Caroline Lacroix might have been called “The Queen of the Congo”—but the acts she performed to earn her title were utterly despicable.
Although people eventually touted Caroline Lacroix as a kind of queen, her beginnings were shockingly different than most royals. To begin with, she wasn’t one. Far from it. Her father was likely a janitor in her native Romania, and she grew up without a penny to her name.
No, Caroline’s path to the throne was winding—and wicked.
As a young teenager, Caroline didn’t have much. She did, however, have her looks. She reportedly possessed “a beautiful complexion and skin,” and was pleasingly “plump but graceful”. But these qualities sent her straight to scandal. Soon, Caroline was reportedly using her beauty to pick up men on the street for money. Unfortunately, how she ended up there is tragic.
Around this time, Caroline became the mistress of Antoine Durrieux, a dashing ex-officer of the French Army. Reportedly, it was Durrieux who got Caroline into the oldest profession in the world. He usually liked to support their love by gambling on horses, but when that went south he discovered setting up clients for his girlfriend was much more lucrative.
As it happened, these sordid acts were also Caroline’s ticket right to the top.
Over the months, Caroline made quite the name for herself. So much so, none other than King Leopold II of Belgium heard about her “attractions” and sought her out, requesting a secluded meeting with her. But before you go thinking this is a fairy tale, think again. Leopold may have been a king, but he was no Prince Charming.
At the time, Caroline was 16 years old, and—grossly enough—Leopold was 65. He was also married, albeit miserably, to Queen Marie Henriette, and had been using various mistresses and courtesans for years to help stroke his fragile ego. His nickname, after all, was “Le Roi des Belges et Belles” in French, or “The King of Belgians and Beauties”.
Except that was the least of his bad reputation.
Leopold’s bedroom life wasn’t the only thing that was infamous about him. Behind closed doors, he was absolutely brutal. Years before meeting Caroline, Leopold had acquired the Congo Free State in Africa as his own holdings and was now reaping masses of money from the Congo’s production of rubber. If that sounds messed up, it’s because it was—but it gets worse.
Monarchs owning colonies was nothing new, but Leopold managed even to shock Europe with his cruelty. Not only was the Free Congo his personal colony, not Belgium’s, Leopold was also notorious for his exploitation of his workers, who he forced into labor. That’s not even all.
If these men and women didn’t reach their quotas, Leopold would mutilate them, often having their hands chopped off. Yes, this is who Caroline was getting into bed with. It was hardly an auspicious beginning, and Leopold would continue the trend.
Leopold was very used to treating women like chattel, and Caroline’s first meeting with him was deeply disturbing. First, he set up a meeting with her without telling her who he was. Then, he had two of his aides sit on either side of Caroline and ask her questions while he sat across from her, all so she would display each side of her profile for his inspection.
Poor Caroline didn’t know what hit her, and she instantly made an embarrassing gaffe.
Caroline knew her new admirer was powerful, but she still didn’t quite understand who she was talking to. In fact, Caroline initially got Belgium mixed up with Sweden and called Leopold “His Majesty Oscar,” the name of the current ruler of, you guessed it, Sweden. Leopold obviously liked what he saw, though, because her comment only amused him.
That’s also right about when Leopold made Caroline an offer she couldn’t refuse.
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Sure that the teenaged Caroline was just what he needed to feel young again, the Belgian king invited her over to Austria. The transactional nature of their relationship was painfully clear from the very start: The next day, he sent her a chunk of money along with empty trunks for all the clothes he was going to buy her on their tour...With funds, of course, that came from his nefarious dealings in the Congo.
Caroline happily went along, little knowing the scandal that would erupt.
Everyone understood Leopold had many affairs in his life, but from the beginning, Caroline was different. Their intense age difference disgusted his citizens (uh, somewhat rightly so), and the papers immediately called Leopold lecherous. Only, there was a darker side to this.
People also accused Caroline of taking advantage of a doddering Leopold, who, they felt, clearly wasn’t in his right mind. Journalists began tracking the couple’s every move…with scandalous results.
At the time, most kings had mistresses, but you were supposed to keep them in the shadows. Not so with Leopold and Caroline. To the shock of polite society, he paraded his French courtesan around at fashionable, up-scale spas. Soon, rumors flew about the various depraved ways Caroline provided the aging Leopold pleasure, with some whispering that she used mirrors and “special” equipment.
