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King of Belgium, 1931-1951
Leopold Philippe Charles Albert Meinrad Hubertus Marie Miguel was born in Brussels on November 3, 1901, the first child of Prince Albert and Princess Elisabeth. His father became King Albert I upon the death of King Leopold II in 1909, and Prince Leopold became Duke of Brabant and heir to the throne.
Prince Leopold served on the front lines as a private with the 12th Line Regiment during the early stages of the First World War, but in 1915 was sent to Eton College in England. In 1919 he entered St Anthony Seminary in Santa Barbara, California, United States. After completing his education in 1925, he undertook an extended study trip to the Congo.
On November 6, 1926, Leopold married Princess Astrid of Sweden, daughter of Prince Karl and niece of King Gustav V, in a civil ceremony in Stockholm; a religious ceremony was performed in Brussels on November 10. Three children were born to the union -- Princess Josephine-Charlotte, Grand-Duchess of Luxembourg (on October 11, 1927); Prince Baudouin, the future King Baudouin I (September 7, 1930); and Prince Albert, the future King Albert II (June 6, 1934).
On February 23, 1934, King Albert I died in a mountaineering accident, and Prince Leopold assumed the throne as King Leopold III.
On August 29, 1935, during a trip to Switzerland, the Queen died in a car accident at Küssnacht, and the King was injured.
When World War II broke out in September 1939, the French and British governments immediately sought to persuade Belgium to join them. Leopold and his government refused, maintaining Belgium's neutrality. On May 10, 1940, Germany ignored Belgium's neutrality and invaded the country. The Belgian Army fought the Germans fiercely, but on May 28 the King was forced to surrender unconditionally. After his military surrender, Leopold remained in Brussels to face the victorious invaders, while his entire civil government fled, first to Paris and later to London. He and his family remained virtual prisoners in the Laeken Palace outside Brussels until 1944, when they were deported to Germany and later Austria.
On September 11, 1941, Leopold married Mrs. Lilian Baels in a secret religious ceremony. The couple initially intended to wait until after the war to hold an official public ceremony, but the pregnancy of now-Princess de Rethy forced them to "go public" on December 6, 1941. Three children were born to this union -- Alexandre (on July 18, 1942), Marie-Christine (February 6, 1951), andMarie-Esmeralda (September 30, 1956).
Although the royal family was liberated by Allied troops on May 7, 1945, King Leopold III did not return immediately to Belgium. Due to opposition from part of the population, Prince Charles, Count of Flanders and the King's brother, continued to rule as regent due to Leopold III's "impossibility of reigning." In 1950, the government adopted a law organizing a referendum on whether or not the King should return. The response of the electorate was 57.68 % in favor, with sizeable regional disparities. On July 20, with a majority "yes" vote in the country as a whole, the government asked the Chambers of Parliament to vote that it was no longer impossible for the King to reign, and Leopold returned to Brussels on July 22. Unfortunately for Leopold, many in Belgium believed that he had collaborated with the Germans during the occupation and his return was met with serious opposition. On August 1, 1950, after several violent demonstrations, Leopold III proposed to transfer his royal powers to his son, Prince Baudouin, and, on August 11, Prince Baudouin became the "Prince Royal." By 1951 it had become clear that Belgium could easily erupt into civil war, so in a spirit of reconciliation King Leopold III formally renounced the throne; he was succeeded by Prince Baudouin on July 17.
Following his abdication, Leopold devoted his time mainly to scientific research and journeys of exploration. He died at Woluwe-Saint-Lambert on September 25, 1983, and was interred in the royal vault at the Church of Our Lady of Laeken in Brussels.
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This page was last updated on May 29, 2017.