Leopold III was the fourth King of the Belgians (the Belgian King is known as the King of the Belgians rather than King of Belgium). In the early years of his reign, he was a popular figure; however, he became a divisive figure after he surrendered the Belgian army to the invading German forces in 1940 without consulting his government. After the end of the war, he would eventually agree to abdicate. This is his story.
Leopold was born in Brussels on 3 November 1901, as the eldest child of Prince Albert, Duke of Brabant and his wife Princess Elisabeth, Duchess of Brabant. In 1909, his father became King Albert I and Leopold, as heir apparent to the throne, became the Duke of Brabant.
In August 1914, Germany invaded Belgium. King Albert allowed the then 12-year-old Leopold to enlist as a private in the Belgian Army to help defend his country; however, in 1915, with much of Belgium overrun by the Germans, the King sent Leopold to Eton College in England to study for the remainder of the war years.
In 1926 he married Princess Astrid of Sweden. The popular royal couple were clearly in love, often holding hands during official engagements. Astrid took particular interest in the welfare of women, children and the disadvantaged. The couple had three children: a daughter, Princess Josephine Charlotte in 1927, who would later become Grand Duchess of Luxembourg; and two sons, Baudouin in 1930 and Albert in 1934, both of whom would later be King of the Belgians.
King Albert died in a mountaineering accident in 1934, and Leopold came to the throne. In August 1935, while on a private holiday in Switzerland, Leopold and Astrid were involved in a car accident, and Astrid was killed instantly. The public outpouring of grief for the popular young Queen would later be compared to a more recent royal tragedy – the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
At the outbreak of World War Two, Belgium sought to remain neutral, but the Germans attacked and quickly overpowered the Belgian army. Leopold surrendered without consulting his government – a move unpopular inside and outside of Belgium. While his government went into exile, Leopold remained in Belgium as a prisoner of the Germans.
In 1941, Leopold got married again to Lilian Baels secretly in a religious ceremony. The marriage was not valid under Belgian law which requires a civil ceremony to be held first. Lilian took the title of Princess of Belgium and Princess of Rethy rather than queen, and the couple had three children: a son, Alexandre and two daughters, Marie-Christine and Marie -Esmeralda. All three were given royal titles but no rights to the throne.
The Germans moved Leopold and his family into Germany as the war turned against them in 1944. They were liberated by the Allies, but Leopold did not return to Belgium until 1950. His brother, Prince Charles had been serving as regent. When he returned, he was greeted by strikes and protests, and to save the monarchy and the unity of the nation of Belgium, he agreed to abdicate in favour of his son, Baudouin, in 1951.
Leopold continued to play an advisory role to King Baudouin until the latter’s marriage to Fabiola in 1960 but then retired from royal life. He pursued his passions in anthropology and entomology in retirement. He died on 25 September 1983 and was buried beside Queen Astrid.
Written for Royal Central by Brad Turnbull.