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Lilian, Princess of Réthy

Mary Lilian Baels
Princess of Réthy
Born (1916-11-28)28 November 1916
London, United Kingdom
Died 7 June 2002(2002-06-07) (aged 85)
Waterloo, Belgium
Burial Church of Our Lady of Laeken
Spouse Leopold III of Belgium
Issue Prince Alexander
Princess Marie-Christine
Princess Maria-Esméralda
Full name
Mary Lilian Henriette Lucie Josephine Ghislaine
House House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
(by marriage)
Father Henri Baels
Mother Anne Marie de Visscher

Princess Lilian of Belgium (née Mary Lilian Baels, (1916-11-28)28 November 1916 – 7 June 2002(2002-06-07)) best known as Lilian, Princess of Réthy, was the second wife of King Leopold III of the Belgians.


  • Background and education 1
  • Friendship with the Belgian royal family 2
  • Beginnings of World War II in Belgium 3
  • Marriage and controversy 4
  • Deportation to Nazi Germany 5
  • "Royal Question" and the aftermath 6
  • Argenteuil 7
  • Character and reputation 8
  • Children 9
  • Titles 10
  • Death 11
  • Ancestry 12
  • References 13
  • External links 14

Background and education

Mary Lilian Baels was born in Queen Mary of the United Kingdom at Buckingham Palace. (cf. Jean Cleeremans, Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l'occupation)

Friendship with the Belgian royal family

In 1933, Lilian saw her future husband, King Leopold III of the Belgians, then still 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)

Beginnings of World War II in Belgium

Following the Nazi invasion of Belgium, Lilian's mother put herself at the service of the Red Cross during the Belgian and Allied military campaign against the invaders. Lilian helped her mother actively in her new role, transporting Belgian and French wounded by car to the hospital of St. John in Bruges. Meanwhile, her father, Governor Baels, attempted to alleviate the plight of his invaded province. On 18 May, Henri Baels went in search of the Minister of the Interior, thinking he had left for France, in order to obtain his signature for an important relief measure. On his journey, however, Governor Baels had a car accident and injured his legs. He was admitted to a hospital in Le Havre. As the military situation in Belgium headed towards disaster, his wife decided to bring her daughters to safety in France, and Lilian drove the family car on the trip. Governor Baels' wife and daughters managed to meet up with him again, by pure chance, in a hospital in Poitiers. Baels was subsequently accused of having abandoned his post as Governor without justification by fleeing to France. He succeeded, however, in obtaining an audience with the King, following the capitulation of the Belgian army on 28 May 1940, and the King's own imprisonment by the Germans at Laeken Castle. Baels and his daughter Lilian, who drove him to the audience, explained the real circumstances of his departure from Belgium, and the Governor was thereby vindicated. Subsequently, Lilian and her father returned to France and occupied themselves with the care of Belgian refugees in the region of Anglet. Henri Baels was accused, after Belgium's liberation, of collaborating with the Nazis during the war, but this is clearly false, since he did not act as governor during the occupation and lived in France throughout the period. (cf Jean Cleeremans, Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l'occupation, Roger Keyes, Echec au Roi: Léopold III, 1940-1951)

Marriage and controversy

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.

Deportation to Nazi Germany

In 1944, the Belgian royal family was deported to Nazi Germany, where they were strictly guarded by 70 members of the SS, under harsh conditions. The family suffered from a deficient diet and lived with the constant fear that they would be massacred by their jailers, as an act of revenge on the part of the Nazis, angered at their defeat (by now becoming increasingly certain) by the Allies, or that they would be caught in the cross-fire between Allied forces and their captors, who might try to make a desperate last stand at the site of the royal family's internment. The family's fears were not unfounded. At one point, a Nazi official tried to give them cyanide, pretending it was a mixture of vitamins to compensate for the captives' poor diet during their imprisonment. Lilian and Leopold, however, were rightly suspicious and did not take the pills or give them to their children. During their period of captivity in Germany, (and later Austria), Leopold and Lilian jointly homeschooled the royal children. The King taught scientific subjects; his wife, arts and literature. In 1945, the Belgian royal family was liberated by American troops under the command of Lieutenant General Alexander Patch, who thereafter became a close friend of King Leopold and Princess Lilian. (cf. Jean Cleeremans, in Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l'occupation, and Léopold III by Vincent Dujardin, Mark van den Wijngaert, et al.)

"Royal Question" and the aftermath

Following his liberation, King Leopold was unable to return to Belgium (by now liberated as well) due to a political controversy that arose in Belgium surrounding his actions during World War II. He was accused of having betrayed the Allies by an allegedly premature surrender in 1940 and of collaborating with the Nazis during the occupation of Belgium. In 1946, a Brussels-based juridical commission was constituted to investigate the King's conduct during the war and occupation. During this period, the king and his family lived in exile in Pregny-Chambésy, Switzerland and the King's younger brother, Prince Charles of Belgium, was made regent of the country. The commission of inquiry eventually exonerated Leopold of the charges and he was able, in 1950, to return to Belgium and resume his reign. Political agitation against the King continued, however, leading to civil disturbances in what became known as the Royal Question. As a result, in 1951, in order to avoid tearing the country apart and to save the embattled monarchy, King Leopold III of the Belgians abdicated in favour of his 21-year-old son, Prince Baudouin. The ex-King Leopold and Princess Lilian continued to live in the royal palace at Laeken until the marriage of Baudouin to Doña Fabiola de Mora y Aragon in 1960.


In 1960, following the marriage of King Baudouin, Leopold and Lilian moved out of the royal palace to a government property, the estate of Argenteuil, Belgium. Lilian employed various designers to transform the dilapidated mansion on the property into a distinguished and elegant residence for the ex-King. Argenteuil became a cultural centre under the auspices of Leopold and Lilian, who cultivated the friendship of numerous prominent writers, scientists, mathematicians, and doctors. Leopold and Lilian also traveled extensively all over the world. Following her son Alexandre's heart surgery in the United States during his childhood, Princess Lilian became very interested in medicine, and, in particular, in cardiology, and founded a Cardiological Foundation which, through its work, has saved the lives of hundreds of people. Both before and after her husband's death in 1983, Lilian pursued her interests in intellectual and scientific spheres with energy and passion (cf. Michel Verwilghen, Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal).

Her belongings from the chateau were put up at auction in Amsterdam: "Southeby's Princess Lilian of Belgium Chateau D'Argenteuil Amsterdam 22 and 23 September 2003" (Catalog, 185 pages)

Long before her death Lilian sold off many royal family jewels of great historical importance. The biggest loss is undoubtedly the Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians' Cartier tiara sold, in the early eighties just after Leopold III died, to Cartier without consulting anybody.

Character and reputation

Lilian was known as a woman who was terribly strict and demanding towards herself, and, a result, as one who could be excessively severe with others as well. Due to the controversy surrounding King Leopold's wartime actions, and, in particular, his second marriage, Lilian was widely unpopular in Belgium. She also, however, had a circle of close friends, who saw her as a woman of great beauty, charm, intelligence, elegance, strength of character, kindness, generosity, humor and culture. They admired her for the courage and dignity with which she faced a long series of personal attacks, both during the Royal Question and for decades afterwards (cf. Michel Verwilghen, Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal, 2006, also see "Souvenirs de la Princesse Lilian", an article by Jacques Franck published in La Libre Belgique, 29 October 2003)


Lilian had three children with King Leopold III:


  • Miss Mary Lilian Baels (1916–1941)
  • Her Royal Highness Princess Lilian of Belgium, Princess de Réthy (1941–death)


Princess Lilian died at the Domaine d'Argenteuil in La Libre Belgique).



  • Jean Cleeremans. Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l'occupation.
  • Jean Cleeremans. Un royaume pour un amour: Léopold III, de l'éxil a l'abdication.
  • Vincent Dujardin, Mark van de Wijngaert, et al. Léopold III
  • Jacques Franck. "Souvenirs de la Princesse Lilian," published in La Libre Belgique, 29 October 2003
  • Roger Keyes. Echec au Roi: Léopold III, 1940-1951.
  • Claude Désiré and Marcel Jullian. Un couple dans la tempête.
  • Michel Verwilghen. Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal.
  • Patrick Weber. Amours royales et princières.

External links

  • Genealogy
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