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Leopold III (November 3, 1901 – September 25, 1983) was King of the Belgians from 1934 until 1951, when he abdicated in favour of the heir apparent, his son

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Prince Leopold was born in Brussels, the first child of King Albert I of the Belgians and his consort, Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria.* In 1909 his father became King of the Belgians, as Albert I, and Prince Leopold became Duke of Brabant, the title of the heir to the Belgian throne.

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Astrid (far right) with her mother and sisters
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Prince Leopold married Princess Astrid of Sweden in a civil ceremony in Stockholm on November 4, 1926, followed by a religious ceremony in Brussels on November 10. Princess Astrid was the third child and youngest daughter of Prince Carl, Duke of Västergötland, and his wife, Princess Ingeborg of Denmark.

Her father was the third son of Oscar II, King of Sweden and Norway, by his wife, Sophia of Nassau. Her mother was a daughter of King Frederick VIII of Denmark by his wife, Louise of Sweden. Astrid’s father was a younger brother of King Gustav V of Sweden, and her mother was the younger sister of kings Christian X of Denmark and Haakon VII of Norway. The marriage produced three children:

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1. Princess Joséphine-Charlotte of Belgium, (October 11, 1927 – January 10, 2005) Grand Duchess consort of Luxembourg, through married on to Prince Jean, Grand Duke of Luxembourg.
2. King Baudouin of Belgium, Duke of Brabant, Count of Hainaut, (September 7, 1930 – July 31, 1993).
3. King Albert II of Belgium, Prince of Liège, (June 6, 1934 -) He abdicated in July 2013.

On August 29, 1935, while the king and queen were driving along the winding, narrow roads near their villa at Küssnacht am Rigi, Schwyz, Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Lucerne, Leopold lost control of the car which plunged into the lake, killing Queen Astrid.

Leopold married Lilian Baels on September 11, 1941 in a secret, religious ceremony, with no validity under Belgian law. The new Princess of Réthy was soon expecting their first child, the ceremony took place on December 6, 1941. They had three children in total:

1. Prince Alexandre of Belgium, (July 18, 1942 – November 29, 2009) married Léa Wolman.
2. Princess Marie-Christine of Belgium, (February 6, 1951 -) Her first marriage, to Paul Drucker in 1981, lasted 40 days (and formally divorced in 1985); she subsequently married Jean-Paul Gourges in 1989.
3. Princess Marie-Esméralda of Belgium, (September 30, 1956 – ) a journalist, her professional name is Esmeralda de Réthy. She married pharmacologist Salvador Moncada in 1998. They have a son and a daughter.

The Duke of Brabant succeeded to the throne of Belgium on February 23, 1934, as King Leopold III following the death of his father King Albert I.

The controversial reign of Leopold III would need several blog entries to detail this complex topic and which I will do in the future. Therefore today, I will simply summarize the information.

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King Leopold III during World War II

Leopold’s controversial actions during the Second World War resulted in a political crisis known as the Royal Question. The Royal Question was a major political crisis in Belgium that lasted from 1945 to 1951, coming to a head between March and August 1950. During Leopold’s exile from 1944 until 1950, Leopold’s brother, Charles, served as prince regent while Leopold was declared unable to reign.

The “question” at stake surrounded whether King Leopold III could return to the country and resume his royal duties as King of the Belgians amid allegations that his actions during World War II had gone contrary to the provisions of the Belgian Constitution. In 1950, following a referendum, Leopold was allowed to return from exile to Belgium, but the continuing political instability pressured him to abdicate on July 16, 1951 in favor of his eldest son Baudouin.

In retirement, he followed his passion as an amateur social anthropologist and entomologist and travelled the world, collecting zoological specimens. Two species of reptiles are named after him, Gehyra leopoldi and Polemon leopoldi. He went to Senegal and strongly criticized the French decolonization process, and he explored the Orinoco and the Amazon with Heinrich Harrer.

Leopold died in 1983 in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert aged 81, following emergency heart surgery. He was interred next to Queen Astrid in the royal vault at the Church of Our Lady of Laeken. Leopold’s second wife, the Princess de Réthy, was later interred with them.

Notable royal descendants

As of 2020 two of Leopold’s grandsons are reigning monarchs: Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg since 2000, and King Philippe of Belgium since 2013.

* Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria was the daughter of Karl-Theodor, Duke in Bavaria, head of a cadet branch of the Bavarian Royal Family and an ophthalmologist. She was named after her father’s sister, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, better known as Sisi, wife of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungry. Her mother was Maria Josepha of Portugal, daughter of exiled Miguel I of Portugal and his wife Adelaide of Löwenstein-Wertheim-Rosenberg.