Summary of History of the Low Countries by Hans Blom and Emiel Lamberts

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Summary: 1h

Book reading time: 16h40

Score: 6/10

Book published in: 2006

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  • The low countries designate what is today northern France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Western Germany.
  • Written records about the region began in -57 when Ceasar invaded it.
  • Germanic tribes immigrated en masse to the Empire between the third and fifth centuries.
  • King Chlodlio seized Tournai, Cambrai, and Arras around 430, then Clovis established his capital in Paris, thereby creating the Merovingian Kingdom.
  • The Carolingians took over the kingdom which became most of Western Europe in 800 under Charlemagne. Then it was split multiple times over the next centuries.
  • Stuck between France and Germany, no one sought to claim the Low Countries. The local lords consolidated power for themselves (circa 1000).
  • During the 14th century, the French kings and the Holy Roman Empire fought for the control of the Low Countries, along with the English. It was also the time of the Black Death.
  • Through a series of marriages, the Low Countries were ruled by Burgundy from 1385 to 1477.
  • In 1477, Mary of Burgundy married Maximilian of Habsburg from the Holy Roman Empire. Their children married the Spanish Dynasty which merged with the Habsburg, and their grandson, Charles V, inherited Spain, the Low Countries, and the Holy Roman Empire as the sole survivor.
  • In 1566, a revolt of the nobility in Brussels led to twenty-two years of opposition between the Low Countries and the king of Spain, Philip II.
  • In 1588, the seven northern states declared the Dutch Republic after ceasing to recognize Philip as their king in 1581 (Act of Abjuration), thereby starting the Eighty Year War. The ten southern provinces become the Southern Netherlands.
  • The Spanish army never managed to retake the Dutch Republic because of the terrain on one hand, and because they received the order to support the Catholics in France on the other.
  • In 1635, Louis XIV began to wage war to seize the Southern Netherlands after an alliance with the Dutch Republic.
  • In 1648, the Treaty of Munster and Osnabruck concluded the Eighty Year and the Thirty Year War. But France and Spain remained at war until they reached an agreement. To seal it, Philip IV (Spanish king) married his daughter to Louis XIV.
  • When Philip IV died, Louis XIV claimed the Spanish throne in the name of his wife, but Charles II took the throne instead. He named as his successor Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV.
  • Fear that Philip would take the throne of both France and Spain, the war of Succession between Philip and another Habsburg Charles III, began (1702). When the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I died, Charles III took this place and became Charles VI.
  • Philip reached an agreement. He’d remain king, but he had to cease the Netherlands to the Holy Roman Empire and renounce the throne of France, which he did. It was in 1715.
  • In 1748, France and the Holy Roman Empire became allied and it ceased to be a threat to the Netherlands.
  • Joseph II became emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1765. He led a series of modernizing and anti-clerical reforms in 1781 which led to the Brabant Revolution in 1789. The Country was free but not for long. Joseph II’s successor Leopold II sent the army to take back the country which didn’t resist.
  • By 1795, the Southern Netherlands were attached to France after a series of invasions.
  • In 1813 after the defeat of Napoleon, the Southern Netherlands were attached to the Dutch Republic until their evolution in 1830.

Table of Contents

What History of the Low Countries Talks About

History of the Low Countries is a book written by Hans Blom and Emiel Lamberts. It’s a social, political, and economic history of the part of Europe commonly called “The Low Countries”.

I didn’t like this book too much because it was too detailed and too long.


Get the book here.

Summary of History of the Low Countries Written by Hans Blom and Emiel Lamberts


The book is about the Low Countries (current Belgium and Netherlands). They have more in common than we think, such as:

  • Became the most urbanized and prosperous region in Europe.
  • Used a representative system early on while the rest of Europe was still under the feudal system.
  • Acted as a mediator and buffer between France, England, and Germany.

Chapter 1: A Long Beginning The Low Countries through the Tenth Century

The Romans invaded Gaul in the first century BC. After the Empire collapsed in 476, the Germanic tribe of the Franks managed to unify what was Gaul under the Merovingians until they were displaced by the Carolingians which centralized their empire.

The Carolingian Empire collapsed and split, creating what would become France and Germany, with borders going through the low countries.

1. Celts, Romans, and Germans

The low countries hardly made up a coherent territory in the past. This is still true in the present.

The low countries used to be what is today northern France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Western Germany.

However, the term “Low Countries” should remain fluid as the region changed – a lot.

Written records about the region began in -57 when Caesar invaded Gaul. In 47, the Rhine became the border between the Roman Empire and Germania.

Germanic tribes immigrated en masse to the Empire between the third and fifth centuries. They used the Low Countries as a gateway to France.

The Saxons, Frisians, and the Batavians also played a role.

2. The Merovingian Period

In 406, when the Rhine froze, large numbers of Germans moved into Gaul, destroying towns and scattering the native population.

King Chlodlio seized Tournai, Cambrai, and Arras around 430.

A lot of Gallo-Romans seem to have immigrated as a result which explains why the south of the low countries speaks a Latin language while the north speaks a Germanic language.

Germanic kings established their kingdoms and sought to rule like the Romans had done before them.

The Germanic and Gallo-Roman nobilities merged. Slavery remained until it was eradicated by Christianity (to which Clovis converted around 500).

Clovis later created the Frankish kingdom when he conquered Gaul and pushed out the Gallo-Roman Syagrius, the Burgundians, the Alemans, and the Visigoths.

The kings gave their estates to be managed by mayors of palaces who worked as families. One of them, the Carolingians, eventually rose and displaced the Merovingians.

3. The Carolingian Period (Eighth and Ninth Centuries)

Pepin the Short became king of the Frank kingdom after saving the Pope from the Lombards in 751.

More than its Merovingian predecessor, the new empire suffered under the ambiguity of being a kingdom structured by Germanic tradition and at the same time possessing aspirations to continue the Roman state.

The Empire was too big and was eventually divided according to the Germanic tradition, among the three grandsons of Charlemagne (treaty of Verdun, 843). Most of the Low Countries belonged to the central kingdom.

From 800, the Vikings began attacking the Empire.

When Arnulf of Carinthia defeated the Normans at Leuven (Louvain) in 891, the Viking threat came to an end, at least in the Low Countries.

Since the centralization of the Empire had not prevented Viking attacks, the local rulers strengthened their power even more by providing protection.

4. The “Iron” Tenth Century

When the Carolingian empire collapsed, many regions got their old names back (Aquitaine, Burgundy). Nobody used the Merovingian names in the Low Countries but new names weren’t quite there yet either.

The pagus Flandrensis, for example, wasn’t yet used to designate Flanders, but the area around Bruges.

Rivers mainly determined the boundaries.

At the time, nobody had interests in the low countries, because it was at the border of everything. So the local nobles increased their power.

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Lotharingia Source

Lotharingia was eventually formed in 855

After Bruno, Duke of Lotharingia, died in 953, it was split into two: Upper Lotharingia in the south, corresponding to French Lorraine, and Lower Lotharingia in the north, corresponding to the Lower Countries.

The local nobility resisted imperial control and in the 11th century, it broke into more fiefs.

Chapter 2: Counts, Cities, and Clerics: The Eleventh, Twelfth, and Thirteenth Centuries

During this period, the Low Countries underwent a political, economic, demographic, and religious metamorphosis, including centralization over larger territories.

The Church reformed and became a more efficient institution as Christianity became internalized. The Church’s monopoly on society broke with the rise of the merchant class.

1. Political Fragmentation

Writing a political history of the Low Countries from 1000 to 1300 is a most daunting task (…) There are no “Low Countries” (…) only a patchwork of domains, some larger, some smaller.

The smaller domains grew into larger principalities as the economy grew exponentially from 1050 to 1250 before falling again.

The control the nobility had over these domains was due to the following factors.

  • The authority that remained from the Carolingian Empire
  • The relations with the lower nobility and the urban elite
  • Rivalry and cooperation with other nobles.

Flanders began in the northern edge of France where the Counts built an independent base before expanding further south, then east. In the 11th, Flanders was the only fully developed political unit in the region.

Most of the principalities which later constituted the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands were part of politically inchoate Lower Lotharingia.

The other region with some political organization was the Hainaut.

Meanwhile, the Holy Roman Empire appointed bishops in Liège (980), Utrecht, and Cambrai. Liège remained independent from the rest until 1794.

The bishop of Utrecht, whose diocese roughly corresponded to the Netherlands of today, presided as a political ruler over a territory called the Sticht.

