Philippe of the Belgians was an unlikely king. Although born second in line to the throne, he was never expected to succeed. In fact, his whole royal life has been filled with surprises. Yet since his accession, in July 2013, he has been praised as a successful sovereign, a royal who has given his dynasty strong foundations for the future.
The man who would, unexpectedly, be king was born on April 15th, 1960, at Laeken, Brussels to Albert and Paola, then Prince and Princess of Liege. Albert’s older brother, Baudouin, had become King in difficult circumstances in 1951. Albert was his heir, and the birth of Philippe Leopold Louis Marie guaranteed the succession for a monarchy that had wobbled badly in the aftermath of World War Two.
However, Baudouin was just thirty when Philippe was born and months later married Fabiola de Mora in a glittering ceremony in Brussels. It was widely expected that baby Philippe would soon be pushed down the line to the throne by the arrival of royal cousins. However, Baudouin and Fabiola would have no family of their own, and as Philippe grew up alongside his younger sister and brother, Astrid and Laurent, it became increasingly clear that the throne would one day be his.
Philippe went to state schools in Belgium, where he was educated in both Dutch and French, before moving on to the Belgian Royal Military Academy. He joined his country’s air force and trained as a pilot and also enjoyed stints at Oxford and Stanford universities. However, as he entered his later twenties, it became clear that royal duties would form the main part of his life.
The unexpected death of King Baudouin, on July 31st, 1991, in Spain, turned Philippe into the heir to the Belgian throne. However, even that was seen as something of a shock as for years there had been speculation that Albert would be passed over and Philippe would succeed his uncle. Instead, Philippe became Duke of Brabant while his father took the throne.
He took on an ever wider range of royal duties and developed a focus on economic matters, carrying out overseas trips to promote his country and its businesses. He was made Honorary President of the Belgian Foreign Trade Agency in 1993, and in the same year, he became Honorary Chairman of the Federal Council for Sustainable Development, another area in which he has wide interests.
Like many things in his life, Philippe’s decision to get married came as a surprise but turned out to be a success. In September 1999, he announced his engagement to Mathilde d’Udekem d’Acoz, and the couple married in the last major royal wedding of the 20th century. Their celebrations, including both a civil and religious ceremony, took place on December 4th, 1999, in Brussels with a host of European royalty in attendance.
Philippe’s marriage was a turning point in the public perception of a man sometimes called, until then, ‘Le Prince Triste’. The new Duchess of Brabant quickly became a popular figure, in line to be the first Belgian born queen of her country. When Philippe and Mathilde welcomed their first child, Princess Elisabeth, in 2001, they opened another chapter of royal history. A change in succession laws meant that their little girl became the first to be in direct line to succeed to the throne.
Elisabeth would be joined by two brothers, Gabriel (2003) and Emmanuel (2005), and a sister, Eleonore (2008), and this new royal family became a focal point, winning the hearts and minds that Philippe had struggled to enjoy during his solo years. They are clearly a devoted couple who had taken a hands-on role in their upbringing of their children and are often seen taking them to school.
That lifestyle remained unaltered by perhaps the biggest surprise of Philippe’s royal life. On July 3rd, 2013, with preparations already underway for the celebration of the 20th anniversary of his accession to the throne, King Albert II announced he was abdicating. The decision came as a shock to many, but there was little time to contemplate the decision. Albert announced he would step aside on July 21st, Belgium’s national day.
The quick handover and the decision for the abdication and succession ceremonies to take place during established national celebrations was seen by some commentators as instrumental in ensuring the events were a success. And they undoubtedly were. After the traditional Te Deum in Brussels, Belgium’s first family attended a simple ceremony at the Royal Palace where Albert signed the instrument of abdication. Philippe was sworn in as king around an hour later with large crowds cheering him on his first appearances as a monarch that afternoon.
Those who doubted Philippe during his time as heir to the throne have no doubt been surprised at the success he has made of his reign so far. He and Queen Mathilde carry out a wide range of public engagements as well as overseas tours and State Visits. Their family image has also bolstered their popularity. Press calls at the start of holidays, days out at Belgian tourist attractions and the insistence of the King and Queen to still do the school run have given the family wide appeal.
But it is perhaps Philippe’s abilities in facing tougher times that have consolidated his position as monarch. Within hours of the terrorist attacks in Brussels in 2016, he gave an emotive public address and with Queen Mathilde at his side, visited the injured in hospital. He regularly holds meetings with politicians and has also had to deal with several high profile difficulties involving his younger brother, Prince Laurent.
Five years into his reign, Philippe is seen as a confident king with a sure and steady touch. The days of uncertainty over his determination to succeed are part of the past. His future is as head of a young royal family that continues to enjoy widespread support. He will mark half a decade as the King this summer, and it’s perhaps not so surprising that many will be happy to celebrate alongside him.