Today is the anniversary of the first, and most important, of Belgian royal weddings: the nuptials of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, first King of the Belgians, and Princess Louise-Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte-Isabelle d'Orléans, eldest daughter of Louis-Philippe, King of the French. The marriage was celebrated with great magnificence at the Château de Compiègne, on August 9, 1832, exactly two years to the day after the bride's parents, in the aftermath of the July Revolution, had ascended the French throne. Leopold and Louise had three wedding ceremonies: civil, Catholic and Protestant. Bride and groom left Compiègne a few days later, traveling to Laeken in triumph, amidst a sea of French and Belgian tricolor flags, acclaimed by Belgians eager to welcome their new Queen.
Physically, morally, spiritually, Leopold and Louise presented a striking contrast. He was dark, she was fair. He was a seasoned, middle-aged soldier and statesman, a widower and an experienced lover, an ambitious man of the world, rather hardened by years, sorrows and disappointments; she, a shy, innocent, tender young girl, who had dreaded the idea of becoming Queen, weeping copiously at the thought of separation from her parents, brothers and sisters, the only loves she had ever known. He was a Lutheran, and, reputedly, a Freemason, she a devout and pious Catholic.
Yet, by the standards of the time, their marriage proved a success. Despite her initial reluctance to marry Leopold, Louise gradually fell deeply in love with her husband. Although he never returned her passionate devotion, and felt free to seek romance elsewhere, Leopold did cherish Louise as a dear friend and a clever political ally. He was profoundly grieved by her untimely death in 1850.
How striking to think that, without the union of Leopold and Louise, none of the future generations of the Belgian royal family would ever have existed! The marriage had great political significance in its own time, too. In 1831, France's traditional enemy, Great Britain, jealous of her sphere of influence in the Low Countries, had prevented Louise's brother, the Duc de Nemours, from accepting the Belgian throne. Fearing French influence and, potentially, annexation by France, Flemings were also alarmed by the prospect of an Orléans prince becoming their king. An Orléans princess as queen consort, however, was much less threatening. Thus, Louise brought her husband French support, consolidating Belgium's newly won, precarious independence, while maintaining the balance of power between Britain and France and peace between Flanders and Wallonia.