Eventually, they were whispering about something else entirely.
Caroline and Leopold had never been discreet about their love, but one instance, in particular, crossed a scandalous line. Yes, one even larger than the whispers about their bedroom life. Leopold brought Caroline—not his wife Marie Henriette—on his arm to Queen Victoria’s funeral. Leopold had it bad…it wasn’t going to get better.
Shortly after Caroline got with King Leopold, she also got a big break. His estranged wife Marie Henriette passed in 1902, turning Caroline from side piece to chief mistress, with no other real rivals to her power. It sent their relationship into overdrive. Leopold even installed her in a house right across from his own mansion, complete with a pedestrian bridge connecting the two abodes.
Then again, this bridge had a more chilling purpose.
Caroline was sitting pretty now, but she was also hiding a scandalous secret. In truth, her first love Antoine Durrieux had never really left the picture, and Leopold was wildly jealous of Durrieux hanging around the edges of the frame. Leopold’s bridge provided easy access to Caroline…but also easy access to check on her when she least expected it. This led to an extremely awkward moment.
As it turns out, Leopold’s fears about Durrieux were completely founded, and he caught the pair together on multiple occasions. When he did though, Caroline’s manipulations knew no bounds. At one point, she even tried to claim that Durrieux was simply her brother. If it worked at all, it didn’t work for long, and Caroline had to up her game.
According to reports from this time, Caroline got downright crafty when it came to hiding her lover from the king. To combat Leopold dropping in and finding her in a compromising position, people said Caroline put electric bells in all her homes so that her attendants could notify her if the king was coming down the hall. But in the end, that was the least of Caroline’s bad behavior.
This entire time, Leopold was still getting richer by the minute from his ill-gotten spoils in the Congo. Caroline didn’t just accept these riches, she reveled in them. She once bragged that she spent three million francs in a single store on a visit to Paris to buy the latest fashions. Somehow, though, this got ten times worse.
It’s almost impossible to overstate how spoiled both Caroline and Leopold were during this time, but here’s one story that really takes the cake. At one point, Caroline complained to the king that the timing of the evening express train back to Brussels from Paris gave her too little time to actually shop when she went over.
So what did Leopold do? He made the train leave an hour later, just to better convenience his mistress. But even royals have to pay the piper at some point, and Caroline and Leopold’s taxes were about to come due.
Caroline and Leopold had a passionate relationship, but their love also had a dark side. With Caroline at his side, Leopold slowly drew away from all his old relationships, isolating himself entirely. This was especially true for his children with Marie Henriette, Princesses Louise, Stephanie, and Clémentine. They were, after all, “just” girls, and Leopold soon ignored them entirely.
Yet as Leopold turned away from his family, his people turned away from him.
It didn’t take long for the Belgian public to realize that Leopold’s holdings in the Congo weren’t benefitting the country as a whole—just himself and his young mistress. Plus, it wasn’t like Caroline or the king were subtle about how much money they spent on themselves. And once people did realize this, the change was sharp and sudden.
People went from joking or rolling their eyes about Caroline to turning her into one of the most hated women in the nation. These people didn’t like the next development.
A handful of years after meeting King Leopold, Caroline gave birth first to one boy, Lucien, and then another, Philippe. Although the boys were illegitimate, Caroline still got one up over the late Queen Marie Henriette in delivering male children. Besides, people still worried that Leopold would one day recognize Lucien as his heir. Spoiler: They were onto something.
While Leopold didn’t try to legitimate his sons—yet, anyway—he did shower them with his immense riches and give them honorary royal titles. Not forgetting Caroline, Leopold also turned her into the Baroness Vaughan after she gave birth to their first son. By now everybody, including Leopold’s daughters, was aghast. But Caroline was just getting started.
By this time, Caroline knew exactly how to play Leopold like a fiddle to get what she wanted. The king, for one, was an extreme hypochondriac, and whenever Caroline wanted alone time—or else just time with her lover Durrieux—she would pretend to have a cold so he would scurry away from her. She didn’t stop there.
