The origins of Belgium
Belgium is a comparatively modern nation whose origins lie in the Netherlands, being that conglomeration of sundry duchies, counties and lordships accumulated by the Valois Dukes of Burgundy and their Habsburg successors during the course of the 14th and 15th centuries. In the 16th century this Netherlands came into the possession of Philip II of Spain who faced a serious revolt against his rule, where the fortunes of war eventually resulted in northern provinces establishing their independence as the United Provinces, whilst the southern provinces remained in the possession of Spain and thus became known as the Spanish Netherlands and later the Austrian Netherlands.
This remained the situation until the end of the 18th century when both the United Provinces and their southern neighbour were over-run by France. At the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars the Congress of Vienna decided on the 9th June 1815 to create the Kingdom of the Netherlands, uniting the old Protestant United Provinces with the Roman Catholic Spanish/Austrian Netherlands. Unfortunately the southern provinces resented the domination of their Protestant and Dutch speaking neighbours and rebelled in 1830 asserting their independence and named their new nation Belgium. The major European Powers recognised Belgium’s independence in the November of that year, and the newly autonomous Belgians decided on a constitutional monarchy as the most suitable form of government and therefore went in search of a suitably qualified individual to serve as their king.
The first King of the Belgians
The leading candidates for this post were Louise of Orleans, Duke of Nemours, (and son of the French king Louis-Philippe) and a gentleman named Maximilian de Beauharnais, the Duke of Leuchtenberg, who was a grandson of both the Empress Josephine (from her first marriage and not her second to Napoleon Bonaparte) and Maximilian I of Bavaria. The Belgian government plumped for Louise of Orleans, but unfortunately the other European powers were generally unhappy with the idea, and the British government openly opposed the idea of a member of the French royal family occupying the Belgian throne.
Faced with such opposition Louis of Orleans decided to refuse the Belgian offer. So the Belgians thought again and this time came up with the name of Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. This choice was perfectly acceptable to the British as Leopold had previously been married to Princess Charlotte daughter of George, Prince of Wales (she died in childbirth in 1817) and what is more his sister Victoria had married Edward, Duke of Kent, which marriage had produced a daughter named Victoria who became Queen Victoria of Great Britain in 1837.
And so it came to pass that on the 31st July 1831, Leopold formally swore allegiance to Belgian constitution, and became the first ever King of the Belgians, although the Dutch government still refused to accept the idea of Belgian independence and sent an army to recover the rebel provinces. But with military support from both the British and the French (the latter sent an army to defend Antwerp) the Belgians were able to hold on without too much trouble. But it wasn't until the Treaty of London of the 19th April 1839 that king William I of the Netherlands finally accepted a settlement and the independent and neutral state of Belgium came into being.
The House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
Although they had been denied the Belgian throne the French house of Bourbon-Orleans did manage to establish a close link to the new kingdom as Leopold I married Louise-Marie of Bourbon-Orleans, eldest daughter of the French king Louis-Philippe on the 9 August 1832. This marriage produced three sons and a daughter, and since the eldest boy Louis Philippe Leopold, died before his first birthday it was the second son Leopold Louis who became king Leopold II after his father's death on the 10th December 1865.
It was Leopold II who most notably came to the conclusion that Belgium should have its own African colony just like all the other European powers, and therefore in 1876 organised the International Association for the Exploration and Civilization of the Congo which led to the establishment of the Congo Free State in 1884. However the Congo Free State was anything but free for most of its citizens and was essentially Leopold's own personal slave state which allowed him to amass a significant personal fortune. This was rather too much for public opinion both at home and abroad and eventually Leopold was forced to surrender the colony to the Belgian government in 1908.
Leopold was twice married and had six children. However the legal status of his second marriage was questionable and his only legitimate son (as far as the succession was concerned) had died aged nine in 1869 and so he was succeeded by his nephew Albert, the only surviving son of Philippe Eugene Ferdinand the third of Leopold I's three sons.
Albert I had the misfortune to be king when the German army came marching across the border in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. But although most of Belgium was occupied by Germany during the conflict, Albert spent the whole war at the head of his army and gained a considerable reputation for his dogged refusal to submit to German aggression. He of course recovered his country and throne at the conclusion of the war but was later killed in a climbing accident at Marche-les-Dames in the Belgian province of Namur on the 17th February 1934.
Having married Elisabeth Gabriele daughter of Karl Theodor, the Duke of Bavaria he was succeeded by his son Leopold. Like his father Leopold III found himself having to lead the Belgian army against a German invasion, however unlike his father he decided to surrender on the 28th May 1940 despite the advice of his government who wanted to continue the fight. Leopold spent the whole war imprisoned at Laken Castle until liberated by the Allied invasion in 1945. Despite the fact that he'd refused to co-operate with the Nazis at the conclusion of the war he was accused of treason, collaboration and generally pro-fascist sympathies, and so the Belgian parliament refused him permission to remain to the country. Hence although Leopold remained the titular king, his brother Charles carried out the all his royal duties in his capacity as regent.
This remained the situation until 1950 when the Belgians held a referendum which returned a slim majority in favour of Leopold's return. Leopold therefore came back to Belgium to resume the throne, but such was the scale of opposition from the large minority who had opposed him that he decided to abdicate in July 1951 in favour of his son Baudouin.
Badouin married a Spanish noblewoman by the name of Fabiola de Mora of Aragón, a daughter of the Marques de Casa Riera but the marriage was childless and so with Baudouin's death from a heart attack whilst on holiday in Spain on the 31st July 1993 he was succeeded by his younger brother Albert Felix Humbert.
Albert II or Albert Felix Humbert Theodore Christian Eugene Marie of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to give him his full name remains the current king of the Belgians. He married Donna Paola Ruffo of Calabria in 1959; they have three children including two sons, the eldest of whom Philippe Leopold Louis is the heir apparent to the throne.
THE KINGS OF THE BELGIANS
House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
- Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
- Arturo Beéche The Royal House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha
- Robert Warholm The Belgian Kings