On July 21, 2013, King Albert II of the Belgians abdicated in favor of his son Philippe. In his televised abdication speech, King Albert II said, “I realize that my age and my health are no longer allowing me to carry out my duties as I would like to…After a reign of 20 years, I believe the moment is here to hand over the torch to the next generation. Prince Philippe is well prepared to succeed me.”
King Albert’s father, King Leopold III, also abdicated, but under very different circumstances.
King Leopold III was born in Brussels, Belgium on November 3, 1901, the eldest son of King Albert I and Elisabeth of Bavaria. Leopold had two younger siblings, Charles, who would later serve as Prince Regent of Belgium and Marie José, who married King Umberto I of Italy.
On November 4, 1926, Leopold married Princess Astrid of Sweden, a granddaughter of King Oscar II of Sweden, in a civil ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. On November 10, 1926, the couple married in a religious ceremony at the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels, Belgium. Leopold and Astrid had a very happy marriage. Leopold’s mother Queen Elisabeth said about the marriage, “It is a marriage of love…tell it to our people. Nothing was arranged. Not a single political consideration prevailed in our son’s decision.” For more information, see Unofficial Royalty: Wedding of Leopold III and Astrid of Sweden.
Leopold and Astrid had three children:
- Joséphine-Charlotte (1927 – 2005), married Grand-Duke Jean of Luxembourg, had issue
- King Baudouin (1930 – 1993), married Fabiola de Mora y Aragón, no issue
- King Albert II (born1934), married Paola Ruffo di Calabria, had issue
In 1934, Leopold’s father died in a mountain climbing accident and Leopold became king at the age of 32. In August of 1935, King Leopold and Queen Astrid had gone on vacation in Switzerland with their two elder children. On August 29, 1935, their last day of vacation, Leopold and Astrid decided to go on an outing. Leopold was driving their convertible, Astrid was in the front seat, and the chauffeur was sitting in the back seat. As Astrid pointed out something to her husband, the car went off the road, down a steep slope, and slammed into a tree. Astrid was thrown out of the car and was slammed into another tree. Leopold was also thrown out the car but had only minor injuries, and the chauffeur was uninjured. Astrid died, aged 29, from her injuries at the accident scene. Leopold deeply mourned her death.
In 1939, when World War II started, Belgium’s allies France and the United Kingdom asked Belgium to join them. However, Belgium decided to declare itself a neutral country. Germany invaded Belgium on May 10, 1940, and on May 28, King Leopold as Commander-in-Chief of the Belgian Armed Forces surrendered. Leopold had remained in Belgium to face the Germans, while the government leaders had withdrawn to France. Although Leopold was encouraged by the government to leave Belgium, he decided to remain in Belgium saying, “Whatever happens, I have to share the same fate as my troops.” Leopold decided to surrender to the Germans against the wishes of his government and this is one of the reasons that would ultimately lead to his abdication. The Belgian Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot said that the King’s decision to surrender was not only a military decision but also a political decision and that the king had acted without his ministers’ advice, and therefore his actions were against the Belgian Constitution. King Leopold’s decision to surrender was decried by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud.
King Leopold was held under house arrest by the Germans at the Royal Palace of Laeken in Brussels. He had a meeting with Adolf Hitler on November 19, 1940, in which he wanted Hitler to issue a public statement about Belgium’s future independence. However, Hitler’s plans did not include any independent countries and he refused.
While still under house arrest, King Leopold married Lilian Baels on September 11, 1941, in a secret religious ceremony which was not legal because in Belgium a civil marriage is required. The couple had intended to wait until after the war for the civil ceremony, but Lilian was pregnant and so a civil marriage was held on December 6, 1941. Nevertheless, legally in Belgium, the civil ceremony must be held before the religious ceremony and the marriage was unpopular with many Belgians. Lilian was known as the Princess of Réthy.
Leopold and Lilian had three children:
- Prince Alexander (1942–2009), married Léa Wolman, no issue
- Princess Marie-Christine (born 1951), married (1) Paul Drucker, divorced, no issue (2) Jean Paul Gourges, no issue
- Princess Marie-Esméralda (born 1956), married Salvador Enrique Moncada, had issue
In 1944, King Leopold, the Princess of Réthy, and Leopold’s three children by Queen Astrid, and his eldest child by the Princess of Réthy were deported to Germany where they were kept in harsh conditions and guarded by 70 members of the SS (Schutzstaffel). The family was liberated by American troops in 1945. For more information, see Deportation to Nazi Germany.
The king did not return immediately to Belgium. Due to opposition from a segment of the population, Prince Charles, Count of Flanders, the king’s brother, who had served as the regent since 1944, continued to rule as regent due to Leopold III’s “impossibility of reigning”. King Leopold was exonerated of treason in 1946, however many Belgians continued to question his loyalty. In 1950, a referendum was held concerning the king’s return to Belgium, and 57% were in favor of his return.
King Leopold III returned to Belgium on July 20, 1950, and a few days later there was a violent general strike. To avoid making the situation more dangerous and tearing his country apart, King Leopold made a decision on August 1, 1950, to abdicate in favor of his son 21-year-old son Prince Baudouin. The abdication took effect on July 16, 1951. For more information, see Royal Question.
After the abdication, Leopold and Lilian continued to live at the Royal Palace of Laeken until King Baudouin’s marriage to Doña Fabiola de Mora y Aragon in 1960, when they moved to the Château d’Argenteuil, a government-owned estate in Brabant, Belgium. Leopold, an amateur anthropologist and entomologist, traveled the world and explored those interests. King Leopold III died on September 25, 1983, at the age of 81 a few hours after emergency heart surgery at Leuven University Hospital in Leuven, Belgium. Leopold was buried in the royal crypt at the Church of Our Lady in Laeken, Brussels next to his first wife Queen Astrid. When Lilian, Princess of Réthy died in 2002, she was buried next to them.