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Leopold I (December 16, 1790 – December 10, 1865) was a German prince who became the first King of the Belgians following the country’s independence in 1830. He reigned between July 1831 and December 1865.

Leopold was born in Coburg in the tiny German duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld in modern-day Bavaria on 16 December 1790. He was the youngest son of Franz, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and Countess Augusta Reuss-Ebersdorf. In 1826, Saxe-Coburg acquired the city of Gotha from the neighboring Duchy of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg and gave up Saalfeld to Saxe-Meiningen, becoming Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Leopold was the uncle of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

King Leopold I of the Belgians

Leopold took a commission in the Imperial Russian Army and fought against Napoleon after French troops overran Saxe-Coburg during the Napoleonic Wars. After Napoleon’s defeat, Leopold moved to the United Kingdom where he married Princess Charlotte of Wales, who was second in line to the British throne and the only legitimate child of the Prince Regent (the future King George IV) and Caroline of Brunswick daughter of Charles Wilhelm, Duke of Brunswick, and Princess Augusta of Great Britain. Charlotte died after only a year of marriage, while giving birth to a stillborn son, but Leopold continued to enjoy considerable status in Britain.

Princess Charlotte of Wales

After the Greek War of Independence (1821–32), Leopold was offered the crown of Greece but turned it down, believing it to be too precarious. Instead, Leopold accepted the kingship of the newly established Kingdom of Belgium in 1831. The Belgian government offered the position to Leopold because of his diplomatic connections with royal houses across Europe, and because as the British-backed candidate, he was not affiliated with other powers, such as France, which were believed to have territorial ambitions in Belgium which might threaten the European balance of power created by the 1815 Congress of Vienna.

Leopold took his oath as King of the Belgians on July 21, 1831, an event commemorated annually as Belgian National Day.

Princess Louise-Marie of Orléans

On August 9, 1832, King Leopold I of the Belgians, married Louise-Marie of Orléans the eldest daughter of the future Louis-Philippe I, King of the French, and his wife Maria Amalia of the Two Sicilies, the tenth of eighteen children of Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies and Maria Carolina of Austria. Louise-Marie was 20 at the time of her marriage and Leopold was twenty-two years her senior. Although never faithful to Louise-Marie, Leopold respected her and their relationship was a harmonious one.

They had four children:
* Prince Louis Philippe, Crown Prince (1833 – 1834)
* King Leopold II of the Belgians (1835 – 1909)
* Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders (1837 – 1905)
* Princess Charlotte of Belgium, (1840 – 1927), consort of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, Archduke of Austria and younger brother of Emperor Franz-Joseph of Austria.

Leopold ‘s reign was marked by attempts by the Dutch to recapture Belgium and, later, by internal political division between liberals and Catholics. As a Protestant, Leopold was considered liberal and encouraged economic modernisation, playing an important role in encouraging the creation of Belgium’s first railway in 1835 and subsequent industrialisation.

Queen Louise-Marie died of tuberculosis in the former Royal palace of Ostend on 11 October 11, 1850, aged 38, leaving Leopold a widower once again at the age of 59.

Leopold (right), with Queen Victoria and family in an early photograph of 1859

As a result of the ambiguities in the Belgian Constitution, Leopold was able to slightly expand the monarch’s powers during his reign. He also played an important role in stopping the spread of the Revolutions of 1848 into Belgium. He died in 1865 and was succeeded by his son, Leopold II.