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The Kings of the Belgians

Kings of Belgium

As a companion article to my recent History of Belgium, I thought it would be interesting and useful to introduce you to the Kings of the Belgians (to give them their official title). Since 1830, when Belgium became independent from the Netherlands, seven kings have ruled over the nation. Unfortunately they have all been men, but thankfully the next monarch is due to be a woman. Who were these rulers, and what did they do for Belgium? What specific challenges did they face? What’s their family situation, and what’s a little-known fact about each of them?

Leopold I (1831-1865): The Visionary Builder

Leopold I (1790-1865), the inaugural monarch of Belgium, was chosen by the National Congress after Belgium gained independence from the Netherlands. He was a German prince who had married the daughter of the British King George IV. He fought against Napoleon in the Napoleonic Wars. He was a wise and diplomatic ruler who helped Belgium prosper and maintain its neutrality in European affairs. He also supported the exploration of Africa by his nephew, Leopold II.

Leopold I
Leopold I
  • Wives: (1) Charlotte of Wales, whom he married in 1816; she died in 1817 after giving birth to a stillborn son. (2) Louise of Orléans (married 1832).
  • Children: Louis-Philippe (who became King Leopold II of the Belgians); Prince Philippe (Count of Flanders); Princess Charlotte (Empress Carlota of Mexico); and Prince Leopold (Duke of Brabant) who died at a young age.
  • Also: He had two illegitimate sons by his mistress Arcadie Meyer: George and Arthur.
  • Do you know that Leopold I was the uncle of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and the father-in-law of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. Before becoming the King of the Belgians, he was offered and declined the throne of Greece.

Leopold II (1865-1909): The Empire Builder

Leopold II (1835-1909) was the second King of the Belgians and the son of Leopold I. He was an ambitious and ruthless monarch who expanded Belgium’s influence in Africa. He founded and exploited the Congo Free State, a vast territory that he claimed as his personal property. He amassed a huge fortune from the ivory and rubber trade, but also committed atrocities against the Congolese people. Leopold I was widely criticized for his colonial policies and eventually had to cede the Congo to the Belgian government. He modernized Belgium’s infrastructure and urban development; achievements included the construction of iconic structures like the Cinquantenaire Park and the Royal Greenhouses.

Leopold II
Leopold II
  • Wife: Marie Henriette of Austria of Habsburg-Lorraine, Arch-Duchess of Austria.
  • Children: Louise-Marie (1858-1924), Leopold (1859-1869), Stephanie (1864-1945), Clementine (1872-1955).
  • Also: Leopold II had many mistresses, including – when he was 65 – a 16-year-old French prostitute who bore him two sons: Lucien Philippe Marie Antoine (Duke of Tervuren), and Philippe Henri Marie François (Count of Ravenstein).
  • Do you know that King Leopold II amassed a fortune estimated in the region of $500 million, which would have made him the wealthiest person on the planet. However, his colonial exploits came at a terrible price: it’s estimated that around ten million Congolese lives were lost under his cruel regime.

Albert I (1909-1934): The Warrior King

Albert I (1875-1934) was the third King of the Belgians and the nephew of Leopold II. He was a brave and popular king who led Belgium during World War I. He refused to surrender to the German invasion and fought alongside his soldiers in the trenches, earning him the moniker “The Knight King.” He also defended Belgium’s sovereignty and interests at the Paris Peace Conference. He was a patron of the arts and sciences and a supporter of social reforms. He married a Bavarian princess and had three children. He died in a mountaineering accident in the Ardennes.

King Albert of Belgium
Albert I
  • Wife: Elisabeth of Bavaria
  • Children: Leopold (1901-1983), the future Leopold III; Charles (1903-1983), Count of Flanders and the future Regent; and Marie-José (1906-2001), Queen of Italy.
  • Do you know that King Albert I was an avid mountaineer and made several ascents in the Alps, including the Matterhorn. He even explored the Himalayas, making a significant contribution to the scientific understanding of the region, and visited the Arctic.

Leopold III (1934-1951): The Controversial Monarch

The fourth King of the Belgians and the son of Albert I, Leopold III (1901-1983) was a controversial and divisive king who faced many challenges during his reign. He tried to keep Belgium neutral in World War II, but was forced to surrender to the Nazis and was held prisoner for most of the war. He also married a second time, to a commoner, without the consent of his government or his people. After the war, he faced a political crisis and a popular uprising that demanded his abdication. He eventually agreed to step down in favor of his son, Baudouin.

