by Melanie Gibson-Barton
At a brisk – and rather breathless pace – Melanie told the story of modern Belgium, from 1830 to the present day. Early history saw Ambiorix of the Belgӕ tribe defeat Julius Cӕsar, but the Belgium that we know today came about only after the Treaty of Vienna (1815), when the main protagonists, Austria, Britain, Prussia, and Russia sought to re-size the main European powers. Wilhelm I, an ‘enlightened’ despot, was proclaimed King of the “Netherlands” (which term means Low Countries). Divided into the regions of Flanders and Wallonie, its populace spoke Flemish as the natural tongue, although the upper classes preferred French. Moreover, the southern Roman Catholics disliked the northern Protestants.
Revolution in 1830 saw anarchy, much rioting, and armed troops brought in to restore order, “Belgium” becoming established as a constitutional monarchy by way of consequence. Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg married George IV’s daughter, Caroline, who died in childbirth aged just 21. Leopold’s sister married Prince Edward, who was to be the father of Queen Victoria. Eight years of war won independence under the Treaty of London (1839), including Britain’s insistence upon Belgium’s neutrality in time of war, this so-styled Scrap of Paper being the proximate cause of Britain’s entry into the Great War of 1914.
Under Leopold I (regnavit 1831-1865), Belgium soon became industrialised, the first railway in continental Europe running between Brussels and Mechelen. He married Princess Louise-Marie of France, had four children, and died, aged 74, being buried alongside his wife in the Royal Crypt at Larken.
Charlotte, his daughter, married Archduke Maximilian of Austria, moved to Italy, and eventually to Mexico in 1884, upon Maximilian’s being offered the Mexican crown! The coronation was delayed, as Benito Juárez wanted a republic, not a monarchy. Maximilian was shot dead while his wife was back in Europe, and she spent the rest of her life (to 1927) in a palace.
Leopold II, as heir (Philippe had died aged 1 year, and only male issue could succeed), travelled greatly, chose to increase Belgium’s military defences, with forts at Liège, Namur, and Antwerp, and desired colonies for his country. He married Henrietta of Austria, an arranged affair with this Habsburg lady, who bore him four children, a son, Leopold, who died aged 9, and three daughters. One, Stephanie, married Rudolph of Austria, famously remembered in history for the suicide at Mayerling, while another, Louise, ran off with her lover, and, given the choice of returning to her husband or entering an asylum, chose the latter.
Clementine, born 1872, fell in love with Baudouin, who died at 21, and eventually married Napoléon Victor Bonaparte, despite serious and prolonged opposition, once her own father had died.
Leopold II enforced his will over the Congo, with its yield of rubber and ivory, making $1bn profit in the process. An attempt on his life proved unsuccessful, but the Casement Report (endorsed by Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle) was to highlight his atrocities, and the Congo achieved republic status in 1908, after around 10 million Congolese had been killed. As the Builder King, he built up Brussels, Antwerp, and Oostende, making Brussels a “Little Paris”, and created a Museum for Central Africa. In 1898, aged 65, he was with Caroline Lacroix, a 16-year-old prostitute, whom he styled “Baroness Vaughan”, and they attended Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901. Caroline bore him two illegitimate sons, but he did marry her, in a religious ceremony, five days before his death, bequeathing her a fortune. Although there was booing at his funeral, the Belgian people later relented, and think of it now, quaintly, as The Great Forgetting.
Leopold’s brother Philippe, who was deaf, married Marie of Hohenzollern, their son, Albert I (Leopold’s grandson), becoming, from 1909, a strong king, known as the Soldier King. He considered the Great War “not our war”, and led his men nearer to the French (Allied) front line. He moved to Loppen in 1918, his wife, Elisabeth of Bavaria, who had worked with the Red Cross during the war, later going her separate way. They had three children, Leopold, Marie-José, and Charles. Albert, a keen mountaineer, went off climbing in February 1934, instead of receiving a cycling hero as had been his arranged engagement. Missing, he was eventually discovered, dead, this giving rise to a number of conspiracy theories, even to the point of a suggestion of murder, although in recent times foul play has conclusively been ruled out.
Leopold III, his son and heir, married Astrid of Sweden in 1931, a lady who soon became a favourite of the people, the Lady Diana of her day in some respects, even to the point that, on a trip to Switzerland, their car spun off the road, and she was killed. Leopold carried on alone, but was advised to leave Belgium in May 1940, following the German invasion of his country. Negotiating a cease-fire later that month, he surrendered to Wehrmacht forces, being placed under house arrest in Larken. He married in secret during the Occupation, in a civil ceremony, his bride already pregnant . The Belgian press rebuked him, and, after the D-Day landings, he was deported, first to Saxony, thence to Austria, before being liberated by US forces in May 1945. His son Charles was declared regent, but, upon their release, the Royal Family’s actions during the war were deemed controversial, so much so, that there was rioting from 1945 to 1951, leading Leopold to abdicate, in 1951, in favour of his son Baudouin.
Baudouin married Fabiola of Spain and proved popular with his people, yet, sadly, after five miscarriages, no children were born to the couple. During his reign the Congo achieved independence in June 1960, and, in 1990, a device allowing for his being declared “unfit to rule for 24 hours” enabled a law to be passed legitimising abortion. He died in 1993, while Fabiola, a real character, lived on until 2014, despite a death threat having been made against her.
His successor, Albert II, also a son of Leopold III, married Paola in 1959, producing three children, Astrid, Laurent, and Philippe. Unhappy in their marriage, they were forbidden to divorce, became reconciled, and were in love again by the 1980s. However, a book shedding bad light on Albert’s moral character rocked the country, leading to his abdication in 2013, officially on health grounds, in favour of his son Philippe, who, with his wife Mathilde, has produced three children, Paola, Fabiola, and Mathilde.
Thus, Melanie has demonstrated, here we see where Belgium is today, seven monarchs on, including two abdications, from the establishment of modern Belgium back in 1930. No actual murder, no real madness, but a good measure of mayhem and upheaval.
I wonder what Ambiorix, looking down from his statue, makes of it all………….