Leopold Georg Christian Friedrich was born at Ehrenburg Palace, Coburg, on 16 December 1790 and was the youngest son of Franz, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and Augusta Reuss of Ebersdorf.
At the age of five, Leopold was given an honorary commission as colonel in the Izmaylovsky Regiment, part of the Imperial Guard of the Russian Army. Seven years later, he received a promotion to the rank of Major General and then pursued a military career in the Imperial Russian cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars. Leopold distinguished himself at the Battle of Kulm and he reached the rank of lieutenant general by the age of twenty-five.
In 1814, Leopold met Charlotte of Wales, the daughter of the Prince Regent, at a party in the Pulteney Hotel, London, and they soon became besotted with each other. Charlotte was engaged to William, Hereditary Prince of Orange, but she had no real desire to marry him and was being forced into it by her father. When William expressed his dislike for Charlotte’s mother, the princess took the opportunity to break the engagement and her furious father isolated her at Cranbourne Lodge. Charlotte was desperate to marry Leopold but the Prince Regent would not even consider it as he considered Leopold too poor and too low-ranked to marry Charlotte.
The Prince Regent finally agreed to meet Leopold in February 1816 and he was so impressed with the young prince, he agreed to the marriage. The betrothal was formally announced on 14 March and Leopold was granted British citizenship as well as an annual pension of £50,000. The marriage took place on 2 May 1816 at Carlton House, London, and the newlyweds became popular with the public. Charlotte fell pregnant quickly after the wedding but it ended in miscarriage. A further pregnancy was announced the following year, however Charlotte gave birth to a stillborn son and died herself the following day, plunging the nation into a deep depression.
Charlotte’s death sparked a succession crisis as she had been the only legitimate grandchild of George III and her unmarried uncles were obliged to find suitable brides to provide an heir to the throne. Before her death, Charlotte had urged her uncle, Edward, Duke of Kent, to marry her new sister-in-law, Viktoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who was a widow with two small children. Edward and Viktoria did marry and their daughter, Alexandrina Victoria, would take Charlotte’s place as heir to the throne. Leopold would have a great deal of influence over his niece and would have a hand in arranging her marriage to his nephew, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
Distraught at the death of his beloved wife, Leopold remained in England and was granted the British style of Royal Highness by Order in Council on 6 April 1818 and he had a longterm relationship with Caroline Bauer, an actress, who bore a striking resemblance to Charlotte. In 1830, Leopold was offered the throne of Greece but after much consideration he turned down the offer. Later that year, the southern provinces of the United Netherlands broke away to form the modern country of Belgium and a search for a monarch began. There were several candidates, including Eugène de Beauharnais, a French nobleman and stepson of Napoleon; Auguste of Leuchtenberg, son of the aforementioned Eugène; and Louis, Duke of Nemours, son of Louis Philippe I, King of the French. However, all three candidates were French which was viewed with suspicion by the rest of the European powers so a Belgian delegation was sent to London to offer the throne to Leopold.
On 21 July 1831, Leopold, while wearing the uniform of a Belgian lieutenant-general, became King of the Belgians. Two weeks after the accession, the Netherlands invaded Belgium but the small Belgian army were completely outnumbered and Leopold pleaded with the French for help. The arrival of the Armée du Nord forced the Dutch to accept a diplomatic mediation but the two countries would continue to bicker until the Treaty of London, recognising Belgian independence, was signed in 1839.
The new Belgian Constitution placed a lot of restrictions on Leopold’s reign which left him unsatisfied and he pushed the ambiguity of the wording as far as he could. However, Leopold had inherited a country facing an economic crisis as Belgian goods were barred from Dutch ports and trading routes were also blocked by the Dutch. The problem was exacerbated when the harvests failed in Flanders and over a third of the population became dependent on poor relief. When revolutions spread throughout Europe in 1848, Belgium was not immune and a number of radical publications appeared threatening to overthrow the monarchy. A wave of Belgian émigrés were encouraged to leave France to march on Brussels on 26 March 1848 but they were quickly disarmed. Leopold offered to abdicate if it was the wish of the people, however things soon calmed down and the country began to recover economically.
After accepting the Belgian throne, Leopold realised he would have to produce an heir so he married Louise Marie, the daughter of Louis Philippe I, on 9 August 1832, and they had four children. Leopold never loved Louise Marie like he had Charlotte, however they managed to have a content family life despite her extreme shyness. Leopold was widowed again when Louise Marie died of tuberculosis in 1850 but he never married again. Leopold was not faithful to his wife and he had a longterm mistress, Arcadie Meyer, who bore him two sons.
Leopold died in Laeken, near Brussels, on 10 December 1865, and was interred in the Royal Crypt at the Church of Notre-Dame de Laeken.