Friday, July 6, 2012

Monarch Profile: King Baudouin of the Belgians

The reign of King Baudouin was an extremely difficult period for the Kingdom of Belgium and the monarchy itself faced considerable problems from the outset. During the course of his reign Belgium faced social upheaval at home, a radical change in values, the end the Belgian colonial empire and the beginning of the entrenched regional divisions of the country. Yet, through it all, it was King Baudouin who held the people together with his calm and steady leadership, impeccable character and firm commitment to his principles. Even those who were inclined to disagree with him on political and moral issues felt admiration for the King who stood up for what he believed in, who saw his role as one of service and who provided a source of continuity and national unity at a time when it seemed that his people were increasingly divided in their dealings with each other. His character and virtue made him an unassailable figure, respected by all even if not always universally supported. He was a popular monarch even when, on more than one occasion, he made it clear that he would not compromise his principles for the sake of popularity.

He was born HRH Prince Baudouin Albert Charles Leopold Axel Marie Gustave of Belgium on September 7, 1930 at Stuyvenberg Castle near Laeken in Brussels to Prince Leopold, Duke of Brabant (soon to be King Leopold III) and Princess Astrid of Sweden, the second child and first son. As a child his early years seemed to be dominated by service and hardship. In 1934 his father became King and only a year later his mother died in a tragic accident that left the whole country in mourning. As heir to the throne his dutiful and upright father raised him with a devotion to service and a deep faith in God. Even at a very young age he represented the Royal Family in outreach activities to the youth of Belgium and was very active in the Boy Scouts and doing volunteer work for charity. He was still a boy when Belgium was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1940. After eighteen days of desperate fighting King Leopold III was forced to surrender and remained a prisoner of the Germans for the rest of the war. During the war years the King remarried, which later caused controversy in the country, but this was certainly not so among the family as Princess Lilian proved to be a great comfort, not only to the King, but her new step-children as well.

When the Allies invaded Europe in 1944 Leopold III, and later Prince Baudouin and the other children, were taken to Germany, closely watched by the SS. They were all almost killed when they were given cyanide pills which the Nazis told them were vitamin tablets. Thankfully, Princess Lilian was suspicious and did not distribute them to the family as instructed. After being transferred to Austria and enduring grueling conditions the family was finally rescued by the United States Army in May of 1945. However, a government hostile to Leopold III had established itself in Brussels which attempted to blame all the ills of the war on the King and named his brother as regent. Unable to return home, the family moved to Switzerland where they stayed until 1950. Prince Baudouin attended high school in Geneva, visited the United States and finally saw his father cleared of the ridiculous and slanderous charge of “treason” by a government commission. Prince Baudouin and his brother Prince Albert accompanied their father back to Belgium in 1950 after a plebiscite found in favor of fully restoring Leopold III to his proper place.

Unfortunately, subversive factions, particularly the strong Walloon socialist faction, opposed the King returning to the throne and mounted such a wave of protest that there was a real and immediate threat of civil war. To avoid this calamity, King Leopold III took the difficult step of abdicating in favor of his son. The new King Baudouin, a young man still, was thus swept onto the throne at a time of great turmoil, internal division and revolutionary opposition to the monarchy with virtually no preparation for the arduous position he was suddenly called to fill. He was heckled by a socialist republican at his swearing-in ceremony on July 17, 1951 but was determined to do his duty even while resenting the way his father had been forced aside by political pressure and the bully-tactics of the mob. The beginning of the reign of the fifth King of the Belgians could hardly be called auspicious.

King Baudouin had certainly not been anxious to take the throne under such circumstances, in fact, according to some, he was not anxious for the position of monarch at all and would have preferred to have renounced his royal status and become a priest. However, after all the pain surrounding the abdication of King Leopold III (the first abdication of a Belgian monarch in history) Baudouin was persuaded that two abdications in a row would be something the monarchy might not survive. Instead, King Baudouin was charged with restoring the prestige of the monarchy, reuniting the country and leading the country in recovering from World War II and facing all the new challenges already upon western Europe as a whole. One area that quickly became a point of crisis was the Belgian Congo, though this was not immediately evident. King Baudouin visited the vast central African colony for the first time in 1955 and was given a very warm and enthusiastic welcome by huge crowds of Congolese people who spoke of him adoringly as the “handsome young man” who was very concerned with their wellbeing and progress. However, the rabble-rousers and revolutionaries were hard at work in trying to stir up the public for total independence from Belgium and even toward hatred for Belgians and Europeans in general.

