe...
How the nuncio felt the weight of his responsibility in these circumstances is described in a letter he wrote to his brother Charles: "You will pardon me, dear brother, for devoting myself entirely to Belgium where the Lord's will has called me to fill an exalted office. Its duties and concerns are extremely delicate and difficult, as you may easily understand without my mentioning them. I ask you always to remember me in your prayers, so that the Lord may assist me with His holy grace. May the appeal of your heart ascend to God from the slopes of Mount Capreo, to win happiness for me and for Belgium." He prayed as if he expected everything from God; he acted as if success depended entirely on his own efforts.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The King's Father-in-Law

Geoffrey Bocca gives a dramatic account of the reaction of Governor Baels to the news of Lilian's engagement to Leopold III, contradicting the usual assumption that the ambitious politician threw his daughter into the King's arms:
When Henri Baels heard about it he was furious and set himself completely against the match. Baels had spent most of his life in politics. He could see as neither the exhausted King nor his daughter, the trail of disaster, of calumny and misrepresentation the marriage would bring. He loved both his King and his daughter as only a profound monarchist and a father can. The people, Baels knew, would not see Leopold any more as a solitary hero tormented by doubt and patriotism, but as a man who put his happiness first and married a woman while the country was flat on its face with a German boot on its neck. His daughter, an innocent apolitical girl, was being condemned to an intolerable fate; she would be compared every day to Astrid, whose death had turned her memory into something legendary and almost holy. Baels argued day after day for ten days. Those ten nights he passed sleeplessly turning and often in tears. 
Seeing his arguments had made not even a dent in the couple's mind he yielded, but on conditions. One of the conditions was that the Dowager Queen Elisabeth must be present to give her approval and blessing, and the second was that Cardinal van Roey, the primate of Belgium and none other, was to perform the ceremony. These were the most eminent authorities that Baels could think of to muster at the time. He also insisted that Mme. Baels not be informed until afterwards. He knew that the shock to his sensitive and intelligent wife would be as great as it was to him, and he wished to tell her in his own way (Kings Without Thrones, 1959, pp. 40-41).

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Young Marie-Henriette

Since I recently posted on Paola, here is the other Queen of the Belgians who suffered serious marital unhappiness. Unlike Paola, though, Marie-Henriette and her fearsome husband never had the opportunity to share love and reconciliation.

Dignity in Distress

In his study of European monarchy in the twentieth century, Geoffrey Bocca gives a good description of Princess Lilian's cheerful courage, which I think has been inherited in large measure by her daughter, Princess Esmeralda.
Through all her ordeal Liliane de Rethy behaved with dignity. A gay, gregarious person, she accepted without question the cloistered existence which her marriage imposed on her. It is a remarkable fact that from the time of her marriage to the ceremonies of the World Fair in 1958, in which she was pushed into the foreground by Baudouin, not two hundred Belgians had so much as set eyes on her. Hardly a score had heard her voice. She had appeared in public only once, at a birthday party for Queen Elisabeth in 1942. She laughed away the attacks on her and did not let even her husband see what distress she had suffered. (Kings Without Thrones, 1959, pp. 62-63)

Images of Queen Paola

Monday, June 11, 2012

Close Calls

Anyone familiar with the history of the Belgian royal family knows that it has been plagued by tragedies. These have included the early deaths of two young heirs to the throne; Prince Leopold, son of King Leopold II and Queen Marie-Henriette, and his cousin, Prince Baudouin, the elder brother of King Albert I, as well as the ghastly accidents that claimed the lives of King Albert I and his daughter-in-law, Queen Astrid, in rapid succession. Members of the family have also experienced a number of close brushes with death which fortunately had happier outcomes. In 1957, for example, King Leopold III and his second wife, Princess Lilian, suffered a car accident bearing a frightening, eery resemblance to the crash that killed the King's first wife, Queen Astrid. On their way home from the unveiling of a bust of Albert I in Cortina d'Ampezzo, one of the favorite haunts of the Roi Alpiniste, the vehicle carrying Leopold and Lilian veered off course and plunged down a ravine about twenty meters deep (Les années 60 en Belgique, Pierre Stéphany, 2006, p. 124). Although the couple escaped unharmed, the similarity with the day in Küssnacht that he had unintentionally driven his beloved Astrid to her death must have been a double trauma for Leopold.

