Queen Astrid of the Belgians was born a Royal Princess of Sweden. She married Prince Leopold of Belgium who would later become King Leopold III of the Belgians. She died aged 29 in a car accident in Switzerland while the Royal Family was on a holiday at their residence near Lake Lucerne.
If you thought that the death of Princess Diana was exceptional and that it’s aftermath of generally expressed grief had been a first in history, I would like to correct your perception. When Queen Astrid of the Belgians died in a car accident in 1935, the outpouring of grief in Belgium and in Switzerland was of equal if not greater dimension.
Queen Astrid was born as the youngest daughter of Prince Carl of Sweden and Princess Ingeborg of Denmark in 1905. In 1926, she married the future King Leopold of the Belgians. With him she had three children, Josephine-Charlotte (later Grand-Duchess of Luxembourg), the late King Baudouin, and the recently retired King Albert II.
The Royal Family had a much loved summer residence near Lucerne in Switzerland to which they traveled every year. But it was not such a lucky retreat for the family. Leopold’s father, King Albert I, died there after a climbing accident in 1934. With the further tragic accident on August 29th, 1935, the Royal Family sold the residence and it was later demolished.
Queen Astrid had been very well loved in Belgium where she had engaged in charity work for the poor. Belgium was at rock bottom due to the Great Depression of 1929 and the then Princess Astrid organized the collection of clothing and food at the palace in Brussels for redistribution. Her death plunged all of Belgium into deep mourning.
The Swiss government donated the land on which the accident had happened to the Kingdom of Belgium. With money contributed by the Belgian people, a cross from Swedish granite was erected on the spot where the Queen had died. Beside it, the Queen Astrid Chapel was built. The chapel was erected using only Belgian materials and artisans. All transport and travel costs were met by the French and the Swiss governments.
The constant flow of visitors to the chapel since it was built in 1936 was a major problem for the nearby village of Küssnacht am Rigi. In 1960, the chapel was therefore moved 30 meters to stand directly on the shores of Lake Lucerne. The new placement allowed the building of a dedicated parking area for visitors.
The chapel contains several artful colored glass windows, three of which show portraits of the Queen. The chapel’s single bell shows the inscription ‘Plango Astridam, Belgarum Regina quae hie perit 1935 actate 29’ (I mourn for Astrid, Queen of the Belgians, who died here in 1935 at the age of 29).
Swiss local authorities hold a memorial service every year on August 29th. In 1985, Grand-Duchess Josephine-Charlotte of Luxembourg, King Baudouin of the Belgians, and Prince Albert landed at the nearby military base of Emmen to take part in the service. In 2010, King Albert II attended again. But the memorial services are held independently from any Royal attendance as a show of respect towards the well-loved Queen. If you visit the Queen Astrid Chapel, remember that you are walking on Belgian soil when doing so.