As the years went by the crisis quickly developed and grew worse at an alarming pace. The Congolese were allowed to form political parties and a huge number sprang up along tribal lines which created a confused situation the radicals were only too eager to exploit. Independence was agreed to as the ultimate goal but King Baudouin hoped that a moderate Congolese middle class could be cultivated to take government in hand and that the monarchy would be retained with Baudouin remaining King of the Congo as well as King of the Belgians, with his lieutenant able to exert a moderating influence on the emerging country. Unfortunately, the radicals demanded immediate and total separation and hateful rhetoric led to violence as Belgians and other Europeans were raped, murdered, sometimes beaten to death by mobs. Belgian forces had to be sent in to rescue people as even the local army proved unreliable. In 1960 King Baudouin returned to Leopoldville for the official hand-over of power to the new republican government. It would have been very easy and very popular for the King to tell the raucous mobs what they wanted to hear but instead he warned that great responsibilities came with independence and, most controversially, he praised his great-uncle King Leopold II for seeing the potential of the Congo and laying the foundation for its development. He also praised the Belgians who had ended the slave trade and who brought together the various tribes of the Congo to create the political entity achieving independence that day. It was his hope to show everyone in a positive light and to begin Belgian-Congolese relations on a friendly note.

However, it was not to be. The revolutionary hero Patrice Lumumba then took the stage, making an impromptu speech in which he castigated the Belgians, accusing them of years of “injustice, oppression and exploitation” as well as racism, giving some slight credit only in not openly fighting against the independence movement. The native revolutionary elements were fired up by the speech and the Belgians were embarrassed and infuriated. The King very nearly ended his visit then and there and returned to Brussels but swallowed his pride and continued with the planned schedule. In any event, any hope of Belgian-Congolese friendship and cooperation from that point on died an early death. Only a few days after the ceremony the Congolese army mutinied and went on a bloody rampage, chaos reigned in the cities and Belgians and other Europeans, those who were not killed, fled for their lives back to Europe or neighboring African countries. King Baudouin would visit the Congo again, on more than one occasion, when relations between the two countries improved but the lasting friendship and cooperation he sought were never achieved, mostly due to the political leaders who never tired of using past wrongs to advance their own careers and blaming Belgium for every misfortune, even decades after independence.

Yet, 1960 was not a sad year for King Baudouin as it was at the end of that year on December 15, that he married the Spanish noble lady Doña Fabiola de Mora y Aragon. Some in the Catholic Church had helped bring the two together and they were a perfect match for each other, especially in the deep faith they shared. For the rest of their lives they were a devoted and loving couple, a strength and a comfort to each other in good times and bad. Although not much was made public, there was plenty of sadness as the Queen proved unable to have children and suffered a succession of miscarriages. However, their shared faith in God saw them through such difficulties. King Baudouin was often counseled by Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and supported the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement. The King often made pilgrimages to Catholic shrines, most frequently to Paray-le-Monial in France. He sought at all times to reign as a Catholic monarch and to look beyond materialistic concerns to moral problems in Belgium and around the world. This was no small task as his reign saw the rise of increasingly strident socialism, secularism and a growing hedonism among the young generation in particular. There were also many issues of national concern.

