Mary Lilian Baels was born on 28 November 1916 as the daughter of Henri Baels and his wife, Anne Marie de Visscher. She was born in London, where the family was living at the time after fleeing the First World War. The family originally lived in Ostend in Belgium. She was their sixth child, and two more would follow. When the family returned to Belgium after the war, her father became Minister of Agriculture, Minister of the Interior, and, finally, Minister of Public Works and Public Health. He became Governor of West Flanders in 1933.
Lilian went by the name Lily at home. She attended school in Ostend and was later sent to a boarding school in Brussels. At the age of 18, she attended a finishing school in London. She was also reportedly engaged to a Hungarian count, but nothing ever came of it.
We do not know exactly how and when Lilian met the widowed King Leopold III of Belgium. They probably met several times briefly before the Second World War due to her father’s work. At the start of the Second World War, Lilian’s father went in search of the Minister of the Interior, who he believed to be in France. On the way there, he had a car accident and was admitted to a hospital in Le Havre. His wife decided to bring the children to France, realising that the situation in Belgium was heading for disaster. Her father was then accused of abandoning his post as Governor. He succeeded in obtaining an audience with the King, who was by then a prisoner following the capitulation of the Belgian army on 28 May 1940. It was Lilian who drove him to the audience, where he managed to explain himself.
Lilian was invited to Laeken Castle by the King’s mother Elisabeth (born of Bavaria) in 1941 to “divert” the King from his previous mistress, the Austrian Liselotte Landbeck who had just given birth to their daughter. Elisabeth demanded that he break off their relationship. After several meetings with Lilian, it was clear that the couple was in love. The couple planned to hold an official civil marriage after the war and have a secret religious marriage ceremony on 11 September 1941 at Laeken. This was actually against the law, which stated that any religious ceremony must be preceded by a civil ceremony. Not much later, Lilian was pregnant with their first child, and the couple had a civil wedding on 6 December 1941. Adolf Hitler himself sent flowers. Lilian was created Her Royal Highness The Princess of Réthy. Any children would be excluded from the line of succession.
When the marriage became public, the public’s response was mixed. The country was at war, and many believed that the marriage was incompatible with the King’s status as a prisoner of war. Lilian was branded a social climber, and the couple was blamed for violating the law by holding a religious ceremony before a civil one. These criticisms would haunt them even after the war.
Despite the fact that they were under guard, Lilian and Leopold were very happy during the war years. They lacked nothing, and on 18 July 1942, their first child Prince Alexandre of Belgium was born. After the landings at Normandy in June 1944, Adolf Hitler ordered the deportation of Leopold to Germany. He protested, but he, Lilian and the four children (three with his first wife, Astrid of Sweden) were all deported. Only Elisabeth was allowed to remain in Laeken. On 11 June 1944, the family arrived in Hirschstein near Dresden, where they were guarded by the SS. The family was in the comfort of a castle, with three courtiers and nine servants. On 7 March 1945, the family was once again moved. This time the final destination was Strobl in Austria, not far from Adolf Hitler’s residence. There they were liberated by the Americans on 7 May.
If Leopold expected a hero’s return to Belgium, it never came. The Belgian government demanded that he once again swears allegiance to the constitution and must praise the allied troops, the resistance and the government. Leopold was furious and refused to return to Belgium, claiming to be weakened by years of imprisonment. Meanwhile, his brother Prince Charles acted as regent of Belgium. Lilian, too, refused to compromise with the government.
Leopold was soon toying with the idea of abdicating the throne in favour of his son, but Lilian persuaded him not to do it. The family moved to Switzerland, where they lived in Villa Le Reposoir with five servants until 1950. Leopold and Lilian travelled a lot during this time. This decadent lifestyle led to protests from war-torn Belgium. Lilian was an excellent scapegoat, and everything she did was picked apart by the media. Finally, a referendum was held on 12 March 1950. The conclusion: 57,68% of Belgians wanted to keep their monarchy, but the country was very much divided. After heavy riots, where four people lost their lives, Leopold finally abdicated on 17 July 1951. His son, just 20 years old, was now King Baudouin of the Belgians.
The two Kings remained living together at the Castle of Laeken, where two further children were born to Leopold and Lilian. Lilian remained the Queen of the household until Baudouin married in 1960 when Leopold and Lilian moved to Argenteuil. The family slowly began to drift apart. After Leopold’s first heart attack in 1975, his sons occasionally visit him, but the silence remained otherwise. The press continued to report on their lifestyle.
Leopold died on 25 September 1983, and almost immediately, a rather public fight concerning the inheritance broke out. It would not be settled for another five years. The relationship between Lilian and her three children also deteriorated. Her son Alexander married Léa Wolman in secret, and she did not find out for another seven years. Her eldest daughter Marie-Christine ended all contact with her mother and wrote a book about her in 2004. Only her youngest daughter remained in contact. Lilian devoted her life to the memory of her husband and published his memoirs in 2001.
Lilian died on 7 June 2002, and she was buried in the Royal Crypt at Laeken with her husband and his first wife.1