German imperial control over the sees declined with the Concordat of Worms (1122), which ended the Investiture Controversy between the emperor and the pope by taking away the emperor’s prerogative to appoint bishops.

In the 11th century, the dukes were from the local nobility, whose most famous member was Godefroid of Bouillon who initiated the Crusades and took Jerusalem in 1099.

The Emperors hardly bothered with the Low Countries as they were busy fighting off the independent Italian cities and the increasingly powerful Papacy.

Meanwhile, the counts and the dukes used marriage to expand their power.

In times of economic growth, the counts founded new cities and granted them rights, which turned the polity into some sort of “mini-state”.

By the late 1100 – early 1200, Brabant’s economy grew, ruled over Maastricht, and became the most powerful entity in the Low Countries in the late 1200s as Flanders struggled against France.

Holland developed slowly and copied the development of Flanders and Brabant.

The history of Holland began when a local nobleman, Dirk III, defeated a German force at Vlaardingen in 1018. His descendants turned the barely habitable area into arable lands with waterways for communication.

Flanders began to decline in 1214 when the French king Philip II Augustus defeated the Flemish count and his allies (the English king, the emperor, the Duke of Brabant, and the Count of Holland).

Meanwhile, the merchant class slowly rose and increased its political influence.

2. Economic and Social Relations

Very few periods saw as much change in Europe as between 1050 to 1250, mainly driven by trade and technical innovation in agriculture (the three-field system and the clearing of new lands). The population grew, famine decreased, and settlements started where it was convenient to farm.

In the interior, inhabitants cleared forests and established new villages, indicated by the suffix -rode (in Dutch) and -sart (in French) or evident in such suffixes as -bos(ch), -hout, and -woud, meaning wood.

After Charlemagne died, the manorial lordship became legally, economically, and socially important.

The lords granted new freedoms to the serfs fearing that they leave for better opportunities.

After the Roman Empire fell, many cities were abandoned while others saw their population drastically decrease. There wasn’t much of a city life in the Middle Ages.

The cities came into existence only in the areas where agricultural production really had increased, or where imports were easily accessible.

Large organizations like the Church grew and moved their own food.

Textile (wool) was the most important item for trading and commerce which shifted international relations from the nobility into the hands of merchants.

City inhabitants cherished their “freedom” which meant “different rights granted by the people living in the countryside”, issued through charters.

The merchants in the city increased their power and became the political elite of the city (the nobility was from the countryside).

Threatened by feudal rivalries, traders began to organize themselves in associations that ruled trade between cities (called hanse). As trade volume increased, fairs were organized during which peace had to be guaranteed.

New and bigger coins were minted and an innovation from Italy (fair certificates) became the ancestor of paper money.

Artisans also created their own guilds, mainly to prevent the coming of too many competitors.

After the Battle of the Golden Spurs, the greater nobility granted more powers to artisans and merchants.

3. Religious and Cultural Life

The history of the Church post-Carolingian Empire (900 – 1050) is often seen as a decline due to interference from rulers.

But the separation of Church and state was not a medieval concept.

People believed that the king exercised both spiritual and temporal powers but the reality was different.

When the Carolingian Empire fell, the regional nobility sought to increase their powers over the Church.

The Church didn’t like that and when Gregory VII was elected in 1073, he launched a successful attempt at reclaiming the right to appoint bishops instead of the Emperor.

This battle lasted 50 years and ended with the Concordat of Worms (1122) which specified that bishops were elected by their clergy, then later, by the Pope directly.

During that time, law was rediscovered and the Church began to use it to advocate for its role within society.

People in the region had only been converted in the early Middle Ages, so Christianity was rather superficial. Then the situation changed with two developments.

  1. Christianity became more functional as it developed its theology and morality and absorbed pagan elements to make it more accessible.
  2. People internalized the Christian faith.

There were four languages in the Low Countries: German, Dutch, Frisian, and French.

They could all understand each other.

After 1200, the cultural monopoly of the church broke up. The nobility’s cultural contacts with Islam, the growing pride of the urban patricians, the growing size of government, trade, and a money economy all demanded more durable expressions of culture.

Chapter 3: The Formation of a Political Union, 1300-1588

During the 14th century, the French kings and the Holy Roman Empire fought for the control of the Low Countries, along with the English.

The Low Countries became, after Northern Italy, the single most important economic area in Europe, with Flanders as its center.

It was also the time of the rise of the secular bourgeois culture.

1. The Fourteenth Century: The Age of Uncertainties

Overpopulation and the problems it caused (hunger, food prices rising, exhausted lands), slowed demographic growth.

Political conflicts slowed down trade which led to massive unemployment, pillage, and high taxes.

Between 1300 and 1400, the population of Europe declined by at least a third, and in some areas by half.

The Church also had problems when it moved to Avignon in 1309.

By 1300, Flanders was under the French. Population in cities peaked around that time, too.

In 1302, Ghent reintroduced a tax that had been abolished which led people to revolt. They drove the French out of Ghent and Brugge on the 17th of May 1302. The French came back to take the cities on the 11th of July during the Battle of the Golden Spurs, but the Flemish won.

Flemish now became the county’s official language instead of French. Moreover, the battle signalled a substantial shift in power away from the old Flemish elites, the feudal lords and city patricians, and toward the lesser merchants and artisans.

In other cities, artisans also revolted and demanded the right to have their own guilds, which was granted to them.

This led to decades of instability during which the elite tried to regain power.

France eventually struck back and won in 1304, forcing the Count of Flanders to recognize France, grant amnesty to the pro-French patricians, pay an indemnity, and cede land.

The peasants were furious and initiated the first of the fourteen peasant revolts in Western Europe.

From 1323 to 1328, the Flemish peasants established their own government, which was primarily set up to oppose the large ecclesiastical and noble estates.

All of this led to the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. Indeed, French Flanders had good relationships with England and were now stuck between hammer and anvil.

When the Duke of Brabant John II died in 1312, he left a son too young to rule. So the urban elite created the council of Kortenberg which had more power than the nobility.

They passed a series of arrangements that they wrote into the Blijde Inkomst, a charter between a ruler and the people in which the ruler specified the rules he would rule under (some sort of constitution).

The English took over Flanders in 1337 as the pro-French Count was gone (he later died in a battle in 1346).

With the count gone, Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres divided Flanders for themselves and imposed their conditions everywhere.

A new count arrived in 1348 and the domination of the three cities declined.

The economy also changed.

In the fourteenth century, the demand for international trade rose so sharply that the old modes of transportation along rivers and roads proved inadequate. Moving goods by sea now proved cheaper and faster.

It transformed the harbor city of Bruges into the most important economic center of northwestern Europe.

Population declined a lot likely due to the Black Death in the 1340s.

A plague came approximately every 10 years.

Paradoxically trade volume rose during this time when Europe’s population was reduced by at least a third. Since there were fewer employees, the employees that remained earned more and could consume more too.

Shipping became more expensive due to labor shortages so bigger boats were built.

Since the thirteenth century, local boards had regulated the water system, public organs which, while nominally under the count, functioned autonomously.

These boards were made up of local inhabitants who had experience in solving the problems.

Individuals became responsible for a system of collective security.

This arrangement cultivated a mentality, developed over centuries, which valued the rational consideration of means and ends, the careful administration of the collective enterprise, and a decision-making process that included all participants.

The Black Death mainly killed people in the cities. Due to labor shortages though, people rethought how they organized paid labor and became more efficient. Soon, there was a surplus of people in the countryside so they left to work in the city.

Those who didn’t began to do new stuff at home such as dairy products.

Other economic sectors in Holland also grew during the general European depression of the late fourteenth century.

Farmers along the coast fished and traded to increase their income. Due to a decrease in agricultural activity, they began to trade and fish more and they introduced the herring to the entire continent.

Fish and cheese-making required salt, so a new salt industry developed (salt used to be obtained from burnt peat from the Maas) by evaporating seawater.

Bourgneuf Bay and La Rochelle in France soon specialized in this production.

This salt was too coarse for the fish so the Dutch refined it and the refined salt grew in the 15th and 16th century.

The Dutch exported beer and clothes too and imported grain as their own production capacity wasn’t enough. Then they began to transport goods from third parties and came to dominate trade in the Baltic while opening new routes to England, France, Spain, and Portugal.

This economic growth would form the basis for the Dutch Republic’s commercial system during the golden age of the seventeenth century.

