Belgium · Pocket Profiles

Pocket Profile – Lilian, Princess of Réthy

We have another controversial royal onboard today, folks, so let’s tighten our grips on our sceptors and wade on in.

Lilian, Princess of Réthy, was born Mary Lilian Henriette Lucie Josephine Ghislaine Baels in London, England in 1916. Her parents were migrants, who had fled Belgium during World War I. Lilian was one of their nine children. She began her education in England and continued it in Belgium, where her parents eventually settled. She became fluent in English, Dutch, French, and German.

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During World War II, in their capacity as Red Cross volunteers, Lilian and her mother transported wounded Allied soldiers to hospitals during the Belgian and Allied campaigns against the Nazis. Lilian’s father, Henri Baels, was the Governor of West Flanders. He spent most of the war living in France, but after the conflict was accused of collaboration with the Nazis. Although the accusations were eventually disproven, the family scandal would follow Lilian throughout her life.

Her family was acquainted with her future husband, King Leopold III of Belgium, and she met him several times during her adolescence. In 1941, Lilian visited Laeken Castle, where King Leopold III was being held by the Germans under house arrest. The couple fell ln love and were wed in a secret ceremony in September of 1941. The marriage was accepted within the family but was not popular with the Belgian public, who felt the King betrayed the memory of the beloved Princess Astrid. There was also unhappiness about Lilian herself, who was viewed as a controversial social climber.

Fast Fact: Astrid, Queen of the Belgians, was King Leopold’s first wife. Born a princess of Sweden, she was beloved by her adopted country of Belgium. At her wedding, she was named “Bride of the Snows” by the press. Her death, in a car accident in 1935, left the country bereft. Tens of thousands turned out for her funeral. Her tragically young death left a legacy that hung over Lilian and Leopold for their entire lives.

The couple, who by now had a child, were eventually deported to Germany, and then Austria, and held prisoner for the duration of the war. They were in constant fear of their captors, and of the fighting that surrounded them. Even the liberation by the allies did not free them, for King Leopold was accused of Nazi collaboration and premature surrender to the invaders in 1940. The King was eventually cleared of charges, but he never was able to shake off his unpopularity. He abdicated in 1951 in favor of his oldest son from his first marriage, Baudouin.

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Lilian, who had what some would describe as a stern and unyielding personality, was never popular with her subjects. She was, however, considered a good friend, and an excellent wife. She and Leopold had three children:

She acted as a fashionable, stylish First Lady to the nation up until her stepson’s marriage to Doña Fabiola de Mora y Aragón in 1960.

The relationship between Fabiola and Lilian was never close. Some have described it as downright contentious. Neither woman spoke publicly about it, but Lilian and Leopold did move from the inner circles of the royal family to Argenteuil, Belgium, and the two women were only seen together in public once in later years, at the funeral of Queen Elisabeth. Lilian and Leopold spent much of the rest of their married life traveling the world extensively.

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Lilian amassed an extensive wardrobe from some of the top designers of the 20th century. After her death in 2002, her wardrobe was displayed at the Natan offices prior to auction at Sotheby’s. Below is a quote from Kerry Taylor, the specialist who was in charge of the auction.

The collection, which was maintained to perfection and stored in more than 20 wardrobes, features exquisite items capturing the distinctive styles of the early 50s, groovy 60s, and classic 70s. With more than 200 pairs of shoes, 100 hats, 400 pairs of gloves, riding habits and boots in every colour and fabric, handbags by Hermès, pairs of silk stockings in original wrappers, and delicate handkerchiefs, no detail was considered too small. 

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Kerry Taylor, specialist in charge of the sale, said: “Princess Lilian had close relationships with all of her couturiers and their vendeuses, and was one of Dior’s first clients. This combination resulted in a splendid wardrobe and I doubt I will ever see another collection which is so diverse, stylish and in pristine condition. The quality of the gowns is astonishing and reflects an age of elegance when a woman’s primary interest was to look good and go shopping. As Consort to King Leopold III of Belgium, it was important that she dressed to befit her status and wore lavish gowns for official occasions. Once worn, these gowns were set aside and carefully maintained by her maid, Madame Jeanine. 

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“Although the collection includes dozens of museum-quality pieces such as an Yves Saint Laurent for Christian Dior silver satin gown dating from 1958 (est: L5,000-6,000), there are many affordable and understated clothes by Givenchy and Balenciaga with estimates starting at just L200. An example of a very wearable ensemble is a delightful lemon wool suit by Chanel, with ikat silk contrasts, dating from the late 1950s (est: L600-800).” 

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There you have it: a complicated and controversial woman. A woman of style, of convictions, and of great resilence. Not a fairy princess story, but definitely an interesting one.