Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Merry Christmas!


King Leopold Vindicated

A British radio interview with the younger Lord Roger Keyes in defense of King Leopold III. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Daniel Wybo for bringing this to my attention.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Maria de Villegas, Countess van den Steen de Jehay


Via RTBF, Florence de Moreau de Villegas de Saint Pierre, chatelaine of Louvignies, gives several brief presentations on the life and work of her aunt, Maria de Villegas, Countess van den Steen de Jehay, a close friend and confidante of Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. The presentations are all in French, but can be roughly followed in other languages through the automatically translated subtitles. For anyone wondering about the origin of the family name, the De Villegas are Belgian nobility of Spanish ancestry. 

Maria was an intellectual and literary figure, and a heroine of World War I. She worked devotedly with Queen Elisabeth in nursing wounded soldiers of all nationalities, and in providing relief and comfort for Belgian civilian war victims. The programs feature her letters, diaries, glimpses of her wardrobe and a tour of Louvignies itself. One particularly touching excerpt from her writing, noted in the clip above, is as follows. After the death of King Albert I, the Countess wrote to Queen Elisabeth to express her condolences: "I weep with you, Madame, for the admirable man you weep for. I weep for your happiness. I loved you so much when you were happy.  Let me love you even more when you are unhappy." 

More on Elisabeth's war work and her friendship with the Countess can be read HERE. Florence de Moreau's book on Maria de Villegas is available HERE

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Angels of Mons


A World War I miracle? From Warfare History Network:
In the night of the 26th, the third day of the retreat west through Belgium, weary British soldiers saw tall, unearthly figures materialize in the gloom above the German lines. They were winged like angels, and as they hovered in the gathering darkness, the Germans inexplicably halted and the British slipped away to safety. During the retreat, some soldiers swore that they had seen the face of the patron saint of England. A wounded Lancashire Fusilier asked a nurse for a picture or medal of Saint George because, he said, he had seen the saint leading the British troops at Vitry-le-Francois. A wounded gunner confirmed his story. He described the saint the same way the fusilier had—a tall, yellow-haired man on a white horse, wearing golden armor and wielding a sword. Other soldiers agreed that he looked just like his image on the gold sovereigns of the day.
A story appeared in the North American Review in August 1915 about a soldier who had memorized the motto inscribed on the plates in a London restaurant. Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius it read, “May St. George be a present help to England.” Later, in Belgium, the soldier prayed for the saint’s help against the waves of German attackers and was rewarded by a host of shining bowmen, who charged the Germans with shouts of “Harrow! Harrow! Monseigneur St. George, Knight of Heaven, Sweet Saint, succor us!” The arrows of the phantom archers cut down the enemy en masse, and the German General Staff, finding the bodies of hundreds of their men lying on the battlefield with no discernible wounds, came to the conclusion that the British had used poisonous gas. (Read full article)


Umberto and Maria José


In response to questions, I wanted to share some thoughts on the troubled marriage of King Umberto II of Italy and Queen Maria José, daughter of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium.  For a more in-depth account, I can recommend this article by Cristina Siccardi, as well as the biographies of Umberto and Maria José by Luciano Regolo.

As a young bride, Maria José suffered from many nasty rumors. Evil tongues mocked her thick, curly hair by calling her la Négresse blonde, whispered that her children were not Umberto's, or suggested that they had been conceived artificially, since the princess had been unable to become pregnant for four years... The rumors were unsubstantiated, although Maria José loved to form friendships with artists and intellectuals and her bold, unconventional ways, like those of her Wittelsbach mother, probably fostered gossip. It is also probably true that Maria José and her husband were basically incompatible. The marriage had been arranged by the Belgian and Italian royal families to strengthen the friendship between their countries dating from the First World War.  The Treaty of Versailles also left very few Catholic reigning houses to provide suitors for Maria José. From childhood, she was raised by her mother to see Umberto as the perfect Prince Charming, arousing expectations of a great love which were later sadly disappointed. 

Umberto and Maria José had admiration, respect and affection for one another, but Umberto seems to have had trouble relating to his wife in a romantic way. My impression is that he loved her, but was not in love with her. Umberto was concerned and solicitous for his wife, but tended to be reserved and distant towards her. After the fall of the Italian monarchy and the exile of the Savoys, Maria José found  Portugal, the royal family's refuge, too depressing. She also had difficulty relating to her husband on a daily basis. While Maria José was much more open, Umberto tended to hide his feelings of deep sorrow and humiliation, to withdraw into silence. His wife came to believe that he needed space to deal with his inner turmoil. Accordingly, she moved to Switzerland, where she felt more cheerful.  Health reasons also contributed to her decision. The royal couple, however, always maintained cordial relations, and continued to visit one another. Umberto, who shared Maria José's cultural interests, assisted his wife with her prestigious historical research on the House of Savoy, and wrote her beautiful letters. Every month, he sent her a bouquet of red roses with an affectionate note. When Umberto was dying of cancer, his wife was at his side and they spent many tender hours together, holding hands.

