Mary Lilian Baels (1916-2002), the ravishing Flemish commoner who became the second wife of the controversial King Leopold III of the Belgians (1901-1983), it is forgotten that the lady in question, along with the power of inspiring great hatred, also had the power to inspire great love. Her passionate romance with her sovereign is routinely reduced to a mixture of lust and ambition; this is to seriously underestimate the depth of the relationship of these two complex and misunderstood human beings. Their parallel scientific, cultural and humanitarian pursuits, over decades, indicate a union of mind and heart, fed not by base passions, but by noble aspirations. Even brief glimpses of Leopold's letters to Lilian suggest a profound, spiritual love, beyond mere physical attraction, resting upon common religious, political and moral ideals. For instance, after being forced to delegate his royal powers to his son, Prince Baudouin, in 1950, prior to his formal abdication a year later, Leopold wrote to his wife, still in exile in Switzerland. He regretted her sadness at recent events, but encouraged her with the thought of God's goodness in protecting the royal family from many perils, and of Baudouin's nobility in assuming his high charge on behalf of the monarchy and the country. On an expedition in South America, in 1952, the king sent another affectionate note to the princess, evoking, in touching terms, their shared love of their family.
As for Lilian, she is often portrayed as a cold, calculating social-climber, who married the king merely for rank and wealth. To harbor some mistrust of the motives of a commoner, marrying into royalty at a time of peace and prosperity, might be understandable. To brand, as an unscrupulous adventuress, a commoner wedding a king at a time of war and adversity, is less understandable. In 1941, the year of Lilian's marriage, Belgium was occupied by Hitler, Leopold was a prisoner of war, and the future was completely uncertain. Isn't it a bit ridiculous to assume that Lilian accepted Leopold's proposal, let alone manipulated him into this proposal, out of lust for the throne of Belgium, when nobody even knew whether there would be a throne, or a Belgium, in the years to come? Furthermore, Leopold's conflict with his ministers and allies in 1940 did not bode well for the future, even if Germany were defeated and Belgium liberated. As it turned out, Lilian agreed to marry the king only on condition of renouncing the title and rank of queen, and rather than gold-digging, she was more likely to be digging her own grave. After four years of comparatively good treatment, the royal family was deported to the grim, insalubrious fortress of Hirchstein at the time of the Allied landings in Normandy in June, 1944. Later, they were transferred to Strobl in Austria, where they were liberated by American soldiers in May, 1945. Let it not be forgotten: for eleven months, Lilian, with her husband, her little son, and her three step-children, was held hostage by the enemy. The prisoners' diet was insufficient; the children were often ill. Cut off from the outside world, ignorant of the future, the royal family and their small entourage lived with the constant fear that they might be murdered by their jailers in a fit of desperation and vindictiveness. In fact, an S.S. officer did try to poison the family at one point with cyanide pills. During this dark period, Lilian assisted her husband in protecting and educating the royal children and sustaining their morale. In the decades to come, in the face of enormous bad press, Lilian would loyally support her husband through all the vicissitudes of his life. After his death, the normally indomitable lady fell into a deep depression, but rallied, with her characteristic courage. For the rest of her life, she would stubbornly defend Leopold's memory. This record looks like love to me.
Leopold was not the only person to love Lilian, or whom Lilian loved. She is often depicted as a harsh, domineering, unloving and unloved mother. To be sure, she was a woman with flaws, prone to be imperious, demanding and excessively severe at times. Yet, even if relations with her step-children cooled later, she won the devotion of Princess Joséphine-Charlotte, Prince Baudouin and Prince Albert over many years. Guests of the royal family after the war, such as the younger Lord Roger Keyes, were struck by the mutual affection and tenderness of its members. It is often claimed that Lilian's own children found her unbearable. If she became tragically estranged from her eldest daughter, Princess Marie-Christine, her younger daughter, Princess Marie-Esméralda, has staunchly defended her memory, in memoirs and interviews. As for her son, Prince Alexandre-Emmanuel, he supposedly kept his marriage to Léa Wolman, a twice-divorced mother of two, a secret for seven years, for fear of his mother's wrath. It is assumed that Lilian would have disapproved of the marriage simply because Léa was not royal, an arrogance all the more insufferable since Lilian was born a commoner herself. Yet, when Marie-Esméralda married Honduran pharmacologist Salvador Moncada, also a commoner, she felt no need to keep this step a secret, and her mother rejoiced in her happiness, attending the wedding in London with her step-son, Albert II, and afterwards, gladly describing the festivities to her intimates at Argenteuil. Might Lilian have had reservations about her son's choice of bride for other reasons? For instance, might the lady's prior, unfortunate marital history have worried her? If so, with all due respect to Princess Léa, Lilian's concern might have been understandable, especially for a believing, practicing, Catholic woman from an older generation for whom marriage was for life. In any case, Alexandre-Emmanuel frequently visited his mother at Argenteuil. After her death, he assisted Marie-Esméralda in attempting, in vain, to fulfill their mother's last wishes by preserving Argenteuil as a memorial to Leopold III. The prince surely loved his mother, in spite of any tensions. People ought to be cautious, too, about accepting Marie-Christine's accounts of maternal cruelty and neglect unreservedly; she has herself admitted, in her memoirs, that she has not always been a truthful person.
