AT HIS accession in July 1951, King Baudouin of the Belgians gave notice that he intended to be the most self- effacing of European monarchs. With a crowd of 60,000 gathered beneath the palace balcony in Brussels to acclaim him, he stood for exactly 50 seconds acknowledging the applause before retiring indoors. In vain the crowd tried to persuade him to return; some women even used pocket mirrors to reflect sunlight through the palace windows. 'Poor boy,' one said, 'He must be tired.' Another was less forgiving. 'After all,' she said, 'we don't ask much of the boy.'
The problem for Baudouin was that the Belgians did ask a lot of him, and continued to do so throughout his 42- year reign. In the first place, he inherited a monarchy in crisis. His father, King Leopold III, had decided to remain with the defeated Belgian army in 1940, rather than join exiled European monarchs in London. During the war, Leopold and his family were kept under virtual house arrest by the Germans at the palace of Laeken, outside Brussels, eventually being removed in 1944 to a chateau in western Germany.
At the end of the war the family moved to Switzerland, while the crown was held in a regency by Leopold's brother Charles. In May 1950 a small majority of Belgian voters approved Leopold's return in a referendum; but when a general strike and a series of riots inspired by the Socialists threatened the country with civil war, Leopold reluctantly abdicated in favour of Baudouin.
During the early years of his reign it was widely believed that Baudouin, still in his twenties, took his orders from Leopold, who had reinstalled himself in the palace of Laeken. There is no doubt that Baudouin grew up in his father's shadow, and to some extent hero-worshipped him. His mother, the Swedish-born Queen Astrid, was killed in a car crash when Baudouin was five; and while a prisoner of the Germans at Laeken, Leopold took as his second wife the royal children's governess. After his accession Baudouin remained devoted to them, making the short journey from Brussels to Laeken almost daily, after consulting with his ministers.
In February 1952 Leopold's influence was detected when Baudouin refused to attend the funeral of George VI. Leopold still resented Churchill's accusation in June 1940 that he had betrayed the allies. (Ironically, the British king did not share Churchill's attitude. He merely thought Leopold had hopelessly confused his twin roles as commander-in-chief and head of state.) The rift between the Belgian and British royal families was only closed in 1956 when Leopold had a private meeting with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
But beyond Leopold's alleged influence over his son (which had evaporated long before Leopold's death in 1983) lay the sheer difficulty of reigning over such a divided country. Baudouin's ancestor Leopold I was invited to become Belgium's monarch in 1830 as a device to unify the new state's French- and Flemish-speaking provinces. A century later this division still existed; and Baudouin, who was fluent in French and Flemish, devoted himself to reconciling the two factions. In recent years, judging from his silence on the subject, Baudouin seems to have recognised his efforts were in vain.
Equally futile was Baudouin's attempt to act as a peacemaker during Belgium's retreat from empire. In December 1959, against the advice of his ministers, he travelled to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) hoping to halt the Congo's slide into anarchy. Instead, he was met by jeering demonstrators along the 12-mile route from the airport, and was accused of provoking by his presence the riots which soon followed. Baudouin returned, humiliated, to Belgium.
This was perhaps the low point of Baudouin's reign: worse than the occasion, in February 1953, when he was widely attacked for taking a holiday in the south of France while Belgium was stricken with floods; or again, in August 1956, when he had the misfortune to be on holiday again - this time in Spain - when 263 people died in a pit disaster.
The steady improvement in his public image over the next three decades was achieved by force of personality. Off-duty, Baudouin's pastimes - like his appearance - were those of a successful accountant. Putting an early taste for motorbikes behind him, he became a good enough golfer to take part in a pro-am tournament at Gleneagles in 1959, competing semi- incognito as Mr B. de Rethy. (He and the Ryder Cup captain DJ Rees lost in the first round.)
But Baudouin was rarely off-duty, and it was his reputation as an honest, hard-working king - surrounded, at times, by politicians who failed to meet his own high standards - which earned his subjects' respect. In private, he could be short-tempered with ministers whom he felt had misinformed him; and towards the end of his long reign, he proved he was prepared to sacrifice even his throne for the sake of his principles.
In April 1990 Baudouin 'abdicated' for a day, rather than sign a government bill liberalising the law on abortion. 'Does freedom of conscience apply to everyone except the King?' Baudouin asked with uncharacteristic public emotion in a letter to parliament.
If Belgian politicians were shocked by Baudouin's action, most of his subjects approved - even those who supported the bill. A devout Catholic, Baudouin had another, more personal reason for withdrawing from his duties. Much to their grief, he and his Spanish wife Queen Fabiola, whom he married in 1960, had been unable to have children.
King Baudouin is succeeded by his younger brother, Prince Albert of Liege, four years his junior.