Even when they are centuries old, royal paternity disputes are amongst the most absorbing of mysteries. DNA studies of the recently discovered bones of Richard III suggest that the entire Plantagenet dynasty may have been illegitimate.
During the 19th century hundreds of imposters claimed to be the Dauphin of France, a son of Louis XVI of France and Marie Antoinette, who had allegedly escaped from his Republican captors. A DNA test in 2000 proved that this was false.
Similar rumours circulated about Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, the 17-year-old daughter of Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra of Russia. She was said to have survived after her family was murdered by the Bolsheviks. At least ten women claimed her identity; Anna Anderson’s claim became the longest-running court case of 20th century Germany. It was finally disproved by a DNA test long after she died. The former Spanish king, Juan Carlos, recently fought off two paternity cases.
But the latest paternity suit might be more significant than any of these, as it could alter long-standing legal doctrines and change the line of succession to the throne of the Kingdom of Belgium.
This week a court in Brussels granted a London-based Belgian artist the right to seek legal recognition of her persistent claim that the former King, Albert II, is her real father.
Delphine Boël is the 47-year-old daughter of Baroness Sybille de Selys Longchamps, who gave birth to her when she was married to Jacques Boël, a billionaire Belgian industrialist. It appears that the Baroness had an affair with Albert before he became king and that Delphine was their offspring. The rumours broke long after the couple had divorced.
This battle for recognition has been a running sore on the Belgian royal family’s image for years. In 2008 Delphine published a book, “Couper le cordon” (Cutting the umbilical cord) about her case with scathing allegations. She is brash, imaginative and resolute. With two children of her own, she is even more determined to seek justice.
In Belgium, men cannot be forced to take a paternity test and Albert has declined. However, Jacques Boël did have one, which has proved that Delphine is not his daughter. Under Belgian law, his legal status as the father has to be revoked before another man’s can be proven. But this is not legally possible under current legislation. Such a request needs to be initiated before a child turns 22 or within a year of learning that a parent is not a biological parent.
All these deadlines lapsed long ago for Delphine Boël.
This week, however, Belgium’s constitutional court upended the privileges of paternity. It ruled that a child’s right to know his or her origins is more important than respecting existing family ties. This could also have far-reaching implications for fertility clinics. At the moment, the identity of their sperm donors is kept secret and children have no right to access information about their biological fathers.
This landmark case acknowledges that children have a right to know their genetic heritage and that the heartache of not knowing a father can be psychologically damaging. Up until now, Belgian law supported the notion that socially constructed relationships are more important to a child than genetic ties. This is an essential justification for the fertility industry, which contends that as long as children are raised in a loving environment, it does not matter whether or not they know their biological parents. The court now says, however, that genetic truth is more important than settled legal status. The key sentences read:
“Even if a person were able to develop his personality without having certainty about the identity of his biological father, it must be admitted that the interest an individual can having to know his ancestry does not decrease with age, on the contrary…
“In legal proceedings to establish parentage, the right of everyone to the establishment of parentage must therefore prevail in principle over the interest of family harmony and the legal security of family ties.”
The lawyers are far from finished. With this decision, Delphine Boël has won the right to formally contest the paternity of Jacques Boël and to ask to have the paternity of Albert II recognised. The former king is said to be adamantly opposed to acknowledging Delphine as his natural daughter.
Why is Delphine so insistent? Not for money, she says. She is independently wealthy. Not for the royal connection – she would become 15th in line to the throne, with as much chance of wearing a crown as you and I.
“Delphine LOVE CHILD”
Perhaps the answer lies in her quirky sculptures. The works in her portfolio are obsessively, scarily, concerned with finding a true self, with titles like “I, Question”, “XOXO”, “You Can’t Change the Truth…But the Truth Can Change You”, “Delphine LOVE CHILD”, “Identity is Golden”, and “F*** You I Exist”.
Why? To know “who am I?”, that’s why. For those who don’t know, no question can be more painful.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.