The current nation state of Belgium first appeared on the political map of Europe rather haphazardly in 1830 when high-spirited nationalists spilling out of an opera kick-started Belgium’s independence. Nobody thought that the country would last, and indeed, some still doubt that it will. However, the fascinatingly tangled history of the ‘Low Countries’ goes back way before such shenanigans.
The region had a rich Roman history but really came to prominence in the 13th and 14th centuries, when the cloth trade brought Bruges, Ghent and Ypres international stature. When Protestantism swept Europe in the 16th century, the Low Countries (present-day Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) initially embraced it, mainly in the form of Calvinism, much to the chagrin of their ruler, who was, by this stage, the fanatically Catholic Spanish king Philip II. From 1568 a series of wars lasting 80 years resulted in Holland and its allied provinces claiming independence under Protestantism, while Belgium and Luxembourg stayed under Catholic rule – first Spanish, then Austrian Habsburg. A short but destructive period of French rule following the French Revolution resulted in the desecration of the great monasteries, which had long been major players in the rural economy, and notably in Liège, which had been ruled by prince-bishops for over 800 years. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 (at Waterloo, near Brussels), the Dutch took over for 15 years. Catholic Belgium split from the Protestant Netherlands in 1830, grabbing half of Luxembourg, the other half staying Dutch until 1890.
By this time Belgium was growing rapidly wealthy through impressive industrialisation, helped by King Léopold II's brutal asset-stripping from his ‘personal’ colony – the Congo.
In WWI Belgium was officially neutral, but the Germans invaded anyway. Western Flanders became a blood-soaked killing field, and whole towns, including historic Ypres, were bombarded into the mud. In WWII the countries took another pasting as Allied bombing raids tried to dislodge Nazi German occupiers. The Ardennes (including Luxembourg) were the scene of Hitler’s last-gasp offensive around Christmas 1944. After two such devastating wars, Benelux countries understandably became prominent in the drive for European security and integration: Brussels now hosts the headquarters of both the EU and NATO.
Romans, Vikings & Bishops
As any Belgian schoolkid will proudly tell you, Belgae warriors were the ‘bravest’ opponents of Julius Caesar during the Roman conquests of Gaul (57–50 BC). Students elsewhere might be less familiar with these Germano-Celtic heroes and their leader Ambiorix, who was essentially resurrected as a national icon once Belgium became independent in 1830. Of course, this being Belgium, he soon gained a slightly self-mocking Asterix-style comic-book persona.
Having shrugged off the Belgae, the Romans stayed on in Gallia Belgica for 500 years. Perhaps they liked the beer. They founded Tournai and Tongeren and built many a castrum (military camp) and villa, notably at Arlon and Echternach. In the 5th century, with the Roman Empire collapsing, Germanic Franks took control of Flanders, while in the south, Merovingian kings set up a kingdom based around Tournai that eventually controlled much of northern France. The south thus moved into a Latin linguistic orbit, creating a division with the Germanic north that remains to this day.
In the 9th and early 10th centuries, parties of raiding Vikings wreaked havoc, looting churches and pillaging villages. In reaction, a jigsaw of feudal domains developed, with locals offered the protection of increasingly powerful counts and dukes in exchange for funding. In the middle of all this was a curious patchwork of church territories ruled autonomously by the prince-abbots of Stavelot-Malmédy and the prince-bishops of Liège, entities that would retain autonomy right through to the late 18th century. Among other factors, tax advantages in the prince-bishopric led to the flourishing of metal crafts at Huy and brewing in Hoegaarden.
Flanders Gains Its Spurs
Flanders lacked much in the way of natural resources, but once Viking threats had receded, its citizens grew rich turning imported wool into top-quality textiles. As the cloth cities of Ypres, Bruges and Ghent bloomed over the 12th to 14th centuries, merchants exchanged not just goods but also cosmopolitan ideas. Craftsmen and traders joined forces to form guilds, setting standards for their craft and establishing local trade monopolies. But the aspirations of these burghers – a historically significant manifestation of non-aristocratic, non-clerical power – often clashed with those of their overlord counts in terms of rights, privileges and taxes. To confuse matters further, there were also conflicts between the lords and their kings.
