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Queen Fabiola, Belgium’s former queen, dies aged 86

Belgium’s former queen Fabiola, the Spanish-born widow of the popular king Baudouin, who was recently at the centre of a row over her yearly allowance, died on Friday, the palace said. She was 86.

A devout Catholic who burst on the scene 55 years ago, Fabiola was widely celebrated for bringing spark to a sullen king struggling to connect with a post-colonial Belgium divided into French and Dutch speaking communities.

Under a cold December drizzle, the national flag at the royal place in Brussels flew at half mast. State funeral arrangements were not yet decided with the government set to meet on the matter Saturday.

“Their majesties the king and queen and members of the royal family announce with very great sadness the death of Her Majesty Queen Fabiola this evening at Stuyvenberg Castle in Brussels,” a statement from the royal palace of King Philippe said.

Born Dona Fabiola de Mora y Aragon on June 11, 1928 in Madrid to Spanish nobility, she married Baudouin in December 1960 — the same year that Congo won its independence from Belgium.

The almost inseparable couple never had children.

The fifth queen of the Belgians, she withdrew from the public eye after the sudden death of King Baudouin in 1993 on holiday in Spain, while her brother-in-law Albert and Queen Paola took the throne.

Then in July 2013, she looked on as king Albert II passed the crown to her nephew Philippe, to whom she was close until her death.

Prime Minister Charles Michel said all Belgians saluted her devotion to the nation.

“We will remember a great woman who will forever be part of the history of our country,” he said.

The years after Baudouin’s death were hard on Fabiola, challenged by illness and then ensnared in a financial scandal.

She sparked uproar in Belgium in 2012 with the creation of a private foundation that was widely perceived as a way to avoid paying the country’s 70 percent inheritance tax.

She later dissolved the charitable vehicle, and her annual income from the state was reduced from 1.4 million euros ($1.8 million) to around 900,000 euros.

– ‘Loved by the people’ –

Former prime minister Elio Di Rupo was part of the campaign against her, but on Friday he paid tribute to a woman “who would be remembered for her presence and availability, notably to society’s most fragile.”

Fabiola was admired for her devout Roman Catholicism and involvement in social causes, especially those related to mental health, children’s issues and the status of women.

“She was loved by the people thanks to her spontaneity, that compensated for Baudouin’s stiffness and rigidity”, said Mark Van den Wijngaert, a historian at HUB University in Brussels.

At the death of Baudouin, many said she would take refuge in a convent or return to her native Spain, but she remained in Belgium, the country that adopted her with open arms in 1959, when her engagement was first announced.

Fabiola also marked minds for wearing resplendent white to her husband’s funeral, in an unexpected display of hope and resurrection, instead of a black veil of tradition.

It was on a Catholic pilgrimage to Lourdes that the taciturn Baudouin asked Fabiola for her hand in marriage. His queen was “chosen by the very holy virgin”, the late king would later write.

Once installed as Belgium’s new queen, Fabiola battled hard to weaken the influence of King Leopold III, who abdicated in 1951, and his wife Lilian.

The family rift lasted until Leopold’s death.

Fabiola and Baudouin never hid their “great suffering” of never having had children. Fabiola suffered five miscarriages in her life, a fate she said ultimately freed the royal couple to “love children, all the of them.”