Welcome to 'Lost in the Myths of History'

It often seems that many prominent people of the past are wronged by often-repeated descriptions, which in time are taken as truth. The same is also true of events, which are frequently presented in a particular way when there might be many alternative viewpoints. This blog is intended to present a different perspective on those who have often been lost in the myths of history.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Faith of Leopold III

There is a strange idea in circulation that King Leopold III of the Belgians (1901-1983) was not a devout Catholic. In fact, the Belgian kings, in general, are sometimes portrayed as lacking spiritual fervor until Leopold's son, King Baudouin. I was shocked to read, in one account of Baudouin's life, that Albert I and Leopold III were "lukewarm" Catholics, unlike Baudouin, whose deep faith was presented as a remarkable 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 more secularist outlook of King Leopold and his second wife, Princess Lilian, and the piety of King Baudouin and his Queen, Fabiola de Mora y Aragón, whom he married in 1960. 

The cooling of relations, previously warm and affectionate, 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, especially since Baudouin ascended the throne as an inexperienced and vulnerable young man of 20. Once Baudouin achieved sufficient maturity, however, political necessity obliged father and son to keep a certain mutual distance. Close family 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 advisers were determined to distance the young monarch from his father and his step-mother, Princess Lilian. It is also true that misunderstandings and personal conflicts within the royal family fed the process.

As far as religious differences are concerned, Lilian did not favor the charismatic movement, with which Baudouin and Fabiola eventually became involved. Apparently, Leopold was strongly opposed to the Belgian Primate, Cardinal Suenens, who gained considerable spiritual influence over Baudouin. Yet, the idea that Leopold was a "lukewarm" Catholic is false. Leopold's father, King Albert I, 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. Shortly after the outbreak of World War I,  the twelve-year-old Prince wrote to his father, 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" which 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, upon the death of his first wife, Queen Astrid. Leopold's secretary, Robert Capelle, related in his memoirs that, after the terrible car accident in Switzerland,the grief-stricken King 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 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 insisted, Leopold (and his father, Albert) could only be understood in terms of faith put into practice. In support of his claim, Cammaerts 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" necessitated extensive social reforms in Belgium. Cammaerts also recalled a conversation with the King prior to World War II, during which Leopold deplored the political divisions and abuses in Belgium, exclaiming: "And to think, that we call ourselves Christians!"

Another biographer, discussing the King's interests in nature, travel and exploration, asserts: "Deeply religious... he found, in nature, the presence of the Creator God" (Léopold III, 2001, by Vincent Dujardin, Mark van den Wijngaert, et al. p. 338). This account certainly does not over-idealize Leopold, portraying him as upright, but stubborn and authoritarian. 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. 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 greatly touched and consoled by his belief in Providence (see Léopold III, homme libre, 2001, by Jean Cleeremans, pp. 57-58).

While none of this means that Leopold III was a saint or a perfect individual, it would certainly be false to say that Baudouin was the first Belgian king to be sincerely religious.


Christina said...

Thank you, Matterhorn, for this very interesting post.

Matterhorn said...

Thank you, Christina!