In this series on Luxembourg's Royals, RTL Today delves into the history of the Grand Ducal family.

Princess Joséphine-Charlotte of Belgium was the first of three children born to King Léopold III of Belgium and Princess Astrid of Sweden. She was born on October 1927 at the Royal Palace of Brussels. Her two younger brothers Baudouin and Albert would later go on to become Kings of Belgium. The young family settled down at Stuyvenberg Palace just outside Brussels.

Princess Joséphine-Charlotte was named after the French Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais, Emperor Napoleon's first wife. While Princess Astrid was pregnant with her first child, she read a biography on the French royal whom she was distantly related to and decided to honour the Empress by naming her daughter after her. The young Princess' full name was Joséphine-Charlotte Ingeborg Elisabeth Marie-José Marguerite Astrid, but at home, she was simply known as "Little Jo".

Princess Joséphine-Charlotte's godmother would later also become her mother-in-law: Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg. The two remained very close throughout their lives.


Princess Astrid of Sweden in 1926, nine years before her untimely death. / © Public Domain

Tragedy struck early in Princess Joséphine-Charlotte's life. King Léopold of Beligum and his young wife were driving along the narrow and winding roads close to their residence at Küssnacht am Rigi in Switzerland on 29 August 1935 when the King suddenly lost control of his vehicle. The car plunged into Lake Lucerne, killing the 29-year-old Queen. She left behind three young children, who were only 7, 5 and 1 at the time.

Five years after her mother's untimely death, Princess Joséphine-Charlotte attended boarding school for a while, but she was privately educated at the palace for the most part of her school years. After the Second World War, the Princess continued her studies in Switzerland and went on to study child psychology at the University of Geneva.

Belgium under German occupation

Just like its neighbouring country Luxembourg, Belgium remained neutral during the second world war. However, while the Grand Duchy didn't have a standing army at the time, the Belgian army had been preparing for the German invasion well ahead of time. Despite their preparation, the Belgian army was overwhelmed by the German Wehrmacht soon after they invaded the country on 10 May 1940.

In a much criticised and arguably unconstitutional move, King Léopold decided to surrender himself, his family and his troops to the German invaders and remained in Belgium while his government fled to London.


King Léopold III of Belgium in 1934. / © Willem van de Poll - Nationaal Archief

Belgian Prime Minister Huber Pierlot denounced the King's unilateral decision to surrender as unconstitutional on the grounds that he went against the wishes of the Belgian government.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill also had a clear opinion on the matter, writing in a letter to Belgian diplomat André de Staercke: "It seemed to me and many others that the King should have been guided by the advice of his ministers and should not have favoured a course which identified the capitulation of the Belgian Army with the submission of the Belgian State to Herr Hitler (...)".

The Belgian royal family, including Princess Joséphine-Charlotte, were now in German captivity. After the Allied forces landed in Normandy on 6 June 1944, the Princess and her family were removed from Belgium an placed under house-arrest in Saxony. The royal family was finally freed on 7 May 1945.

Despite not having cooperated with the Germans, a lingering shadow hung over the King's reputation. Upon his return to Belgium, civil unrest broke out and King Léopold was ultimately forced to abdicate in favour of his eldest son Baudouin.

From Princess of Belgium to Grand Duchess of Luxembourg

On 9 April 1953, two years after her father's official abdication, Princess Joséphine-Charlotte married Luxembourg's Hereditary Grand Duke Jean at the Luxembourg City Cathedral.

After two consecutive world wars and hostile takeovers, the Grand Ducal wedding finally gave the country something to celebrate. It was one of the biggest festivities Luxembourg had seen to date. Hotels were booked out months in advance, to the point that the government had to ask Luxembourgers to open their homes to Belgian guests.

Between 100,000 to 140,000 people lined the streets of Luxembourg City on the day of the wedding, over 60,000 from Belgium. Many royals from across the globe came to witness the union and the event was covered by more than 400 journalists. One newspaper jokingly described the event as "Luxembourg's greatest-ever peaceful invasion".


After their wedding, the young couple went on a lengthy trip across Africa, after which settled down at Betzdorf Castle. During their 52-year marriage, the Grand Duke and the Grand Duchess had five children: Princess Marie-Astrid (1954), Prince Henri (1955), twins Prince Jean and Princess Margaretha (1957) and Prince Guillaume (1963).

When her husband Jean ascended to the Luxembourgish throne following his mother's abdication on 12 November 1964, Joséphine-Charlotte became Grand Duchess.


She took her role very seriously and was involved in many charities. In 1964, Grand Duchess Joséphine-Charlotte became an honorary president of the Luxembourg Red Cross and remained an active patron for the rest of her life.

After Grand Duke Jean abdicated in favour of his eldest son Grand Duke Henri in 2000, Grand Duchess Joséphine-Charlotte and her husband retired to Fischbach Castle. After a lengthy battle with lung cancer, the Grand Duchess passed away at her home on 10 January 2005, aged 77.

Sarah Cames is a twentysomething freelance journalist with a keen interest in anything to do with politics, history and pop culture.