There have been many allegations that Umberto was unfaithful, and even bisexual, but some skepticism may be in order, as many of these claims seem to have been fomented by the fascists, who saw the handsome, popular young prince as a potential threat to Mussolini. It is also known that Umberto was deeply religious and Maria José praised him in the highest terms, after his death, as a man of great moral rectitude and personal virtue who never lost his dignity or rigor, even amidst the most atrocious sufferings. In the end, I feel that the King and Queen had a good marriage.

Works of Mercy


Here is a description of Queen Elisabeth's charitable works during World War I:
It is difficult for anyone who had even the slightest experience of the field hospitals in the early days of the War to think or write calmly of the scenes they witnessed. Yet the Queen, who was not of robust physique and has that sympathetic temperament which makes it difficult to witness suffering, shrank from nothing. There was hardly a field hospital in the whole of Belgium that she did not visit at some time or other during the War.
She not only visited them, but took part in the actual nursing, often assisting in the dressings and in the work of the wards. Her Majesty did a great deal of her nursing under Doctor Depage, who had helped her in her training. Her previous experience, when assisting her father, Duke Charles Theodor, stood her in good stead. From her girlhood she had been used to sick beds and the consolation of suffering, so now she passed through ward after ward, bringing cheer and comfort in her train.
As the field hospitals travelled from place to place where they were most needed, the Queen did her utmost, and inspired others to do their utmost, too, to find suitable buildings in which they could carry on their magnificent work. She was intensely anxious that there should be full equipment for both the wounded and the staff. Often bedding was impossible to procure in sufficient quantity, and the wounded slept on straw. Her Majesty organized house-to-house collections for bedding, and, when the hospital was at Furnes, she gave twenty beds with spring mattresses for the use of the most serious cases.
Once when it had proved exceptionally difficult to get supplies, the Queen, attended by only one lady-in-waiting, went from house to house to see what could be obtained. The inhabitants of the place were for the most part more than willing to give, but the exigencies of war had left them with little. Few recognized the slender, gentle-voiced lady, who pleaded for the wounded soldiers, as their Queen. One good woman, who had given all but the bed on which she herself slept, was so overcome when she learned of her visitor's identity, that she hurried after her up the street, dragging her one mattress behind her as a final offering !
The Queen visited the hospital at Furnes twice regularly every week, and her visits were made without ceremony of any kind. She was never accompanied by more than one lady and, as a rule, by a Belgian medical officer. Her interest in the patients was felt and appreciated by everyone in the hospital.
Her thorough knowledge of surgery and medicine made her able to understand and appreciate the methods of nursing, and she never failed to pay due tribute to the staff for their efforts and for the extraordinary ingenuity with which they carried out serious operations with wholly inadequate materials.
In one hospital in four days there were admitted nearly four hundred patients, many of them with wounds necessitating grave operations, yet all the surgeons had to work with were two scalpels, a finger saw, and a few forceps !
From bed to bed the Queen would pass, a slight figure always plainly clad, usually in black, with a word for each of the men who had suffered in her country's cause. To each she spoke — to Belgians, French, and Germans (for there were usually a few Germans brought in with the rest), as Her Majesty made no distinction. They were suffering ; they had made the supreme sacrifice for what each believed to be the right, and in that place of pain at least there was no room for bitterness.
In the early days of the War, the Queen expressed a hope that Belgian women who could write both English and German would force themselves to forget their wrongs, and, for the sake of humanity, attend hospitals to write letters for prisoners other than Belgians. She realized how the anxiety of many a soldier's home would be alleviated if news, however slight, reached their homes. In the Queen's mind, as in the minds of her noble fellow- workers in the cause of the Red Cross, a wounded man had no nationality ; he suffered, and that was enough to evoke all that was humanly possible to ease his pain, both mental and physical.
Sometimes the King accompanied the Queen on her visits of mercy — always in his soldier's uniform without decorations of any kind. Together they would go round the hospitals, not so much as a King and Queen visiting their subjects, but as a kindly, simple man and woman, eager to do what they could for their fellow-creatures. Her Majesty was deeply interested in the visits which Madame Curie, the world-famed scientist, paid to the hospital at Furnes, where she stayed to work for a week, bringing her X-ray equipment for the use of the hospital. To aid Madame Curie in her much-valued labours on behalf of the wounded, there was fitted up for her a radiographic department with the aid of thick curtains and much brown paper. Here this remarkable woman worked with untiring zeal, taking radiographs of innumerable cases. Her daughter was assiduous in helping to develop the plates, and thus enabled Madame Curie to achieve work of the utmost value.
At a later stage in the War, the Queen took a deep interest in the marvels of plastic surgery, which enabled so many poor fellows to take up their work in the world after leaving the hospital. At one hospital some very severe facial cases were being treated, and the head surgeon, anxious to spare the Queen some terrible sights, begged her not to visit that particular ward. Her Majesty was not, however, to be deterred by the awful disfigurements. "They suffered for their country," she remarked, "and the Queen of that country should be the last to shrink from them." She spoke to each man in turn, pressing his hand in kindly sympathy before she turned away.
Passing month by month from hospital to hospital. Her Majesty constantly encountered those pitiful screams of homeless refugees who, with houses shelled and villages laid waste, straggled to the frontier. They would be met carrying their few poor possessions on their backs, or pushing wearily their hand-carts before them. Little children, hardly old enough to realize the horror which had befallen them, might be seen pushing perambulators filled to overflowing with what could be gathered up of the few remaining household possessions. Old men staggering under sack-loads of clothing and bedding and women burdened with the strangest assortment of miscellaneous goods, were fleeing from misery into darkness. The Queen saw them all, and with tears in her eyes would stop to speak to them as they passed. They could not tell her where they were going, for to half of them their destination was unknown. They only knew that their homes had been destroyed by the enemy and that now they must seek an unknown country and an unknown future.
These processions distressed the Queen even more than the scenes at the hospital, for there at least all that was possible was being done. For these poor refugees there was nothing Her Majesty could do except to give a child a caress or slip some silver coins into a woman's hand. Her Majesty sought no recognition and, in her war work, was content to be taken for an ordinary member of the Red Cross. But to the refugees she would sometimes reveal her identity if she thought that by so doing she could give some slight comfort or even shadow of encouragement to the poor creatures."I will think of you, I will pray for you daily," she would tell them, as they trudged on their desolate road. 

