Albert I of Belgium

Albert I

Albert I wearing his Adrian helmet
King of the Belgians
Reign 23 December 1909
17 February 1934
Predecessor Leopold II
Successor Leopold III
Prime Ministers
Born (1875-04-08)8 April 1875
Brussels, Belgium
Died 17 February 1934(1934-02-17) (aged 58)
Marche-les-Dames, Namur, Belgium
Spouse Elisabeth of Bavaria
Issue Leopold III of the Belgians
Prince Charles, Count of Flanders
Marie José, Queen of Italy
Full name
Dutch: Albert Leopold Clemens Maria Meinrad
French: Albert Léopold Clément Marie Meinrad
German: Albert Leopold Clemens Maria Meinrad
House Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
Father Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders
Mother Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen
Religion Roman Catholicism

Albert I (8 April 1875 17 February 1934) reigned as King of the Belgians from 1909 to 1934. This was an eventful period in the History of Belgium, which included the period of World War I (1914–1918), when 90 percent of Belgium was overrun, occupied, and ruled by the German Empire. Other crucial issues included the adoption of the Treaty of Versailles, the ruling of the Belgian Congo as an overseas possession of the Kingdom of Belgium along with the League of Nations mandate of Ruanda-Urundi, the reconstruction of Belgium following the war, and the first five years of the Great Depression (1929–1934). King Albert died in a mountaineering accident in eastern Belgium in 1934, at the age of 58, and he was succeeded by his son Leopold.

Early life

King Albert touring the Belgian Congo
Belgian Royalty
House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha
Leopold I
Leopold II
Albert I
Leopold III
Albert II

Born Albert Léopold Clément Marie Meinrad in Brussels, he was the fifth child and second son of Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders, and his wife, Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. Prince Philippe was the third (second surviving) son of Leopold I, the first King of the Belgians, and his wife, Marie-Louise of France, and the younger brother of King Leopold II of Belgium. Princess Marie was a relative of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and a member of the non-reigning, Catholic branch of the Hohenzollern family. Albert grew up in the Palace of Flanders, initially as third in the line of succession to the Belgian throne as his reigning Uncle Leopold II's son had already died. When, however, Albert's older brother, Prince Baudouin of Belgium, who had been subsequently prepared for the throne, also died young, Albert, at the age of 16, unexpectedly became second in line (after his father) to the Belgian Crown.

Retiring and studious, Albert prepared himself strenuously for the task of kingship. In his youth, Albert was seriously concerned with the situation of the working classes in Belgium, and personally traveled around working class districts incognito, to observe the living conditions of the people.[1] Shortly before his accession to the throne in 1909, Albert undertook an extensive tour of the Belgian Congo, which had been annexed by Belgium in 1908 (after having been previously owned by King Leopold II of Belgium as his personal property), finding the country in poor condition. Upon his return to Belgium, he recommended reforms to protect the native population and to further technological progress in the colony.[2]

He was the 1,152nd Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece in Austria and the 851st Knight of the Order of the Garter in 1914.


Albert was married in Munich on 2 October 1900 to Duchess Elisabeth Gabrielle Valérie Marie in Bavaria, a Wittelsbach princess whom he had met at a family funeral. A daughter of Karl-Theodor, Duke in Bavaria, and his wife, the Infanta Maria Josepha of Portugal, she was born at Possenhofen Castle, Bavaria, Germany, on 25 July 1876, and died on 23 November 1965. Based on the letters written during their engagement and marriage (cited extensively in the memoirs of their daughter, Marie-José) the young couple appear to have been deeply in love. The letters express a deep mutual affection based on a rare affinity of spirit.[3] They also make clear that Albert and Elisabeth continually supported and encouraged each other in their challenging roles as king and queen. The spouses shared an intense commitment to their country and family and a keen interest in human progress of all kinds. Together, they cultivated the friendship of prominent scientists, artists, mathematicians, musicians, and philosophers, turning their court at Laeken into a kind of cultural salon.[3][4]


Albert and Elisabeth had three children:


Newspaper compilation in December 1909 shows Albert at top left after inspection of a mine. His wife and children are at bottom right.