Another scare followed the very next year, and oddly enough offered an opportunity for Leopold to reassert his friendship and admiration for Britain, persisting from his days at Eton despite the terrible conflicts with Winston Churchill during World War II and the Royal Question:
Early in 1958, Leopold and his children had a frightening escape when the door of a Sabena Convair flew open ten minutes after taking off from Nice. Leopold and Prince Albert threw themselves on the smallest children, Marie-Christina, aged six, and Marie-Esmeralda, fifteen months, to save them from being sucked out. The pilot, an Englishman, Charles Bryant, flew the plane back to Nice Airport and landed safely. Afterwards, Leopold sent the pilot a telegram worded in an interesting and significant way. It read: "Congratulations on your flying skill and on your British pluck. Leopold." The coupling of the word "British" to "pluck" suffused the note with a special kind of intensity and warmth (Kings Without Thrones, Geoffrey Bocca, 1959, pp. 63-64).
During her bitter days of exile in Portugal, medical malpractice threatened the life of Leopold's sister, Queen Maria José of Italy, wife of King Umberto II, and, for a time, robbed her completely of her eyesight:
In Portugal Marie-José took the title of the Countess de Sarre. At least she could claim Belgian citizenship. Umberto was not even allowed an Italian passport. The Portuguese police gave him a travel document and that is all he possesses to this day. The Casa d'Italia was purchased and the man who only a few months earlier had possessed forty palaces and half a hundred shooting lodges settled down to contemplate what to do next. Marie-José, however, had still to taste the dregs of unhappiness. She fell ill, not too seriously, and by mistake was given plasma from the wrong blood group. Shortly afterwards she became partially paralyzed and completely blind. She moved to Switzerland for treatment and there she remained. Her sight was partially restored in so far as she was able to see downwards, but could not turn her eyes up. She bore this dark and hooded world with a noble dignity and devoted her time after that to a history- a friendly history- of the House of Savoy (Kings Without Thrones, Geoffrey Bocca, 1959, pp. 195-196).
Of course, the tragedy of Küssnacht was itself a near miss for Leopold. What might have happened if both the King and Queen had perished in the accident, and Leopold's brother, Prince Charles, had become Regent of Belgium early on? Or if Leopold only had died and Astrid had been left to reign on behalf of her son, King Baudouin, during his minority?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Education of Lilian Baels

Here is a vivid description of Princess Lilian's youth, by Geoffrey Bocca.
London shaped most of her early life, although after World War I was over she was sent for a while to school in the provincial Palace of Bruges, and later to the College of the Sacred Heart in Ostend where in the course of composition francaise she had to write an essay on "The Man I Most Admire." The man she chose was "Prince Leopold." 
In London she enrolled in a fashionable finishing school, the Holy Child, in Cavendish Square, and was a frequent guest of the Belgian Ambassador and his wife. It was clear even then, although Liliane was only sixteen, that she was on the way to a spectacular career. She took naturally to all sports. She was an expert golfer and swimmer. The moment her feet were long enough to touch the pedals she took the wheel of a car, and showed an instinct for unerring, fast driving. In appearance she was striking, almost six feet tall, with a Spanish profile and hair which gleamed blue-black in the sunlight. Her eyes were steady to the point of being disconcerting, and her chin was hard, but she laughed easily and possessed an energy that made her seem not so much to walk as to bound like a kangaroo. 
In 1935 she made her debut and was introduced to the British Royal Family in Buckingham Palace. By the side of King George V and Queen Mary stood the Prince of Wales. He was even then secretly in love with Mrs. Wallis Simpson. Had he fallen in love instead with the eighteen-year-old girl who curtsied to him, the thrones of two nations would have been saved the most almighty shaking. (Kings without Thrones: European Monarchy in the Twentieth Century, 1959, pp. 33-34)
Imagine Lilian marrying Edward VIII! Given Lilian's Catholicism, though, I do not think that this would have spared the British throne any turmoil, unless, of course, she had become Protestant. (I also doubt that this would have happened, since Lilian was actually quite devoted to her faith, despite her general reputation for worldliness). After all, have some not commented that Wallis could only have been a worse choice if she had been Catholic?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Death of Princess Lilian

Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of Princess Lilian, the second wife of King Leopold III. As described by Michel Verwilghen in Le mythe d'Argenteuil (pp. 34-54), she  passed away at her beautiful, beloved home of Argenteuil, in the early afternoon of June 7, 2002. The date was a deeply significant one for Leopold and Lilian, marking exactly 58 years since the King's deportation to Hirschstein, and exactly one year since the Princess' publication of the King's account of the controversies of his reign.  Lilian died peacefully, and apparently painlessly, after a silent, stoical struggle with blood dysplasia, surrounded by her doctors and supported by her devoted housekeeper and caretaker, Madame Jeannine Degrève. Earlier, she had received religious consolation from a chaplain from the Cliniques Universitaires Saint Luc. For the past year, weakening health had forced her into a kind of retreat from the world. In contrast to her previously vibrant, active life, her many years as a glamorous hostess to the great, towards the end she would receive no visitors except her two children living in Europe, her doctors and nurses, and the closest members of the entourage of Argenteuil. 