Flanders was in a particularly tricky situation. The Count of Flanders was vassal to the French king. However, Flanders’ weaving economy relied on a steady supply of high-quality wool from England. So when Flanders sided with its English trading partners during Anglo-French conflicts, the French army showed up to teach it a lesson. In 1302, bloody confrontations known as the Bruges Matins kicked off a famous anti-French revolt that culminated at the Battle of the Golden Spurs at Kortrijk/Courtrai, where the French knights were dramatically (if temporarily) defeated. Since 1830 the battle has become romanticised as a symbol of Belgian (and more recently Flemish) pride. However, the revolt actually resulted in a humiliating 1305 treaty that forced Flanders to pay huge indemnities and give France a large tract of its territory.
The Burgundian Empire
The region’s political landscape changed significantly under Philip the Bold (r 1363–1404), who had been ‘given’ Burgundy by his father the French king and went on to acquire Flanders by tactical marriage. His grandson, the extraordinary Philip the Good (Phillipe-le-Bon, Philip III) of Burgundy (r 1419–67), continued playing off France and England while collecting counties much as a philatelist collects stamps. By the end of his reign most of proto-Belgium (except Liège) had joined northeastern France and the Netherlands in what would be remembered as the Valois Burgundian Empire. Remarkable prosperity saw Ghent become northern Europe's largest city after Paris, and many Flemish towns built magnificently ornate belfries, market houses and town halls as symbols of wealth and hard-won civil liberties. Bruges-born Philip was the richest man in Europe and his Brussels court the height of culture and fashion. The arts flourished, particularly tapestry-making and painting, with the emergence of the artists known now as the Flemish Primitives.
When Philip’s successor died in battle in 1477, his only offspring was the as-yet-unmarried 19-year-old Mary of Burgundy. Guided by her wily British-born stepmother, Margaret of York, Mary married Maximilian of Austria, yanking the Burgundian lands into a rapidly expanding Habsburg empire. Her son became Philip I (the Fair), the first Habsburg king of Castile (Spain). But her daughter, Margaret of Austria, remained in Mechelen as the de-facto ruler of the Low Countries. Her rule ushered in Mechelen's massive cultural blossoming, while Margaret also acted as guardian to her nephew, Philip I’s son, the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles Quint (aka Keizer Karel V).
Charles ruled an empire on which the sun never set three centuries before Britain's Queen Victoria could claim the same. Born in Ghent, Charles grew up in Mechelen and, before moving to Spain, ruled from the splendid Coudenberg Palace in Brussels, where he was advised by the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus.
Suffering increasing competition from manufacturers in England, the great Flemish cloth towns were feeling an economic pinch. So when Charles imposed a series of taxes to finance his foreign wars, the burghers of Ghent planned an uprising. Charles returned to suppress the revolt in 1540, making the defeated ringleaders walk around town wearing nooses, the source of a nickname for Ghent folk that’s used even today. Thereafter Charles made conscious efforts to encourage Antwerp’s growth rather than rely on the troublesome West Flemish towns. In 1555 Charles abdicated, leaving his Germanic territories to one son (Ferdinand) and his western empire, including the Low Countries, to another son (Philip II), whose conservative Catholic Spanish education would prove very significant.
From the mid-15th century, the development of semi-mechanised printing caused a blooming of education, with humanist thinkers including Erasmus and Thomas More attracted to the vibrant intellectual centres of Mechelen and Brussels. However, printing also made it easier for literate ‘ordinary’ people to read the Bible. Suddenly priests who had grown wealthy by ‘selling’ indulgences (reduced punishments for sins) could no longer claim such practices were God’s will. The result was a wave of revolutionary Protestantism, the Reformation. The staunchly Catholic Philip II tried the techniques of the Spanish Inquisition to stifle dissent, but in further raising taxes to pay his Spanish mercenaries he stirred up local resentment all the more. In 1566 many Protestants ran riot, ransacking churches in an 'Iconoclastic Fury' – destroying religious icons, which they considered idolatrous. Philip retaliated with a force of over 10,000 troops led by the Duke of Alba (Alva). Alba’s tenure as governor of the Low Countries, infamous for its cruelty, kicked off 80 years of turbulence known variously as the Dutch Revolt, the Wars of Religion and the Eighty Years' War. British involvement was blatant, with England’s Protestant Elizabeth I actively supporting the revolutionaries against Philip, her brother-in-law. It was to punish English meddling in Flanders that Spain sent the ill-fated Armada in 1588.