Following the death of his uncle, Leopold II, Albert succeeded to the Belgian throne in December 1909, since Albert's own father had already died in 1905. Previous Belgian kings had taken the royal accession oath only in French; Albert innovated by taking it in Dutch as well.[1] He and his wife, Queen Elisabeth, were popular in Belgium due to their simple, unassuming lifestyle and their harmonious family life, which stood in marked contrast to the aloof, autocratic manner and the irregular private life of Leopold II. An important aspect of the early years of Albert's reign was his institution of many reforms in the administration of the Belgian Congo, Belgium's only colonial possession.[5]


King Albert was a devout Catholic.[3][6][7] Many stories illustrate his deep and tender piety. For instance, when his former tutor General De Grunne, in his old age, entered the Benedictine monastery of Maredsous in Belgium, King Albert wrote a letter to him in which he spoke of the joy of giving oneself to God.[6] He said: "May you spend many years at Maredsous in the supreme comfort of soul that is given, to natures touched by grace, by faith in God's infinite power and confidence in His goodness."[7] To another friend, a Chinese diplomat, who became a Catholic monk, Albert wrote: "Consecrating oneself wholly to the service of Our Lord gives, to those touched by grace, the peace of soul which is the supreme happiness here below."[7] Albert used to tell his children: "As you nourish your body, so you should nourish your soul."[3] In an interesting meditation on what he viewed as the harm that would result if Christian ideals were abandoned in Belgium, he said: "Every time society has distanced itself from the Gospel, which preached humility, fraternity, and peace, the people have been unhappy, because the pagan civilization of ancient Rome, which they wanted to replace it with, is based only on pride and the abuse of force" (Commemorative speech for the war dead of the Battle of the Yser, given by Dom Marie-Albert, Abbot of Orval Abbey, Belgium, in 1936 ).

World War I

Albert inspecting the front line with his officers.
Uniform with war honours

At the start of World War I, Albert refused to comply with Germany's request for safe passage for its troops through Belgium in order to attack France, which the Germans alleged was about to advance into Belgium en route to attacking Germany in support of Russia. In fact, the French government had told its army commander not to go into Belgium before a German invasion.[8] The German invasion brought Britain into the war as one of the guarantors of Belgian neutrality under the Treaty of 1839. King Albert, as prescribed by the Belgian constitution, took personal command of the Belgian army, and held the Germans off long enough for Britain and France to prepare for the Battle of the Marne (6–9 September 1914). He led his army through the Siege of Antwerp and the Battle of the Yser, when the Belgian army was driven back to a last, tiny strip of Belgian territory near the North Sea. Here the Belgians, in collaboration with the armies of the Triple Entente, took up a war of position, in the trenches behind the River Yser, remaining there for the next four years. During this period, King Albert fought alongside his troops and shared their dangers, while his wife, Queen Elisabeth, worked as a nurse at the front. During his time on the front, rumors spread on both sides of the lines that the German soldiers never fired upon him out of respect for him being the highest ranked commander in harm's way, while others feared risking punishment by the Kaiser himself, who was his cousin. The king also allowed his 14-year-old son, Prince Leopold, to enlist in the Belgian army as a private and fight in the ranks.[2][5]

The war inflicted great suffering on Belgium, which was subjected to a harsh German occupation. The king, fearing the destructive results of the war for Belgium and Europe and appalled by the huge casualty rates, worked through secret diplomatic channels for a negotiated peace between Germany and the Entente based on the "no victors, no vanquished" concept. He considered that such a resolution to the conflict would best protect the interests of Belgium and the future peace and stability of Europe. Since, however, neither Germany nor the Entente were favorable to the idea, tending instead to seek total victory, Albert's attempts to further a negotiated peace were unsuccessful. At the end of the war, as commander of the Army Group Flanders, consisting of Belgian, British and French divisions, Albert led the final offensive of the war that liberated occupied Belgium. King Albert, Queen Elisabeth, and their children then re-entered Brussels to a hero's welcome.

Post-war years

Upon his return to Brussels, King Albert made a speech in which he outlined the reforms he desired to see implemented in Belgium, including universal suffrage and the establishment of a Flemish University in Ghent.

Trip to the United States

From 23 September through 13 November 1919, King Albert, Queen Elisabeth of Bavaria, and their son Prince Leopold took an official visit to the United States. During a visit of the historic Native American pueblo of Isleta Pueblo, New Mexico, King Albert decorated Father Anton Docher with the Order of Léopold.[9] Docher offered the king a turquoise cross mounted in silver made by the Tiwas Indians.[10][11] Ten thousand people traveled to Isleta for this occasion.

The king and the queen during their visit to Isleta pueblo in New Mexico in 1919, with the Governor of New Mexico and Anton Docher

Introduction of universal male suffrage

In 1918, King Albert forged a post-war "Government of National Union" made up of members of the three main parties in Belgium, the Catholics, the Liberals, and the Socialists.[1][5] Albert I remembered the Belgian general strike of 1913, and the promise following that of a Constitutional reform for an actual one man, one vote universal suffrage.

On 18 April 1893, at the end of the Belgian general strike of 1893, universal suffrage, approved by the Belgian Parliament, gave plural votes to individual men based on their wealth, education, and age, but this was clearly not a universal suffrage.[12]

Albert attempted to mediate between the parties in favor of universal male suffrage and those opposed to it in order to bring about one man, one vote universal suffrage for men. He succeeded.[13] Some people have named this the "conspiracy of Loppem" because the one man, one vote suffrage was effected without changing the Constitution of Belgium.

