08 July 2013

Royal Splendor 101: An Abdication in Belgium

The Year of the Abdication continued to pick up steam last week as Belgium's King Albert II announced that he would abdicate in favor of his son, Philippe, on July 21st.
Albert officially took the throne on August 9, 1993, after the death of his older brother, King Baudouin I. Baudouin was only 62 when he suddenly passed away from heart failure while in Spain. Many saw Philippe as Baudouin's successor (since the King and his wife, Queen Fabiola, had not been able to have children), so Albert's 20 year reign wasn't necessarily in the forecast. There have been rumors of an abdication this year, but still his act has taken many by surprise.

Video: Albert's speech, announcing the abdication
Abdication is not a foreign concept in the Belgian monarchy. Baudouin and Albert's father, King Leopold III, abdicated, but not under peaceful circumstances. Remaining in occupied Belgium during World War II against the advice of his government, the conditions of Leopold's lifestyle and his actions came to be regarded with great suspicion, and he was accused of cooperating with the Nazis. He and his family were removed from Belgium by the German forces prior to the liberation, and he could not return until 1950. The question of whether he should return or not - the Royal Question, as it was known - divided the country deeply. Though he was allowed to return, his arrival caused great unrest. He was pressured to abdicate and finally did so, turning the throne over to 20-year-old Baudouin.
Philippe, Albert, and Elisabeth
Albert steps down on a far calmer note, and on his own initiative, in the style of his fellow Benelux monarchs in the Netherlands and Luxembourg. At 79 years old, he cited ill health as his reason for abdicating. Recent years have brought plenty of stress for the monarch; there have been problems with the economy (the royal family recently lost some allowances in budget cuts and must start paying some taxes) and the government, as well as a host of issues directed at his own family. Queen Fabiola was accused of tax dodging for setting up a perfectly legal trust to handle some of her assets on her death; Albert's son Prince Laurent was suspended from royal appearances for a time following an unauthorized visit to the Congo (which was not the first time he landed himself in hot water); Philippe was hit with renewed speculation about his character and his marriage following a recent book publication; and so on. Albert has some scandal of his own, too: he (allegedly) fathered an illegitimate daughter in the 1960s - he has acknowledged that his marriage went through a rough period - and now this (alleged) unrecognized daughter has sued to prove her bloodline. Obviously, none of these issues are part of the official reason for passing the torch, but perhaps something of a fresh start would be useful.

Video: Philippe's statement, after his father's announcement
That fresh start comes in the form of 53-year-old Prince Philippe, the Duke of Brabant. He will take the throne as the King of Belgians with his wife, the new Queen Mathilde, at his side. His heir is the eldest of his four children, Princess Elisabeth, 11 years old, who will become the Duchess of Brabant (though obviously a full roster of official duties will wait until she's older). Belgium does not follow the example set by the Netherlands of "reducing" their abdicated monarch's title, so there will be a plethora of kings and queens: King Philippe, King Albert, Queen Mathilde, Queen Paola, and Queen Fabiola.

Video: Albert takes his oath
King Philippe will be installed on July 21st, which is National Day, and the ceremonies will take place around the traditional National Day events, including a Te Deum and military parade: the morning's Te Deum will be followed by the abdication ceremony at the Royal Palace, and then the new monarch will proceed to the Parliament to take his oath. Then come the military proceedings, including the parade, and the rest of the regular National Day celebrations.

The enthronement procedure for a Belgian monarch is rather simple, as you can see in the video above. There is no robe of ermine, there are no crowns or glittering tiaras (Belgium hasn't hosted a tiara event in several years, they don't even host state visits these days). It is not traditional for foreign guests to be invited, and it doesn't sound like they have any intention to change that. This won't be as splashy as what we saw in the Netherlands earlier this year, but as we've seen, each country does this thing in their own unique way.

Photos: Belgian Monarchy/Getty Images