The regional economic advantage Flanders had enjoyed since the eleventh century continued until the late fifteenth century, but by the thirteenth century Brabant had already become a formidable rival to Flanders in the production of cloth.

Throughout much of Europe, ecclesiastical institutions and the court life of the nobility determined the whole tenor of cultural life.

It wasn’t the case in the Low Countries where cities created their own culture, politics, and traditions.

The most bourgeois monuments were the bell towers (built in the 13th century) from which watchmen could watch the surroundings and ring the bell to alert people in case of attack or to call the workers to work.

2. The Burgundian Century (1385-1477)

The Low Countries did not constitute a coherent whole in the 14th century, but that didn’t stop the European kings, princes, and emperors from expanding their territory and rule over places located hundreds of kilometers away.

Many historians have interpreted the unification of the region as an inevitable event, but the historians at the time wrote that there was no national identity.

People thought of themselves as citizens of a city, or members of a village community, and any wider sense of loyalty remained restricted to the persons of ruling princes or to the leaders of political factions.

In 1400, the House of Bavaria controlled many principalities in the Low Countries.

  • Albrecht was duke of Straubing (in Lower Bavaria) and count of Hainaut, Holland, and Zeeland.
  • John was the bishop-elect of Liège (chosen but not consecrated).
  • Isabella was the queen of France
  • Margaret was the heir of Flanders.

In 1369, the Houses of Burgundy and Bavaria merged when Margaret married Philip the Bold, which enabled Philip to get the lands of Margaret. He also managed to get back some Flemish territories under the throne of France since 1312.

Finally, Joanna owned Brabant but decided to leave it to the House of Burgundy after her death as she did not have children.

The House of Burgundy got six new territories in the Low Countries in the 1420s, however, the power of Philip the Good was restricted and he still had to negotiate with the local dukes and counts.

In 1435, he created the Burgundian Netherlands and obtained the Duchy of Luxembourg when his aunt (its owner) died in 1451.

Now that he ruled over a vast territory more or less continuous, he centralized it.

The greatest resistance to Burgundian centralization manifested itself in Flanders, where the tradition of urban autonomy was strongest.

The Burgundian state weakened over the years because its civil servants took most of the money destined for the state. The bureaucracy was too big and inefficient, too.

Charles the Bold became Duke of Burgundy in 1467. He increased taxes and riots naturally broke out in various cities.

Flanders and Liège began serious armed confrontations with Charles’ army.

The advantage was often on the side of the duke because when a rebellion broke out somewhere, the other cities did not come in support and remained loyal to the duke.

Trade volume in the Low Countries doubled between 1400 and 1475 thanks to a demographic boom. Shipping in Zeeland and Holland expanded as Dutch skippers increased trade with England and along the Baltic and Atlantic coasts.

High purchasing power, domestic peace, controlled tax pressures, a stable currency, rising trade volume – all of these factors made the Low Countries prosperous in the three decades after 1440.

Between 1380 and 1480, Bruges was unquestionably the most important trading city in northwestern Europe, the center of an international economic system in which the rest of the Low Countries played a significant but secondary role.

The Dutch eventually got into a trade war with the Hanseatic League due to their domination in the Baltic and managed to get some very generous rights to trade in the Baltic.

Philip the Bold of Burgundy invested in the arts and everybody else (clergy, nobility, merchants) quickly followed.

The flowering of artistic life in the Low Countries largely corresponded with the period (described above) of political stability, peace, and welfare.

The dukes showed a special interest in books and paid for countless Latin works to be translated into French; many of them were chronicles of their newly won territories, histories of the world, and stories of the heroic deeds of persons such as Alexander the Great and Charlemagne.

If the Burgundians commissioned many beautiful manuscripts to reflect their glories, they also supported purely literary, theological, and philosophical works. Whatever the genre, they showed a particular interest in its aesthetic qualities.

Finally, they organized lavish ceremonies.

The urban culture of the bourgeoisie, in place since the fourteenth century, now found new forms of expression in its interactions with the Burgundian court, as the social ambitions of the burghers intersected with the calculated splendor of the dukes.

3. The Habsburg Century (1477-1588)

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Empire of Charles V Source

Since Charles the Bold had no male heir, he had married his daughter Mary of Burgundy to the Archduke Maximilian of Habsburg, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Charles died in 1477 and France directly annexed Burgundy and Picardy. His daughter Mary, was in difficult conditions and gave back the autonomy to the Low Countries.

She and Maximilian had two kids, Philip and Margaret, who both married Joanna and Juan of Castille, the Spanish dynasty.

The son of Joanna and Philip, Charles, ended up the only survivor and inherited Spain, the rest of the Burgundian territory (the Low Countries), and the Holy Roman Empire as a result. He became Charles V (Charles Quint, 1500 – 1558).

Under the Habsburgs, the tension between the long tradition of autonomy in the Low Countries and the tendency toward a centralized monarchical administration would rise over the course of the sixteenth century, culminating in a crisis.

At the time, the Habsburg and the House of Valois were the main two dynasties in Europe and intensely waged war on one another.

And so the Habsburgs began to centralize their territories which meant less freedom and more taxes.

In 1521, the Habsburg administration asked for exceedingly high subsidies to finance their war against France.

They did it again in 1523 but the Low Countries were so resistant that the civil servants stopped asking them for new taxes as a whole.

The unification of the Low Countries found its most significant expression with the formation of the seventeen-province “Burgundian Circle” (1548) within the confines of the Empire, and with the standardization of the rules of succession in the Circle (1549), in which Philip (II) was uniformly recognized in all provinces as heir to Charles V.

It is unclear what territorial or political identity the Burgundian Circle represented, other than that it consisted of the four duchies, seven counties and ten lordships.

Charles further proceeded to the centralization by making Brussels an administrative and political center.

In 1531, they ordered the codification of all common law that knew differences and exceptions according to the place. Doing so, they also created a hierarchy among courts and the possibility of appeal.

Textile exports enjoyed a particularly strong resurgence, particularly from the rural areas of southwest Flanders, which specialized in making light fabrics for the European market.

By 1568, Antwerp was one of the five biggest cities in Europe with 100,000 inhabitants.

The city opened a stock exchange in 1532 to organize the trade of money and securities.

Given both the centuries-old traditions of artistry in the Low Countries and the region’s increasingly central role in sixteenth century Europe, it cannot be surprising that Netherlandic cultural expression was at its most brilliant during the late Renaissance.

By 1570, the Low Countries were the most important economic region of the world.

The next thirty years would bring the deepest crisis the region has ever known.

Since the Reformation, different religious forms had developed in Flanders and Brabant to the detriment of the Spanish who sought to quell any deviation from Catholicism.

This was evident in the reign of Philip II (who accessed the throne in 1556), son of Charles V.

In 1556, Charles V divided his giant Empire into two. Ferdinand inherited Austria and the Holy Roman Empire and Philip II got Spain and Southern Netherlands.

Philip II strived to rule with absolutism which began to annoy the local nobility and the burghers who liked their freedom. The conflict opposed the mindset of Spanish catholic colonizers traditionalist VS the progressist Protestant traders.

Philip II considered Protestantism a heresy and refused to negotiate with them as a result.

But he also long hesitated in the type of punishment to give. The Low Countries seized this opportunity to begin building the bases of their independence.

Between 1566 and 1588 (when what’s today the Netherlands became independent), people became more and more radicalized against Spanish rule. The number of moderates decreased and the number of independentists increased.

In 1581, the inhabitants were divided into three camps regarding independence from Spain.

  • Groningen and the French-speaking provinces were happy to remain with Spain because they were poorer, more agrarian, less dense, and Catholic.
  • Flanders, Brabant, Holland, Zeeland, and Friesland wanted independence. They were richer, more developed, denser, and more Protestant.
  • Guelders, Utrecht, and Overijssel had no positions.

The people who turned to Protestantism did so because it opposed the absolutism according to which God had created the monarchy which in return, protected the faith.

Protestantism de facto separated the Church and the State and insisted on personal responsibility. These ideas fit well with the traders and entrepreneurs.

It made Catholic ritual seem like empty formalism.

The Reformation spread rapidly in the Low Countries after 1517 despite the efforts of the Inquisition to fight it.

Between 1521 and 1550, 13 people were tried annually. By 1550, it was 50 people per year and between 1561 and 1565, it was 264.

Meanwhile, the economy had degraded because:

  • Spain stopped paying interest on its bonds to refund its debt which ruined South German bankers and smaller investors.
  • The English cloth staple left Antwerp in 1563 which made the workers and traders jobless.
  • Bad harvests in 1564-1565 led to an increase in food prices.

