Princess Liliane of Belgium (2nd wife of King Leopold III)
Princess Liliane, who has died aged 85, was the widow of King Leopold III of the Belgians and, although a commoner, more than matched the elegance of many a princess born into a royal house.
As a young woman, she earned the love of a king and was loathed in his country on account of it. Her effect on history did not match that of Wallis Simpson; nor was she deemed a sexual sorceress like Magda Lupescu (mistress, then wife of King Carol of Romania); and she did not possess the evil eye of Aspasia Manos, wife of the ill-fated King Alexander of Greece.
Hers was nevertheless an uncomfortable involvement in the family of a depressed king. King Leopold III, the father of King Baudouin and the present King Albert II, was a widower, his Swedish wife, Queen Astrid, having died in a car accident when the king suffered a moment of inattention at the wheel in August 1935.
The Belgian people sorrowed with their king but were aghast when they discovered, in December 1941, that he had remarried. One of the leading Belgian newspapers rebuked King Leopold: "Sire, we thought you had your face turned towards us in mourning. Instead you had it hidden in the shoulder of a woman."
The woman concerned was Mary Liliane Baels, one of six daughters and two sons of Hendrik Baels, a prosperous fish salesman who had risen to be minister of the interior and of agriculture in Belgium and later governor of Western Flanders.
Liliane was born at Highbury, London, on November 28, 1916, and educated at the College of the Sacred Heart at Ostend before going to a finishing school in Cavendish Square, London. An intelligent pupil, she was soon fluent in English, French, German and Dutch.
She was also a keen sportswoman who swam and played golf. It is thought likely that she met King Leopold, by then widowed for more than three years, on the golf course of Knokke-le-Zoute in 1938. The king was much taken by Liliane, who was described by the writer Charles d'Ydewalle as being "as beautiful as a Greek night".
In an unauthorised biography of Princess Liliane, Evrard Raskin revealed that the King's mother, Queen Elisabeth, later invited Liliane to console King Leopold at the Chateau de Laeken, where he was under house arrest after the Belgian surrender to the Germans in 1940.
Liliane had no intention of being merely the mistress of the king, however. She married him secretly and morganatically on September 11, 1941, becoming a princess of Belgium, and a royal highness, taking the title of Princesse de Rethy. She was soon pregnant and there was a civil marriage on December 8, which became public knowledge.
Besides feeling betrayed by their king, the Belgian people were angered that, while they suffered, he had had time to find himself a wife. Liliane's unpopularity grew when it was learnt that her father had retreated to the south of France for the duration of the war, and when her brother Walter was prosecuted for evading the call-up.
But Liliane made the king happy. A son, Alexander, was born in July 1942, and she welcomed the king's sons, Baudouin and Albert, and their sister, Josephine-Charlotte (later Grand Duchess of Luxembourg), into their home, taking full responsibility with King Leopold for raising them. It seems that, in those early days, they were devoted to her, readily adopting her as a surrogate mother.
When the Allied armies landed in France in 1944, King Leopold was deported to Germany on the orders of Himmler, while Princess Liliane followed with the royal children in another car the next day, guarded by an escort of 200 armed men from the Waffen SS. They were held in custody in a fort at Hirschstein an der Elbe in Saxony through the winter of 1944-45, and then at Strobl, near Salzburg, before being liberated by the US Army in May 1945.
There were attempts to accuse Leopold of collaborating with the enemy. After the Belgian Army had fought for 18 days following the German invasion of their country, Leopold had asked for an armistice; but his view was that the cause was hopeless and he wished to spare his people further bloodshed. This version of events was endorsed by Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, who was at the king's headquarters throughout the fighting and insisted that the king had had no option but to surrender.
After the war Leopold and his family moved to Switzerland, spending summer holidays in the south of France; meanwhile Belgium was left in the care of King Leopold's brother, Prince Charles, who served as regent. In France, Princess Liliane often played golf with another exile, the Duke of Windsor, although she remained critical of his game.
Political problems prevented King Leopold from returning to Belgium until July 1950 and, although he was endorsed by a referendum, Left-inspired rioting persuaded him to abdicate as soon as his son Baudouin came of age in July 1951.
Even then, King Leopold and Princess Liliane lived on at Laeken with the new king, who was said to be devoted to his step-mother - so much so that there was concern in ministerial circles that he might be in love with her. Princess Liliane and King Leopold appeared in public at a ceremony for the Brussels Exhibition of 1958, after which they retreated into private life.
A crisis occurred when King Baudouin married Dona Fabiola Mora y Aragon, the present Queen Fabiola, in 1960. Whether Baudouin's father and stepmother were against the marriage is unclear, but the couple returned from their honeymoon to find that Leopold and Liliane had moved out of Laeken, and years of bitter estrangement followed.
Princess Liliane created a new home for King Leopold at Argenteuil, near the forest of Soignes, at Waterloo, with their son, Alexander, and two young daughters, Marie-Christine, born in 1951, and Marie-Esmeralda, born in 1956. Her job was to look after King Leopold in his long years of retirement.
Although rumours and gossip continued to surround them, King Leopold paid his wife the public tribute of thanking her for having shared his joys and sorrows and for helping him bring up his children by Queen Astrid with devotion and tenderness.
He concluded: "My wife and I wish for nothing more than to dwell in peace at Argenteuil, and devote ourselves to scientific, philanthropic and social activities in which we take a deep interest."
The princess threw her energies into the cardiology foundation she created in 1958 to promote new forms of treatment for cardiovascular diseases. This interest was inspired by a life-saving operation performed on her son in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1957. Every year, there was an Argenteuil Symposium for distinguished clinicians and scientists. Princess Liliane also financed a number of Belgian children who needed to go to the United States for operations, and in 1961 she inaugurated a new cardiac research laboratory at the Hospital Saint-Pierre in Brussels.
Her children have led unconventional lives. Alexander seemed to be a confirmed bachelor - but in 1998 he revealed a wife married seven years earlier. He now devotes his life to science. Her elder daughter, Marie-Christine, became estranged from her parents and went to live in the US, where she spent all her money, married twice, and publicly denounced her mother.
Marie-Esmeralda became a journalist, working for Vogue and Le Figaro, and was for a time a friend of Sarah, Duchess of York. She eventually married a British scientist, producing two children.
In later years King Leopold was seldom in the news. However, his wartime activities were the subject of various books including one by Lord Keyes, son of the wartime admiral.
In 1995 the princess was obliged to sue the novelist Pierre Mertens over his portrayal of her in his novel Une Paix Royale; and in 2001 she caused King Leopold's wartime memoirs, Pour L'Histoire, to be published without consulting the present king of the Belgians.
Princess Liliane last appeared in public in Brussels, heavily veiled and supported between King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola, at the funeral of her husband in September 1983. She did not attend King Baudouin's funeral in 1993.