Paris Peace Conference

King Albert (left) with his wife and Fuad I of Egypt, 1930

The Belgian government sent the king to the Paris Peace Conference in April 1919, where he met with the leaders of France, Britain and the United States. He had four strategic goals:

  1. to restore and expand the Belgian economy using cash reparations from Germany;
  2. to assure Belgium's security by the creation of a new buffer state on the left bank of the Rhine;
  3. to revise the obsolete treaty of 1839;
  4. to promote a 'rapprochement' between Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg.

He strongly advised against a harsh, restrictive treaty against Germany to prevent future German aggression.[14] He also considered that the dethronement of the princes of Central Europe and, in particular, the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire would constitute a serious menace to peace and stability on the continent.[6] The Allies considered Belgium to be the chief victim of the war, and it aroused enormous popular sympathy, but the king's advice played a small role in Paris.[15]

Albert spent much of the remainder of his reign assisting in the post-war reconstruction of Belgium.

Albert was a committed conservationist and in 1925, influenced by the ideas of Carl E. Akeley, he founded Africa's first national park, now known as Virunga National Park, in what is now Democratic Republic of Congo. During this period, he was also the first European monarch to visit the United States.[16]


A passionate alpinist, King Albert I died in a mountaineering accident while climbing alone on the Roche du Vieux Bon Dieu at Marche-les-Dames, in the Ardennes region of Belgium near Namur. His death shocked the world and he was deeply mourned, both in Belgium and abroad. Because King Albert was an expert climber, some questioned the official version of his death and suggested that the king was murdered (or even committed suicide) somewhere else and that his body had never been at Marche-les-Dames, or that it was deposited there.[17][18] Several of those hypotheses with criminal motives were already investigated by the juridical authorities but the doubts have been increased ever since, today still being the subject to popular novels, books and documentaries.[19] Nonetheless, rumors of murder have been dismissed by most historians. There are two possible explanations for his death according to the official juridical investigations: the first was he leaned against a boulder at the top of the mountain, which became dislodged; or two, the pinnacle to which his rope was belayed had broken, causing him to fall about sixty feet.[20] In 2016 DNA testing by geneticist Dr. Maarten Larmuseau and colleagues from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven on bloodstained leaves collected from Marche-les-Dames concluded that King Albert died at that location.[21]

King Albert is interred in the Royal Crypt at the Church of Our Lady of Laeken in Brussels.

In 1935, prominent Belgian author Emile Cammaerts published a widely acclaimed biography of King Albert I, titled "Albert of Belgium: Defender of Right". In 1993, a close climbing companion of the king, Walter Amstutz, founded the King Albert I Memorial Foundation, an association based in Switzerland and dedicated to honoring distinguished individuals in the mountaineering world.

Celebrating 175 years of Belgian Dynasty and the 100th anniversary of his accession,[22] Albert I was selected as the main motif of a high-value collectors' coin: the Belgian 12.5 euro Albert I commemorative coin, minted in 2008. The obverse shows a portrait of the king.

Styles, arms, and honours




Honours and awards

Albert was Grand Master of several Belgian Orders: Order of Leopold (also Grand Cross decorated with Grand Cordon), Order of the African Star, Royal Order of the Lion, Order of the Crown and Order of Leopold II.

He was also the recipient of foreign awards:

See also



  1. 1 2 3 Carlo Bronne. Albert 1er: le roi sans terre.
  2. 1 2 Evelyn Graham. Albert, King of the Belgians.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Luciano Regolo. La regina incompresa: tutto il racconto della vita di Maria José di Savoia.
  4. Marie-José, Queen, Consort of Umberto II, King of Italy. Albert et Elisabeth de Belgique, mes parents.
  5. 1 2 3 Roger Keyes. Outrageous Fortune: The Tragedy of Leopold III of the Belgians.
  6. 1 2 3 Charles d'Ydewalle. Albert and the Belgians: Portrait of a King.
  7. 1 2 3 Jo Gérard. Albert 1er, insolite: 1934–1984.
  8. Margaret MacMillan: The War that Ended the Peace (2013)p.585
  9. Keleher and Chant. The Padre of Isleta. Sunstone Press, 2009, p. 94.
  10. W. A. Keleher. The Indian sentinel. 1920, vol. 2. pp. 23–24
  11. Samuel Gance, Anton ou la trajectoire d'un père, L'Harmattan, 2013, p.174.
  12. Els Witte, Jan Craeybeckx, Alain Meynen Political History of Belgium: From 1830 Onwards, Academic and Scientific Publishers, Brussels, 2009, p. 278. ISBN 978-90-5487-517-8
  13. Charles d'Ydewalle, Albert and the Belgians: Portrait of a King, Translated from the French, by Phyllis Megroz, London, 1935, p. 198 and the following pages.
  14. Vincent Dujardin, Mark van den Wijngaert, et al. Léopold III
  15. Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919 (2003) pp. 106, 272
  16. William Mark Adams (2004). Against Extinction: The Story of Conservation. Earthscan. p. 5.
  17. NOTERMAN, Jacques (2004). Le roi tué. Brussels: Editions Jourdan le Clercq. ISBN 9782930359069.
  18. Raskin, Evrard (2005). Elisabeth Van België - Een ongewone koningin. Antwerp: Hautekiet. ISBN 905240822X.
  19. Van Ypersele, Laurence (2006). Le roi Albert: Histoire d'un mythe. Charleroi: Broché. ISBN 978-2804021764.
  20. Donaldson, Norman and Betty (1980). How Did They Die?. Greenwich House. ISBN 0-517-40302-1.
  21. New Historian, 24 July 2016, Retrieved 26 July 2016.
  22. "Belgium commemorative euro coins – 2008". Euro Master – Online Euro Catalog. Retrieved 29 November 2008.
  23. Journal De Bruxelles 14-04-1910
  24. Handelsblad (Het) 09-10-1900
  25. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Afghanistan, Ordre d'Ustar
  26. See List of Austrian Knights of the Golden Fleece (20th century)
  27. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Bolivia, Ordre du Condor des Andes - Ribbon bar
  28. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Chile, Ordre Al Merito - World Medals Index, Chile: Order of Merit
  29. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Colombia, Ordre de Boyaca
  30. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Cuba, Ordre du Mérité "Carlos Manuel de Cespedes"
  31. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Czechoslovakia, Ordre du Lion Blanc - Croix de Guerre
  32. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Ecuador, Ordre Al Merito - World Medals Index, Ecuador: National Order of Merit
  33. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Egypt, Ribbon bar
  34. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Ethiopia, Ordre du Sceau de Salomon - Ribbon bar
  35. 1 2 3 Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, France, Ordre de la Légion d'Honneur - Médaille Militaire - Croix de Guerre - Ribbon bars of the 3 orders
  36. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, France (Algeria), Scarabée vert de Tabelbala
  37. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Italy, Croix du Mérite de Guerre - Ribbon bar
  38. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Japan, Ordre Suprême du Chrisanthème - Ribbon bar
  39. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Lithuania, Ordre de Vytis
  40. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Luxembourg, Ordre du Lion de la Maison de Nassau - Ribbon bar
  41. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Monaco, Ordre de Saint Charles
  42. 1 2 Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Morocco, Ordre Ouissam Alaouite (Ribbon bar) - Ordre du Mérite Chérifien
  43. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Netherlands, Ordre du Lion Néerlandais - Ribbon bar
  44. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Norway, Ordre de Saint-Olaf
  45. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Persia, Ordre de la Couronne de Perse - Ribbon bar
  46. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Peru, Ribbon bar
  47. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Poland, Ordre Militaire "Virtuti Militari" - Ribbon bar
  48. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Portugal, Ordre des trois Ordres Militaires réunis du Christ, Saint-Benoît d'Aviz et de Saint-Jacques et de l'Epée
  49. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Portugal, Ordre de la Tour et de l'Epée
  50. 1 2 3 Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Romania, Ribbon bar
  51. 1 2 Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Romania, Ordre Militaire de Michel le Brave - Croix du Mérite Aéronautique
  52. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Russian Empire, Ordre Militaire de Saint Georges
  53. 1 2 Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Serbia, Ordre de Karageorge avec Glaives - Ribbon bar - Médaille d'Or pour le Bravoure
  54. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Spain, Ordre de Charles III - Ribbon bar
  55. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Sweden, Ordre des Séraphins - Ribbon bar
  56. 1 2 3 Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, United Kingdom, Ordre Militaire du Bath - DFC - Méd. du Couronnement d'Édouard VII
  57. 1 2 Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, United Kingdom, Ribbon bar
  58. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, United States, Distinguished Service Medal
  59. Belgian Army Royal Museum, Decorations of King Albert I, Venezuela, Ordre du Buste du Libérateur - Ribbon bar

Further reading

  • Galet, Emile Joseph. Albert King of the Belgians in the Great War (1931), detailed memoir by the military advisor to the King; covers 1912 to the end of October 1914
  • Woodward, David. "King Albert in World War I" History Today (1975) 25#9 pp. 638–43
  • Catherine Barjansky. Portraits with Backgrounds.
  • Mary Elizabeth Thomas, "Anglo-Belgian Military Relations and the Congo Question, 1911–1913", Journal of Modern History, Vol. 25, No. 2 (June 1953), pp. 157–165.
  • Page, Walter Hines; Page, Arthur Wilson (January 1915). "The Well-Beloved King of The Belgians". The World's Work: A History of Our Time. XXIX: 280–288. Retrieved 2009-08-04. 

External links

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