The nobles feared that the Inquisition would lead to riots because of this.

They got together and wrote the Oath of the Nobles, asking the governor-general (the representative of the king in Brussels, in this case, Marguerite de Parme, his step-sister) to soften the Inquisition.

She sympathized although the count of Berlaymont (the Council of Finance) called them “beggars” (gueux) which they took for themselves, calling the event “la révolte des Gueux” (1566).

On 10 August 1566, a fervent Calvinist sermon in the village of Steenvoorde, then a rural textile center in western Flanders, prompted the congregation to violently purge the local monastic church of all “papist idolatry.”

Within three weeks, the protests had begun in the whole of the Low Countries.

Philip sent an army from Spain but that army did not arrive before one year after the event. When the soldiers arrived, the governor-general asked them to leave but they did not and invaded.

The Duke of Alba replaced Marguerite as governor-general in 1567 and installed the Council of Troubles (also called the Council of Blood) which was an extraordinary court with secret proceedings.

They tried and beheaded the counts of Egmond and Horne for lese majesty. In total, they issued 1,071 death sentences and banished 11,136 persons, confiscating their property.

Alba reformed the criminal system and developed a new system of taxes that the State-General assembly opposed as they didn’t have their say in it.

One of the taxes, the sales tax, was so unpopular that it was never implemented.

Meanwhile, William of Orange had left the Low Countries and decided to foment a revolt against the king. He invaded Brabant in 1568, a date traditionally accepted as the beginning of the Eighty-Year War.

By 1572, twenty-six city councils backed the revolt William had initiated.

So Alba sent his army (86,000 men in 1574) to punish the pro-Orange cities (Mechelen, Zutphen, and Naarden among others). Interventions in Holland were harder to conduct due to the water the inhabitants could flood the troops with.

The two sides radicalized.

The Spanish army managed to take Haarlem after seven months, but Alkmaar and Leiden withstood the sieges of 1574. The Duke of Alba was eventually fired by the king and replaced by Alexander Farnese, duke of Parma.

Embroiled in wars in the Low Countries and against the Turks, the Habsburg stopped paying interest rates on their debt again.

The soldiers, badly paid, mutinied and pillaged the countryside.

Brabant, Guelders, Flanders, Holland, and Zeeland agreed upon the terms on which they would accept peace, and publicly issued these conditions in the so-called Pacification of Ghent on 8 November 1576

In a series of charters, the members of the respective States worked out new principles of government, which were based on respect for local and regional rights and traditions, as well as on local and regional say in the central government, and which bound the monarch to constitutional limitations.

These became the basis for the future Dutch Republic.

Tired of the slow pace of the States, the middle class seized power in 1577 when the guilds of Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent formed revolutionary committees and installed pro-Calvinist city councils, imitated by most Flemish and Brabantine cities.

In 1578, the Calvinist Republic of Ghent welcomed thirty Calvinist intellectuals from the region who all taught in Ghent. Many fled to the north in 1584 when the Spanish took the city back, spreading Calvinism in the Netherlands as a result.

In 1579, Ghent offered Brabant, Flanders, Tournai, Holland, Zeeland, and Guelders a closer union to better defend against Philip. It was called The Union of Utrecht. The northeastern of the Netherlands and the French-speaking Wallonia increasingly grew annoyed by the Calvinist’s radicalization.

It was a response to the Union of Arras (Artois, Hainaut, Namur, Luxemburg, and Limburg) which opposed the revolt.

In 1580, Philip II declared William of Orange an outlaw, so he (William) looked for another ruler to lead the seventeen provinces and chose the son of the French king, the Duke of Anjou.

Brabant, Flanders, Holland, Zeeland, and Friesland signed an accord in January 1581 recognizing the duke; Guelders, Utrecht, and Overijssel did not (the Duke went back to France in 1583 after his coup failed).

Next, they signed the Act of Abjuration to cease recognizing Philip II as their king (1581).

This act was the equivalent of the French Revolution.

A popular movement had precipitated a widespread revolt which had overthrown a whole political and ideological system, replacing it with a new arrangement in which the middle classes would become the central players. No longer was sovereignty conceived in terms of the divine right of kings; rather, supreme authority rested in the collective will of representatives whose mandate was provisional and temporary.

image 10
The Duke of Parma takes back control of the Low Countries (in grey).

It was only then that these concepts were worked out, but they had been existing for centuries in the Low Countries. They would later be applied to England and the United States.

By 1585, the Duke of Parma had taken back control and obliged the Protestants to leave within 2 years. 50,000 left for England and the Holy Roman Empire while 150,000 went to Holland which led to the spread of Calvinism on one hand, and to the boom of the economy.

Indeed, the Protestants were often very skilled at what they did.

In 1588, the States decided to proclaim their own republic. They had had enough of foreign kings.

As General Farnese, who controlled the Spanish troops, was making his way to the rest of the Netherlands, he was instructed instead to go to France to support the Catholics against the Protestants.

The United Provinces took back the northeastern region as a result, re-becoming “the seven provinces”.

Chapter 4: The Dutch Republic: 1588 – 1780


Supported by England and France, the Dutch Republic won a series of battles against the Spanish. A twelve-year truce was decided in 1609 which created a religious division inside the Republic. Their desire to retake the Southern Low Countries from Spain (Flanders) declined. The Republic underwent great economic growth in the 17th century partly due to the internal problems that France and England had.

By the mid-18th century, their power declined faced by a resurgence of France and England due to having transformed into an oligarchy.

Chapter 5: The Spanish and Austrian Netherlands: 1579-1780

After 1579 (and the Union of Utrecht), the influence of local groups was greater than ever compared to the Spanish. Groups in favor of a more centralized VS more loose form of governance would fight for the upcoming two centuries.

Nothing changed when the Low Countries (that is, the Southern Low Countries now that the North was independent) became Austrian in 1715.

1. An Uncertain Existence

Desperate by the split up of his Low Countries, Philip II transferred the territory to his daughter Isabella and her husband, the archduke Albrecht in 1598, thereby giving it some sort of independence, likely to prevent the region from being invaded by the Dutch Republic.

Albrecht and Isabella invited the seventeen provinces to their ceremonial installation in Brussels but the seven provinces of the Dutch Republic didn’t come.

Meanwhile, the Eighty Year War was ongoing overseas between the Dutch Republic and Spain.

It was only suspended in 1609. By then, Spain had given up taking back the seven provinces, which Farnese found impossible to do anyway (they were supported by France and England). The purpose, therefore, was a war of attrition to weaken the Republic and force it to concession.

After the outbreak in 1618 of the Thirty Years’ War between Protestants and Catholics in the German Empire it became increasingly unlikely that that Twelve Years’ Truce of 1609 would be renewed.

After the death of Albrecht in 1621, the region went back to Spain.

In 1625 Spinola retook Breda. Meanwhile, many Spanish generals were leaving the Low Countries to fight the Thirty Years War (Catholics VS Protestants) in the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1629, the Spanish lost ‘s-Hertogenbosch to the Dutch which made many furious among the nobility. In April of 1631 the Count of Warfusée, head of the Brussels Council of Finance, offered the Dutch to invade the Southern Low Countries through the Meuse to get rid of the Spanish.

But few people supported this. The governor, Isabella, offered concessions to the conspirators and promised peace talks with the United Provinces.

The Catholics of the Low Countries were angry at the United Provinces because they had closed the Scheldt in 1585 and persecuted the Catholics.

They asked the Dutch to evolve regarding these matters but they refused. The war continued because the Dutch wanted to.

The offensive alliance concluded between France and the United Provinces in 1635 prompted many inhabitants of the Habsburg Netherlands to fear for the worst.

The Dutch called on the inhabitants of the Southern Low Countries to rebel against the Spanish but nobody did because of their brutality on one hand, and because of how the United Provinces treated the Catholics on the other.

In 1640, Spain had to fight in Catalonia and Portugal and could no longer fight in the Low Countries as a result.

In 1643, Spain lost against France at the Battle of Rocroi, which made it lose its reputation of being invincible.

Finally, the end of both the Thirty and Eighty Years War was proclaimed in 1648 with the Treaty of Munster and Osnabruck which introduced the notion of borders and nation-states.

While the war against the Dutch Republic ended, the war against France continued (1635 – 1713/15). Indeed in 1635, the Dutch entered an alliance with France against the Spanish. The French thought they could seize the Spanish Netherlands and the threat did not disappear before 1748.

In 1658, Spain lost against a French-English alliance and had to give up some territory to France and England.

Philip IV (Spanish king) married his daughter to Louis XIV. When he died in 1665, Louis XIV claimed the Spanish Netherlands in the name of his wife. He launched five campaigns to take the Southern Netherlands and all cities had to build modern fortifications to be protected.

Spain could no longer protect its Low Countries. The advance of France led England and the Dutch Republic to fight France instead.

Before the death of the childless Charles II (king of Spain), the European powers had agreed on Archduke Charles (Charles III) as a successor, the youngest son of the Holy Roman Emperor. But Charles II had granted his succession to Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louix XIV who also then had a right to the throne of France.

When he took power in 1701, Philip of Anjou told his grandfather Louis XIV to rule the Spanish Netherlands for him. That’s how the region ended up being officially under Spain, but effectively ruled by the French.

The French troops replaced the Dutch troops who had come in support of the Spanish Netherlands at the border with France.

A series of reforms created by the French (such as mandatory military service) created discontent in the population.

England and the Dutch Republic refused to recognize Philip as king of Spain fearing that he would inherit France when Louis XIV would die. So they declared war on France in 1702.

The English and Dutch troops were now attempting to seize the Spanish Netherlands while Charles III fought against Philip.

Then the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I died and Charles III went back to Vienna to succeed him, becoming Charles VI in 1712.

France, England, and the Dutch Republic quickly stopped fighting under the threat of the restauration of a giant Habsburg Empire (like the one of Charles V). They accepted Philip on the Spanish throne if he renounced the throne of France, which he did.

The Spanish possessions in Italy and the Netherlands became Austrian in 1715. For the first time since the Carolingian Empire, the Prince-Bishopric of Liège and the Southern Netherlands were under the Holy Roman Emperor. They remained, however, two separate states.

When Maria Theresa, daughter of Charles VI, had to lead a war to defend her right to the throne, France invaded the Southern Netherlands (1744 – 1748).

Louis XV gave it back to Austria and the two enemies even reapproached. For the first time since 1635, France was no longer a threat.

2. An Aristocratic State (Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries)

Joseph II became emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1765.

When he visited the Low Countries, he thought it wasn’t monarchical enough but had remained too aristocratic, a heritage of the Spanish regime and the balance of power that developed from it.

Indeed, the Viennese government wanted more centralization and less reliance on local powers.

Even though the governor of the Southern Netherlands was a relative of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, they distrusted them because they kept the independent spirit and tradition of the region.

Under Maria Theresa, an Austrian diplomat was sent to Brussels and gradually replaced the function of governor which became ceremonial.

A further centralization of the administration remained a point of contention throughout the eighteenth century.

The political structures of the Habsburg Netherlands were stable in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Power sharing with the great landowners and the wealthy bourgeoisie was accepted by the Spanish monarchs because their control of the Southern Netherlands depended on the people’s willingness to be ruled.

The continuing French threat and the weak international position of Charles VI did not permit a centralization of the administration during his reign. Even during the reign of Maria Theresa (1740–1780) the unwritten compromise with the privileged local powers remained largely intact.

The beginning of the 1600s saw the permanent exclusion of the high nobility from the central administration, followed by the gradual decrease of the guilds’ political influence in the States.

The urban patricians, the members of provincial councils, and the great landowners who made up the members of the States merged into one single social group: the wealthy landowners.

This division of power between the emperor and the local power brokers had important consequences on government policy.

The Habsburg often needed the authorization of the local power to accomplish its aims. Only after 1748, when France no longer became a threat and the Habsburgs had gotten back their international position, did they feel more powerful.

3. Government Policy in the Habsburg Netherlands

The immigration of the Protestants skilled traders and artisans along with the closure of the Scheldt led to a sharp decrease in economic output.

The goods had to be unloaded in Zeeland and transported to Antwerp by land. Yet the city remained an important financial center.

Roads and canals were built to answer the needs of the economy, mainly at the initiative of the local people.

Peace had come rarely to the Spanish Netherlands; in the course of the seventeenth century only one year in three had been one of peace. Between roughly 1710 and 1790, however, serious armed conflict occurred only during the War of Austrian Succession, when French troops had invaded in 1744, and even then the damage remained limited.

As long as war was located at the border, the economy could grow. By the mid-17th century, the Flemish had invented new agricultural techniques. Instead of dividing their fields by three, they grew crops to feed animals that fertilized the fields during the winter.

This enabled them to have exceptional yields. Most farms were small but grew a lot of food over a small area.

The 18th century saw the end of the epidemics and the population could grow again, partly also due to the culture of potatoes that could be grown all year long.

As a result, farmers increased the surface of arable land.

During that time, Wallonia grew its metal and coal industries thanks to the steam pump introduced around 1730 in England and which made it easier to remove water and mine more deeply for coal.

The powerful position of the church in the Austrian Netherlands was an inheritance of the late sixteenth century and the Catholic Reformation. Monastic orders came to dominate education as well as the care of the sick and the poor.

The church and the state walked hand in hand as religious attendance helped the state have disciplined citizens. Understand: the state could not work if the people did not obey religious rules.

This changed in the middle of the 18th century.

The Enlightenment introduced the idea that the state had the responsibility for the well-being of the population (including education and caretaking of the poor and the sick), leading to a reconsideration of the link between the church and the state.

They sought to reduce the Church to the activity of worship alone.

The Church and the state became rivals as a result and religion was no longer needed to instill obedience. Therefore, Protestantism was tolerated at the end of the 18th.

The development of newspapers in the early 17th gave the government another chance to influence the population.

A linguistic boundary bisected the County of Flanders, the Duchy of Brabant and the prince-bishopric of Liège. North of that line variations of Dutch were spoken: East and West Flemish, Brabançon, and Limburgish.

To the south Wallonian French dominated, except in Hainaut and Artois, which the Picardian dialect dominated. Nor was the old Duchy of Luxembourg homogenous, with Wallonian French in the west giving way to the German dialect Letzebuergesch in the east.

The Church adapted to these language differences as it sought to keep good relations with the population.

Language almost never constituted a barrier between the population and the governing authorities.

Being multi-lingual was always appreciated to occupy a civil servant position.

The inhabitants of the Spanish Netherlands were hardly pro-French, but French taste, no less than elsewhere, was simply the fashion. (…) Yet the increasing appropriation of French culture among the Flemish elite did not lead to an apparent rejection of the Flemish language. In many cases their correspondence was conducted in their own language, or in imperfect French.

The predominance of French largely came from the establishment of the Académie Francaise in 1634.

The contrasts between the United Provinces and the Habsburg Netherlands often have been emphasized. The North was republican, commercial, Protestant, and Dutch.

Chapter 6: Revolution in the North and South, 1780-1830

The United Provinces were close to civil war between 1780 and 1795. Prussia intervened in 1787 to support conservative forces, and the French in 1795 to support the revolutionaries which led to the instauration of the Batavian Republic, a French satellite state.

Napoleon made his brother king of Holland in 1806 then annexed the whole country to the French empire later on.

Revolt spread to the Austrian Netherlands when Joseph II attempted a series of reforms. The leaders declared the Republic of the United Belgian States in 1790 but it will be short lived. The French invaded the area in 1794 and it was annexed to France in 1795.

After the fall of Napoleon, the North and the South Netherlands were once again reunited under William I. His policies led to the revolution of 1830.

1. The North (1780-1813)


2. The South (1780-1814)

In June 1781, the Emperor Joseph II arrived in the Austrian Netherlands. Some were happy while others were disappointed as he forbade celebration and wanted to be there incognito.

Indeed, Joseph II was unsatisfied, for several reasons.

  • The administrative structure was too complex
  • The justice system was slow and unreliable
  • The church meddled too much in politics
  • There was little to no taste for modern culture and science.
  • Economics was bad due to the closed Scheldt and the guilds in the cities.
  • The Barrier Treaty (the presence of Dutch troops at the border with France) neutralized it.

In the beginning, Joseph II sought to exchange the region against Bavaria, but that didn’t happen.

So he terminated the Barrier Treaty in 1781 and then tried to force the reopening of the Scheldt through the Kettle War in 1784, but the Dutch refused.

They signed an agreement in 1785 (Treaty of Fontainebleau) which led the Dutch Republic to pay 2 to 10 million florins annually as compensation.

