Albert I (1875–1934; r. 1909–1934)

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ALBERT I (1875–1934; r. 1909–1934)


King of Belgium.

Albert, son of Philip, Earl of Flanders, and Mary, Princess of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, was born in Brussels on 8 April 1875. The early death of Prince Leopold (1859–1869), the Earl of Hainaut and the son of King Leopold II (r. 1865–1909), raised the young prince to the first rank in the order of succession to the Belgian throne. Albert, King Leopold II's nephew, studied at the Military Academy and subsequently served a long term in the Grenadiers Regiment. In October 1900 in Munich, Prince Albert married Elizabeth (1875–1965), the Duchess of Bavaria and daughter of Duke Charles-Theodore and Maria Josepha, Infanta of Portugal. In the ophthalmological clinic founded by her father, Elizabeth had acquired elementary nursing skills, which she put to use during World War I. The royal couple gave birth to three children: the future Leopold III (1901–1983), the Duke of Brabant, who was king of Belgium from 1934 to 1951; Charles (1903–1983), the Earl of Flanders and Regent of the kingdom from 1945 to 1950; and Marie-José (1906–2001), who was to marry Umberto, the Prince of Piedmont and, briefly, king of Italy (for about a month in 1946).

Albert, although long overshadowed by the figure of Leopold II, carefully prepared himself for his future royal responsibilities. In 1898 he undertook a first voyage to the United States, where he was profoundly impressed by the country's industrial development. In 1907 Leopold II made him Lieutenant General of the Kingdom, initiating him to national affairs. He also invited Albert to undertake a study trip to the Congo. Following Leopold II's death on 17 December 1909, King Albert made his solemn entry into Brussels, the national capital, on 23 December. His accession to the throne immediately aroused great enthusiasm, strengthened by the fact that the young king knew how to make himself popular: he went out to meet the crowd and shake people's hands; he showed his family and openly proclaimed his faith in modernity. The first few years of his reign were relatively calm. Belgium, a wealthy and prosperous nation, manifested its vitality by organizing large international exhibitions (in Brussels in 1910 and in Ghent in 1913), which were occasions for the royal couple to welcome a great number of foreign heads of state. In early 1914 the people of Belgium, placing an almost excessive trust in their country's neutrality, did not imagine that the nation would soon be plunged into war and be forced to take part in the conflict. Since the events of 1830 Belgium had taken no part in the various conflicts that shook Europe throughout the nineteenth century. On 23 July 1914 Austro-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia. A few days later the news of the Austrian declaration of war spread rapidly. The Belgian neutrality and summer quietude were suddenly shattered by the German ultimatum demanding free passage of German troops across the national territory. If Belgium accepted, it would be granted compensation and protection; if it did not, war would be declared. The answer was to be given within twelve hours. King Albert, the chief secretary, and the government immediately gathered to voice Belgium's answer, a flat and irrevocable refusal. Belgium was invaded on 4 August 1914. On the same day, the houses of parliament met in an extraordinary session, in which King Albert made a speech that was to become an historic landmark. On his way to parliament he crossed the city on his horse, in full military array, acclaimed by a delirious crowd voicing an unprecedented enthusiasm. As the epitome of Belgian unity in face of the German occupation, he was to take on the status of a national myth. On 5 August he personally took command of the armed forces, in accordance with the Belgian constitutional custom ("I am leaving Brussels to take my place at your head," he told the soldiers), and spent the four years of the conflict leading the troops. In October 1914, refusing to flee, he made what turned out to be the most important decision of the war, namely to stop the retreat of the Belgian army and hold his ground on Belgian soil along the Yser River. There, the Belgian army clung to and defended the last plot of national territory, resisting in the trenches and not yielding an inch. During the conflict, the royal couple took up residence in La Panne, at the seaside. Feeling that the royal family had a duty to set a perfect example, King Albert actually descended into the trenches to lead his army, and Queen Elizabeth became the soldiers' "White Angel," a devoted nurse caring for the soldiers wounded at the front. Before leaving Brussels, the queen opened the Royal Palace to make room for a hospital facility to provide first aid, which was to function throughout the war and which came to be known as the Royal Palace Ambulance. "Poor Belgium," the small heroic nation martyred by its occupiers, attracted the admiration of the whole world. This admiration was to focus on the figure of King Albert, the incarnation of the nation's suffering, pride, and victory. This enthusiasm was even strengthened by the contrast with his predecessor Leopold II, the end of whose reign had been marred by corruption and the Congo scandals. The contrast enhanced the image of Albert as a pure, knightly figure. The fact that he personally took command of the army also had significant consequences. More than once, he personally opposed pressure from the French and the English, who insisted that Belgium participate in large-scale Allied offensives. Albert, who did not believe that such attacks could be successful, was averse to wasting his soldiers' blood and reducing his small army, which he felt to constitute the last stronghold able to guarantee Belgium's independence. In this manner, he preserved the Belgian army from the bloodbaths of Verdun and the Marne. King Albert waited until 1918 to launch an offensive that he considered to be feasible and which proved to be decisive. On 22 November, when the victorious army entered the liberated capital, with the king riding his horse at its head, popular joy was at its peak. In his famous throne speech to the parliament, the King paid a tribute to the Yser troops and announced the opening of a Dutch-speaking university and the introduction of universal male suffrage "because of the equality of all in suffering and endurance." After the war, the sovereign's activity focused on matters of national security, the interests of the colony, and scientific research. In 1919 he visited the United States, where his bravery during the war earned him a triumphant welcome. He returned to the Congo between 1928 and 1932. Fascinated by scientific and technological progress, the king had a keen interest in the development of railroads, aeronautics, and wireless communication (he actually installed a radio transmitter in an outbuilding in the Palace Gardens, and the first radio broadcast of a concert was transmitted from the Royal Palace). An active sportsman, he would regularly go mountain climbing, and it is during a solitary ascent at Marche-les-Dames that he fell to his death. The fatal accident struck the popular imagination and strengthened the King Albert myth even more. The sudden violent death of the king gave rise to the most extravagant rumors both in Belgium and abroad about the causes of his demise. In May 1934 a British colonel voiced before the House of Commons his opinion that King Albert had been murdered, and some people still credit the hypothesis of a murder or a suicide. The tragic death of King Albert, hero of the Yser and knight-king, has raised him to a privileged status in Belgium's collective memory.

See alsoBelgium; World War I.


Thielemans, Marie-Rose, and Émile Vandewoude. Le Roi Albert au travers de ses lettres inédites, 1882–1916. Brussels, 1982.

van Kalken, Frans. "Albert Ier." In Biographie nationale de Belgique, edited by J. Balteau, M. Barroux, and M. Prevost. Brussels, 1957.

van Ypersele, Laurence. Roi Albert: histoire d'un mythe. Ottignes, Belgium, 1995.

Valerie Piette