The Spanish Netherlands
After decades of destruction, the Netherlands expelled the Spaniards and emerged as an independent Protestant entity. However, Spain steadily recaptured Belgium and Luxembourg (the ‘Spanish Netherlands’). In the regained territories, the population was fed a heavy dose of Catholicism. Many Protestants and anti-Spanish free thinkers (including much of the merchant class) moved to the Netherlands or England. The economy thus stagnated, though Liège, as a large independent prince-bishopric, was spared the worst convulsions and its businessmen prospered around this time.
In 1598 Philip II handed the Spanish Netherlands to his daughter Infanta Isabella and her husband (and cousin), Archduke Albert of Austria. While wars rumbled on sporadically, their flamboyant court sponsored new industries such as lace making and diamond processing. Bombastic baroque churches were built to underline the Catholic Church’s power and were filled with magnificent artworks stressing a religion where the faithful were offered the hope of magical redemption.
In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia treaties finally recognised the independence of the Netherlands from both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. However, this newly confirmed ‘peace’ was an economic disaster for the Spanish Netherlands, as a clause of the treaty demanded that part of the Scheldt River be closed to all non-Dutch ships. As a result, Antwerp’s trade collapsed while a golden age dawned for Amsterdam, the region’s new premier port. The ‘peace’ proved very short lived. France had already helped itself to parts of Flanders and southern Wallonia in the 1650s. Then in 1667, with Spain fighting Portugal and Holland battling England, the way lay open for Louis XIV to grab much more. The Dutch and British patched things up to prevent further French advances. Indeed the countries became strong allies after England’s return to Protestantism, with Dutchman William of Orange becoming England’s William III (as co-monarch with Mary II). Nonetheless, Franco-Dutch wars continued to sweep proto-Belgium for much of the following decades, reaching a climax in 1695, when Louis XIV bombarded Brussels to splinters. Once again France occupied much of the area, sending in military engineer Vauban to fortify military strongholds such as Namur, Ypres, Philippeville and Luxembourg.
Austrian Rule & French Occupation
When Charles II of Spain died childless in 1700, his will passed the Spanish Netherlands to a French prince. This implied that the French and Spanish empires would eventually be joined into one superpower. The prospect horrified Britain and Holland and resulted in the War of Spanish Succession (1701–13). French and English forces skirmished for a decade until the Treaty of Utrecht forced a curious compromise in which Spain handed over proto-Belgium (as well as much of Italy) to the Habsburg Austrians, who ruled the area from 1713 to 1794. Influenced by the Enlightenment, the Austrians relaxed censorship and encouraged significant development.
In 1789 the French Revolution threw European politics into a new maelstrom. Anti-religious and anti-monarchic events in Paris reverberated in proto-Belgium, where the Brabantine Revolution created the short-lived United States of Belgium and the Révolution Liégeoise ousted the prince-bishops of Liège. The Austrians swiftly restored the old order, but in 1794 French armies marched into the Austrian Netherlands and introduced French revolutionary laws, including the repression of the Catholic Church. The independence of Liège’s prince-bishopric was definitively ended, many churches were ransacked, and Belgium’s once-magnificent monasteries were looted and their lands were nationalised. Many abbey churches were demolished as a source of building stone.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s brief new French Empire came crashing down with his ill-advised 1812 attempt to conquer Russia. But ‘Boney’ made a remarkable last-gasp return in 1815, during which the whole future of Europe was decided in mud, rain and a few hours of fighting near Brussels at the pivotal Battle of Waterloo. After Napoleon’s defeat, the Congress of Vienna created the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. This incorporated what are today the Netherlands and Belgium. Meanwhile, the newly restored Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (then twice its current size) was declared the personal property of the Dutch king, who concurrently became Grand Duke.
