Clémentine of Belgium was born on 30 July 1872 as the daughter of King Leopold II of Belgium and Marie Henriette of Austria. Her gender was a great disappointment to her parents, who had lost their only son in 1869. She was baptised on 3 September in the chapel of the Palace of Laeken. Her godmother Princess Clémentine of Orléans was represented by her elder sister Princess Louise while the godfather was Archduke Albrecht, Duke of Teschen, who was represented by the King’s younger brother Philippe, Count of Flanders.
The relationship between Clémentine and her mother was one of indifference. However, she was close to her elder sister Stéphanie despite the age difference of 8 years. “I have seen the growth and progress of my dear little sister up close. I taught her her first words, with me, she took her first steps. I sacrificed all my free time for her. In between my lessons, I would go to her to take her in my arms, kiss her and play with her.”1 This close relationship lasted until 1881 when Stéphanie left Belgium to marry Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria. Clémentine became close to her governess Antoinette Schariry, of German descent. Clémentine was able to join her sister as she travelled to Austria and was with her on her wedding day, in a pink dress. Perhaps it wasn’t until she was back in Laeken, that she realised she was now truly alone. She is now stuck in a world of adults, her governess and her tutors. Her only other friends were her cousins Henriette and Joséphine, the daughters of her uncle, Philippe.
In December 1889, Clémentine’s youth was over. The tutors and governesses left and were replaced by a noble lady-in-waiting, Baroness Zoé d’Oldenneel. She was given her own salon by her mother, and Clémentine wrote to her sister, “You can imagine how happy I was!”2 By then Stéphanie had been widowed by the Mayerling tragedy. After a fire in the private apartments in the Palace of Laeken, Clémentine moved to the Royal Palace in Brussels. Her first love was her first cousin Baudouin, the eldest son of her uncle Philippe and the designated heir. His father was still alive but was profoundly deaf, and only two years younger than his brother, it seemed unlikely that he would ever succeed his brother. Clémentine’s father was in favour of a match between the cousins as it would combine the two branches of the family. Baudouin was fond of his cousin, but it really ended there. As Baudouin’s 21st birthday approached, Clémentine began to hope for an engagement. “How much do I wish this!'”, she wrote but his birthday passed without an engagement. Then tragedy struck, on 23 January 1891, Baudouin died of endocarditis. Clémentine wrote to Stéphanie, “I thought I was going crazy. I rushed to mamma and embraced her, but I tried to repress my pain in her presence as to not add to hers. Later I cried my heart out. Poor Toni was very upset and moved heaven and earth to get me out of bed and dressed. She is so good and comforts me without stopping. I suffer terribly, a lot more than I can say. Knowing that I will never see him again, he who I loved so much, that he is gone, I can not believe it. I was teasing him a few days ago and laughing with him”3
Clémentine, now at an age where both her sisters were married, was stuck with her jealous and controlling mother. She was not even allowed to pick what she would wear. “I can see the best years of my life flow away, either in sadness, because he who made my life happy is no longer here, or as a servant of my mother.”4 The gardens of the Palace of Laeken became Clémentine’s refuge. At the end of 1894, she received a carriage and horses from her father, and she was now able to go out riding without her mother. Slowly but surely, she entangled herself from her mother. Her father allowed her to spent part of the summer with him in Ostend, and her own apartments were enlarged.
As the years passed by, Clémentine remained unhappily unmarried, but the end was in sight. His name was Prince Victor Bonaparte, Prince Napoléon, and she had met him occasionally over the years. “He is quite nice”, Clémentine wrote in 1888.5 However, standing up to her father would be no easy task. He was fervently against the match. The King was furious and threatened Clémentine. She would need to hang on for another six years before the match could take place. On 17 December 1909, her father died at the age of 74, and he was succeeded by her cousin and the younger brother of Baudouin, now King Albert I, who agreed to the match. Clémentine was 38 years old when the wedding finally took place on 14 November 1910. She was anxious to start a family.
Her wish was granted and on 20 March 1912, she gave birth to a daughter named Marie Clotilde. It was not the much-wanted heir, but Clémentine and the baby were both healthy. On 23 January 1914, she gave birth to a son named Louis. Despite a difficult birth, Clémentine recovered quickly. The year 1914 marked the start of the First World War and Clémentine spent many hours in hospitals. Her charity work did not end after the end of the war, and even her husband joined in. After the death of Empress Eugénie, the couple inherited Farnborough Hill in the United Kingdom, and Clémentine redecorated the interior to her own tastes. She enjoyed living there.
Tragedy struck in 1926 when Victor was struck by a stroke. He hovered between life and death for a week before dying on 3 May. He was just 63 years old. Her 12-year-old son would now carry on the Imperial torch. After the death of her husband, she and her sister Stéphanie became closer once more. Much had happened in Stéphanie’s life as well. After her first husband’s suicide, she had remarried in 1900 to Count Elemér Lónyay de Nagy-Lónya et Vásáros-Namény, and the relationship with her own family deteriorated as a result. Clémentine and Stéphanie had not seen each other in 12 years, but now they would see each other on a regular basis.
In 1938, her daughter married Count Serge de Witt, a Russian man. Clémentine was amazed, “This man followed my daughter down the street, talked to her, and now…. they are engaged.”6 They would give her ten grandchildren. During the Second World War, her son was injured, making Clémentine quite proud, though very worried as well. In 1949, he married Alix de Foresta, the daughter of Count Alberic de Foresta. They would give her five grandchildren. Meanwhile, Clémentine’s health had been declining steadily. Her favourite sister Stéphanie had died in 1945.
Clémentine died on 8 March 1955 at the age of 82 in a rented villa north of Nice.
- Dominique Paoli, Prinses Clémentine. De strijd om het geluk p.19
- Dominique Paoli, Prinses Clémentine. De strijd om het geluk p.26
- Dominique Paoli, Prinses Clémentine. De strijd om het geluk p.34-35
- Dominique Paoli, Prinses Clémentine. De strijd om het geluk p.43
- Dominique Paoli, Prinses Clémentine. De strijd om het geluk p.87
- Dominique Paoli, Prinses Clémentine. De strijd om het geluk p.194