Today is Belgium’s National Day. 🇧🇪
On this day, July 21, in 1831, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (a maternal uncle of Queen Victoria and paternal uncle of her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) was sworn in as the first King of the Belgians.
Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha
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 1826, Saxe-Coburg acquired the city of Gotha from the neighboring Duchy of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg and gave up Saalfeld to Saxe-Meiningen, becoming the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
On May 2, 1816, Leopold married Princess Charlotte of Wales at Carlton House in London. Charlotte was the only legitimate child of the Prince Regent (later King George IV) and Caroline of Brunswick, daughter of Carl-Wilhelm-Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick, and Princess Augusta of Great Britain (daughter of King George II of Great Britain and Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach). This meant that Princess Charlotte of Wales was second in line to the British throne.
Princess Charlotte of Wales
Princess Charlotte had been engaged Willem, Hereditary Prince of Orange (later King Willem II of the Netherlands). This engagement came about through pressure from her father the Prince Regent. Princess Charlotte found the Hereditary Prince of Orange distasteful but after initially accepting him, Charlotte soon broke off the intended match in favor of Leopold. This resulted in an extended contest of wills between her and her father. Though the Prince Regent was displeased, he found Leopold to be charming and possessing every quality to make his daughter happy, thus approving of their marriage. The same year Leopold received an honorary commission to the rank of Field Marshal and Knight of the Order of the Garter.
The marriage ceremony was held May 2, 1816. On the wedding day, huge crowds filled London; the wedding participants had great difficulties in travelling. At nine o’clock in the evening in the Crimson Drawing Room at Carlton House, with Leopold dressing for the first time as a British General (the Prince Regent wore the uniform of a Field Marshal), the couple were married. The only mishap was during the ceremony, when Charlotte was heard to giggle when the impoverished Leopold promised to endow her with all his worldly goods.
On November 5, 1817, after having suffered a miscarriage, 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.
Following a Greek rebellion against the Ottoman Empire, Leopold was offered the throne of an independent Greece as part of the London Protocol of February 1830. Though initially showing interest in the position, Leopold eventually turned down the offer on May 17, 1830. The role would subsequently be accepted by Prince Otto of Bavaria in May of 1832 who ruled until he was finally deposed in October 1862.
At the end of August 1830, rebels in the Southern provinces (modern-day Belgium) of the United Netherlands rose up against Dutch rule. The rising, which began in Brussels, pushed the Dutch army back, and the rebels defended themselves against a Dutch attack. International powers meeting in London agreed to support the independence of Belgium, even though the Dutch refused to recognize the new state.
In November 1830, a National Congress was established in Belgium to create a constitution for the new state. 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
Enthronement of King Leopold I of the Belgians
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, Hereditary 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, 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. Therefore Louis, Duke of 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 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 at first.
On July 17, 1831, Leopold travelled from Calais to Belgium, entering the country at De Panne. Traveling to Brussels, he was greeted with patriotic enthusiasm along his route. The accession ceremony took place on July 21, on the Place Royale in Brussels. A stand had been erected on the steps of the church of Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg, surrounded by the names of revolutionaries fallen during the fighting in 1830.
King Leopold I of the Belgians
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. The enthronement is generally used to mark the end of the revolution and the start of the Kingdom of Belgium and is celebrated each year as the Belgian national holiday.
Princess Louise-Marie of Orléans
On August 9, 1832 King Leopold I of the Belgians married Princess Louise-Marie of Orléans, who was twenty-two years younger than the King, she was the eldest daughter of the future Louis-Philippe I, King of the French, and of his wife Maria Amalia of the Two Sicilies.
Louise and Leopold had four children, including Leopold II of Belgium and Empress Carlota of Mexico. Although never faithful to Louise, Leopold respected her and their relationship was a harmonious one.
Prince Louis Philippe, Crown Prince of Belgium (July 24, 1833 – May 16, 1834)
King Leopold II of the Belgians (April 9, 1835 – December 17, 1909)
Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders (March 24, 1837 – November 17, 1905)
Princess Charlotte of Belgium, (June 7, 1840 – January 19, 1927), consort of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico.
Sadly, Queen Louise-Marie died of tuberculosis in the former Royal palace of Ostend on October 11, 1850 at the age of 38. Leopold was again a widower at the age of 59. The Queen’s body was brought to Laeken, and a memorial was erected in Oostende. She is buried beside her husband in Royal Crypt of the Church of Our Lady of Laeken.
Photo of King Leopold later in life.
Leopold died in Laeken near Brussels on December 10, 1865, aged 74. His funeral was held on 16 December. He is interred in the Royal Crypt at the Church of Notre-Dame de Laeken, next to Louise-Marie. He was succeeded by his son, Leopold II, aged 30, who ruled until 1909.
The current King of the Belgians, Philippe, is Leopold I’s great-great-great-grandson.