Mary Lilian Lucy Josepha Monique Baels was born in Highbury, London, England, one of eight children of Henri Baels, an attorney and fish trader from Ostend, Belgium, and his wife Anne Marie de Visscher, who were living in England during World War I.
In 1926, Henri Baels became Belgian Minister of Agriculture and King Leopold III appointed him Governor (royal representative) of the province of West Flanders. An avid golfer, and regular visitor to the Knokke-le-Zoute golf course, Baels's daughter Lilian attracted the attention of King Leopold, a widower, and the two became frequent golf partners. (The king's popular first wife, née Princess Astrid of Sweden, had been killed in an automobile accident in 1935 at age 29; her husband, who had been king for just a year, was at the wheel and lost control of the vehicle in what has been described as "a moment of inattention.") Eyebrows were raised at the still-grieving king's frequent outings with the alluring commoner but Queen Mother Elisabeth reportedly played Cupid. According to an unauthorized biography of Lilian, Leopold's mother invited the young woman to distract the king from his troubles. The details of the couple's celebrated courtship will become clearer in 2033, when their love letters will be available for study.
On September 11, 1941, Lilian Baels reportedly married the king in a religious ceremony. A biography of the monarch, written by Antoine Giscard d'Estaing, states that the marriage actually took place on December 6, with the September date given to conceal the fact that Lilian was pregnant with the couple's first child. The public announcement of the king's second marriage was made in December when Cardinal Van Roey, primate of Belgium, wrote an open letter to parish priests throughout the country. The letter revealed that the king's new wife would be known as Princess de Réthy, not Queen Lilian, and that any children they might have would have no claim to the throne. The marriage was considered morganatic, and the Réthy title does not appear to have been officially established in royal records, though it was the name by which she was popularly known (she was, however, made a royal Princess of Belgium).
That fateful date of December 6, 1941 has been called king's personal Pearl Harbor. The public disapproval was stunning. According to an obituary of Lilian -- who died four months ago in Château d'Argenteuil, near Waterloo, Belgium -- that appeared in the London Telegraph on October 6, 2002, a leading Belgian newspaper expressed the thoughts of many in the country at the time when it published the following words: "Sire, we thought you had your face turned towards us in mourning. Instead you had it hidden in the shoulder of a woman."
The king's new wife was widely suspected of Nazi sympathies (one source reports that upon hearing of the wedding, Hitler sent flowers and a letter of congratulations), and the marriage was to many Belgians an affront to the memory of the beloved Queen Astrid. Leopold's reputation would be further undermined by lingering questions about his wartime actions, among them his surrender of Belgium to the Germans in 1940, an action that resulted in the Belgian government in exile declaring the king unable to rule and naming as regent his brother, Prince Charles, Count of Flanders. (Revisionist historians have sifted through the evidence, however, and discovered that the king was braver and more concerned about the welfare of his country than he appeared and may well have been a scapegoat.) Unable to overcome the nation's low opinion of his remarriage and distressed by left-wing riots against his return to the throne after the war -- Leopold, his wife, and his four children had been held under house arrest by the Nazis in Belgium, Germany, and Austria, and spent some years in Swiss exile before returning to Belgium in 1950 after a national referendum -- the king handed over his constitutional powers to his son Baudouin on August 10, 1950. He relinquished the title of king 11 months later and became H.R.H. Prince Leopold of Belgium, Duke of Brabant.
Soon, however, concerns were raised by royal insiders that the Baudouin, who was 20 when he assumed the throne, might be in love with his glamorous stepmother, who was 14 years his senior. Secretly recorded telephone calls between young king and the princess raised alarms in ministerial circles. Disturbing, too, according to an article written by journalist Jean-Claude Broché after Princess de Réthy's death, was the pair's trip to the Tyrol in the winter of 1952-53, when they travelled in adjoining train compartments. (Information about that journey was publicly revealed when the journals of Achille Van Acker, a Belgian prime minister, were published.) As time went by, the concerns appear to have subsided but observers surely clucked after they learned of the unexplained actions of Princess de Réthy and Prince Leopold in the weeks after December 15, 1960, the day Baudouin married a Spanish noblewoman two years his senior, Dona Fabiola Fernanda María de las Victorias Antonia Adelaida de Mora y Aragon. When the newlyweds returned from their honeymoon, they discovered that Lilian and Leopold had abruptly moved out of Kasteel Laeken, the sprawling royal palace where they had lived with Baudouin for a decade, and set up house in a country castle near Waterloo. A prolonged and mysterious period of estrangement between the couples followed.
The three children of King Leopold III (later Prince Leopold of Belgium, Duke of Brabant), and his second wife, Princess Lilian of Belgium, are: