Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands share a tangled history. The current borders of these three nations – known earlier as the Low Countries – were only realised in the 19th century. As such their pasts reflect some of the major historical events in Western Europe, and their fortunes and misfortunes have been largely shaped by Europe’s ever-changing balance of power.
The Romans were the first of many to invade Belgium. In fact, the country’s name even harks back to these times – Julius Caesar mentioned the Belgae during his conquest of Gaul, and when the nation needed a name following independence, the word ‘Belgium’ was born. Caesar’s armies invaded in 57 BC and held Gallia Belgica for 500 years. There’s little to show of their presence, except for the town of Tongeren in the province of Limburg. Built on an important trading route, Tongeren still has part of its original Roman rampart as well as an excellent Gallo-Roman Museum.
In the 5th century, with the Roman Empire collapsing, Germanic Franks took regional control. This change in power was the basis of Belgium’s current language division – the northern region became German speaking while the southern portion remained Latin based. The Frankish kings, known as the Merovingians, set up their short-lived kingdom in Tournai, a former Roman settlement, and from here they eventually controlled much of northern France. Tournai’s early place in history ensured its survival, and today it remains one of Wallonia’s most appealing towns.
Parties of raiding Vikings forced the growth of feudal domains in the 9th and 10th centuries. While the kings of France and emperors of Germany had overall control, the real power was held by local counts who ruled over fiefdoms. Such was the case when Count Sigefroi built a castle on a high promontory in Luxembourg and laid the foundation stone of the Grand Duchy’s present-day capital.
The counts of Flanders presided over one of the most powerful courts during feudal times. Baldwin the Iron Arm kicked it off by kidnapping and marrying the daughter of a French king and building a fortress in Ghent in AD 867. Over the next three centuries Baldwin’s successors expanded the territory and influence of Flanders as far south as the Somme River in northern France.
As feudalism declined, the first towns rose. Flanders had been producing cloth since the 10th century, but its manufacture took off with the growth of cities like Ypres, Bruges and Ghent in the 12th and 13th centuries, which bloomed with the expansion of trade across northern Europe and further afield. Merchant ships from all over Europe docked in Bruges to trade Flemish cloth for cheese, wool, lead and tin; coal from England; pigs from Denmark; wine from Spain; silks and oriental spices from Venice and Genoa; and furs from as far away as Russia and Bulgaria. Cruise the canals in Bruges or Ghent to conjure up this bygone time.
This flurry of activity bred a class of rich merchants who wanted increased political power. Meanwhile, craftsmen and traders joined forces to form groups known as guilds, setting standards for their craft and establishing a local trade monopoly. But it wasn’t long before the aspirations of the burghers and weavers clashed with those of the local counts. The Flemish weavers relied on a steady supply of high-quality wool from England, and for this purpose they sided with the English during conflicts between England and France. The local counts, though, were vassals of the French king. The counts quelled demands for greater power by calling in the French army. This situation came to a head in 1302 in bloody confrontations known as the Brugse Metten and, a few months later, the Battle of the Golden Spurs.
By the 14th century Ghent, Bruges, Ypres, Brussels, Leuven, Mechelen and Tournai were all prosperous towns. In fact, Ghent had grown to become the largest city in Europe after Paris by 1340. The city’s sinister castle, Gravensteen, was raised during this time and is still one of Ghent’s chief sights.
The dukes of Burgundy ruled for less than a century, but the cultural changes that took place during this time were profound. The first of the dukes was Philip the Good (r 1419–67), who presided over a vast empire that included the Burgundian region of eastern France and the area covering most of modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands. The court had a palace in Dijon (France) but Philip ruled the kingdom from Brussels, earning the title Conditor Belgii (Belgium’s founder).
Philip was the richest man in Europe; his court was the height of culture and fashion. In Brussels the magnificent Grand Place was constructed, flanked by elaborately decorated guildhalls – headquarters for increasingly wealthy merchant guilds. Belgium’s first university was founded in Leuven and the arts, particularly painting and tapestry making, flourished. The court’s wealth was legendary and is best seen today in the works of famous artists from that time, known as the Flemish Primitives.
Charles V was born in Ghent in 1500 and, at the ripe old age of 15, became Duke of Brabant and ruler of the Low Countries. The next year he became king of Spain and later of Naples, Sardinia, Sicily and the Spanish territories in the New World (ie Mexico, Peru and the Caribbean). He was crowned king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, thus becoming Europe’s most powerful ruler.
Charles grew up in Mechelen and, after being crowned, initially ruled from Brussels, where he was advised by the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus. He spent much of his life travelling in far-flung parts of the empire and, later, ruling from Spain. His sister, Mary of Hungary, was responsible for the region for most of his reign, during which the Low Countries once again boomed.
But it wasn’t all prosperous. The great Flemish cloth towns were in decline due to competition from cloth manufacturers in England and the silting of the Zwin, which connected Bruges to the North Sea. In addition Charles favoured up-and-coming Antwerp over the old cloth towns. His choice was fuelled by frustration with the rebellious burghers of Flanders; in 1540 the townsfolk of Ghent planned an uprising against taxes imposed on them to finance wars instigated by their absent leader, and Charles V personally suppressed these uprisings. In 1555, tired of continual revolts and a lifetime of war, Charles returned to Brussels and abdicated in favour of his son Philip II. By this time Antwerp had become the empire’s greatest port.
During Charles’ reign Protestantism swept much of Europe. This religious and political rethink of the world according to the Roman Catholic elite became known as the Reformation. It came about partly due to the advent of printing, which meant Bibles were no longer the treasure of the Church and the ruling classes alone. Theologians and humanists such as Martin Luther, the German leader of the Reformation, John Calvin, his French counterpart, and Erasmus offered interpretations on Scripture that were different to traditional religious thinking.
The Reformation met with severe repercussions in the Low Countries. In 1550 Charles ordered the Edict of Blood, which decreed the death penalty to those convicted of heresy. When his son Philip II came to the throne, the latter took a more zealous approach to the defence of Catholicism. Philip was born in Spain and ruled from there; he had little interest in the Low Countries and was largely unpopular. Determined to defend the Catholic faith, he quashed any resistance by implementing a string of anti-Protestant edicts and garrisoning towns in the Low Countries with Spanish mercenaries. In 1566 the Protestants revolted, running riot and ransacking churches in a wave of violence that has become known as the Iconoclastic Fury. Philip retaliated with a force of 10,000 troops led by the duke of Alva, who set up the Council of Blood, which handed out 8000 death sentences to those involved in the rioting.
In the turbulent years that followed – a period known as the Revolt of the Netherlands – the present-day borders of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands were roughly drawn. The Netherlands expelled the Spaniards, while Belgium and Luxembourg, known then as the Spanish Netherlands, stayed under southern rule.
In 1598 Philip II handed the Spanish Netherlands to his daughter Infanta Isabella and her husband, Archduke Albert of Austria. Their 40-year reign is most noted for its flamboyant court, which gave rise to new industries like lace making and diamond processing. In turn, this brief economic boom boosted cultural life in Brussels and Antwerp and brought to the fore great painters, such as Pieter Paul Rubens. Rubens’ studio in Antwerp can still be visited, and the city treasures many of his finest paintings.
Antwerp’s time of glory was cut short by the Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648, which closed part of the Scheldt River to all non-Dutch ships. This act guaranteed the golden age of Amsterdam, the region’s premier port, and caused Antwerp’s collapse.
With many of its most skilled workers gone, much of the Spanish Netherlands sunk into poverty and life became an exercise in religious piety. During this Catholic Counter-Reformation, the newly formed Jesuit order prospered and multiplied. Elaborate baroque churches, such as St Carolus-Borromeuskerk in Antwerp, were built. Filled with magnificent statues, huge wooden pulpits and glorified paintings of Christ’s suffering executed by artists such as Rubens, the churches were symbols of the Catholic Church’s power and the magical redemption that awaited the faithful.
On an everyday level, life in the Spanish Netherlands worsened in the second half of the 17th century. French plans to dominate Europe meant war after war was fought in this buffer land. France’s Louis XIV sent in his military engineer Vauban to fortify strongholds – the result can be seen today in mighty citadels such as that in Namur. The fighting came to a head with the War of Spanish Succession (1701–13), which saw the Spanish Netherlands handed over to the Austrians.
The mighty Austrian Hapsburgs ruled from 1713 to 1794 and, overall, the century was a peaceful change to what had come before. Brussels was the base for central control but the Austrians allowed the country a large degree of independence, just as the Spanish had. The Enlightenment, a philosophical movement based on reason rather than the blind following of tradition, influenced the Austrians and they relaxed censorship and encouraged development.
After yet another battle in 1794, the French reclaimed the region and the following year absorbed it into France. French laws were ushered in, the Catholic Church was repressed (many churches were ransacked and monasteries closed) and conscription was introduced. The latter was widely unpopular and a passionate peasants’ revolt in 1798 was cruelly put down.
In 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte, leader of the new French state, was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo near Brussels. This resulted in the Congress of Vienna and the creation of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, which incorporated the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.
The United Kingdom of the Netherlands was created largely to preserve the balance of power in Europe and to create a buffer state should France have any northward ambitions. The fact that people of different religions and customs were being forced together was of little consequence. William of Orange-Nassau, crowned King William I in Brussels, was given the throne and he divided his time equally between Brussels and the new kingdom’s twin capital, The Hague. But William made enemies quickly after refusing to give southern Belgium fair political representation and trying to impose Dutch as the national language. The latter angered not only the French-speaking Walloons in the south of Belgium but also Flemish speakers in the north who regarded their language as distinct from Dutch.
The inevitable Belgian revolution began during an opera performance in Brussels on 25 August 1830.
At the Conference of London in January 1831, the European powers recognised Belgian independence. The country was officially declared a neutral state and several years later was ceded the western portion of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
On 21 July 1831 Léopold of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, a dashing but melancholy 40-year-old widower and uncle of future British monarch Queen Victoria, became King Léopold I of Belgium. The country now celebrates his crowning as its annual 21 July National Day holiday. King Léopold oversaw the industrial revolution in Belgium where coal mines and iron-making factories took off in parts of Hainaut and Limburg provinces. The ensuing years saw the start of Flemish nationalism, with tension growing between Flemish and French speakers that would eventually lead to a language partition that divides the country to this day.
