Elisabeth of Bavaria (1876-1965), consort of King Albert I of the Belgians, was once described as "the most feminine female since Marie-Antoinette." Delicate and loving, devoted to home and family, she seemed a model of womanly refinement, domesticity and tenderness. Today, many portray these ideals as a way of subjugating and oppressing women. Yet, here was a bold, independent spirit, a powerful mind, a daring horsewoman, an intrepid mountaineer and a valiant war heroine who was, nonetheless, intensely feminine, and, first and foremost, a wife and mother.
Countless testimonies bring to life a petite, refined, slender, nimble, youthful figure. Unlike her aunt, the famous Empress Sissi, Elisabeth of Belgium was never a stunning beauty. Yet, she achieved striking loveliness through her charm, dignity, and grace. With her intellectual interests, her poetic personality, her passion for art and music, she entranced her intimates. Lively and learned, she was blessed, in one contemporary's words, with "the charm of the mistresses of the famous French salons without their vice." Illustrious for her virtue, she combined blithe, unconstrained manners with pure morals. With her deep, innate sense of propriety and delicacy, she was offended by the slightest innuendo. Even her husband's uncle, King Leopold II, notorious for his scandalous living, and no paragon of refinement in his own circle, took care to avoid any hint of coarseness in Elisabeth's presence.
Like all the Wittelsbachs, Elisabeth was a free spirit, imaginative, independent and unconventional. Yet she excelled in the traditional roles of a royal consort. There is no doubt that she viewed herself, first and foremost, as the wife of her beloved Albert. Shortly before his accession to the throne, she wrote to him: "You deserve to have a wife who lives for you, which is what I will try to do all my life." From her first meeting with the tall, handsome, modest and gentle young man, a passionate affection and admiration sprang up in her heart. Elisabeth had barely made Albert's acquaintance when she confided to her aunt, the Queen of Naples: "I will marry no one but him!" (Siccardi, p. 14). During their engagement, she showered him with letters of rapturous devotion. "If only I could enter this letter, and, when you open it, leap up to your neck and kiss you, "wild," passionately, my dearest Albert," she once wrote (Regolo p. 16). "...I adore you and I love you with my whole being...I would leap through fire and water for you." (Siccardi, p. 18) She was deeply impressed by his noble character. Mary Roberts Rinehart, an American reporter who visited the Queen during World War I, related that Elisabeth, in response to German criticism of Albert's conduct at the beginning of the war, cried: "Anyone who knows King Albert knows he cannot do a wrong thing. It is impossible for him. He cannot go any way but straight!"
The royal couple's children, King Leopold III of Belgium and Queen Maria José of Italy, testified that their parents' profound love endured throughout their marriage (see HERE and HERE). The Russian sculptress Catherine Barjansky, a friend of the royal family during the 1920's and 1930's, recalled Albert and Elisabeth as a deeply devoted and happy couple (see HERE and HERE). Their love, in fact, endured beyond death. Albert's tragic loss in a mountaineering accident plunged Elisabeth into devastating, numbing grief. Refusing food and comfort, isolating herself from the world, she took to wandering outside on chilly, damp nights. Fearing for her precarious health, her entourage tried to persuade her to come inside, but she impatiently responded: "Let me be. If I fall ill, so much the better. I want to die, I want to go to my Albert" (Regolo, p. 141). After the death of her daughter-in-law, Queen Astrid, in a car accident, Elisabeth forced herself to rally, to support her grieving son, King Leopold III, and to assist his motherless children. Yet, throughout her life, Albert remained her inspiration. Many years after his death, she confided to her daughter, Maria José: "Ever since the cruel separation from your father, I have not been able to live a single day, without his memory being present to me, and everything I have done, I have done out of fidelity to his memory."
Elisabeth's love for Albert also embraced his children. She was a devoted mother, especially to her eldest son, Leopold. While others, he recalled, might remember Elisabeth as a war heroine, or a great patroness of the arts, he would always think of her, above all, as a true mother. For Leopold, Elisabeth was a mother "in the noblest sense of the term, one who, throughout her entire life, would assist, protect, and love me." She fiercely defended him from false accusations of treason during World War II. During his post-war exile, she wrote him letters filled with tender maternal love. On one occasion, she sent him a poignant birthday greeting: "My dear Léop. Once again I will not be with you for your birthday. I will be thinking of you! What a memory! One of the most beautiful of my life, hearing the first cry of my first child! You were so pretty, and later, so handsome!" She was a loving mother to her people, too, working selflessly, during World War I, to alleviate the sufferings of combatants and noncombatants alike.
A tragic, yet deeply moving story epitomizes all Elisabeth's delicate, tender, yet valiant femininity. When King Albert's broken body, covered in blood and mud, was brought back to Laeken from the tragic cliffs of Marche-les-Dames, his entourage feared it would be too heartbreaking for Elisabeth to see him before his body had been washed and his wounds covered. So, at first, nobody dared tell the Queen of the King's death. Finally, a courtier arrived and broke the terrible news. Stunned with shock, Elisabeth froze and closed her eyes. At last, she rallied and asked to see the King. When she found that he had already been prepared for his lying-in-state, she was furious: "It was the last service I could render him!"
Marie-José, Queen, Consort of Humbert II, King of Italy. Albert et Elisabeth de Belgique, mes parents. 1971.
Dumont, Georges-Henri, and Dauven, Myriam. Elisabeth de Belgique, où les défis d'une reine. 1986.
Regolo, Luciano. La Regina Incompresa: tutto il racconto della vita di Maria José di Savoia. 2002.
Siccardi, Cristina. Maria José, Umberto di Savoia. 2004.
"The Solid Respectability of the New King of the Belgians," in Current Literature, v. 48, edited by Edward Wheeler, New York, 1910, pp. 158-162.