Leopold III King of the Belgians
Leopold III
  • Wives: (1) Princess Astrid of Sweden (deceased);  (2) Lilian Baels
  • Children: With Astrid: Princess Josephine-Charlotte, Grand-Duchess of Luxembourg; Prince Baudouin, future King of the Belgians; Albert, future King of the Belgians. With Lilian: Alexandre, Marie-Christine and Marie-Esmeralda.
  • Note: King Leopold III’s second marriage to Lilian Baels was morganatic, meaning that his children from this marriage did not have rights to the throne.
  • Do you know that Leopold III was a keen botanist and photographer who discovered several new plant species and published several books on nature.

Baudouin I (1951-1993): The Gentle Sovereign

Baudouin (1930-1993) was the fifth King of the Belgians and the eldest son of Leopold III. He was a devout and dignified king who restored the prestige and popularity of the monarchy. He was a symbol of national unity and a mediator of political conflicts. Baudouin oversaw the transition of Belgium from a unitary state to a federal one, granting more autonomy to the Flemish and Walloon regions. He died of heart failure while on holiday in Spain.

Baudouin King of the Belgians
  • Wife: Fabiola de Mora y Aragón (1928-2014).
  • Children: None.
  • Do you know that Baudouin was deeply religious, and he faced a constitutional crisis in 1990 when he refused to give royal assent to a law legalizing abortion in Belgium, citing his personal religious beliefs. As a result, he temporarily abdicated in favor of his younger brother, Albert II.

Albert II (1993-2013): The Bridge Builder

The sixth King of the Belgians, Albert II (born 1934) was the younger brother of Baudouin. He was a friendly and approachable king who continued the role of his brother as a unifying figure and a facilitator of dialogue. He represented Belgium on the international stage and promoted its interests and values. He abdicated in 2013 due to his age and health problems, and also amid a scandal involving a paternity lawsuit.

Albert II
Albert II
  • Wife: Donna Paola Ruffo di Calabria (born 1937).
  • Children: Prince Philippe (born 1960), Princess Astrid (born 1962) and Prince Laurent (born 1963).
  • Also: Delphine Boël, now known as Princess Delphine of Belgium, was born from Albert II’s extramarital relationship with Baroness Sybille de Selys Longchamps. After a legal battle, in October 2020 she was lawfully recognized as Princess of Belgium with the style “Her Royal Highness”.
  • Do you know that Albert II participated in the 24 hour Le Mans car race? He was a co-driver of a Ferrari 250 GT SWB with Belgian racing driver Olivier Gendebien in the 1960 edition. They finished in 12th place overall and 3rd in the GT 3.0 class.

Philippe (2013-Present): The Forward-Looking King

Philippe (born 1960) is the seventh and current King of the Belgians and the son of Albert II. He is a modern and progressive king who is committed to the welfare and development of his country and its people. He is a champion of environmental and humanitarian causes and a supporter of innovation and diversity.

Philippe, current King of the Belgians
  • Wife: Mathilde d’Udekem d’Acoz.
  • Children: Elisabeth, Duchess of Brabant (born 2001) and heiress to the throne; Gabriel (born 2003); Emmanuel (born 2005); and Eléonore (born 2008).
  • Do you know that King Philippe King is the first Crown Prince not to receive private education and to follow a classical and bilingual educational path in primary and secondary schools in Belgium. Interested in aerospace since childhood, he joined the Air Force, where he qualified as a fighter pilot before completing his military training with a certification as a parachutist and a commando.

Addendum: Prince Charles, Regent of Belgium

From 20 September 1944 to 20 July 1950, Prince Charles, Count of Flanders, served as Regent of Belgium while the Belgian government was investigating his older brother, King Leopold III, for cooperating with the Nazis. He seemingly did a good job, leading Belgium in reviving its economy, and giving women the right to vote. Also during his regency the Benelux customs union was formed, Belgium became a member state of the United Nations, and the North Atlantic Treaty was signed.

Charles Regent of Belgium 1944 - 1950
Charles, Regent of Belgium

Charles’ role as Regent ended on 20 July 1950 when King Leopold II abdicated. Charles retired from public life, taking up residence in Ostend and becoming involved in artistic pursuits. Having taken up painting, he signed his works: “Karel van Vlaanderen” (Charles of Flanders). He lived to the age of 79 and died in Ostend just a few months before his older brother in 1983.

I hope you enjoyed this tour of the Kings of the Belgians. Following a suggestion in the comments below I have now written a post on the Queens of Belgium. I hope you have paid attention to both and that you are now ready to complete the Belgian Monarchy Quiz!

10 thoughts on “The Kings of the Belgians”

  1. Thank you for another great piece of research, Denzil. Warm wishes to you, your family and friends for Xmas and for 2024!

  2. An excellent synopsis so I can keep them all straight. Might I request a dip into the history of the queens? I respect so much that Elizabeth and Fabiola were such arts patrons.

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