Leopold Georges Christian Frederic of Saxe-Coburg was the youngest son of His Ducal Highness François, the reigning Duke of Saxe-Coburg Saalfeld and Countess Augusta Reuss-Ebersdorf. He was born in Coburg, Bavaria, on 16 December 1790.
In 1795, when he was only 5 years old, he was appointed Colonel in the Ismailovski Regiment of the Russial Imperial Army. A mere seven years later he became a General. When his homeland was occupied by the troops of Napoleon, Young Leopold spent a lot of time at the French Imperial Court, but he refused to serve in their army. He realised he would have to follow in his brother’s footsteps as Duke of Saxe-Coburg, and he chose to participate in the campaign against Napoleon. He became Lieutenant General in the Imperial army in 1815. He accompanied Tsar Alexander I during his entry in Paris after the French troops of Napoleon were defeated by the Russians.
After he acquired the British nationality, he married Princess Charlotte of Wales, heiress to the British throne, in 1816. The marriage was short. Princess Charlotte gave birth to a stillborn child in 1817, and died a few days later.
Although Leopold had no political recognition or status in Britain any more, he remained influential through his niece, Queen Victoria, and her husband, Prince Albert, who was his nephew.
In 1830, Leopold was offered the crown of Greece, but he refused. When he was offered the crown of the newly founded Belgium one year later, however, he accepted. He took the oath as the first King of the Belgians on 21 July 1831. This day would later become the National Holiday. The independence of the young country was soon challenged, when King William I ordered his sons to invade Belgium. The Dutch attack could only be averted because of the intervention of the French army, which came to the rescue of the Belgians, and the British demand for the Dutch to retreat. This Ten Day Campaign ended badly for the Belgians, because although the independence of the country was guaranteed, a new treaty also took away some of the Belgian territory and obliged any ship that sailed on the Scheldt to pay toll to the Dutch.
On 9 August 1832, King Leopold I married Princess Louise-Marie, the twenty year old daughter of the French King Louis-Philippe at the Castle of Compiègne in France. The marriage was mostly a political arrangement, as it assured the Belgian King of French support. The couple would have four children, Prince Louis-Philippe (1833-1834), the later Leopold II (1835 – 1909), Prince Philippe (1837 – 1905), Count of Flanders, and Princess Charlotte (1840 – 1927), later Empress of Mexico.
Although the King had a mistress, Arcadie Claret, with whom he had two sons, it is believed that he dearly loved Queen Louise-Marie. He was shaken by her sudden death in 1850, and commanded the construction of the Royal Crypt next to the Church of Our Lady in Laeken. The King died on 10 December 1865 and was succeeded by his eldest surviving son, Leopold, Duke of Brabant. He was buried in the Royal Crypt next to his wife.
The reign of Leopold I concentrated mostly on consolidating the newly founded country. He reigned as an enlightened despot and considered such areas as national defence and international affairs as his personal playground. He was actively involved in the running of the country. One of his pet projects was the construction of the first railway line in continental Europe, which was inaugurated in 1835 and connected Brussels, the Belgian capital, with Mechelen (Malines). He was a progressive leader; he tried to obtain legislation on the labour of women and children in 1842, but the National Congress refuted these attempts. In the 1860s, he instigated the construction of the fortifications of Antwerp, because he believed a war between Prussia and France was unavoidable. He also tried to establish overseas expansion, as he realised a colony would increase the political importance of Belgium. However, Belgium never gained a colony under his reign.
Portrait of King Leopold I of the Belgians by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, ca. 1840. Public domain.