VUB investigates royal deaths and funerals

VUB investigates royal deaths and funerals

Researcher finds that the funerals of the first Belgian royal couple created a great sense of solidarity – but those of the second royal couple failed to do so

New historical research at VUB shows how royal deaths and funerals were significant national and political events right from the early days of the Belgian nation state, which became increasingly filtered through the media. In his PhD, Christoph De Spiegeleer notes that already after the death of the popular Queen Louise-Marie (+1850), the press placed great emphasis on the sense of belonging and sincere mourning. Belgium’s vulnerable geopolitical situation played a clear role in the rise of patriotic solidarity in the aftermath of the death of Leopold I (+1865) as founder of the dynasty. At the funerals of the second royal couple, King Leopold II (+1909) and Queen Marie-Henriette (+1902), things were different. De Spiegeleer: “Particular attention was paid to the way in which Leopold II, both at the death of his wife, Queen Marie-Henriette, and on his own deathbed, completely disregarded the ideal image of the faithful husband and loving father. The funeral ceremonies at the beginning of the 20th century were described in the press as banal spectacles that only interested spectators driven by curiosity.”

For his doctorate under the direction of Professor Jeffrey Tyssens, De Spiegeleer researched the treatment of the death, burial and commemoration of a defined group of elite figures between 1830 and 1940, a total of 170 people, including 11 members of the royal family. He studied the relationship between the monarchy and Belgian society at the time of royal deaths and funerals. De Spiegeleer: “The dynamics between politics, the church, the media and the royal family are particularly pronounced in the event of the death of a king or queen. Just think of the iconic television images of the sea of people who came together for a final tribute to King Baudouin in 1993. The lying in state of ‘Soldier King’ Albert in 1934 already lasted until 3.00. The newspapers reported a tribute that transcended all classes and social groups. The government also attached great importance to the memory of the First World War when organising Albert’s funeral.”

Importance of the final resting place and role of the Church

The last resting place of the Belgian royal family is the crypt of the Church of Our Lady in Laeken. The neo-Gothic church was built from the middle of the 19th century in memory of Queen Louise-Marie. It is less well known that both the French Louise-Marie and Leopold I, whose first wife was buried in Windsor, preferred to be buried abroad. De Spiegeleer: “These wishes were kept quiet by the royal family and government circles so as not to undermine the image of the royal couple who loved their new homeland. It was of course essential from a political and symbolic point of view that the founders of the dynasty were buried in Laeken.”

In 1876 the mortal remains of the royal couple were transferred to the crypt of the new church in Laeken. Part of the crypt remained unconsecrated for the burial of Protestant Leopold I. De Spiegeleer: “The Belgian bishops attached great importance to an ecclesiastical, Catholic, framework for the last hours of the king or queen’s life and their burial ceremonies. They did this in order to strengthen the position of the Catholic Church in the country.” Archbishop Sterckx hoped (in vain) to convert the Lutheran Leopold on his deathbed in 1865. When King Leopold II died in 1909, Archbishop Mercier publicly honoured the controversial monarch for his “Catholic life” and his colonial enterprise that strengthened “Christian civilisation”.

Dealing with the death and memory of Leopold II over time

The research pays special attention to the difficulty of creating a Belgian sense of belonging around the memory of the figure of Leopold II and the role of the emerging mass media in this. De Spiegeleer: “King Leopold II was already a controversial figure during his life, not least because of the scandals surrounding his private life. This did not change with his death and funeral, with rumours in the press about a marriage to his young companion. Obituaries in liberal, Catholic and neutral newspapers placed the private scandals in the shadow of a royalist tribute to the colonial, economic and architectural legacy he left behind. The socialist press, on the other hand, did not shy away from depicting Leopold II as a shrewd capitalist who was responsible for the crimes in the colony.”

When a monumental horseback statue of the monarch was unveiled on Troonplein on King’s Day in 1926, royalists saw this as reparation for the criticism Leopold II had faced at the end of his life. The solemn unveiling of the statue in the presence of the government, King Albert and more than 2,000 Brussels schoolchildren shows how a positive image of the Congo Free State affected the state-approved view of the past during the interwar period. Today a public debate is taking place on whether the statue should be removed. De Spiegeleer: “The memories of public figures are primarily cultural and political constructions that are used for and by the living and are subject to change. The current discussions about the decolonisation of public space are an example of this.”

De Spiegeleer’s PhD research has now been published by VUBPress in book form, in collaboration with heritage organisation Liberas: Le Suprême Hommage. De omgang met de dood van koninklijke en politieke elites in België tussen 1830 en 1940

100 illustrations were collected for the book.

Research is conducted at VUB on the interaction between death and society in various disciplines. For more information, see


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