From the Emperor’s Desk: December 9 was the death of Duke Franz of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and today, December 10, is the anniversary of the death of his youngest son, King Leopold I of the Belgians.
Leopold I (December 16, 1790 – December 10, 1865) was the first King of the Belgians, reigning from July 21, 1831 until his death in 1865.
Leopold was born in Coburg in the tiny German duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld in modern-day Bavaria on December 16, 1790. He was the youngest son of Franz, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and Countess Augusta of Reuss-Ebersdorf.
In 1825 the Duchy of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg became extinct when its last duke, Friedrich IV, died without male heirs. Quarrels arose between the three remaining Ernestine lines of Saxon dukes about the succession. As a result of an arbitration issued by King Friedrich August I of Saxony in 1826, the Ernestine duchies were rearranged and Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg was again split:
Saxe-Gotha passed to the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, which had to cede Saxe-Saalfeld to Saxe-Meiningen. The territories constituted the newly created Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
Saxe-Altenburg was also given to the Duke of Saxe-Hildburghausen, who in turn passed his own domain to Saxe-Meiningen and assumed the title of a Duke of Saxe-Altenburg.
As the youngest son of Duke Franz of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, Leopold took a commission in the Imperial Russian Army and fought against Napoleon after French troops overran Saxe-Coburg during the Napoleonic Wars.
Leopold received British citizenship in March 1816. On May 2, 1816, Leopold married Princess Charlotte of Wales at Carlton House in London. Charlotte was the only legitimate child of the Regent George (later King George IV) and his estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and therefore second in line to the British throne.
The Prince Regent had hoped Charlotte would marry Willem, Prince of Orange, (future King Willem II of the Netherlands) but she favoured Leopold. Although the Regent was displeased, he found Leopold to be charming and possessing every quality to make his daughter happy, and so approved their marriage.
On November 5, 1817, Princess Charlotte gave birth to a stillborn son. She herself died the next day following complications. Leopold was said to have been heartbroken by her death.
Had Charlotte survived, she would have become Queen of the United Kingdom on the death of her father and Leopold presumably would have assumed the role of Prince Consort, la position later taken by his nephew Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Despite Charlotte’s death, the Prince Regent granted Prince Leopold the British style of Royal Highness by Order in Council on April 6, 1818.
From 1828 to 1829, Leopold had an affair with the actress Caroline Bauer, who bore a striking resemblance to Charlotte. Caroline was a cousin of his advisor Baron Christian Friedrich von Stockmar. She came to England with her mother and took up residence at Longwood House, a few miles from Claremont House.
But, by mid-1829, the liaison was over, and the actress and her mother returned to Berlin. Many years later, in memoirs published after her death, she declared that she and Leopold had engaged in a morganatic marriage and that he had bestowed upon her the title of Countess Montgomery. Leopold have broken this marriage when the possibility arose that he could become King of Greece. The son of Baron Stockmar denied that these events ever happened, and indeed no records have been found of a civil or religious marriage with the actress
After the Greek War of Independence (1821–1830), Leopold was offered the throne of Greece under the 1830 London Protocol that created an independent Greek state, but turned it down, believing it to be too precarious.
In 1862 when the Greek throne was once again vacant, the throne was offered to Leopold’s great-nephew, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, the second son of his nice and nephew, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Alfred refused the throne.
In November of 1830, the Belgian Revolution led to the separation of the Southern Provinces from the Kingdom of the Netherlands and to the establishment of a Catholic and bourgeois, officially French-speaking and neutral, independent Belgium under a provisional government and a national congress.
Fears of “mob rule” associated with republicanism after the French Revolution of 1789, as well as the example of the recent, liberal July Revolution in France, led the Congress to decide that Belgium would be a popular, constitutional monarchy.
Search for a Monarch
The choice of candidates for the position was one of the most controversial issues faced by the revolutionaries. The Congress refused to consider any candidate from the Dutch ruling house of Orange-Nassau. Some Orangists had hoped to offer the position to King Willem I or his son, Willem, Prince of Orange, which would bring Belgium into personal union with the Netherlands like Luxembourg. The Great Powers also worried that a candidate from another state could risk destabilizing the international balance of power and lobbied for a neutral candidate.
Eventually the Congress was able to draw up a shortlist. The three viable possibilities were felt to be Eugène de Beauharnais, a French nobleman and stepson of Napoleon; Auguste of Leuchtenberg, son of Eugene; and Louis of Orléans, Duke of Nemours who was the son of the French King Louis-Philippe.
All the candidates were French and the choice between them was principally between choosing the Bonapartism of Beauharnais or Leuchtenberg and supporting the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe.
Louis-Philippe realized that the choice of either of the Bonapartists could be first stage of a coup against him, but that his son would also be unacceptable to other European powers suspicious of French intentions. Nemours refused the offer. With no definitive choice in sight, Catholics and Liberals united to elect Erasme Louis Surlet de Chokier, a minor Belgian nobleman, as regent to buy more time for a definitive decision in February 1831.
Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, had been proposed at an early stage, but had been dropped because of French opposition. The problems caused by the French candidates and the increased international pressure for a solution led to his reconsideration. On April 22, he was finally approached by a Belgian delegation at Marlborough House to officially offer him the throne. Leopold, however, was reluctant to accept.
After a ceremony of resignation by the regent, Leopold, dressed in the uniform of a Belgian lieutenant-general, swore loyalty to the constitution and became King of the Belgians on July 21, 1831, an event commemorated annually as Belgian National Day.
On August 9, 1832 Prince Leopold married Louise of Orléans (April 3, 1812 – October 11, 1850). Born in Palermo, Sicily, Louise was the eldest daughter of the future Louis-Philippe I, King of the French, and of his wife Maria Amalia of the Two Sicilies. As a child, she had a religious and bourgeoisie education thanks to the part played by her mother and her aunt, Princess Adélaïde of Orléans, to whom she was very close. She was given a strict religious upbringing by her aunt. She also learned to speak English, German and Italian.
As a member of the reigning House of Orléans she was entitled to the rank of a Princess of the Blood Royal. She rarely participated in public representation, but acted as the political adviser of her spouse. Her large correspondence is a valuable historical source of the period and has been published. They had four children.
Reign and Death
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. 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.
Leopold died in Laeken near Brussels on December 10, 1865, a week short of his 75th birthday. His funeral was held on December 16, on what would have been his 75th birthday. He is interred in the Royal Crypt at the Church of Notre-Dame de Laeken, next to Louise-Marie.
Leopold was succeeded by his son, Leopold II, aged 30, who would rule until 1909.