Saturday, December 22, 2018

When the Invader Came

A war correspondent's report on the courage and steadfastness of the Belgian people during the second German assault on their country in a generation. Although the King and his government were soon to suffer a fatal rift, it is undoubtedly true that all parties showed bravery in the common struggle against the invader.
We should like to describe the most reckless and the most abject of the exploits of the parachutists, but we doubt whether the censor will allow it. The brave King Leopold III had joined his Army on the morning of the Friday. Nazi espionage, it seems, had discovered the position from which he was to direct operations. 
It was a fort on the outskirts of Liege. A long succession of parachutists descended from the clouds and attempted to seize the Sovereign. The bravery of the Belgian soldiers made their efforts vain, but the fort in question was attacked unceasingly until finally, after the King had gone to another part of the front line, it was captured. The attitude of the young King, together with the legendary heroism of the Belgian soldiers and the calm energy of the Government, maintained the morale of the population. The wireless had at first announced that the King would speak to his people, but his message was in fact published in the newspapers, for the King was unwilling to lose a single minute that he could devote to his duties as Commander-in-Chief of his armies. This little story, quickly spread among the people, made a great impression. The calm dignity of the session of the two Chambers happily supported the example given by the King. And the Ministers were not less deserving of admiration. The dramatic interview between M. Spaak and the German Ambassador will long be remembered. The "moi d'abord" with which M. Spaak compelled his visitor to listen to a reply anticipating the humiliating proposals which he brought, was more spectacular in its proud defiance, but it was not finer than the courage of M. Pierlot. I met the Prime Minister on the morning of Saturday, the 11th, as he was walking quite alone, his despatch case in his hand, on his way on foot from his modest home to the Government buildings in the Rue de la Loi. Was this to show to all that Belgium had nothing to fear from a Fifth Column ? And his speeches, in which each evening he brought consolation to his countrymen, were courageous, resolute but never unwarrantably optimistic. 
And the people themselves, so good, so honest, so loyal, so valiant and so undeservedly embroiled in a fearful slaughter. To them all honour is due. Never was such a rude awakening suffered with such serenity. Nothing but the necessities of the Army was allowed to interfere in any degree with the normal tempo of life. Men continued quietly in their occupations. The flower-sellers, the newspaper sellers in Brussels never left their pitches during air-raid alarms. The newspapers carried their long lists of small advertisements, a thousand petty transactions which proceeded as if nothing had happened. The shops where food was sold, wonderfully stocked, were undisturbed by pillagers or by hoarders. Slowly, almost cheerfully, people set to work to make their arrangements for a black-out, and to protect their windows from the flying fragments of bombs. No panic, no despair. But an anger which will never more forgive this second attack on an innocent country. These Belgians do not harbour any illusions. They know that they must pass through the ordeal of a second occupation by the enemy. But they are none the less convinced of the final victory of the Allies and of a glorious future for their country. 
A conviction so firm, so religious, inspires them in the face of danger and of death ; the beautiful serenity of soul which Faith gives to the Believer. That, and that alone, explains the appearance of Brussels. When I left there at the week-end following the invasion, the streets were filled again with strollers, the cafes and the restaurants, at the hours within which they were allowed to supply food, were full. And but a little way away, at the gates of the city, holiday-makers stared at the military transports, sunning themselves and taking the air just as if the German aeroplanes had not taken the air at dawn on May 10th. (Read entire article)

