“I was born a King’s daughter. I shall die a King’s daughter.”1
Louise Marie Amélie of Belgium was born on 18 February 1858 as the eldest child of King Leopold II of Belgium and his wife, Marie Henriette of Austria. She was not the longed-for male heir, but a little brother named Leopold was born the following year, followed by a sister named Stéphanie in 1864 and another sister named Clémentine in 1872. As the eldest child, she was expected to set the example for her younger siblings. The children were raised in the English fashion with very sober bedrooms.
Life changed forever when young Leopold fell into a pond and developed pneumonia. He died on 22 January 1869 at the age of 9 – leaving behind a devastated family. Her mother never quite recovered, and it left her father without an heir as Belgium did not allow women to ascend the throne at that time. Louise later wrote of her little brother, “Leopold, handsome, sweet, sincere, tender and intelligent, embodied for me, after our mother, all that was most precious in the world – I could no more conceive existence without him than the day without light. But he could not stay… and I still weep for him, although it is more than fifty years since he left me.”2
Louise’s relationship with her father was distant, and she always some him more as her King than as her father. She was a bit close to her mother, and she enjoyed going out on drives with her. She loved living at the Castle of Laeken with its gardens and open space. During her education, she received the nickname “Madame Pourquoi (Miss why)” because she always asked a lot of questions.
Louise was still only 15 years old when she was officially betrothed to her second cousin, Prince Philipp of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who was also 14 years older than her. He had already proposed twice before, but her father had advised him to travel first. He disliked the match but her mother like Philipp because it would allow Louise to live at the Austrian court. They were married on 4 February 1875 in Brussels by Mayor Jules Anspach. Louise had been left uninformed of what would happen during the wedding night. She later wrote in her memoirs, “I fell from my heaven of love to what was for me a bed of rock and a mattress of thorns.”3 After Philipp left in the early morning, Louise fled outside in her nightgown, cloak and slippers to hide in the Orangery amongst the camellias. As she wrote, “I whispered my grief, my despair, and my torture to their whiteness, their freshness, their perfume and their purity, to all that they represented of sweetness and affection, as they flowered in the greenhouse, and lit up the winter’s dawn with a warmth, silence and beauty which me back a little of my lost Paradise.”4 She was found by a sentry who brought her back to the apartments where her mother was waiting for her.
But as Louise calmed down from a nightmarish night, her departure from Belgium was being prepared. She was not allowed to bring any of her own maids with her and so left Belgium young, frightened and alone with a man she barely knew. During the early weeks of their marriage, Philipp forced her to drink more than she was used to and often made dirty jokes at her expense. On 19 July 1879, Louise gave birth to her first child – a son named Leopold. A daughter named Dorothea was born on 30 April 1881. Louise had not wanted Philipp to be present at the birth of Dorothea and hid her labour pains for as long as she could. When a midwife was finally fetched for Louise, she arrived too late, as did Philipp.
When Louise arrived at the Imperial Court of Emperor Franz Joseph and his dazzling wife Elisabeth (Sisi), she was most impressed by the Emperor. However, she would later write, “At his birth, nature deprived him of a heart. He was an emperor, but he was not a man. He is best described as an automaton dressed as a soldier.”5 Her own sister would also come to know the Austrian court quite well. In 1881, Stéphanie married the Emperor’s only son Crown Prince Rudolf. After one of the Emperor’s brothers accused her of keeping bad company – which she absolutely denied – and the Emperor sided with his brother, Louise lost the Imperial favour, much to Philipp’s anger. Louise demanded that he would defend her honour by duelling with the Emperor’s brother, which he refused to do. Louise then told him they should travel for a year, “and if at the end of that time we have not found a better way of living together we will part; you must go your way, and I will go mine.”6
A divorce seemed like it would be impossible. Louise and Philipp began to lead separate lives, and both had lovers. But while it was almost expected of Philipp to have affairs, Louise’s affairs were scandalized. One of her first lovers was Baron Nicolas Döry de Jobahàsa, but the affair was abruptly ended when the family learned of it. Louise began to live an extravagant lifestyle, racking up debt. She set her heart upon a divorce when she found love with Count Geza Mattachich. Louise took her daughter Dorothea and left for France to be with the Count. It even came to a duel between Philipp and the Count. Louise wanted to flee to England to seek the protection of Queen Victoria, but she ended up going to Croatia, to the home of the Count’s stepfather. She believed herself to be safe there and continued her quest for a divorce. The Count was eventually arrested for fraud, apparently for forged bills which Louise thought was an “invention.”7 Louise too was snatched from her bed and taken to the Doebling Lunatic Asylum where she was put in a cell. Her husband gave her an ultimatum, return to him or remain in the asylum. She chose the latter.
She later wrote in her memoirs of her time in several asylums, “At Doebling, and afterwards, at Purkesdorf, my tortures would have been beyond human endurance if I alone had been obliged to suffer. But with the hope of Divine justice, the knowledge that another was submitting to a worse punishment solely on my account gave me strength to endure. The loss of honour is as terrible as the loss of reason.”8
- My own affairs by Louise of Belgium p. 236
- My own affairs by Louise of Belgium p. 52
- My own affairs by Louise of Belgium p. 61
- My own affairs by Louise of Belgium p. 61
- My own affairs by Louise of Belgium p. 84
- My own affairs by Louise of Belgium p. 91
- My own affairs by Louise of Belgium p. 178
- My own affairs by Louise of Belgium p. 189