Stuck with the region, Joseph II decided to launch reforms. Most of them were suggested to him by the local politicians and civil servants. His most personal and most famous initiative was to grant citizenship to Jews and Protestants.

Symbolically, this broke the link between the Church and the state -> the Catholic nature of the country now seemed threatened, which didn’t please the people. The local politicians even sought to diminish the effects of this reform.

In 1784, Joseph II began to pass the reforms quickly. He was most cautious about economic liberalization and the breakup of the guild monopoly.

He replaced all charitable brotherhoods and foundations with a single Brotherhood of Active Charity in 1786. He improved hygiene, public health, and elementary education.

He made marriage a civil function instead of a religious one then established a General Seminary in Leuven (1786) where priests would be trained according to his doctrine:

  • Free of Ultramontanist thinking
  • Tolerant
  • Full of commitment to the common good

The Church was outraged.

In 1787, they were joined by the civil servants whose organization was streamlined and centralized, along with the judiciary.

Riots erupted in many locales.

The governors-general, alarmed by the scope of the protest, suspended all the reforms on 30 May 1787.

Order was reestablished by 1788, but local administrations refused to comply with the reforms. Tensions reached their pinnacle when the emperor abolished the Blijde Inkomst and the whole Brabantine political system on 18 June 1789.

A group formed in Brussels to plan an uprising and throw the Austrians out of the country.

In October 1789, a group of 2 800 men invaded the Kempen. This was the Brabant Revolution. The Austrians attacked the army in Turnhout later and lost.

By 22 December, all of the provinces, with the exception of Luxembourg, had been freed.

In the early morning of 11 January 1790, the States-General of the Southern Netherlands passed the Act of Union, which established the United Belgian States.

The new republic was a confederacy with strong independence for each provincial State.

In practice, the government was led by Minister Van der Noot and State Secretary Van Eupen, two conservatives who didn’t want to change the three-class system of the States, too old and precious, according to them.

The lawyer Vonck and his progressists disagreed. They wanted more reforms to give a say to the urban middle classes and the rural population.

The government launched a negative campaign against the Vonckists in response, leading to physical abuse against them (some ended up in prison, others fled to France).

Meanwhile, peasants began to revolt against the new government made up of the landowners Joseph II had promised them to reduce the power of.

Their revolt was suppressed by the army.

Joseph II died in February 1790.

Meanwhile, the new government of the United Belgian States sought the support of the neighboring countries. But the UK, the Dutch Republic, and Prussia sought closer ties with Austria, so they supported the new emperor Leopold II to reconquer the Southern Netherlands…as long as the reforms of Joseph II were abandoned.

When his troops arrived, they encountered no resistance. The new republic didn’t last long.

The importance of religious issues and the role the clergy played in the events would have a lasting effect on the nation’s political composition, as the opposition between the clericals and the anticlericals became the deepest divide in national politics.

Leopold II died in 1792 and no one was really happy as he did implement some reforms eventually.

The most progressists among the revolutionaries who had fled to France under the Van der Noot government were conspiring with the progressists from Liège who had thrown out their prince-bishop in 1789 but had been also forced to flee after he had been reinstalled in power by foreign armies.

In late 1791, they created the Committee of United Belgians and Liégeois and committed to establishing a free republic. They invaded with the French Général Dumouriez and defeated the Austrians in November 1792.

They favored the incorporation into the new French Republic despite the opposition of Dumouriez. But the radical Jacobin wished also for integration.

They installed their own local governments and law courts, and initiated a fierce smear campaign against the Austrians and the church.

They rigged an election of March 1793 and the new republican government asked to be admitted into France, which was accepted. That didn’t last long as a few days later, the Austrians came back and expulsed the Jacobins.

This time, it was different. The conservatives and the Austrians agreed that the French were their common enemy.

The French came back in June 1794 and took the Southern Netherlands along with the Prince-Bishopric of Liège.

The Austrians were out by 1795.

This created panic among the population who had heard of the Reign of Terror. Many left along with the Austrians.

The first 15 months were a nightmare as the French wanted to make the Southern Netherlands pay for their losses against the Austrians.

On 1 October 1795, the Convention decreed that the former Austrian Netherlands, the prince-bishopric of Liège, and the duchy of Bouillon would become integral parts of the French Republic.

For the first time in a thousand years, the Netherlands, Bouillon, et Liège were reunited.

By 1797, the French law was applicable, but no one seemed to respect it. Many civil servants and judges refused to work for the French.

In the fall of 1796, all monasteries and abbeys were closed, their property assessed, and the greatest part sold to the public. Those who purchased these “black goods” earned the disapproval of countless fellow citizens.

The elections of 1797 led to the victory of anti-French candidates.

On 25 October 1797, the University of Leuven was abolished, its last rector dying in Cayenne.

Public discontent swelled to its highest point when the Law of 5 September 1798 introduced conscription for young men between the ages of twenty and twenty-five.

This led to the Peasant’s War which lasted a few months before being violently crushed by the French.

Then Napoleon Bonaparte came to power and reestablished order and peace by being more lenient than the revolutionaries were.

He also signed a concordat with the Vatican which reconciled the people with the French as the Church was authorized again.

The economy was supported and encouraged to develop and so did education. Napoleon was celebrated when he visited the country in 1803.

But problems quickly arose. The Napoleonic wars, the conscription in the army, the new one-catechism that asked for loyalty from the people to the French state, and the detention of the pope made people unhappy again.

By 1813, only very repressive measures by the ever present police and increasingly stringent censorship of the press kept the government in control.

They began to abandon the Southern Netherlands when Napoleon suffered heavy defeats in 1813 and 1814 as anti-Napoleonic allies, mostly Russian Cossacks and Prussian soldiers, swept across the region.

The European powers treated the Southern Netherlands as conquered territory and officially chastised the Belgians for not taking up arms against Napoleon like the rest of Europe.

In reality, Belgians had been dissuaded to take arms against Napoleon due to the absence of young men in the region and the usual violence of French reprisals.

Napoleon had to abdicate in 1814 after his unsuccessful invasion of Russia.

The allies decided to give the Southern Netherlands to the Dutch Republic, but on allied terms, not through Dutch invasion or propaganda.

In general, there was a massive lack of leadership. Belgian elite had all collaborated with a European power at some point which did not make them appear suitable to the eyes of the allies.

The Austrians didn’t want to take back the region either.

The provisional government set up by the allies consisted primarily of the old nobility and other figures who had served under Austria.

The nuns and monks, absent from society for 20 years, rejoined their monasteries.

Many people hoped that the days from before the French Revolution would return, but the whole social and political structure of Austrian time had disappeared.

The Southern Netherlands had been a part of a large and fast-evolving nation for twenty years, a period which effectively ended the region’s cultural isolation.

The ties between the inhabitants had been broken. The region was deeply divided.

3. The United Kingdom (1815-1830)

The year 1813 has an almost mythical ring in Dutch history. Renewed independence and the return of the House of Orange together gave the nation a new start, as it were, and marked the real beginning of the nineteenth century.

Demoralized by their Russian and Leipzig defeats, the French left the Netherlands on their own.

After the Batavian Republic was established in 1795, William V left for England and it seemed like the link between the House of Orange and the Netherlands was broken for good.

But his comeback seemed like the best solution. William himself was afraid to ask for too much when he got back the throne.

Everyone agreed to “forgive and forget”.

The laws the French had implemented like the customs union with France, censorship of the press, and the state tobacco monopoly were dismantled.

William wanted to expand his country and England wanted a strong Netherlands, so everyone agreed on attaching the Southern Netherlands to the kingdom despite the lack of enthusiasm from the Belgians.

Napoleon came back in 1814 which scared most Belgians of a new attachment to France and precipitated cooperation with William.

William’s army of 25,000, together with the English under Wellington and the Prussians under Blücher, formed the northern front of the ring that the Congress of Vienna wanted to close around Napoleon.

Napoleon lost on the 18th of June 1815 in Waterloo. Belgians took this opportunity to demand the return of looted treasures from 1794 and to take back other territories.

The new constitution of the Netherlands guaranteed all faith on an equal footing which did not please the Belgian Catholics. They wanted their status to be protected in the constitution but didn’t get it.

William’s authoritarian style quickly became annoying. He didn’t seek consensus but pushed his policies.

His policy was based on the belief that society could be reshaped, with the state playing a guiding and omnipresent role in its transformation.

He created important economic policies aiming at retransforming the Netherlands into the giant it used to be.