Outrageous Fortune

Here is a review from the Catholic Herald of the first of the series of books by the younger Roger Keyes defending the memory of King Leopold III. Although I have had an interest in Belgian history and an admiration for King Albert I since childhood, I had the usual negative opinion of his son as a weak ruler of doubtful loyalties until reading Outrageous Fortune: The Tragedy of Leopold III of the Belgians (1984) a few years ago. The elder Roger Keyes, a British admiral and former liaison officer in Belgium, was one of the most notable public figures to defend Leopold from the accusations of treason brought against him by French Premier Paul Reynaud and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Following the Belgian capitulation to the invading Germans on May 28, 1940, King Leopold was accused of surrendering to the Nazis prematurely, of failing to give the Allies due warning of his imminent capitulation, and of thereby causing the Allied disaster necessitating the evacuation from Dunkirk. Keyes, who had remained with the King throughout the bitter Belgian campaign, was in a position to know the truth of Leopold's surrender, and strove to disprove the allegations of treachery. Out of filial piety and apparently sincere sympathy and admiration for a much-maligned monarch, Keyes' son and namesake continued the battle to rehabilitate Leopold after his father's death. In Outrageous Fortune, he contends that the King, far from betraying his allies, was cruelly betrayed by his allies and even by his own ministers. Some find his account to be too hagiographic, but I have seen a great deal of evidence from many sources, much of which I have shared on this blog, confirming his basic portrayal of Leopold as a decent, honorable man whose name was unfairly dragged through the mud.
Roger Keyes has set about putting the record straight. He is highly qualified to do so. His father was a very distinguished British naval officer who, during the 1914-18 war, led the operation that blocked the main German submarine base on the Belgian coast at Zeebrugge. During the second world war, he contributed not a little to bringing down Neville Chamberlain's government and acted as Churchill's personal representative with King Leopold before becoming the founder of the Commandos.
The author therefore had at his disposal his father's memories of the events concerned and a mass of hitherto unpublished material. Not content with this, he has clearly undertaken a major and very painstaking job of research into anything that might touch either on Leopold's personality or the details of Belgian politics — many of them sordid, which affected his position. 
Let it be said straightaway that Roger Keyes neither is, nor pretends to be, unbiased. In so far as he is concerned, Leopold was a strong, wise and good man who became the victim of a host of malevolent dwarfs, first among them Paul Reynaud, the French Prime Minister who ushered France into abject defect in 1940.
This takes nothing away from the merits of the present volume, since a thorough vindication of Leopold's part in the Franco-British response to Hitler's intentions in the West was long overdue. And it lends interest in advance to the second volume of this biography, yet to be published, which will deal with the further troubles of the king as a prisoner of the Germans, his second marriage and the events that led to his abdication in 1951, when his wisdom and handling of events appeared much more questionable.
I also found the second volume, Échec au Roi: Léopold III 1940-1951 (1986) [King in Check: Leopold III 1940-1951] to be very helpful, especially in elaborating upon the role of the extreme, internationalist left in orchestrating the general strike to force Leopold's abdication and generally doing everything possible to destroy the Belgian monarchy. In this book, Keyes is more critical of the King, questioning the wisdom of his second marriage, his insistence on solemn reparation from his ministers, and his failure to insist on returning to Belgium immediately after his liberation from Nazi captivity in Austria in 1945. All in all, Keyes creates the impression of a high-minded monarch who nevertheless committed a series of fatal political errors, by being either too forceful or too gentle. This may be a valid portrayal, although I found it foolish to suggest that Leopold would have been politically better advised to keep Lilian Baels as his mistress. It is often said that the Belgians would have been more indulgent towards an affair, rather than a second marriage, since the idea of anyone replacing their idolized Queen Astrid seemed unthinkable. I *highly* doubt, however, that Leopold's enemies would have missed the golden opportunity to castigate him for indulging in a love affair while his people were suffering, especially in view of the fact that the accusations of treason had already been accompanied by accusations of sexual depravity. In fact, as Keyes himself discusses elsewhere in the book, one of the most infamous of the many attacks on Princess Lilian was the claim that she was pregnant before the altar. (In fact, the religious marriage of Leopold and Lilian took place ten months before the birth of their first child.)