Léopold II (r 1865–1909) came to the throne on his father’s death. He was committed to transforming the tiny country into a strong nation, both through colonial conquests and national development. He put great effort into bolstering Brussels, commissioning the construction of monumental buildings such as the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, home today to Belgium’s finest art collection, and the daunting Palais de Justice.
However, Léopold II had wider aspirations. In 1885, mainly through a series of dubious treaties and contracts, Léopold personally acquired a huge slice of central Africa – an area 70 times larger than Belgium. Over the next 25 years millions of Congolese died due to Léopold’s rule, and in 1908 the king was stripped of his possession. Today his reputation is in tatters. In 1909 Léopold II died and his death marked the end of the country’s aspirations to grandeur. The Belgian state held on to the Congo until 1960.
Léopold II was succeeded by his 21-year-old nephew Albert I (r 1909–34), nicknamed the ‘Soldier King’ due to his popular actions during WWI. When war broke out in 1914, Germany violated Belgian neutrality and occupied thecountry. Albert moved his administration to the seaside town of De Panne, part of a small triangle of land that remained unoccupied throughout the war. From here he lead the Belgian army’s efforts to man the northern end of the frontline, which separated the Allies and the strategic French coastal towns around Calais from the advancing German army. The former cloth town of Ypres (Ieper in Flemish) was reduced to rubble during the war, but was courageously rebuilt. The Ypres Salient holds many wartime reminders.
After the war the Treaty of Versailles abolished Belgium’s neutral status and the country was given reparations from Germany, which included a chunk of land known today as the Eastern Cantons, and the colonies of Burundi and Rwanda in central Africa. In 1934 Albert I died in a rock-climbing accident and was succeeded by his son, Léopold III (r 1934–51).
On 10 May 1940 the Germans launched a surprise air attack on the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg and within eight days Belgium was occupied. Unlike his father, Léopold III put up little resistance and quickly surrendered to the Germans, leaving the Allies in a precarious state. The Belgian government opposed the king’s decision and fled to London where it operated in exile throughout WWII. A strong resistance movement developed during Nazi occupation, but there was also collaboration from fascist elements of Belgian society and from within the Flemish movement. Belgium’s Jewish population fared terribly during the war and the country’s small Roma (gypsy) minority was all but wiped out. Belgium and Luxembourg were liberated in September 1944, though many were still to lose their lives during the Battle of the Ardennes.
After WWII the country was caught up in a constitutional crisis over Léopold III’s wartime actions. While some accused him of collaborating with the Germans, others said the early surrender saved the country. In 1951, under pressure from Walloon socialists, he abdicated in favour of his son Baudouin I (r 1951–93).
Although only 21 when he took the throne, Baudouin succeeded in bringing the nation together. His fair treatment of the Flemish and Walloons earned him respect from both sides, and many admired his famous stance on abortion. Proof came when he died suddenly in 1993 and the entire nation mourned. Childless, Baudouin was succeeded by his younger brother, the present King Albert II. Although initially reluctant to accept the throne, Albert’s jovial disposition has made him a national success.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Belgium emerged as a key player in international politics after WWII. In 1958 Brussels became the provisional seat of the European Commission and the Council of Ministers, the executive and decision-making bodies of today’s EU. In 1967 the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) moved to Brussels from France a year after the French withdrew from NATO’s military wing. A new NATO headquarters, being built on the northeastern outskirts of the capital, is expected to be finished in 2009.
While Brussels has been reborn as an important player in European affairs, the rest of the country’s fortunes have been divided. The economy as a whole struggles with a huge public debt and high unemployment. Wallonia’s economy rode on the back of the steel and iron-ore industries until their slump in the 1970s left this region floundering. Flanders, on the other hand, has surged ahead.
Belgium kept a low profile on the international arena until the end of the 20th century, when it became best known for poisoned chickens and paedophiles. Sick of mismanagement and neglect, the nation turned to radical political reform and, in 1999, booted out the Christian Democrat party after 40 years in power.
In came Liberal Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who quickly sought to raise public morale by reinventing Belgium with robust foreign policies and new moral freedoms. The country vocally sided with France and Germany against the US-led war in Iraq in 2003. Around the same time came a flood of lawsuits for war crimes against world leaders, including Israel’s Ariel Sharon and former US president George Bush. They were made under Belgium’s controversial universal competence law, which allows the judging of crimes against humanity no matter where they took place. Faced with potentially embarrassing diplomatic situations, the law was changed so that those charged had to live in Belgium. In 2005 a Brussels court sentenced two Rwandan half-brothers to prison under this law for their part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Verhofstadt still leads the coalition government, which in 1999 saw a rather unusual grouping of Liberals, Socialists and Greens join forces to block the progress of the ultraright-wing Vlaams Blok (VB) and to stem rising racism. The Liberals and Socialists renewed their coalition in the national elections of 2003, though forecasts for the 2007 poll suggest the Liberals will have a tough time securing a third term.