Mathilde of Belgium at Forty

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Crown Prince Mathilde of Belgium’s fortieth birthday provided a moment to reflect on the life and work of one of the most discreet and elegant of royal consorts. Mathilde is in many ways a throwback to an earlier generation, a somewhat more conservative incarnation of royal wife and mother. Which is not to say she is anything but a contemporary and liberated woman who has also pursued her own career and interests. Mathilde was born on 20 January 1973 in the Belgium municipality of Uccle to the nobleman Count Patrick d’Udekem d’Acoz and his Polish born wife Countess Anna Maria d’Udekem d’Acoz (née Countess Anna Maria Komorowska). They had five children: Mathilde (b. 20 January 1973); Jonkvrouw Marie-Alix (b. 5 September 1974 – d. 14 August 1997 in a car accident together with her maternal grandmother); Countess Hélène (b. 17 January 1977, married Margrave Alfonso Pallavicini on 22 July 2006); Countess Elisabeth (b. 22 September 1979 – married Baron Nicolas Janssen on 11 June 2011); Count Charles-Henri (b. 14 May 1985). Historically Belgium’s nobility were mainly Roman Catholic and royalist. In a bilingual country with a majority of around sixty per cent Dutch-speakers, the nobility were also usually French speakers, although many were also fluent in Dutch and other languages. Princess Mathilde provides an excellent example, speaking her country’s two main languages as well as English, Italian and some Spanish. With royalty increasingly marrying commoners, the aristocratic Princess Mathilde has become something of a rarity. But at the time it was not surprising that Crown Prince Philippe could find a bride amongst the nation’s nobility. In the Kingdom of Belgium there are around 1300 titled families, with some 20,000 members. There are no longer legal privileges reserved for the nobility but they still belong to society’s elite, playing important roles in business and government. It was natural for the Crown Prince to find love within his own milieu.

In 1996 Crown Prince Philippe met the then 23-year-old Mathilde d’Udekem d’Acoz while playing tennis. Their courtship was extremely discreet and the announcement of their engagement three years later caused quite a sensation. Mathilde soon won over hearts and minds and was looked on as the ideal bride for the reticent Philippe. And as a future queen consort it was hoped she could appeal as a symbol of unity for the nation. Philippe and Mathilde were married on 4 December 1999 in Brussels. The civil ceremony was held at Brussels Town Hall, the religious at the Cathedral of Saint Michel and Saint Gudula. In the thirteen years since her wedding Princess Mathilde has lived up to the considerable expectations placed upon her. At her husband’s side she has worked to enhance the image of Belgium and promote national commercial and economic interests around the world. She has also continued to work in her area of special interest: working with vulnerable people, in particular children. In December 2000 the ‘Fund Princess Mathilde’ was founded, its work to identify projects that will make a difference in helping disadvantaged people. Another area given high priority by Mathilde is education, particularly its role in empowering women and fighting illiteracy. In May 2002, Mathilde was amongst the Belgian delegation at the UN Conference on Children in New York and since 2009 she has been the Honorary President of Unicef Belgium. Amongst a variety of roles at the UN?level Princess Mathilde has also become a UNICEF and UNAIDS special representative for their world campaign for orphans and other vulnerable children affected or infected by HIV/AIDS. For the Crown Princess turning forty is an opportunity to look back on a solid and impressive set of achievements and, of course, her marriage and the joy of her four children. It has been a seamless performance, at least to the outside observer: Mathilde is as professional as she is dedicated. But turning forty is not just about taking stock, it is also a moment to look forwards.

For Belgium and its monarchy the future is an uncertain prospect. The long standing tensions between Dutch speaking Flanders and French speaking Wallonia are more apparent than ever. The country is locked in a chronic political crisis which has recently left it without a government for a record one and a half years. And King Albert?II’s recent attempt to stand up to the separatists may have backfired. In his Christmas speech Albert said: “In these troubled times we live in, we should remain vigilant and see through populist arguments”. Populists were, he said, trying to find scapegoats for the crisis, “whether foreigners or compatriots from another part of the country . . . the crisis of the 1930s and the populist reactions of that time must not be forgotten.” King Albert’s shot across the bows was not taken well by the leading separatist party, the New?Flemish Alliance, which has made significant gains in recent elections and is now the largest Flemish speaking political party. Party leader Bart de Wever responded by calling for the monarch’s role in the formation of Belgian governments to be curtailed as he “could no longer see the monarch as playing the constitutional role of referee.” A provocative response given that Belgian unity is tightly bound to the monarchy under which it gained its independence.

For monarchists another problematic question arises. King Albert is a consummate political player but he is seventy-eight years old and at some point in the relatively near future the burden of monarchy will fall to his son Crown Prince Philippe. King Albert as heir presumptive succeeded his brother, King Baudoin?in 1993, because at the time the 31 year-old Prince Philippe, who had been groomed for the role from birth, was thought to have insufficient experience. Inexperience is no longer an issue and the Crown Prince has been a steadfast public servant, but does he have the strength of character for the task ahead? This too is part of the national debate. A weak monarch amidst rising tides of separatism is the fear; although Philippe has not yet been given the chance to prove his critics wrong. The monarchy has always been the focal point of national history and unity, however fractious this has been at times. What role the monarchy plays in the country’s future and what sort of monarch Crown Prince Philippe will be is uncertain. It does, however, seem certain that his consort will be called upon to help him make the case for monarchy and unity. (Extract from Royalty Magazine Vol 22/11)