Keyes hoped but never managed to write a third volume detailing Leopold's life after his abdication, a time of comparative joy and serenity, rich in scientific and humanitarian accomplishments. For those interested in this period, I can recommend Jean Cleeremans' Léopold III, homme libre: chronique des années 1951-1983 (2001).

Friday, December 21, 2018

Princess Lilian's Christmas Gifts

Despite her reputation as a stubborn, selfish and difficult woman, the Princesse de Réthy was known in her intimate circle as a generous benefactress and a gracious hostess. Every year, during the Christmas festivities, she lavished delicate attentions on her entourage, with her characteristic refinement, elegance and perfectionism. In Le mythe d'Argenteuil, Michel Verwilghen, himself a frequent guest at the royal estate in its heyday, shares a few charming details of these busy winter days. By the end of November, Lilian's household was astir with preparations for the Christmas celebrations. Aided by her secretary and her faithful housekeeper, Madame Jeannine, the princess prepared over a hundred presents, all substantial and personalized, for her close associates. Anxious to please everyone individually, she even initiated, at times, discreet, indirect inquiries into their desires. 

On December 25 came the ritual of the gift-giving itself; in the tradition of the Belgian royal family, Lilian personally distributed the presents, accompanied with kind words, to her intimates. For her most elite guests, distinguished soldiers and statesmen, she reserved some special treasures: the pocket watches, commemorating the Battle of the Yser (1914-1918), which her late father-in-law, the beloved Albert I, had ordered at the Maison Doucet in Paris. The cases bore the monograms of the Roi Chevalier and his consort, A and E, interlaced and surmounted with a crown, in gilded metal. The metal came from the fragments of exploded shells from the trenches of the Yser. Among the favored few who received one of these tragic but glorious mementos was Charles de Gaulle.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Un couple dans la tempête

Un couple dans la tempête: le destin malheureux de Léopold III de Belgique et de la princesse Lilian (2004) is a sympathetic, popular account of the romance and marriage of Leopold III and his second wife, Lilian Baels, centering on the upheavals that severely tested their love. The book frequently quotes Lilian's reminiscences, drawn from a series of conversations between French journalists Marcel Jullian and Claude Désiré and the elderly, widowed princess. Begun by Marcel Jullian, a great friend of Leopold and Lilian, who sadly passed away during the writing process, the account was completed by his younger colleague, Claude Désiré. Beautiful photographs of King Leopold, Queen Astrid, the royal children, and Princess Lilian are included, as well as facsimiles of interesting documents and affectionate family letters. Désiré also offers a touching tribute to the deceased Jullian, detailing his harrowing escape from execution by the Nazis while fighting in the French Resistance.

Contrary to many common perceptions, Lilian emerges as the gracious, intelligent woman so many of her intimates knew.  She comes across as sensitive and kind-hearted, most poignantly of all in her horrified recollections of visiting the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau after its liberation by the Allies, in the company of American General Alexander Patch. At the same time, we see the frankly voiced opinions and acerbic observations that often made her enemies, in her scorn for her husband's political opponents. Her comments about Winston Churchill are particularly pointed. She even suggests that he wanted to take over the Belgian Congo and thought that getting rid of Leopold was a necessary first step. We are also given a glimpse of Lilian's sadness at quarrels within the royal family in later years. Hurt by some of her children's actions, she would resignedly remark: "C'est une autre génération, c'est autre chose." ("It's a different generation, it's a different thing.")