Caroline didn’t just use King Leopold’s difficulties with hypochondria to keep him away from her, she also used it to keep other women away from him. If there was an especially beautiful new girl at court trying to catch Leopold’s eye, all Caroline had to do was tell the king that the woman in question had a cold, and he would avoid the lady at all costs.
Even so, don’t go thinking the two of them were completely dysfunctional. They did have a surprising side.
Caroline and Leopold weren’t exactly Belgium’s favorite couple, and people had been willing them to break up since the very beginning. Except, they didn’t. More than that, they seemed to make it work by being honest about their differences, particularly in their ages. Caroline affectionately called Leopold Tres Vieux (“Very Old”) while he called her Tres Belle (“Very Beautiful”).
Of course, none of this affection stopped the worst from happening.
In late 1909, Caroline’s charmed life transformed into hell on Earth. Leopold, who was 74 at the time, suffered a serious intestinal blockage. As he lay in agony, everyone could see that there was no hope for the monarch. Caroline rushed to be at his side, taking her two young sons with her—and it was then that she made the most scandalous decision of her life.
As Leopold faded, he decided to turn Caroline from mistress into his full-blown wife. So, on December 12, the pair of them married in a small religious ceremony, with Leopold’s personal chaplain leading them through the motions. When people found out that Caroline was now the wife of King Leopold II of Belgium, they obviously went wild with outrage…but there was a catch.
Caroline was Leopold’s wife, yes, but here’s the thing: She wasn’t the queen. Because she and Leopold only had a religious ceremony and not a civil one, they weren’t officially married under Belgian law. Still, it was a close call. If they had married in a civil ceremony, Caroline’s eldest son would indeed have inherited the throne.
Of course, this didn’t stop the public from hating Caroline to her core, and her punishment for her ambition was brutal.
Even as his sort-of wife, Caroline had very few protections as Leopold lay dying. Her enemies made her pay for it. There were calls from the public to banish Caroline from Leopold’s deathbed, and even though she was allowed to stay, she had to hide whenever a high-ranking visitor entered the room. There were other wolves at the door, too.
In the wake of Leopold’s failing health, his estranged daughters Princess Louise, Stephanie, and Clémentine descended upon Brussels in the hopes of staging a reconciliation. After all, Leopold did have truckloads of money to give away in his will, and they didn’t want Caroline and her two sons to get it all. Caroline was about to fight back with everything she had.
If the royal princesses thought it was going to be easy to mend fences with their father and his mistress, they were sorely disappointed. Leopold—presumably with Caroline’s blessing—turned them away without making any changes to his will, whatever it said or didn’t say. It was a crushing blow to Leopold’s elder children, but they had no idea more was coming.
On December 17, just five days after his sham marriage to Caroline, Leopold passed in his bed. The king’s last words revealed the seriousness of the situation. He reportedly turned to his aide and said, "I present you my widow. I place her under your protection during the few days she'll spend in Belgium after my death”.
See, at this point, Caroline did need protection—because Leopold’s death was about to expose her in the worst way possible.
In the wake of the king’s passing, everyone discovered just how much he’d left to his daughters in comparison to his sons and Caroline. The answer was shocking. Caroline and her family got almost everything, while the princesses got almost nothing. Because Leopold’s massive holdings in the Congo counted as his own personal wealth, he could give it where he pleased—and it pleased him very much to give a big “screw you” to his girls.
The writing was finally on the wall. Or, so Caroline thought.
The next months of Caroline’s life were like a high-class heist movie. No sooner had Leopold’s money landed in her lap than his eldest daughter Princess Louise, with her sisters’ help, went after the cash any way she could. Well, Caroline struck back. First, she fled to Paris so that no one could touch her—and then she concocted an even more dastardly plan.
Caroline wasn’t content to get out of the country with the money she had on her already, oh no. She wanted Leopold’s daughters to never see a cent of their father’s personal fortune—and, being Caroline, she went to cunning lengths to make sure of this.
While in Paris, she reportedly tore through one of Leopold’s properties and took hold of his most important financial documents in order to get the upper hand in the courtroom. It proved to be a very lucrative idea.
