A century after emulating the British royals by removing vestiges of its German lineage in the wake of the first world war, the Belgian monarchy has reintroduced the shield of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a former surname, to its coat of arms.

The family name was changed in 1920 to van België, de Belgique or von Belgien (“of Belgium”) in the country’s three official languages as a response to fierce anti-German sentiment.

The German army had killed more than 6,000 Belgian citizens during its invasion and occupation in 1914, in what came to be known as the ”viol de la Belgique”, or rape of Belgium.

As well as ridding the Belgian monarchy of its German name – as did the British royal family, who replaced Saxe-Coburg-Gotha with Windsor in 1917 – Albert I removed the shield of his German ancestry from the royal coat of arms.

Queen Victoria’s grandson George (right) changed his surname to the Windsor during the first world war

Queen Victoria’s grandson George (right) changed his surname to the Windsor during the first world war. Photograph: W and D Downey/Getty Images

But in what Belgian royal commentators described as a timely acknowledgement of the close ties between Belgium and Germany, through Nato and the EU, the ancestral shield has been reintroduced by Philippe, King of the Belgians.

The decision in 2017 for only those most closely related to the king to take the van België surname, rather than Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, may also have been a factor in the move.

Mark Van den Wijngaert, emeritus professor of contemporary history at the Catholic University Brussels, told De Standaard newspaper that the removal of the German name was understandable at the time.

“But in the meantime we are 100 years further on and we live in close contact with Germany, we sit together with them in the European Union and Nato, and so on,” he said. “And although the family started to call themselves ‘from Belgium’, their origin is simply from [the former duchy of] Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, so that no longer needs to be hidden.”

Under the revised coat of arms, the proverb “L’union fait la force(unity makes strength), which until now was only in French, is also in Dutch and German.

Van den Wijngaert said: “The innovations in the coat of arms of the royal house show that King Philippe does not stick to – sometimes outdated – traditions and that he wants to keep up with the times.

“That the shield now also has an inscription in Dutch and German is entirely in line with what King Philippe said in his speech [on the national day], namely that he wants to be the king of the entire federation and of all Belgians.”


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