Between 1821 and 1824, a number of new institutions appeared that – though no one knew precisely how – were supposed to economically integrate the two portions of the country.

William also wanted to reform the Catholic Church against the wishes of the Vatican and the clergy. Failing to negotiate, he simply went ahead and reformed which angered the Catholics.

Next, he angered the French-speaking people when he strongly encouraged the use of Dutch to foster national unity.

By 1828 and 1829, the tensions and unresolved conflicts within the kingdom (…) had turned into a deep crisis of authority. (…) It could be found elsewhere on the continent, as a new generation (…) opposed the authoritarian practices of the “restoration” regimes established in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat.

This led to the revolt of 1830. William was paralyzed and didn’t know what to do. When he sent his army, it was already too late and he refused to use force to keep the Southern Netherlands. Incapable of solving the crisis himself, he called on the other powers (France, England, Prussia, Austria, Russia) to do it.

But the powers were undecided. France wanted to reannex the country; England and Prussia wanted it to stay with the Dutch; Austria and Russia had no opinion. What they all sought above all was to avoid another war.

So they accepted Belgian independence.

Incapable of agreeing on the terms of the separation, William shocked everyone by invading the country for 10 days in 1831. That enabled him though, to get better terms.

Chapter 7: Belgium since 1830

The unionism that held liberals and Catholics together in the 1830s fell apart once the Belgians had securely established their independence.

Over time, both groups reinforced their position, “pillarizing” the country.

1. The Liberal State (1830-1890)

The basis for the consolidation of the new state was established soon after the Revolution of September 1830 and the Belgian declaration of independence.

The Belgian Revolution was the work of a coalition of intellectuals, the middle class, the nobility, and the Catholic clergy; and the new constitution they wrote may be considered a balanced compromise of the sometimes divergent interests of these social groups.

It did not satisfy the most republican and progressist which regretted the lack of integration of the poorer parts of the population. As a result, the Belgian state was mostly bourgeois, especially after 1848.

The constitution of the country emphasized freedom for all, including the Catholic Church.

The early years of the country were fragile as some political groups sought reunion with the French while others sought it with the Dutch. There were even coup attempts.

When the Netherlands officially recognized the country in 1839, things settled and became more stable.

In 1847, the liberals won the election and voted for a new election law so that more people could vote.

In the early nineteenth century, the provinces of Hainaut and Liège boasted advanced coal and iron industries, and Ghent prospered as the center of the cotton-processing industry. Antwerp’s harbor also indirectly benefitted from these developments.

While the economy seemed like it was going to tank after the independence and the loss of the Dutch Indies market, it actually improved, partly thanks to the support of the government.

While Wallonia did well, Flanders did not, mainly due to their inability to compete with the English industry.

Under these circumstances, the economic balance between the Dutch- and French-speaking parts of Belgium came to an end. Flanders, for centuries the economic center of the Southern Netherlands, now became “poor Flanders,” a condition which had negative consequences, incidentally, for its once vibrant cultural life.

The once-rich Flanders became poor by 1846. That same year, 50% of the workers in Flanders were still in agriculture against 23% in Wallonia.

The 1870s and 1880s were rocked by a worldwide economic crisis which made both regions suffer.

Despite that, the middle class grew.

The living conditions of factory workers before 1850 were abysmal.

In 1853 and 1854, a survey revealed that only the best-paid workers, miners, and metalworkers were better off materially than Belgian convicts.

People worked 12 to 14 hours a day in factories, or about 80 hours a week.

After the prohibition on political activities within Masonic lodges was lifted in October 1854, the Freemasons became increasingly involved in partisan conflict and formed the vanguard in the struggle against clericalism.

The struggle for the future of the public schools was much more important, and no issue polarized liberals and Catholics more than the fate of the country’s schools.

The constitution guaranteed total freedom of education so the Catholics established their network of schools.

In 1842, the government laid the basis for the development of a coherent network of municipal primary education.

In 1850, liberals expanded their secondary school systems and determined that the clergy could not be an official authority in their schools.

As the church felt threatened, it worked harder to establish its own system.

The international statute of 1839 which established Belgian independence also compelled the country to renounce its claims to the largest portion of Limburg and to the German-speaking areas of Luxembourg.

As nations around Belgium strengthened, they feared that their country would become a battlefield in case of a Prussia-French war, so they built an army.

They also reconciled with the Netherlands since both felt equally threatened.

Liberalism dominated Belgian political life between 1847 and 1870, but it slowly lost its powerful position.

A team made up of conservatives and the Church came to oppose it.

The economic crisis of 1870 led to a total domination of conservatives from 1870 to 1878, then from 1884 to 1914.

When the liberals again came to power in 1878, they decided – in order to win the masses for liberalism – to end clerical control over primary education once and for all.

Through their struggle against the central government’s liberal and secularizing policies, many Catholics became strongly anti-statist.

They came to identify the state and its symbol as anti-Catholics, and decided that religion would better survive with a minimal intervention of the state.

Catholics developed a powerful web of associations alongside their own political party, as did liberals and (eventually) socialists.

Social scientists called it “pillarization”.

Over the 19th century, two types of nationalism came to develop: Belgian nationalism, and Flemish nationalism, advocating for Flemish cultural and lingual autonomy.

The Flemish movement began in the 1830s as a philological and literary movement.

In the struggle to keep their language and culture alive, they created a standard Flemish in 1841.

Indeed, the early governments weren’t receptive to Flemish demands because they were mainly from the middle class, stuck in between the masses and the French-speaking Flemish elite.

They grew and from 1848 asked that Dutch be considered on an equal footing with French.

The inability of the French-speaking elite to take them seriously led to a loss of patriotism on their part.

By the 1870s, Dutch could be used in courts and in administration on the local and provincial levels.

By 1885, workers had organized themselves in a socialist party which directly had an impact on the national level.

2. The Integration of the Social Movements (1890-1935)

A violent workers’ revolt in March of 1886 in the industrial regions of Wallonia forced the social question to the foreground.

This revolt was widely a consequence of the persisting economic crisis of 1873 that was threatening the Walloon metal industry.

Eventually, it was accepted that the working class should be represented in the parliament.

Meanwhile, the industrialists worked to improve the industry. They innovated from iron to steel, introduced gasoline engines, and a new electrical industry developed along with the agricultural industry.

The government supported its companies in and outside of the country as colonization of Congo began under Leopold II.

30% of products made in Belgium were sold internationally.

As the coal mines depleted, they had to import coal and semi-manufactured products and foodstuffs the country would depend on.

Economic growth was mainly in Wallonia. Liège replaced Hainaut as the driver for growth.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Flanders began to know economic growth as well.

Its ports were stimulated by the Walloon industry; coal mines were discovered in Limburg and by 1935, accounted for some 21% of total Belgian coal production; Antwerp’s financial service industry developed along with factories transforming raw materials; the region modernized its textile industry.

In 1860, Belgium was a poorer country than the Netherlands. By 1890, it was as rich. Employment in agriculture had also declined by 1/3rd.

Following the workers’ riots of 1886, a Commission of Labor was established, and it laid the basis for future social legislation.

The work conditions of women and children were improved;

By 1893, all men above 25 years old had the right to vote.

Voting was made compulsory for all eligible voters, a law which was designed to help the moderate parties.

This new system was advantageous for the Catholics, a disaster for the liberals, and good for the socialists.

In 1895, reforms were passed to benefit the agrarian sector.

In 1902, they focused on helping what was then “the freelancers”.

Nationalism increased from the last 19th century and Belgium knew three of its forms:

  • Nationalism
  • Flemish nationalism, through Christian Democrats
  • Walloon nationalism

Talks to make Flemish on an equal footing with French began in the parliament in 1895.

The Chamber accepted the bill but not the Senate, which led to protests.

The law was passed in 1898, but it only meant that Dutch coexisted with French, which still impacted the social mobility of those who did not speak French. So the Flemish made Flemish the only language in their region.

Flemish nationalist laws defeated in the parliament in 1913 and 1914 made many Flemish anti-nationalists (The Army Law of 1913 rejected the creation of Flemish regiments, and the Primary School Law of 1914 in turn rejected the territoriality principle).

Meanwhile, a new Belgian nationalism took root due to the artistic, literary, and scientific achievements.

The Walloon nationalism movement was a reaction to the Flemish one.

1908, the country began to strengthen militarily after the UK, once committed to protecting Belgium, signed a defensive alliance with France in 1904.