Over the years, Leopold’s daughters tried to attack the upstart Caroline and her inheritance again and again, but with very little results. In addition to his personal ownership of the Congo, Leopold had also thought ahead and gifted Caroline with tons of expensive material possessions that were difficult to reclaim.
In the end, the princesses saw very little of their father’s will. Nonetheless, they still got their revenge.
Caroline was smart enough to come out on top in most of these power plays, but the princesses still had the influence of the throne behind them. At one point, the Belgian women even had Caroline’s old estates in Brussels and France boarded up, refusing her entry to them if she tried. They won that battle, sure, but Caroline was about to cause her biggest outrage yet.
Caroline had been Leopold’s companion for a decade, but right after his death, she dealt him a dark betrayal. Giving credence to all the rumors about her lover Antoine Durrieux, she married her old boyfriend just seven months after the King’s passing. She was a multi-millionaire by then, so let’s just say it wasn’t for security.
But once more, the inner workings of Caroline’s relationship were surprising.
Durrieux and Caroline were together at long last, and one of the richest couples in Europe to boot. They were also—for a time—strangely good together. Durrieux even adopted Caroline’s sons with Leopold as his own, giving them his last name. Still, it wasn’t to last. As usual for Caroline, her “happily ever after” morphed into something else entirely.
Caroline had spent years hiding Durrieux from Leopold’s piercing gaze, but now that they could live freely together, their differences became apparent. In her time as a royal mistress, Caroline had apparently gotten very used to high-class life. To Durrieux’s immense annoyance, she started to insist that her new husband call her sons by their honorary titles whenever they were around.
Before long, there was trouble in paradise.
After waiting a decade to make Durrieux her husband, Caroline’s second marriage lasted a bare three years before they divorced. Yet as always, Caroline was more than a pretty face. She managed to hold onto most of her blood-money wealth in the split, though she did pay Durrieux one million dollars so she could keep full custody of her children.
Caroline was now just hitting her 30s, and still one of the great beauties of her day. It wasn’t long before new opportunities came knocking.
Caroline’s infamy around Europe didn’t end with the passing of King Leopold, and she remained a fixture in newspapers and gossip columns. As such, she attracted the attention of all sorts of men from across the continent who hoped she’d embark on marriage number three with them. Some of these suitors were more infamous than others…
One of Caroline’s admirers was none other than the notorious Count Boni de Castellane. His horrible reputation rivaled Caroline’s own. Count Boni had once married the American railroad heiress Anna Gould, but Gould had divorced him after he’d frittered away tens of millions of her dollars. In other words, Boni was a bald-faced gold-digger.
Except Caroline hadn’t gotten this far in life by being a fool. She knew just what to do.
Men like Count Boni kept sniffing at Caroline’s bustles, and the papers kept reporting on engagements that may or may not have been real. But ultimately, Caroline wasn’t willing to risk her freedom or her money for another man. She never remarried after Durrieux and kept her wealth very much to herself. Tragically, none of these riches saved her from tragedy.
Seemingly all of Caroline’s triumphant ups came together with horrific downs. In 1914, she went through a mother’s worst nightmare. That year, her younger son Philippe perished just before his seventh birthday. The catastrophe threw Caroline completely off her axis.
In many ways, it marked a turning point in her life, and her later years were that of slow decline instead of scandal.
Caroline Lacroix was equally both manipulated and manipulator. After all, she spent a decade pleasing an old King in exchange for wealth that was soaked in the suffering of others. The Belgian people didn’t forget this either. Even though she was never a royal, people began to call Caroline “The Queen of the Congo” after her shadowy inheritance from King Leopold II.
Caroline’s later years were filled with the quiet comforts of the very rich. Minus a 1937 memoir, A Commoner Married a King: As Told by Baroness De Vaughan to Paul Faure, she happily let the world turn without her scandal-making. Fittingly then, in 1948 and at the age of 64, she passed quietly in the south of France.
Caroline might have preened about giving Leopold two sons, but karma came for her anyway. Soon after he was born, doctors discovered that her younger son Philippe had a congenitally deformed hand. This eerily recalled Leopold’s brutal punishment of chopping off the hands of his Congolese workers. The Belgians did not miss the coincidence.
One cartoon even showed Leopold holding his son while surrounded by the bodies of his victims with the caption “Vengeance from on high”.
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