Was she an unyielding, unhappy woman in an arranged marriage, or just an old-school royal with established ways of seeing the world? Like most things, the story of Joséphine Charlotte is more complicated and definitely more interesting than those narratives.
Joséphine Charlotte was born in 1927 to Leopold III of Belgium and his wildly popular first wife, Princess Astrid of Sweden. She was the first child, and by all accounts, her mother adored “Little Jo”. Tragically, Astrid died in a car accident when Joséphine was almost eight, and her father made a second, controversial marriage to Mary Lilian Baels (later Princess of Réthy). Lilian was notoriously unpopular with the public, but it appears that she and Joséphine Charlotte had a congenial relationship. Joséphine called her stepmother “Mother” and maintained a correspondence with her throughout their lives.
Joséphine Charlotte’s childhood and young adulthood spanned the Great Depression and World War II. After the invasion of Belgium by the Germans, her family was held prisoner in the Palace of Laeken, and then in Germany and Austria. This is a period that Joséphine Charlotte remembered as one of extreme deprivation, where she was so hungry she would find wild dandelions to gnaw on. Eventually, the allies liberated Belgium, but the family’s troubles did not end. Leopold III was placed under investigation by the allies for suspected collusion with the Germans and during that time the family was not permitted to return to Belgium. The family was released in 1945, however, they continued to live under a cloud of suspicion for years. Leopold III would finally abdicate and his son Baudouin would become King.
Joséphine Charlotte had been educated privately during her captivity, but she blossomed intellectually in the liberated world. She studied at the École Supérieure de Jeunes Filles in Geneva, and eventually took courses in child psychology at the University of Geneva. It was an interest that would carry through to her work in Luxembourg.
In 1949, Joséphine met her future husband, Prince Jean of Luxembourg. His mother, Grand Duchess Charlotte, was Joséphine’s godmother. The two young people saw each other frequently socially and became friends. Whether their marriage was engineered by the Grand Duchess or whether it was the result of a natural progression of friendship was known only to the actual participants. The press had a field day with speculation about it, but the family themselves never commented. What is known is that they would remain married for 52 years, have five children, and be an extremely hard-working and popular Grand Duke and Duchess.
The wedding ceremony was held in April 1953 and it was full of drama, with a capital D. The bride traveled from Belgium to Luxembourg and was greeted by enormous crowds. This was the first big royal event since the war, and the streets of Luxembourg were packed with over 100,000 spectators, many of them visitors from Belgium. After the routine civil ceremony, the bride and groom traveled in an open carriage – in light rain, through the deafening noise – to the Cathedral of Notre Dame for the religious services.
Traditionally in Luxembourg, the bride is escorted up the aisle by her father, followed behind by her mother. The question of who would represent Joséphine Charlotte’s mother was tricky since Lilian was her stepmother and wildly unpopular as well. Eventually, it was decided that Joséphine Charlotte’s grandmother, Elisabeth III, would step in. Princess Lilian would be further back- way back, number eighth in line- in the procession. This caused great consternation behind the scenes, and it was said that grandmother and stepmother were openly hostile to each other prior to the wedding. Dowager Queen Elisabeth did not travel with the rest of the family to Luxembourg, instead arriving by car alone.
The bride, understandably upset over this discord, was in visible distress during the ceremony. She repeated her vows incorrectly, stepped on her train several times, and almost collapsed after the ceremony. She continued to be unwell during the reception, again fainting. The planned honeymoon was canceled, and the couple spent a few quiet weeks in Luxembourg instead.
The day did generate some lovely wedding photos. Josephine Charlotte had a traditional style, and like the born royal she was she wore her jewels with ease. For her wedding, she wore a dress layered with tulle and ruffles, a style which would be repeated by her daughters in their wedding a quarter-century later. It had a four-meter train, which was covered by Brussels lace. She had a two-tiara day, wearing the Congo Diamond Necklace tiara for the ceremony and the Belgian Scroll tiara for her photos.
Although her wedding ensemble was definitely a complicated meringue, for the most part, Joséphine Charlotte’s style was streamlined. She wore simple suits, pared-down elegant gowns, and the most magnificent of jewels with ease.
In 1964, Prince Jean and his wife succeeded to the throne of Luxembourg. Josephine-Charlotte threw herself into the role, using her background in child psychology to involve herself in youth and family issues. She eventually became the President of the Red Cross and was a devoted mother to her five children, Marie-Astrid, Henri (now Grand Duke), Jean and Margaretha (twins), and Guilliame. The drama wasn’t done with her, however. When her oldest son, Henri, married Cuban-born María Teresa Mestre y Batista-Falla, there were reports of tension between her and her daughter-in-law. It seems that these issues run through family lines. Again, no one has made any public official statements, so the exact relationship between the two women is only a matter of rumor.
Grand Duke Jean abdicated in favor of his son Henri in 2000, and he and Josephine Charlotte retreated to a more private life. The Grand Duchess was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2003, and on January 10, 2005, she died at Fischbach Castle. You have to hope she rests easy after such a long and complicated journey.