King Albert II of Belgium

When King Baudouin of Belgium died suddenly of heart failure on July 31, 1993, his subjects assumed his nephew Prince Philippe would ascend the throne. The King never had children of his own, and Philippe had been groomed as the heir apparent from birth.

Instead parliament named the King's brother, the more politically experienced Prince Albert of Liege, as his successor. It was thought his wisdom would help maintain national cohesion because the country is divided linguistically into Dutch and French speakers.

Although his appointment provoked comment at the time - "Why Albert?" asked Belgian newspaper Le Soir in a front page headline - since being sworn in, the royal motorcycle aficionado, who is named after his respected grandfather, has lived up to his namesake's sterling example.

Born on June 6, 1934, King Albert had a childhood marred by instability. When he was just 15 months old his mother, Queen Astrid, was killed in a car accident in Switzerland. And following the invasion of Belgium in 1940, the young royal spent nearly a decade on the move. The family was deported to Germany during WWII and he eventually completed his studies in Geneva.

While they were growing up, Baudouin was viewed as stately and staid, while Albert acquired something of a reputation as a daredevil. The younger brother's enthusiasm for motorcycles was considered inappropriate by many, including the numerous police officers who pulled over a speeding cyclist only to discover Prince Albert under the helmet. His mildly irreverent attitude was very much in line with that of his wife, however, who became the first Belgian royal ever photographed in a bikini.

When Albert first laid eyes on his future bride, Paola Ruffo di Calabria, an Italian aristocrat with royal connections, at Pope John XXIII's enthronement ceremony he was awed by her beauty.

A couple of days later he sent her an invitation to a reception at the Belgian Embassy; and six months later, on July 2, 1959, they were married. Following King Baudouin's death, the pair, who have three children Philippe, Astrid and Laurent were to bring a dash of glamour to the royal palace while continuing the former monarch's work.

When their father Leopold III was forced to abdicate as a result of his controversial relations with the Germans during the occupation of Belgium, King Baudouin was instrumental in restoring his subjects' faith in the monarchy. And, after succeeding his brother, Albert reiterated his ideas and approach.

"Albert's human side, his practical approach to things could disarm people and soon bring them under the spell of his charm," commented a business associate of the new monarch.

He provided a much needed source of stability in a country riven with divisions. By 2013, however, the monarch had become increasingly frail, while the royal family was tarnished by allegations of financial impropriety surrounding his brother's widow Queen Fabiola.

In statement Albert admitted: "Recent events have pained me and dealt a lesson in humility. The royal family has to show an example in all circumstances."

A few months later, he announced his decision to abdicate in favour of his son Philippe.
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