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 Holy Roman Empire and the tiny German duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld in modern-day Bavaria. 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.
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).
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.
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, later taken by his nephew Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
Despite Charlotte’s death, Leopold continued to enjoy considerable status in Britain and 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. He would 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.
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 Otto of Wittelsbach in May 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 Kingdom of the 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
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 of the Netherlands 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 Eugène; and Prince 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.
Prince 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, 1831, he was finally approached by a Belgian delegation at Marlborough House to officially offer him the throne. Leopold, however, was reluctant to accept.
On July 17, 1831, Leopold travelled from Calais to Belgium, entering the country at De Panne. Travelling 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.
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.