As for her other relatives, if Lilian clashed with some of her in-laws, such as Prince Charles, the Regent of Belgium from 1944-1950, and Queen Fabiola, the consort of Baudouin I, why assume that this was all Lilian's fault? Human relations are usually more complex. (In any case, the story, endlessly repeated, that Leopold and Lilian plundered all the furnishings of Laeken and installed them at Argenteuil, during the honeymoon of Baudouin and Fabiola, is FALSE. Even Marie-Christine has denied it.) Furthermore, other in-laws seem to have liked Lilian. Queen Elisabeth, the mother of Leopold III, invited the young Mlle. Baels to Laeken during the war and encouraged her romance and religious marriage with the king, apparently welcoming her with open arms and lending her the bridal veil Elisabeth had worn at her own wedding. Queen Marie-José of Italy, Leopold's sister, according to her closest biographer, Luciano Regolo, found Lilian sympathetic. Marie-José's daughter, Princess Maria Gabriella of Savoy, by her own testimony, greatly enjoyed the company of her Uncle Leopold and Aunt Lilian, traveling with them to India. After the king's death, Maria Gabriella joined the Assemblée Princesse Lilian en hommage au Roi Léopold III, an association established by the widowed princess to perpetuate her husband's memory.
Outside the royal family, Lilian was admired by many. To name a few distinguished, thoughtful figures: collaborators of the princess in her Cardiological Foundation, renowned scientists and doctors, such as Christian de Duve and Charles van Ypersele de Strihou, have left touching testimonies of their appreciation for their patroness. After her death in 2002, the 95-year-old, legendary surgeon, Michael DeBakey, despite his age, insisted on attending the commemorative conference in Lilian's honor to render her a resounding tribute. In other fields, men such as Raymond Bousquet, a French ambassador to Belgium, Herman de Croo, President of the Chamber, Monsignor Edouard Massaux, rector of the Catholic University of Louvain, Michel Verwilghen, professor of law at Louvain and at the Academy of International Law at the Hague, Jean Piat, French comedian, Marcel Jullian, French director, author, and hero of the Resistance, and even Lilian's old opponent, Pierre Mertens, a novelist whom she sued over his portrayal of her family in Une paix royale, have praised her character. The princess' housekeeper, Jeannine Degrève, remained in her service for 53 years. She must have liked her mistress well enough! Finally, Lilian may have been the most hated woman in Belgian history, but even among the public at large, she had her supporters. Reactions to her marriage were not uniformly hostile; the palace received plenty of flowers and congratulations too. In her later years, at Argenteuil, she and her husband continued to receive many messages of sympathy from ordinary people, on the occasion, for instance, of their Silver Wedding. Towards the end of Lilian's life, after the loss of her husband, a sensationalist historian, Karel de Clerck, claimed that she had slept with her step-son, King Baudouin, during his youth! Another historian, the eminent author Jean Vanwelkenhuyzen, soon gave the lie to these charges and the princess received another series of sympathetic letters. In discretion, her gestures of charity were many: spontaneously kissing a leprous woman on a visit to Molokai in the footsteps of Father Damien, paying for the surgical operation of the daughter of one of her gendarmes, trying her best to reconcile an estranged couple among her entourage, and helping the father and grandfather of a pedophile victim to obtain justice, among others. In return, in discretion, she was loved.
References and further reading:
Alexandre de Belgique. Argenteuil: pour garder intacte la mémoire du domaine royal. 2004.
Marie-Christine de Belgique. La brisure. 2004.
Marie-Esméralda de Belgique. Léopold III, mon père. 2001.
Marie-Esméralda de Belgique. Léopold III, photographe. 2006.
Cleeremans, Jean. Léopold III, sa famille, et son peuple sous l'occupation. 1987.
Cleeremans, Jean. Un royaume pour un amour: Léopold III, de l'éxil à l'abdication. 1989.
Cleeremans, Jean. Léopold III, homme libre: chronique des années 1951-1983. 2001.
Désire, Claude and Marcel Jullian. Un couple dans la tempête. 2005.
Dujardin, Vincent, van den Wijngaert, Mark, et. al. Léopold III. 2001.
Keyes, Roger. Echec au Roi: Léopold III, 1940-1951. 1986.
Regolo, Luciano. La regina incompresa: tutto il racconto della vita di Maria José di Savoia. 2002.
Verwilghen, Michel. Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal. 2006.