Un couple dans la tempête is always entertaining, and often quite moving. Nonetheless, it suffers from some of the limitations of popularized accounts of royalty, being a bit too romanticized and sensationalized. The portrayal of the royal couple sometimes seems too idealized, although it is probably a good antidote to the grotesque abuse that husband and wife have often suffered and the authors do admit that Leopold and Lilian both made their share of mistakes. Michel Verwilghen, author of Le mythe d'Argenteuil (2006), found some factual errors in the book, particularly in the description of the history of the country house that became the home of King Leopold and his second family after 1960. The reader will definitely find a more accurate and much more detailed description of their life at Argenteuil in the pages of Verwilghen's erudite tome, combined with a similarly sympathetic but better nuanced portrayal of their characters.

The Faith of Leopold III


There is a strange idea in circulation that Leopold III was not particularly religious. In fact, the Belgian kings, in general, are sometimes portrayed as lacking in spiritual fervor until the accession of Leopold's son, Baudouin. I was shocked to read, in one account of Baudouin's life, that Albert I and Leopold III were "lukewarm" Catholics, in contrast to Baudouin, whose deep faith was presented as a departure from family tradition. Other authors have tried to explain the so-called "estrangement," beginning around 1960, between Leopold and Baudouin, in terms of a conflict between the supposedly secularist outlook of Leopold and Lilian and the piety of Baudouin and his wife, Fabiola (married in 1960).

The cooling of relations between Leopold and Baudouin, following the departure of Leopold and his second family from Laeken in 1960, and their move to the country estate of Argenteuil, was, in fact, largely due to reasons of state. Leopold's presence undoubtedly aided and reassured his son, during the early years of his reign. Once, however, Baudouin achieved sufficient maturity, political necessity, to some extent, obliged father and son to keep a mutual distance. Close relations provoked charges that Leopold had not truly abdicated but was continuing to rule through his son.  As Michel Verwilghen describes in Le mythe d'Argenteuil, demeure d'un couple royal (2006), a number of King Baudouin's close advisers were determined to distance the young monarch from his father and step-mother. It is also true that misunderstandings and personal conflicts within the royal family fed the process. It is, however, false that Leopold and Lilian, during the honeymoon of Baudouin and Fabiola, spitefully stole all the furniture from Laeken and installed it at Argenteuil. This calumny, based upon distortion and exaggeration of the facts, and often repeated in efforts to explain the estrangement between the two royal houses, is refuted in great detail in Verwilghen's book.

Regarding the religious question, it is true that Lilian did not favor the charismatic movement, with which Baudouin and Fabiola eventually became involved. Apparently, it is also true that Leopold was opposed to Cardinal Suenens, who gained considerable spiritual influence over Baudouin. Yet, the idea that Leopold was a "lukewarm" Catholic is false. Leopold's father, Albert, was also far from "lukewarm"; he was, in fact, deeply pious. Albert took pains to inculcate his own religious devotion, and critical conscience, in his children. "As you nourish your bodies," he told them, "so you ought to nourish your souls" (quoted in La Regina Incompresa, tutto il racconto della vita di Maria José di Savoia, 2002, by Luciano Regolo, p. 22). Leopold appears to have inherited a good measure of Albert's faith.

From his youth, Leopold displayed a touching religious sense. At age 12, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Leopold (who had been sent to safety in England) wrote to his father, King Albert, under German siege in Antwerp: "Every day I pray the good God to help us and enable us to return to you very soon."(quoted in Léopold III, 2001, by Vincent Dujardin, Mark van den Wijngaert, et al. p. 22) As a young man, according to a close companion, it was Leopold's "Christian charity" that inspired his concern for the poor (see Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l'occupation, 1987, by Jean Cleeremans, p. 13). Leopold's faith was also demonstrated, under tragic circumstances, at the death of his wife, Astrid. Leopold's secretary, Robert Capelle, relates in his memoirs that, after the car accident in Switzerland, the King, tearful and sobbing, confided to him: "Why did the good God take her away from me? We were so happy...she is still so, but me...how I need her to protect me!"

In The prisoner at Laeken: King Leopold, legend and fact (1941), written to defend the King from charges of treason during World War II, Emile Cammaerts noted that he was probably playing into the hands of the Leopold's enemies, by emphasizing the role of religion in his life, as expressions of piety could easily be interpreted as signs of weakness or hypocrisy. Yet, Cammaerts asserted, Leopold (and his father, Albert) could only be understood in terms of faith put into practice. In support of his claim, he quoted several passages from Leopold's speeches to the Belgian clergy. In 1936, Leopold declared:
The love of one's neighbors, the sense of duty, truth, and justice, if applied to daily life, would spare mankind countless sufferings, troubles, and anxieties... The solution to the problems which oppress the world can only be found in the practice of Charity between individuals and between nations.
Similarly, in his Political Testament, in 1944, the King would assert that "Christian charity and human dignity" required the institution of extensive social reforms in Belgium. Cammaerts also recalls a conversation with the King during the 1930's, when Leopold deplored the political divisions and abuses in Belgium, exclaiming: "And to think, that we call ourselves Christians!"

