Archduchess of Austria, Baroness Vaughan, Caroline Lacroix, Congo Free State, French Prostitute, King of the Belgians, Leopold II, Leopold II of Belgium, Marie Henriette of Austria, The Congo
Yesterday I featured Leopold I on the anniversary of his birth, today I feature his son, Leopold II on the anniversary of death.
Leopold was born in Brussels on April 9, 1835, as the second but eldest surviving son of Leopold I of the Belgians and his second wife Louise-Marie of Orléans the eldest daughter of the future Louis-Philippe I, King of the French, and of his wife Maria Amalia of the Two Sicilies.
The French Revolution of 1848 forced Louis Philippe to flee to the United Kingdom. The British monarch, Queen Victoria, was Leopold II’s first cousin, as Leopold’s father and Victoria’s mother were siblings. Louis Philippe died two years later, in 1850. Leopold’s fragile mother was deeply affected by the death of her father, and her health deteriorated. She died of tuberculosis that same year, when Leopold was 15 years old.
Leopold II, King of the Belgians
On August 22, 1853, at the age of 18, he married Marie Henriette of Austria in Brussels. Marie Henriette was one of five children from the marriage of Archduke Joseph of Austria, Palatine of Hungary, and Duchess Maria Dorothea of Württemberg, the daughter of Duke Ludwig of Württemberg (1756–1817) and Princess Henriette of Nassau-Weilburg (1780–1857). Marie Henriette was a cousin of Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria, and granddaughter of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor, through her father.
Marie Henriette was lively and energetic, and endeared herself to the people by her character and benevolence, and her beauty gained for her the sobriquet of “The Rose of Brabant”. Four children were born of this marriage, three daughters and one son, also named Leopold.
The younger Leopold died in 1869 at the age of nine from pneumonia after falling into a pond. His death was a source of great sorrow for King Leopold. The marriage became unhappy, and the couple separated completely after a last attempt to have another son, a union that resulted in the birth of their last daughter Clementine. Marie Henriette retreated to Spa in 1895, and died there in 1902.
Marie Henriette of Austria
Leopold II had many mistresses. In 1899, in his sixty-fifth year, Leopold took as a mistress Caroline Lacroix, a sixteen-year-old French prostitute, and they remained together for the next decade until his death. Leopold II lavished upon her large sums of money, estates, gifts, and a noble title, Baroness Vaughan. Owing to these gifts and the unofficial nature of their relationship, Caroline was deeply unpopular among the Belgian people and internationally. She and Leopold II married secretly in a religious ceremony five days before his death.
Their failure to perform a civil ceremony rendered the marriage invalid under Belgian law. After the king’s death, it was soon discovered that he had left Caroline a large fortune, which the Belgian government and Leopold’s three estranged daughters tried to seize as rightfully theirs. Caroline bore two sons who were probably Leopold’s; the boys would have had a strong claim to the throne had the marriage been valid.
Leopold II and Caroline Lacroix
Leopold II was the founder and sole owner of the Congo Free State, a private project undertaken on his own behalf. He used Henry Morton Stanley to help him lay claim to the Congo, the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, the colonial nations of Europe authorized his claim by committing the Congo Free State to improving the lives of the native inhabitants. Leopold ignored these conditions and ran the Congo using the mercenary Force Publique for his personal gain.
He extracted a fortune from the territory, initially by the collection of ivory, and after a rise in the price of rubber in the 1890s, by forced labour from the native population to harvest and process rubber. He used great sums of the money from this exploitation for public and private construction projects in Belgium during this period. He donated the private buildings to the state before his death, to preserve them for Belgium.
Leopold II (young and old)
Leopold II’s administration of the Congo was characterised by murder, torture, and atrocities, resulting from notorious systematic brutality. The hands of men, women, and children were amputated when the quota of rubber was not met. These and other facts were established at the time by eyewitness testimony and on-site inspection by an international Commission of Inquiry (1904). Reports of deaths and abuse led to a major international scandal in the early 20th century, and Leopold was forced by the Belgian government to relinquish control of the colony to the civil administration in 1908.
On December 17, 1909, Leopold II died at Laeken, and the Belgian crown passed to Albert, the son of Leopold’s brother, Philippe, Count of Flanders. His funeral cortege was booed by the crowd. Leopold’s reign of exactly 44 years remains the longest in Belgian history. He was interred in the royal vault at the Church of Our Lady of Laeken in Brussels.