Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Kingmaker of Belgium

The handover of royal power from Albert II to Philippe, King of the Belgians, this summer was smooth, peaceful and happy.  But the reason that Philippe and Mathilde have a kingdom to rule at all began 183 years ago today in rather more dramatic circumstances.  And it ended with the accession of a man who, by that time could have been King of Greece or Prince Consort of the United Kingdom.  Instead he became the first King of the Belgians and went on to make royal marriages and families across Europe.

One of the first official portraits of Queen Mathilde of the Belgians, released just days after the accession of her husband on July 21st 2013

On the evening of August 25th 1830 riots broke out in Brussels which led to the independence of Belgium and the creation of a new monarchy that still survives today.  A special performance of an opera to mark the birthday of the ruler of the United Netherlands, of which the future Belgium was then a part, ended in protests on the streets of Brussels.  The trouble had been brewing a while with pressures for independence and it only increased after the trouble of August 25th, culminating in peace conference in London in which the modern Belgium was created.  It is a truth universally acknowledged in 19th century Europe that a new nation must be in need of a king and the throne was offered to a man called Leopold who had already come close to ruling in two other European nations.  And all by the age of 40.

Philippe is the great, great, great grandson of the man whose destiny as King of the Belgians began on this day in 1830 after a riot outside a theatre
The man became Leopold I, King of the Belgians and founder of several dynasties.  He had started life as Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, the second youngest son of a duke called Franz and his wife, Augusta.  Franz became famous for two things - his large art collection and being the ancestor of most of modern Europe's royals  Not bad for a chap from an obscure part of Germany that no one had really ever heard of when he became ruler of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld in 1800.
The great granddaddy of Europe's royals.  Franz of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld's genes are spread through the palaces of every modern monarchy on the continent, thanks to three of his children
By that time, little Leopold was ten and already in charge of an army.  Perhaps someone might have guessed then that he would go on to rule Europe through his descendants.  It might have been a purely ceremonial role but being made a colonel of a Russian regiment in his home state led to him going to Paris in 1806 following the Napoleonic occupation of Saxe-Coburg.  From there a military career in Russia beckoned where he fought again Napoleon and was climbing the ranks when he first came close to a crown.
Leopold I, King of the Belgians in his time in the Russian army
But while Leopold built his army career, his future career as king and royal superpapa was coming to find him.  In 1814, while in London, he met Princess Charlotte of Wales at a party and she asked him to call on her.  When he popped in for tea they spent the best part of an hour together, chaperoned of course, and a mutual attraction began to grow.  Reports show Charlotte's father, by then Prince Regent, as impressed by the young lieutenant general.  But the man who would be George IV had no intention of Leo scooping up his girl.  She was his only heir, the only legitimate grandchild at the time of George III, and she was going to be Queen of England.  Handsome but poor soldiers were not on dad's shopping list of potential husbands.
Princess Charlotte of Wales was in line to be England's fifth Queen Regnant from the moment she was born in 1796
Besides, George had just spent a lot of time and effort getting Charlotte to agree to marry the heir to the Dutch throne.  It was time badly spent because not long after she finally agreed to the wedding, she changed her mind and caused all kinds of ructions by running away in cabs to escape the marriage with royal uncles following her with warrants for her return to her father.  It's thought she had hopes of marrying a Prussian prince but that came to nothing as well and she told her father than she would wed Leopold or no one else.  The impoverished prince was summoned to Britain and the couple wed in 1816.  They were seemingly happy and Lieutenant Leo settled down to become the future Prince Consort of Great Britain.  But then disaster struck.  His wife died giving birth to their first child, a boy, who was stillborn.  After just 17 months of marriage, Leopold was a widower.

The last portrait of Princess Charlotte of Wales, made in the days before her death
Charlotte's death sparked a major crisis for the British royal family as there was now no legitimate heir beyond the sons of George III.  While Leopold mourned his wife, another member of his family became involved in the story.  His older sister, Victoria, was by now a widow and less than a year after Charlotte's death she married the fourth son of George III and provided him with the longed for legitimate heir, a little girl who bore the same name.  Leopold's niece became Queen Victoria.
Victoria of Saxce-Coburg-Saalfeld, sister of Leopold, gave the British crown the heir it needed
Leopold, meanwhile, was offered the throne of Greece.  He turned it down and by 1830 was a bit of a European enigma.  But the following year the great powers came calling and offered him the throne of Belgium - after considering him against several other candidates.  This time he liked the offer before him and agreed to take the title.  He swore his oath of allegiance on July 21st 1831 which became Belgium's national day.  He married again, giving Belgium its first queen, and went on to fight off an invasion from the Netherlands. 
Leopold I, King of the Belgians, and his second wife, Louise-Marie, Queen of the Belgians
But his involvement with the throne of England wasn't over yet.  He had lost his British princess, the girl who would have made him a Prince Consort.  But his niece needed a man to rule alongside her and in 1839, Leopold arranged a meeting between Victoria and one of his nephews, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.  This time, the fairytale romance between a Queen Regnant and a poor-ish prince from a far away part of Germany had a happier ending.  Victoria and Albert produced nine children and gave their names to a whole age. 
Prince Albert, nephew of Leopold I, married his cousin, Victoria, in 1840
Victoria and Albert's descendants married into royal houses across Europe while Leopold's descendants still rule Belgium today. And all because of a riot 183 years ago - a peaceful summer night in Brussels in 1830 might have led to a very different modern Europe.


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