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?

No comments: