01 October 2020

The New Princess of Belgium

Princess Delphine of Belgium
by Luc van Braekel via Wikimedia Commons

Back in 2009, I wrote a post entitled How to Become a Princess. In the past, there really have been almost exclusively two ways: be born a princess or marry a prince. Today, Belgium added a new way: court order. On this day, the Belgian courts elevated 52-year-old artist Delphine Boël and both of her children, 17-year-old Josephine and 12-year-old Oscar to princely status.

Many readers of this blog may have dreamt of having such a conversation with your mother. On your 18th birthday, as you are celebrating becoming an adult at last, mom says there is something you need to know. Your real father is a prince. But, that rarely happens in real life. In recent decades, however, it has happened at least twice. California girl Jazmin Grace Grimaldi grew up knowing that her father was Prince Albert of Monaco, although he did not publicly acknowledge her or her younger French-born half-brother Alexandre Coste until DNA tests proved the fact. Albert acknowledged his paternity of 22-month-old Alexandre in 2005, after he became the ruling Prince Albert II. Ten months later, he finally acknowledged Jazmin, who was 14 at the time.

Born in Brussels in 1968, Delphine grew up thinking her father was her mother's husband, nobleman Jacques Boël. With him as her father, she was a jonkvrouw (translated "young lady"), the lowest rank in Belgian nobility. Her mother, Baroness Sybille de Selys Longchamps and Jonkheer Jacques Boël divorced when Delphine was 10. A few years later, Sybille married a member of the British nobility, the Honourable Michael Cayzer and moved to England. It was 1986, when Sybille finally decided to tell her only child that she was the product of an 18-year affair with Prince Albert of Belgium, the younger brother of the well-respected by childless King Baudouin. 

Albert was born in 1934 as the third child of the young King Leopold III of Belgium and his wife, who had been born Princess Astrid of Sweden, a granddaughter of King Oscar II of Sweden on her mother's side and King Frederik VIII of Denmark on her mother's. When Albert was just 16 months old, his mother, pregnant with her fourth child, was killed in car accident. Leopold controversially remarried to Lilian Baels, who was given the title of Princess not Queen because their marriage was considered invalid under Belgian law. They had three children together. Although strongly disliked by the public, Lilian was loved by her stepchildren: Albert and his older siblings Prince Baudouin and Princess Josephine Charlotte. The entire family was kept under house arrest in Germany and then in Austria by the Nazis during World War II. Since Belgium is a kind of composite country of primarily Protestant Flemish speakers and traditionally Catholic French speakers, the war and its German occupation threatened to tear the delicate balance apart. Many feared that Leopold was actually a German collaborator who could no longer fill the symbolic role of national unifier. A 1950 referendum favored his return to Belgium but violent strikes soon followed. The following year, he abdicated in favor of Baudouin. Albert had just turned 16.

By the time Delphine was born in 1968, Prince Albert was married to Italian noblewoman Paola Ruffo di Calabria and had three royal children by her: Prince Philippe, Princess Astrid and Prince Laurent. His brother King Baudouin had married a Spanish noblewoman Fabiola de Mora y Aragon, but the couple struggled to have children, with Fabiola suffering several unsuccessful pregnancies. In 1968, however, it still seemed unlikely that Albert would ever be king. As the years passed, the likelihood eventually became inevitable. Upon Baudouin's death in 1993, 59-year-old Duke of Liege became King Albert II of Belgium.    

In the meantime, Delphine had attended boarding schools in Switzerland and England before completing a Bachelor of Arts degree at London's Chelsea School of Art and Design and launching her art career. Her life seemed to roll along steadily, despite her mother's revelation, her "parents'" divorce and her stepfather's death in 1990. But, it all fell apart in 1999, when an unofficial biography of Queen Paola revealed that the king had had a long affair and fathered a child. It wasn't long before savvy reporters discovered that the unnamed child was Delphine. Both Delphine and her mother were pestered by the media to tell their story. The harassment became so unbearable for Sybille, that Delphine appealed directly to the king to intervene.

"You are not my daughter," he declared.

Embed from Getty Images

The following year, Delphine married James O'Hare. Once her daughter Josephine was born, motherhood prompted Delphine's desire to connect with her biological father, but he still refused her. Only then, did she finally speak to the media in 2005 to tell her story, alleging not only that the king was her father, but that he had hoped to divorce Paola and marry her mother at the time of her birth. As king, however, Albert had immunity leaving Delphine with no legal recourse except to attempt to get DNA from his other children, When that failed, she could do nothing more to prove who her father was.

But, the controversy took a toll on the monarch's reputation. Shortly after Delphine made those legal demands for DNA, Albert announced his abdication stating, "I realize that my age and my health are no longer allowing me to carry out my duties as I would like."

With his regal immunity no longer applicable, Delphine renewed her request for a paternity test. A 2017 court said she had no basis for her claim. In 2018 a different court asserted that Jacques Boël was not her father and ordered King Albert to submit a DNA test. He refused to comply. By 2019 a court began fining him 5000 euros (about $5,800) a day for noncompliance. He finally relented. The DNA results were made public in January 2020 and Albert confirmed his fatherhood by press release.

This latest ruling not only allows her and her children to claim the titles of Princesses and Prince, but also changes her surname to Saxe Cobourg. Her attorney told the media that while Delphine is delighted by the court's decision, the years of denials and court battles have been painful for her and her family. He said, "A legal victory will never replace the love a father but offers a sense of justice."

It is unclear what if any role the Princess Delphine will play in the royal family. She will almost certainly not be given any official duties, as was the case with King Albert's half-siblings, the children of Lilian Baels. Although titled as Prince Alexandre, Princess Marie-Christine and Princess Marie-Esmeralda, the three were excluded from the succession to the throne (some say without legal cause) and have led private lives only appearing with the family on some public family occasions. A businessman, Alexandre died in 2009 but his widow, Princess Lea (formerly Lea Wolman) still appears with the family. Marie-Esmeralda is a journalist, documentary filmmaker (focused on redeeming her mother's reputation) and activist for women's rights, indigenous people and the environment. Princess Marie-Christine, who lives in Washington state, has been estranged from the family (except Marie-Esmeralda) for decades. She did not even attend her parents' nor brothers' funerals.

In addition to the fact that both of these recent reluctant fathers are Albert II of their respective countries, there is one other interesting observation I'd like to make about this story. Delphine has named her children Oscar and Josephine. These were the names of the first Bernadotte king and queen of Sweden. Thanks to these court rulings in 2020, she can now legally claim descent from them through her father's mother -- but that descent has always been in her DNA. Unlike most European royals, however, she is not descended from Queen Victoria, though the family is related. They are descended from her uncle Leopold, who was the first King of Belgium.