In his public speeches and orders of the day, Leopold repeatedly invoked divine aid. He concluded his abdication speech in 1951 with the words: "God protect Belgium and the Congo!" Given the other indications of the sincerity of his faith, such invocations were surely not mere formalities, but, rather, heartfelt prayers.

Another biographer, when mentioning the King's interests, after his abdication, in nature, travel and exploration, asserts: "Deeply religious... he found, in nature, the presence of the Creator God." (Léopold III, 2001, p. 338) This biography is not completely sympathetic to Leopold, portraying him as upright, but stubborn and authoritarian; it also treats his political enemies quite gently. Therefore, I do not think there can be any question here of "hagiography" of the King.

In 1983, Kagabo Pilipili, an African student, and his wife were received by Leopold at Argenteuil (see Léopold III, homme libre, 2001, by Jean Cleeremans, pp. 57-58). During the audience, Pilipili's wife mentioned her son's heart problems, and Leopold immediately promised the aid of Lilian's cardiological foundation in obtaining treatment for the child. As Leopold's own son, Alexandre, had suffered from heart problems, he was especially sympathetic to the family's plight. When Pilipili and his wife thanked the King for his assistance, he replied, in a tone of deep emotion: "I will do what I can. But God will do the rest for you." Leopold's guests were touched and consoled by his belief in Providence.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Queen Who Never Was

Today is the anniversary of the civil wedding of Leopold III and Lilian Baels. The ceremony took place on December 6, 1941, less than three months after the couple's secret, religious wedding in the chapel of Laeken. Lilian was already expecting her first child, Prince Alexandre, who would be born in July, 1942. Leopold and Lilian had reversed the normal order, prescribed by the Belgian Constitution, of the civil and religious wedding ceremonies, and the King would later be severely castigated for this violation of the law. Given the bizarre, difficult circumstances, however, the irregularity was understandable. The King was a prisoner of war; the country was occupied by the Nazis, who might not even permit a royal marriage to take place. The government, whose approval was needed for a dynastic union, was in exile in London. The suffering Belgians might resent their King's idyll. By opting, initially, for a simply sacramental marriage, the couple had hoped to conceal their union until the return of peace. The bride's pregnancy, however, made it impossible. 

Yet, amidst war and occupation, in the government's absence, the King did not think it appropriate to impose a new Queen and new royal heirs upon the country. As Cardinal van Roey, Archbishop of Malines, emphasized in his pastoral letter of December 6, 1941, Lilian herself had renounced the title and rank of Queen. In a similar vein, the King drew up a document, declaring his desire that none of the descendants of his second marriage should have the right to succeed to the throne. By contrast, his new bride and their children should have the right to all of his other ancestral titles; Royal Highness, Prince and Princess of Belgium, Duke and Duchess of Saxony, Prince and Princess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. 

In constitutional terms, however, Leopold and Lilian lacked the authority, on their own, to decide matters of regal status and succession. Accordingly, the King added: "As soon as my liberty as a Sovereign is restored to me, I will ask the Government of the time to realize my intentions legally." Strangely, the King's intentions would not be realized legally for fifty years. During a constitutional revision in 1991, Prime Minister Wilfried Martens would finally clarify the issue, officially stating that the offspring of Leopold and Lilian had no rights to the throne.

After the civil ceremony, the King introduced his three eldest children, Princess Josephine-Charlotte, Prince Baudouin, and Prince Albert to their new step-mother. The children adored the beautiful, clever, vivacious young woman and immediately started calling her maman. By all accounts, it was the beginning of nearly twenty years of a close, tender family life, happily restored after the tragedy of Queen Astrid's death. The Queen Mother, Elisabeth of Bavaria, was also very fond of Lilian.

Outside the gates of Laeken, news of the wedding provoked mixed reactions. Some Belgians reproached Leopold for considering his personal happiness at a time of national disaster, others sympathized with his situation, sending flowers and congratulations to the palace. Unfortunately, however, the marriage would prove to be an important tool in the hands of the King's political opponents, particularly after the war.  Princess Lilian of Belgium was viciously vilified, by politicians and journalists bent upon toppling her husband, as the maleficent beauty behind the throne, as a veritable Whore of Babylon! 

