Friday, July 23, 2010

King Leopold I

In honor of the recent national feast, a look at the very first King of the Belgians is appropriate. Leopold was a prince of the ducal family (German royal house of Sachsen) of Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha, he was uncle of the great British Queen Victoria. Prince Leopold was a star in Europe, a tough soldier, veteran of the Russian Imperial Guard in the Napoleonic wars when his native country was lost to him for a time and his godfather, Hapsburg Kaiser Franz II, was reduced to his Austrian estates only. In 1821 he was offered the throne of the Greeks, recently freed from rule by the Turks. However by 1830 he refuses this offer because, although Greece did appeal to him in a romantic way the country was still too obviously unstable, he did not wish to become Greek Orthodox and the public was not at all united on what government they really wanted.

That same year was the Belgian revolt from the Netherlands and Prince Leopold was again offered a throne. This time it was a country 'down to earth', united in their desire for independence and for a popular monarchy. The much sought-after prince had some conditions, debts would have to be settled, the politics secured, foreign recognition given and he would keep his own Protestant religion but that would not be a problem since he would marry a French Catholic princesse and raise his children as Catholics. He accepted the Belgian throne on June 26 but was not given his oath as King Leopold I of the Belgians until July 21.

There was great celebrations and everywhere King Leopold went he was warmly and cheerfully welcomed by the Belgians because the brave and accomplished prince represented their unity and their independence. For the first time in Belgian history they had a monarch of their own, not having to be shared with Netherlands, France, Austria or Spain. King Leopold I was a great monarch who worked hard to build up and strengthen his new country. When the Dutch again invaded the brave king led his troops into their path himself but, thankfully, French intervention stopped the Dutch attack and secured Belgian independence again without great conflict. Still, some fighting did continue and there was some loss of rights before the Netherlands finally conceded Belgian independence (which the rest of the world already had anyway).

King Leopold had in the past a short and tragic marriage to Princess Charlotte of Britain and recently an unofficial marriage with a beautiful actress Karoline Bauer. Breaking that off in 1832 he married Princess Louise d'Orleans, daughter of the King of the French, a very remarkable woman, by whom he had four children. The first son died young, the second would be King Leopold II, the third Prince Philippe would be father of King Albert I and the fourth was little Princesse Charlotte who would become famous as "Carlota" Empress of Mexico. He opened the first railway in Europe in his Belgium and it was King Leopold who arranged the happy and very productive marriage of Britain's Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Sachsen-Coburg. He tried to bring in more humane laws but was not always successful but because his family was so well connected to the major European monarchies he protected, peacefully and with words, Belgium from troubles with France and Prussia. He died in 1865 and was buried in the crypt at Notre Dame de Laeken.

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