Belgium was already abuzz with rumours about an engagement of Prince Laurent of Belgium and Claire Coombs since the beginning of 2002. On September 28th 2002 the Belgian tv-channel VTM reported that Laurent would get engaged to Claire in November, but November passed and nothing happened. However the rumours about an engagement became stronger and stronger and in the second week of December the date of December 19th was mentioned. On the 16th it was clear to the Belgian media that the engagement would take place indeed. From political circles it was said that the government would come together in a special meeting at 10:30 to give consent to the wedding. Prince Laurent himself kept silent. Some people who know Claire Coombs answered some questions of the press, but much more than that she had done the fifth grade of secondary school twice and that she was modest, reserved and energic didn't become known.
Thursday December 19th, just after 11:00 in the morning after a special meeting of the government of not even 15 minutes long, Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt made the announcement that wasn't a surprise anymore. The government had given its consent to the wedding of Prince Laurent and Claire Coombs. According to article 85 of the Belgian constitution, second paragraph, a descendant of King Leopold I who marries without asking permission of the king is automatically stripped off his rights to the throne. Laurent thus had to ask permission from his father, after which the government had to discuss the issue. The Prime Minister told the press that he had met Claire Coombs for the first time on Monday December 16th at the royal palace.
At 15:20 the official presentation to the press of the engaged couple took place in the royal serres at the Palace of Laeken. The couple was accompanied by the whole family, including little Princess Elisabeth, 'walking' in public for the first time and stealing the show. After a short photo session questions of the press were answered in Dutch and French, followed by a reception for family and press. Although Claire doesn't speak very well Dutch, she gave it a try, being helped by Prince Laurent from time to time. She had Dutch at school, followed a Dutch course in Spa recently and now has a trainee job at a surveyor office in Berchem near Antwerpen to improve her Dutch. At home she is used to speak English. In the beginning of the evening Laurent and Claire with their families attended the traditional classical Christmas concert at the royal palace in Brussels.
The newly engaged couple looked quite at ease, while it was the press that was nervous this time. Prince Laurent started telling that 'the fact that we are together now, is is probably less mathematic, but we are now with two, but we become one.' Asked what attracted her in Laurent, Claire answered that she liked his sensitiveness and generosity. Laurent told she is 'the one' because she is honest, spontaneous and likes children. Claire was also asked about her job and she told that she and Laurent had decided that she keeps on working as they think it should be possible to combine her job with royal duties. She is not afraid for anything right now. 'It might be naive, but I will see what happens.' The couple also told that they very much hope to have two children. At home they are planning to speak English. After their marriage they will live at the Villa Clémentine in Tervuren, where Laurent already lives.
Laurent and Claire told the press they have met some two years ago during a dinner at the house of friends near Brussels. Claire was there with a female friend of her. After dinner Laurent started cleaning and washing up and Claire helped him. They didn't talk very much. They met again some two months later. It wasn't love at first sight, but their relationship slowly grew. About six months ago they decided to get married. Being asked how Laurent proposed Claire, Laurent became red looked at Claire and they both started laughing, but no answer was given. They share their love for nature and animals, but as Laurent romantically closed the interview: 'Our greatest passion is to be together.'
I am very much looking forward to the wedding in Brussels on April 12, 2003, that most likely will take place at the St Michiels and St Goedele Cathedral where also Prince Philippe and Princess Mathilde got married on December 4, 1999.
Claire Coombs was born in Bath, Somerset, England, on January 18th, 1974. When she was three years old the family moved to Wavre in Belgium [Claire's parents live in Dion- le-Val near Wavre now]. She followed primary and secondary education at the Institute de la Providence in Wavre [finished in 1993]. She was interested in drawing, painting, music and horse-riding. She was an active member of the youth movement 'The Guides' and loved to sing in the local choir 'les Pious-pious', with whom she actively performed during the visit of the Pope to Brussels. Claire Coombs often travels to England to visit her paternal grandparents and her friends. Her maternal grandmother [Marie-Louise Mertens] lives in Chaumont-Gistoux. After finishing her humaniora succesfully, Claire studied to become a surveyor. She finished this education with a trainee at 'Brône & Oldenhove' in Wavre and in 1999 got the title of surveyor expert - real estate. She was invited to become an active partner of the company. Miss Coombs has the Belgian as well as the British nationality. At the moment she attends an education at a surveyor office in Antwerpen.
