The birth of Her Royal Highness Princess Astrid Sofia Lovisa Thyra of Sweden in Stockholm on 17th November 1905, was a cause for celebration. As the third daughter of Prince Carl, Duke of Västergötland the brother of the popular Swedish King Gustav V, and his glamorous wife, Princess Ingeborg of Denmark, Astrid was born into a life of immense privilege, but with it, also came certain expectations, such as the idea that when she married, it would most probably be for dynastic reasons, like the union of parents, which though happy, as her mother admitted, ‘I married a complete stranger!’
Her childhood at Arvfurstens palats was an idyllic one, and Astrid, along with her siblings Princesses Margaretha and Märtha, as well as Prince Carl, who was born in 1911, was adored by her parents and the household’s staff, so much so, that the family’s cook created ‘Princess Cake,’ for the youngsters – a cream covered sponge wrapped in green marzipan, which has since become a national favourite.
Considered as a potential bride for the Prince of Wales, it was announced that Astrid was to marry Crown Prince Leopold of Belgium in September 1929, with the Belgian Queen Elisabeth declaring to news reporters who had gathered outside the Royal Palace of Brussels, ‘It is a marriage of love…tell it to our people. Nothing was arranged. Not a single political consideration prevailed in our son’s decision.’
Queen Elisabeth’s assertion was correct and, Astrid and Leopold were infatuated with one another. A civil service took place in Stockholm on 4th November 1926, with another religious one held at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels six days later. Astrid, who had been brought up as a Lutheran would eventually convert to Catholicism in 1930, confessing that ‘My soul has found peace.’
Above: The Royal Wedding in Stockholm (1926)
Admired for her stunning beauty and elegance, Astrid was known as the ‘Snow Princess’ on account of the fact she came from frozen Scandinavian climes, and liked to dress in white. She became a much-loved member of the Belgian Royal Family, with crowds eager to get a glimpse of her and her husband whenever they appeared in public. On 11th October 1927, the couple’s first child, Princess Joséphine Charlotte of Belgium was born. The new Princess was followed by Princes Baudouin on 7th September 1930 and Albert on 6th June 1934.
When the reigning monarch King Albert I was killed in a mountaineering accident on 17th February 1934, Leopold ascended to the throne, making Astrid Queen of the Belgians. One of her first duties as Queen, was to write an open letter urging the collection of provisions for the poor who had been severely affected by the downturn of the country’s economy; the press routinely referred to her letter as the ‘Queen’s Appeal.’
Travelling to Switzerland for a holiday in August 1935, Astrid and Leopold enjoyed their trip so much that they decided to stay on a little longer than they had originally intended. On the morning of the 29th, they set out with plans to go on a final mountain hike before their return to the Belgian capital. As the King drove their Packard One-Twenty through the village of Küssnacht am Rigi, by Lake Lucerne, the vehicle came off the road, hitting a pear tree. Astrid, who had attempted to escape was thrown from it, her body impacting against it with such force that her injuries would prove fatal. Leopold suffered only minor injuries and several cuts to the head. It was alleged that villagers could hear the King’s anguished cries when he realised that Astrid was dead. Their chauffeur, who had sat in the back of the car, was unharmed.
Above: The funeral of Queen Astrid of Belgium (1935)
The captivating Queen’s loss, and the sad reality that three young children were now motherless, gave rise to a period of mourning across Belgium and Sweden. It was also rumoured that Astrid was pregnant again at the time of her death. King Leopold, who was utterly devastated by his wife’s death, had the Packard One-Twenty sunk in Lake Lucerne, and also had the Astrid chapel, erected at the site of the crash. He remarried in September 1941 and went on to have another three children with his second wife, Princess Lilian, who was never permitted to use the title of Queen. After his own death on 25th September 1983, Leopold was interred beside Astrid at the Church of Our Lady of Laeken on the outskirts of Brussels.
In a country famed for its chocolate, there are few greater honours than having a confectionery creation named after you, as the late Queen did with Gianduja Astrid in 1937. Today, eighty year after the tragic accident, Belgium still mourns and remembers the dazzling Swedish Princess, who one day vanished like the snow.
The Temptation of Chocolate – Jacques Mercier (2008)