Princess Lilian of Belgium ( 28 November 1916 – 7 June 2002) best known as Lilian, Princess of Réthy, was the second wife of King Leopold III of the Belgians.
Mary Lilian Baels was born in London, England, where her parents were living at the time. She was one of the nine children of Henri Baels and his wife, Anne Marie de Visscher.
Lilian was initially educated in English, but, upon her parents’ return to Belgium, she attended a school in Ostend, where she learned Dutch. She continued her studies in French in Brussels.
She completed her education by attending a finishing school in London, the Holy Child. In addition to academic work, Lilian participated extensively in sports, such as skiing, swimming, golfing, and hunting.
Above all, however, she enjoyed, as did her father, literature and the arts. As a teenager, she was presented to King George V and Queen Mary of the United Kingdom at Buckingham Palace. (cf. Jean Cleeremans, Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l’occupation)
In 1933, Lilian saw her future husband, King Leopold III of the Belgians, then still Duke of Brabant, for the first time during a military review. A few years later, when Governor Baels took his daughter to a public ceremony, she had the occasion to meet King Leopold, who presided at the event, for the second time.
In 1937, Lilian and her mother met the King, now a widower, again on another ceremonial occasion. Soon afterwards, Leopold contacted Governor Baels to invite him and his daughter to join him in a golfing party the next day.
Lilian also saw the King in 1939 at a garden-party organized in honour of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, and later at the golf course at Laeken, where she was invited to lunch by Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, King Leopold’s mother. A final golf party near the Belgian coast occurred in May, 1940, shortly before the Nazi invasion of Belgium. (cf. Jean Cleeremans, Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple, sous l’occupation, Roger Keyes, Echec au Roi: Léopold III, 1940-1951).
In 1941, at the invitation of Queen Mother Elisabeth, Lilian visited Laeken Castle, where King Leopold, now a prisoner of war, was held by the Germans under house arrest. This visit was followed by several others, with the result that Leopold and Lilian fell in love.
Leopold proposed marriage to Lilian in July, 1941. Lilian agreed to marry the King, but declined the title of Queen. Instead, the King gave her the unofficial title “Princess of Réthy.” It was agreed that any descendants of the King’s new marriage would be excluded from succession to the throne.
Leopold and Lilian initially planned to hold their official, civil marriage after the end of the war and the liberation of Belgium, but in the meantime, a secret religious marriage ceremony took place on 11 September 1941, in the chapel of Laeken Castle, in the presence of Queen Elisabeth, Henri Baels, and Cardinal van Roey, Archbishop of Mechelen and primate of Belgium.
This actually contravened Belgian law, which required that the religious wedding be preceded by the civil one. Although Lilian and Leopold had originally planned to postpone their civil marriage until the end of the war, Lilian was soon expecting her first child, necessitating a civil marriage, which took place on 6 December 1941.
The civil marriage automatically made Lilian a Princess of Belgium. Lilian proved a devoted wife to the King and an affectionate and vivacious mother to his children by his first wife, Queen Astrid. (cf Jean Cleeremans, Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l’occupation, Roger Keyes, Echec au Roi, Léopold III, 1940-1951)
When the civil marriage of Leopold and Lilian was made public by Cardinal van Roey, in a pastoral letter read throughout Belgian churches in December, 1941, there was a mixed reaction in Belgium.
Some showed sympathy for the new couple, sending flowers and messages of congratulations to the palace at Laeken (cf. Jean Cleeremans, Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l’occupation) Others, however, argued that the marriage was incompatible with the King’s status as a prisoner-of-war and his stated desire to share the hard fate of his conquered people and captive army, and was a betrayal of Queen Astrid’s memory.
They also branded Lilian as an social-climber (Léopold III, by Vincent Dujardin, Mark van den Wijngaert, et al.). Leopold and Lilian were also blamed for violating Belgian law by holding their religious marriage before their civil one. These criticisms would continue for many years, even after the war.
Princess Lilian died at the Domaine d’Argenteuil in Waterloo, Belgium and was buried, contrary to her wish, in the royal crypt of the Church of Our Lady, Laeken, Belgium. Before her death, she had expressed the desire to be buried at Argenteuil.
Her wish was denied, however, and she was buried in the Royal crypt with King Leopold and his first wife, Queen Astrid. Queen Fabiola and Lilian’s stepchildren attended the funeral, as did Lilian’s son Alexandre and her daughter Marie-Esmeralda. Lilian’s long-estranged daughter Marie-Christine, however, did not attend.
Following Princess Lilian’s death, a cardiological conference was organized and prominent doctors and surgeons such as DeBakey and many others rendered an homage to Lilian and her contributions to cardiology (cf. Jacques Franck, “Souvenirs de la Princesse Lilian,” published 29 October 2003 in La Libre Belgique).