Her elder sister, Joanna, was also born in Bath in 1972. While finishing her humaniora, she studied classical ballet under master Jacques Saussin at the Ecole des Petits- Rats in Brussels. Now she works for the British embassy in Brussels as Management Assistant. Joanna is married to Steve Grant and together they have a daughter, Emma. Steve works for the Representation of the United Kingdom at the European Union as a Conference Officer. Also her younger brother Matthew was born in England in 1976. He studied in Floreffe and at the Institut de la Providence in Wavre. After his humaniora he went for a graduate in marketing. Now he works for the family company in Perwez. His hobby is enduro (motorracing on difficult tracks) in which he already demonstrated his talent in Belgium and in Europe on the occasion of international tests. The parents of Claire Coombs married in Uccle in 1971. Her mother, Nicole Mertens, was born in Elsene in 1951. She studied in Belgium and in England, where she finished her secretary education in 1970. She is partner in the family company. She is also active in the parochial work and is volunteering with elderly people. Her father, Nicholas Coombs, was born in Wimbledon (England) in 1938. He studied at St George College in South-London. When he was 18 he left for Canada to work for the Bell Telephone Compaby. At the same time he studied rubber and electricity. Five years later he returned to the United Kingdom where he started working for Lindustries Group of Companies and worked his way up to director of one of the companies. He now is director of the family company [Nico Elastiques in Perwez].
From: Official Website of the Belgian Royal Family with additions by me between .
On Sunday, February 3, 2002, in the early afternoon I watched the last wedding guests of the Prince of Orange and Máxima Zorreguieta leaving the Krasnapolsky Hotel in Amsterdam, across the Royal Palace on the Dam Square. The staff of the hotel said no important guests were inside anymore and the fences in front of the hotel had gone, but I was not convinced the guests had all left. So some tens of other people and I managed to see Prince Jaime de Bourbon de Parme, Prince Pieter-Christiaan van Oranje-Nassau van Vollenhoven, one of the little bridesmaids with her parents, and several Argentinian friends of the new Princess Máxima of the Netherlands leaving. Because the fences had gone I decided to stay near the entrance of the hotel, which soon turned out to be the wrong decision. When I looked back after a while I saw Prince Laurent of Belgium and a young blond woman walking towards the hotel and me with their arms around each other's waist, just coming back after a walk through the centre of Amsterdam. When I had recovered from the shock - as I hadn't expected him there at all as he had been staying in the Amstel Hotel - I was too late to take the picture of my life, one I would have been able to take if I had been standing on the place I stood before. They passed me and within seconds they had entered the hotel. Knowing the wedding guests were leaving I waited and not long afterwards they showed up again, now walking on a short distance of each other. Despite that, I managed to get them together in one photo leaving the hotel. I followed them to the car that was waiting for them, hoping for another photo, but they were driven away without giving me the chance to take a better shot.
Prince Laurent and Claire Coombs leaving the Krasnapolsky Hotel in Amsterdam, 3 February 2002
I knew I might have an interesting photo, as I had read before that Prince Laurent might have a girlfriend but there weren't very many photos taken of them together and certainly not on an occasion like a royal wedding. Having some contacts with the Belgian press, I contacted a journalist working for the VTM-programme "Royalty" whom I knew via the Internet. I sent him the photo and he was delighted to find out the woman on the photo was indeed Prince Laurent's supposed girlfriend Claire Coombs. Some weeks later my photo was shown at "Royalty" after the people working on the programme had compiled a story about the couple with the information available. Very soon stories turned up in the Belgian press about a possible engagement between Prince Laurent and Claire Coombs. In the first week of March photos of the couple during a skiing holiday at Gstaad, Switzerland, were taken and published in magazines. Although they let the press take some pictures while Claire had her arm around Prince Laurent's waist and he had his arm on her shoulder, he urged to tell them they were just very good friends but that speculations about a wedding or an engagement were nonsense. The Belgian royal court immediately issued a statement confirming a friendship.
How long the couple knows each other is not known. They were filmed together for the first time in Brussels when the car they were driving in had to stand still for a while because of a demonstration. When Prince Laurent left the car to speak to the demonstrators, a cameraman spotted a young woman in his car. In 2000 they were seen and filmed seated next to each other at a nobility ball in Brussels. They tried to hide they were together by only speaking to other people. In 2001 they were spotted together several times among others at a film-presentation, a birthday party and gala evenings. In January 2002, after an official visit of Prince Laurent to a car showroom, Claire showed up after the press had left and together they selected a new car, a Jeep Cherokee Sport. Meanwhile Claire Coombs has stayed very discreet and doesn't speak with anyone in public about her relationship with Prince Laurent. Very little is known about her. Claire Coombs seems to be in her early thirties, has a British father and a Belgian mother, was born in Great Britain but is said to have Belgian nationality. She lives at Uccle near Brussels, a place where better situated Belgians live, and works for a geometrical office in Wavre.
Although an engagement or a wedding might not be foreseen for the near future, for royalty watchers it is obvious that Claire Coombs is the present girlfriend of Prince Laurent. I am very curious if this relationship will ever turn out into a wedding. With me thousands of others are looking forward to this eventual wedding, although it is most likely it will not be a very big media event as Prince Laurent is only eight in line of succession to the Belgian throne.