In the Restoration period of the nineteenth century, every self-respecting European country had to have a King. So when Belgium declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1830, finding a King was the first order of business. There was no tradition of a Belgian royal family (in fact no tradition of a Belgian anything), so they had to scramble for a King on the international royalty market.
Their first choice was Prince Louis, Duke of Nemours, the second son of King Louis Philippe of France, who declined to take the job on orders of his father. After considering several more candidates, the Belgian Congress finally chose Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg as their first King. He accepted, even though he was German (not Belgian), Protestant (unlike most Belgians, who were Roman Catholics) and had served in the Russian army. He was also a member of the British royal family and an uncle of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. A few years earlier he had been offered the job of King of Greece, but had turned it down.
Like the upper echelons of bankers and business managers today, the royals in those days were an international elite who did not necessarily have any particular connection to the countries they were ruling.
This equestrian statue of Leopold I is located, appropriately enough, on Leopoldplaats in the center of Antwerp.
The text at the base of the statue reads: “Human destinies do not offer a task more noble and more useful than to be called on to maintain the independence of a nation and consolidate its liberties.” (Leopold to the delegates of the Belgian Congress in London, June 27, 1831.) The quotation is in French, which was the only official language of Belgium at the time. Today in Antwerp, as in other Flemish places in Belgium, the official language is Dutch, and no one would think of posting a quotation in French in a public square.
Leopold as a Russian officer and later King of the Belgians no doubt had sleek fast horses like the one in the statue, but most horses in those days were very different: bulky, solid, stolid and slow, like the ones pulling this tourist carriage through the streets of Antwerp.
The closest Velo-Antwerpen bike stations to Leopoldplaats are 084 Elzenveld and 079 Nationale Bank.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2019.
2 thoughts on “The first King of the Belgians”
I don’t think they still have a government to do lol!
Strange piece from history.