Friday, November 30, 2018

Anna Maria de Visscher, mother of Princess Lilian

I think she has a lovely face. Anna Maria de Visscher was the scion of respectable bourgeoisie, the daughter of a mayor and the granddaughter of a minister. Her ancestors included illustrious figures, such as the Comte Félix de Muelenaere, a member of the National Congress that founded the Kingdom of Belgium, and three times Foreign Minister between 1831 and 1841. In 1905, Anna Maria married Henri Baels, a rising young Ostende shipowner, lawyer and politician, to whom she bore eight children, six daughters and two sons. 

During the Nazi invasion of Belgium, while her husband, the Governor of West Flanders, circulated constantly to alleviate the plight of his province, Madame Baels worked for the Red Cross. The young Lilian assisted her mother in her task, transporting wounded French and Belgian soldiers by car to the St. John Hospital in Bruges, simultaneously flooded by refugees. She also helped to evacuate the elderly from the hospice of Alost, which was within the combat zone, exposed to enemy fire. 

As the military situation headed towards disaster, however, Madame Baels decided to leave for France to bring two of her daughters, then ailing, to safety. Lilian drove the family car. At a restaurant in Bernay, near Lisieux, the news of the Belgian capitulation reached the four women. At Paul Reynaud's infamous broadcast, branding the Belgian king a traitor and felon, French and Belgian officers began vilifying Léopold III, tearing apart his photograph on the front cover of a magazine. Horrified, Lilian indignantly rebuked the officers. One spitefully retaliated by seizing the Baels' car key and throwing it into a ditch. After obtaining a replacement, the ladies proceeded to the south of France, renting a villa in Anglet, near Biarritz. 

Madame Baels would have many sorrows in the years to come. Her husband and her son were unfairly accused of cowardice and treason, while her daughter Lilian was battered by gossip and slander. According to Lilian's account, as recorded in Un couple dans la tempête (2004), the news of her secret marriage with King Léopold upset and worried her mother, who foresaw that it would provoke a political storm. "My little one, you don't know what's in store for you. It will be appalling, they will all attack you, you will have a terribly hard life," she is quoted as saying (pp. 36-37). Anna Maria Baels, née de Visscher, died of heart failure in 1950, while the question of the King's return from exile was still being decided. On the grounds that her arrival, at such an emotional moment, might sway the people in Léopold's favor, Lilian was prevented from returning to Belgium to bid farewell to her dying mother. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Life of Anna Sparre

In 1985, Anna Sparre, a Swedish noblewoman, published her memoirs of her friendship with Queen Astrid of the Belgians, a Swedish princess.  Her book has been reviewed and discussed on this blog in the past.  Under Anna's pen, Astrid's personality comes to life; tender, sensitive and loving, although not without her strict side, a loyal and devoted wife, mother and Queen.

Anna Eva Elisabeth Sparre, née Adelswärd, was born in Stockholm on February 2, 1906.  She was the daughter of Baron Theodor Adelswärd, an industrialist and politician, and his wife, historical novelist Louise Douglas.  During her youth, Anna divided her time between Stockholm and her family's country estate of Adelsnäs.  Meanwhile, her father served as a member of the Swedish parliament and government.

In 1927, a year after Astrid's marriage to Prince Leopold of Belgium, Anna married the handsome, charming Count Clas Sparre, an engineer and aviator,  and the scion of an aristocratic family dating from the Middle Ages.  Clas' father was the Swedish painter Louis Sparre.  His mother was Eva Mannerheim, a sister of the famous Marshal of Finland.  Clas and Anna had a daughter, Christina, who became a playmate of Princess Josephine-Charlotte, the eldest child of Leopold and Astrid. Sadly, Anna's marriage ended in divorce.

During World War II, Sweden managed to remain neutral, but was dangerously isolated, trapped between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  In response, the Swedish army was kept in constant readiness and a regime of rationing imposed on the population.  Anna contributed to the patriotic effort by joining the women's auxiliary forces and becoming a chief of propaganda.  After the war, she remarried, moving to Denmark with her new husband, a Danish dentist.  Unfortunately, her second marriage also failed.

A bold, free spirit, Anna forged a new, independent life, transforming her manor into a golfing resort. In her later years, partly disabled by an accident, the Countess took up writing in earnest, publishing a long series of novels.  She drew inspiration from the lives of Nordic queens and noblewomen of the past, struggling with tragedy but triumphing over misfortune.  Throughout her life, Anna remained close to Astrid's son, King Baudouin of the Belgians.  Only five months after his death, Anna passed away on December 21, 1993.
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