King Baudouin oversaw the sending of a Belgian contingent to participate in the Korean conflict with other UN partners, the first time Belgian forces had been sent so far to fight. There were strikes to be dealt with as the labor union movement grew in power but most significant was the growth of the Flemish nationalist movement and an increasing division of the Kingdom of Belgium along linguistic lines. Institutions older than Belgium itself split into Walloon and Flemish divisions and in 1962 a linguistic “border” was drawn across the country. 1970 saw the first of a series of “state reforms” in Belgium as the country was divided into cultural communities. In 1980 these gained their own governments and in 1993 Belgium completed the transition from a unitary to a federal state with communities and regions having their own directly elected governments to administer their own affairs. This coincided with a decline in support for the monarchy in Flanders which in itself caused Wallonia to become more monarchist by default as with these greater divisions it became more clear that the Crown, represented by King Baudouin, was one of the few sources of unity left in Belgium and something that had to be shared.

All of this was deeply troubling to King Baudouin, though some held out hope that if the two communities could not get along together, perhaps they would be able to get along apart but still remaining in the same country. However, King Baudouin was even more troubled, devout man of faith that he was, by the decline in traditional moral values that occurred as what was referred to as ‘the Belgium of our fathers’ was replaced by an increasingly secular and socialistic country with declining Church attendance and a focus on fights over wealth distribution rather than overall national concerns. The national debt skyrocketed as the government borrowed more and more money to fund social programs which only increased the anger of Flanders which, as the more prosperous half of the country, paid a greater amount to, as they saw it, fund the socialist spending habits of Wallonia. Traditional views on faith, marriage and family were also changing rapidly and this led to a near constitutional crisis in 1990 as these changes clashed with the religious convictions of the King.

In that year the Belgian parliament passed a new law legalizing (to a very liberal extent) abortion. Up to that point, King Baudouin had been distressed by the changes in the country but still cooperative. With this bill, however, the King could no longer compromise. Not wishing to make things more difficult than necessary, King Baudouin informed his ministers that if presented with such a bill, his conscience would not permit him to give it Royal Assent, necessary for the bill to become law. Prior to this point in Belgian history, Royal Assent had always been regarded as a mere formality. A bill may have been withdrawn at the request of the King but no monarch had ever before refused to sign something passed by parliament and set before him. On this issue, however, King Baudouin refused to budge. He regarded the bill as immoral, harmful and something he could not, under any circumstances, put his signature to. The politicians tried to find a way to make the King more compliant, arguing that he could sign it in his official capacity as King while opposing it in his private capacity as an individual. King Baudouin would have none of it. He would not sign it, could not sign it and that was that. A full-blown crisis seemed unavoidable.

Finally, a legal loophole was found by which the cabinet could act collectively in place of the monarch if the monarch ever became unfit to rule. In the face of the obstinate refusal of King Baudouin to put his name to an immoral bill, the cabinet voted to declare the King unfit to rule on April 4, 1990. The abortion bill was then signed into law by all members of the cabinet and on April 5, 1990 the government voted to declare King Baudouin fit to rule again and he was returned to the Belgian throne after being effectively deposed for a day. It was an episode of great worry for the country but, even though the Belgian people largely supported legalizing abortion (their values were not those of their king), they nonetheless respected the King for remaining faithful to his principles and, of course, it ultimately became law anyway without a crisis that might have brought down the monarchy and then probably led to the dissolution of Belgium entirely. Because of this near-crisis, King Baudouin (mostly outside of Belgium it must be said) has become an honored figure in the Pro-Life movement but others have, nonetheless, criticized the King on the grounds that, at the end of the day, the bill became law and abortion became legal. The truth, of course, is that King Baudouin could not have changed the moral values of his entire people nor could he coerce them into accepting his Catholic view of right and wrong. That is what would have been necessary to stop the law entirely. As it happened, the only options the King had were to sign or not to sign and he did all he could have done to stop the bill. He refused to sign it under any circumstances. King Baudouin should be saluted for his moral courage in the face of overwhelming pressure.