Germany invaded Belgium in 1914 and sought to break the unity of the country by pushing for Flemish independence.

At the end of the war, the country understood that its ethnic and linguistic diversity was a bigger threat to its survival than external threats.

At the end of the war, the government wanted to expand its territory. It asked for:

  • Dutch Limburg and Zeeland-Flanders
  • Luxembourg
  • Germany’s African colonies.

Many foreign countries didn’t like those demands, but Belgium ended up getting Germany’s African colonies (Rwanda and Burundi) along with the Eupen-Malmédy region (against the wish of the locals).

The international agreement of 1839 that kept Belgium neutral was abandoned.

The post-war government was pro-French which didn’t please the Flemish, particularly the Christian Democrats.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 led Western governments to make policies to appease the socialists. Indeed, the unions experienced exponential growth after the war (both socialist and Christian).

In 1919, the king and the socialists illegally passed a law establishing the one-man-one-vote policy. As a result, the Catholics-conservatives and liberals lost a huge share of deputies to the benefit of the socialists.

To compensate them, socialists increased the Catholic-conservatives education budget.

The constitutional changes had far-reaching consequences. The one-man, one-vote system, combined with proportional representation, substantially changed the political constellation of power.

No one party had the majority in the parliament.

The economy restarted. The port of Antwerp benefitted from the exploitation of Congo and became an important diamond trading center. American automakers built factories in the same area.

But then the crisis of 1929 dealt a serious blow. The British pound collapsed in 1931. Despite deflationary measures, prices in Belgium remained high.

By 1936, Belgian export volume was only at 43 percent of 1929 levels, and certain industrial sectors, like the Belgian auto industry, had to be given up altogether.

The government of 1935 introduced reforms to the banking system, preventing them from being both savings and investment banks.

They devalued the currency and created a massive government-backed employment program to put people back to work.

After World War I, Belgium became the European country with the most movie theaters per capita. There was very little effort to regulate the source or content of films, and the country was soon awash with American movies.

This didn’t stop people from being attracted to authoritarian parties. As a result, the traditional parties reformed and a new generation of politicians came to power.

3. The Partition of the Belgian State (1935-2005)

The famous “pillarized” stability soon returned after 1945.

The big difference was that Belgium lost considerable power to supra-national institutions. By 1990, the state was entirely federalized.

The Second World War had consequences analogous to the First. It had a democratizing effect on Belgian society and further integrated the working class into the political system.

It also ended the idea that Belgium was independent. To guarantee its security, the country began to work within those supra-national institutions.

As other countries became independent in Africa, Congo too, accessed independence in June 1960.

But the country wasn’t ready.

In July 1960 – only days after independence – part of the Congolese army rebelled, triggering a tragedy of mass proportions. Whites fled the country and Katanga seceded from the Congo.

School choice was voted in 1958 and the state became the ultimate financial guarantor of social security organizations.

This arrangement strengthened the role of the state without undermining pillarized institutions, as happened in the Netherlands.

As a result, the country pillarized even more.

Belgium recovered quickly after the war because it had hardly been damaged, but its infrastructures were old.

As a result, its economy quickly recovered. But while other countries were building new infrastructures, Belgium’s were old. So the economy tanked again.

Luckily, new opportunities such as the opening of the European market helped the economy. By 1974, the unemployment level was at 3% and the number of foreigners employed was 8%. Birthrate had been declining since the 19th century and it kept on declining even more.

Traditional newspaper lost their market with the development of television.

Newspapers were forced to merge, and after 1975 they received direct government subsidies in order to survive the competition with radio and television.

Belgium’s more traditional forms of cultural life were further internationalized. This was especially marked by a new orientation toward the Anglo-American world.

The economic question came to be added to the language question as the Walloon economy was losing speed compared to the Flemish economy.

By 1978, the universities and the political parties had become regionalized.

A revision of the constitution, passed in December 1970, officially recognized the autonomy of the Flemish, French and also German “cultural communities.”

After 1974, economic growth slowed.

Inflation rose and many businesses lost their competitive edge. In 1978, unemployment was 8%.

The economic crisis hit the Walloon steel industry hard, and it suffered massive unemployment and gigantic financial losses.

The economic crisis led to the regionalization of cultural and economic competencies. The country was further federalized in 1988, then again in 1993.

The federalization of Belgium did little to undermine the pillarized, neocorporatist character of the social system established at the turn of the century.

The inheritance of Flemish nationalism remained most recognizably present in the radical-right Flemish Bloc, whose steady electoral growth stemmed mostly from its opposition to increased immigration and a “multicultural” society, and from the absence of a moderate rightist party in Flanders.

Chapter 8: The Netherlands since 1830


Epilogue: Unity and Diversity in the Low Countries

What follows are excerpts from the book.

No one attempting to understand the history of the Low Countries can ignore the importance of its geographical features.

The Low Countries were able to attain a central position in Europe only after the sea no longer formed a formidable barrier, once shipping had become an important nexus, and once the inhabitants had developed effective water-control techniques. By the late Middle Ages, the region began to rival Northern Italy economically and culturally.

At the same time, the Low Countries began to coalesce into a political entity, a process evident in the formation of the Burgundian Kreis in 1548.

Language differences did not often have much political significance until the nineteenth century, when they became a divisive issue in Belgium.

The arbitrary and relative character of the region’s political boundary is also illustrated by the Dutch Revolt, which, though it led to the formation of the Republic of the Seven United Provinces in the North, had begun in the South.

It was also from the South, chiefly Flanders and Brabant, that a flourishing economic and cultural life had radiated over the whole region for several centuries, contributing greatly to the region’s increasing unity in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

By no later than the thirteenth century, the Low Countries had become a very prosperous region, despite cyclical declines and structural weaknesses.

In the seventeenth century the Republic of the North became – thanks in part to many merchants and entrepreneurs who emigrated from the southern provinces – the uncontested center of world trade.

The economic and cultural achievements of the Low Countries during late medieval and early modern times gave the region an important role in international politics.

It was the center of gravity for the lands ruled by the Burgundian dukes, and later it was the most developed part of the Habsburg empire.

The decline of the great medieval German empire and the weakening of Habsburg power gave France in particular room for expansion on the European continent. French ambition was chiefly resisted by England, and for this reason London – despite continuing economic rivalry with the Dutch Republic – increasingly sought open or tacit alliances with both South and North.

Cities exercised great influence on the policy of dukes and counts in those areas where they had become strong.

Already by the thirteenth century the urban bourgeoisie had a considerable impact on cultural life. Initially, urban culture developed alongside the dominant cultures of the nobility and the church.

Religion has been a very remarkable factor in the history of the Low Countries. Like elsewhere in Europe, the church and the clergy exerted a great influence on culture and everyday life during the Middle Ages.

After 1585, the South again became uniformly Catholic. The Roman Catholic church once more became a central force in the Southern Netherlands, a powerful position, which in the course of time generated sharp anticlericalism.

It is only in the last several decades that secularization in Belgium and the Netherlands has become so pervasive that religion and the churches no longer play a decisive role in culture and society.

Undoubtedly one could draw many historical parallels between the various regions of the Low Countries, but this does not mean that the whole region developed uniformly. Indeed, a remarkable diversity is most characteristic of the area.

From the end of the eighteenth century on, the South, especially Wallonia, played a pioneer role in the process of industrialization. The Southern Netherlands, soon to become Belgium, took steps in the nineteenth century that in many ways put the region developmentally ahead of the North. But in the twentieth century, especially after the 1960s, it was the Netherlands that more quickly took the step toward an individualized social model, leaving the South to watch.

Before Burgundian efforts at territorial conglomeration there was no political cohesion to speak of in the Low Countries. The economic interests and culture of the inhabitants of the Maas, Rhine, and Scheldt delta area diverged considerably at first.

The dynastic politics of the Burgundians fostered feelings of unity across the Low Countries, since they promoted economic and cultural contacts across provincial lines.

Although the Republic distinguished itself from the South, it must be remembered that many of its innovations and most dynamic facets had originated in the southern provinces (…) it was the southern provinces, especially Flanders and Brabant, which had most fully developed these types of institutions in the years before 1580.

It was in the South that the Great Privilege, the Pacification of Ghent, the Eternal Decree, the Union of Utrecht, and the Act of Abjuration had been penned or at least theoretically conceived.

The history of Brussels is, presumably, incidental to its present role in the European Union. Still, the city’s past may be an instructive reminder that political and administrative ambitions which do not find broad popular support have little chance of succeeding.

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