On the day of her death, her son Alexandre was on his way to see her. The only one of Lilian's children to reside in Belgium, he had been visiting his mother every day.  Upon his arrival, he was sadly surprised to find that his mother had already passed away. Alexandre tried to contact his sister Esmeralda by telephone, to break the sad news to her gently, but was unable to reach her. As it happened, she was traveling with her family by train, under the Channel from London to Brussels, for her niece Princess Astrid's birthday dinner. Nevertheless, Esmeralda soon learned of her loss from someone else, who offered condolence. Meanwhile, Alexandre also attempted to inform his half-brother, Albert II, of Lilian's death. The Princess of Réthy had been the only mother the King had been old enough to remember. Alexandre wished to speak to Albert personally, but was unable to do so. On a state visit to Germany, the Belgian monarch was at a ceremony with the German president. Alexandre was obliged to leave a message for Albert at Laeken. Upon Esmeralda's arrival in Belgium, she traveled to Landsrode, Alexandre's home in Rhode-Saint-Génèse. Leaving her children in the care of a nanny, the devastated princess returned with her brother to Argenteuil to pay her last respects to her deceased mother. 

The same day, Alexandre and Esmeralda called their American sister Marie-Christine, known in the family as Daphné. Although Daphné had been bitterly estranged from Lilian, Alexandre and Esmeralda were kind-hearted and thoughtful enough to want to be the first to tell their sister that their mother had passed away. These considerate overtures were in vain. Daphné made it clear that her feelings had not been softened by Lilian's death. On the contrary, she informed Alexandre and Esmeralda that she would not be returning to Belgium for the funeral. Tragically, it is this same hateful, spiteful and unforgiving attitude that continues to dominate much of the public perception of Lilian, sixty years after the Royal Question and ten years after her death. Caricatures of the Princess of Réthy as a whore, gold-digger and wicked step-mother abound, and old canards persist that she worked at Laeken as the nanny of the royal children, fell pregnant in order to force their father into marriage, and robbed the palace of all of its furnishings while moving to Argenteuil.

Rather in the spirit of Marie-Christine, who publicly wished death on the woman who had given her life, by emphatically declaring, on Flemish television, while her mother was still alive, that she was waiting for her share of the inheritance, I have seen venomous comments gloating over Lilian's death. Others, however, remember the brave and dignified woman protecting her husband and children in wartime prison, the loyal consort supporting her king in the face of calumny and persecution, the tender humanitarian quietly performing works of charity in obscurity, the intellectual, religious woman seeking comfort in a beautiful, humble, rustic chapel, and pondering eternity.  They remember the great lover of nature, travel, friendship, conversations, art and beauty. Like Alexandre and Esmeralda, those who knew the real Lilian have reason to mourn her loss. Meanwhile, Belgians ought to consider their debt of gratitude to a woman who saved the lives of many of their children through her patronage of cardiology. Through her vigilance and courage in Nazi captivity, she may very well have also saved the lives of three of their kings.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


In Le Soir, Princess Esmeralda tries to dispel some myths about her mother, Princess Lilian, long portrayed as her husband's dark angel. Lilian was NEVER the governess of the children of the widowed King Leopold III. In fact, before marrying the King, she had never even met his children by Queen Astrid. Lilian was also not a cold and calculating woman. On the contrary, according to Esmeralda, she was all too passionate, spontaneous and choleric. She never forgave those whom she considered to have betrayed her husband and made enemies by frankly speaking her mind. She was not "politically correct". Much mystification has surrounded the circumstances of the first meeting of Leopold and Lilian. Esmeralda says simply that her mother first met her father by chance at a horse race in Ostende in 1937. Lilian's parents were hosting King Leopold and his brother, Prince Charles. Madame Baels needed someone to help her serve tea to her guests, so her daughter came along.

Lilian herself never gave interviews, never publicly defended herself against the many slurs on her reputation, leading to the perpetuation of false rumors. (This, in itself, contradicts the claim that she was a a self-centered, self-pitying woman who was always trying to attract attention ). Even Patrick Weber, a usually balanced journalist and historian of royalty, and the co-author of Esmeralda's new book, Lilian, une princesse entre ombre et lumière, relates that he only knew the legend of the Princess of Réthy before researching her in more depth for this work. He found that those who knew her well painted a picture of quite a different woman.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Note from Cuba

A note by the Princess of Réthy from Cuba to the Duchess of Windsor is being auctioned. It offers a glimpse of Lilian's brief, but charming and witty writing style. The letter reads: "I hope you will like these little lace things which are "typiquement" Flemish! We hope to see you very soon in Europe!"

Although I have never heard that the two couples were especially close, King Leopold and his wife did go golfing with the Windsors in France. Here is a clip of such a tourney in Cannes.