All of this weighed heavily on King Baudouin. The moral decline and the increasing division in Belgian society hurt him terribly and it is no surprise that he was known as “the sad King”. By his own example and the causes he championed he tried to promote traditional values and he did his best to bring the two sides of the linguistic divide together but to little effect. No one man could have succeeded in such circumstances but it speaks to his dedication that he did everything that it was in his power to do in an effort to right the wrongs that were plaguing his country. Even while his views were often ignored by his squabbling subjects, his presence was a comfort and a source of reassuring stability in a country undergoing dramatic and often bitter and bewildering changes. King Baudouin was, to some extent, rather taken for granted and it came as all the greater shock when, quite unexpectedly, the King died on July 31, 1993 of heart failure while on holiday in the south of Spain. Belgium was shocked and immediately plunged into mourning. As one young woman said, “We have lost our King, and only now do we realize what we have lost”.

There was an outpouring of moral support from around the world and the crowned heads of Europe took almost unprecedented steps which revealed how truly respected King Baudouin was among his peers. King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain rushed to the side of Queen Fabiola and accompanied her back to Belgium with the body of her late husband. His funeral in Brussels was attended by world leaders, non-reigning royals and monarchs from the Emperor of Japan to Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain who almost never attended such events on the continent. It was a mark of her respect for the late King of the Belgians who, it can be noted, had not attended the funeral of her father, King George VI, due to hard feelings over how the British government had treated his beloved father King Leopold III. From Russia to Portugal virtually every royal house was represented and from around the world there was the Empress of Iran, the Crown Princes of Nepal, Morocco, Jordan and Thailand. President Mitterrand of France and President Mubarak of Egypt were among the republican heads of state who attended. President Gerald Ford represented the United States. Cardinal Godfried Danneels said at the funeral, “There are kings who are more than kings, they are shepherds of their people. King Baudouin was such a king.” After 42 years on the throne he was the longest reigning monarch in Europe at the time, a familiar and beloved figure.

King Baudouin had lived a modest life and was perhaps loved best by those with the least in his country. He was shy, polite but could also show anger in private, particularly when he found he had been given incorrect information on some subject or other. He had known many heartaches during his life, starting with the loss of his mother, World War II, the unjust and even vicious treatment of his beloved father, an increasingly divided country, strikes, natural disasters and moral decline. His most difficult moment was surely to be found in the Congo in 1960 where his hope that his presence would bring calm and friendship ended in animosity and chaos. However, he had inherited a monarchy gripped by crisis (through no fault of King Leopold but a fact nonetheless) and he had solidified it and made it a source of national pride and unity in a fractured land. His staunch Catholicism was lived out in his personal example and even while his people did not follow him, they respected him for his integrity. Most of all though, at the times of the greatest difficulty for him during his reign, whether it was the Congo in 1960 or abortion in 1990, King Baudouin showed that he had the moral courage to do what was right even if he knew it would not be what was popular. That alone would suffice to make him a great King and a great man. King Baudouin was the last living member of the Supreme Order of Christ, the most rare and prestigious of papal honors and Pope John Paul II, after visiting the resting place of King Baudouin, paid tribute to him as a man who put Christ at the center of his life and as a monarch who defended God, human rights and the rights of the unborn. His cause for canonization has been talked about but without progress. Nonetheless, King Baudouin was and is an example to all of a dutiful, dedicated and upright Christian monarch.


  1. Even in the days before I was a monarchist, back when I was still an ardent republican, I respected him for his courage and defense of Christian morals. Both he and his father were heroes of mine in my republican days, and their examples were very influential in shifting my views toward monarchism.

  2. Your Belgian posts are always excellent and your special admiration for King Baudouin definitely comes through here. Thanks :)

  3. You have said you try to be impartial but it shows that King Baudouin is one you like best. Okay, because he was a good king of great character inside. I think it is great.

  4. It's such a pleasure to read your posts about King Baudouin. I have come to love he and Fabiola for their faith, loving relationship and servant leadership. Regards, L

  5. Restoring all things in Christ! I am so grateful to have read this much I didn't know....A King who is holier than the Cardinal of his time (Danneels) ... I pray Our Lord's Face is shining upon him at rest ...

  6. I had some stamps with the Kings pict. on it, and I wanted to look and find information about him. This was well written about him, and thank you for inspiring me about polititions, again.


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