The United Kingdom of the Netherlands
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. That people of different religions and customs were being forced together was of little consequence. William of Orange-Nassau, crowned William I in Brussels, made enemies quickly after refusing to give the south fair political representation and trying to impose Dutch as the national language. The latter angered not only Francophones but also Flemish speakers, who regarded their language as distinct from Dutch. Few would have imagined a Brussels opera performance would be the spark to set off a revolution, yet that’s what happened on 25 August 1830.
The January 1831 Conference of London recognised the independence of Belgium (initially incorporating Luxembourg), and the country was officially declared a neutral state. Unemployed royal wannabe Léopold of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, who had been moping around London following the death of his wife, the Princess of Wales, was bundled out of the British court to be crowned Léopold I of Belgium. However, Belgium’s independence was only accepted by the Netherlands in 1839, once Belgium agreed to ‘give back’ the eastern half of Luxembourg (the section that’s now independent Luxembourg) over which the Dutch king was recognised as Grand Duke.
Belgium's prospects of succeeding as an independent kingdom were not considered great at the time, but Léopold – uncle to British Queen Victoria's beloved husband Prince Albert – proved an unexpectedly competent monarch. Helpfully too, the Industrial Revolution had got off to a roaring start, with coal mines developed in the Borinage (around Mons and Charleroi) and iron making bringing enormous wealth to Liège.
Coming to the throne in 1865, Léopold II was committed to transforming his father’s little kingdom into a world-class nation. He put great effort into bolstering Brussels, commissioning the construction of monumental buildings such as the daunting Palais de Justice.
Then, in 1885, mainly through a series of dubious treaties and contracts, Léopold personally acquired a huge slice of central Africa that was 70 times larger than Belgium. This he disingenuously named the ‘Congo Free State’. While he appeared to be setting up schemes to ‘protest’ the slave trade, ‘his’ Congolese people were anything but free. The rubber plantations proved extremely lucrative for Léopold (tyres had been developed in the mid-1890s), but Congo army manuals from that time describe women and children kept hostage to force men to fulfill rubber quotas. Reports suggest that, over the next 25 years, huge numbers – perhaps up to half of the Congolese population – perished, directly or indirectly, due to Léopold’s rule. Writers including Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were vocal campaigners for Congolese reforms, and Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, the inspiration for the movie Apocalypse Now, was set in Léopold’s Congo. Finally, in 1908, the king was stripped of his possession by the Belgian state, embarrassed by the terrible reputation it had brought the nation. Congo nonetheless remained an important Belgian colony until 1960.
When Léopold II died in 1909 he was succeeded by his 21-year-old nephew Albert I (r 1909–34). Five years later the whole world changed as WWI broke out and Germany occupied neutral Belgium. However, fast as it was, the German advance was crucially slowed by the plucky defence of Liège. And in the far north at Nieuwpoort, it was halted altogether by the old defensive trick of flooding low-lying fields. This required the opening of the canal sluice gates, a dicey operation undertaken by brave volunteers under daily fire. Thus protected, a tiny remnant triangle of Belgian land around Veurne remained unoccupied, and Albert took up residence here to personally lead the Belgian army. Further German advances towards the strategic French coastal towns were prevented. 'Brave Little Belgium' was born, and 'Remember Belgium' was used on recruitment posters in Great Britain. But Allied counter-attacks proved futile. The armies dug trenches and became bogged down for four years of futile sorties that killed hundreds of thousands and devastated Western Flanders.
After WWI the Treaty of Versailles abolished Belgium’s neutral status, and the country was given reparations from Germany, including an area known today as the Eastern Cantons, along with Germany’s former colonies of Burundi and Rwanda in central Africa. In 1934 much-loved Albert I died in a mysterious rock-climbing accident and was succeeded by his son, Léopold III.
On 10 May 1940 the Germans launched a surprise attack and rapidly occupied the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Unlike his father, Belgian king Léopold III put up little resistance and quickly surrendered to the Germans, leaving the Allies in a precarious state. This appearance of appeasement would eventually force Léopold's abdication in 1951. The Belgian government, opposing the king’s decision, fled to London, where it operated in exile throughout WWII. A strong resistance movement developed during the Nazi occupation, but there was also collaboration from fascist elements of Belgian society, notably Léon Degrelle’s Francophone Rexists and parts of the Flemish nationalist movement. The German occupation regime deliberately played up long-festering tensions between the linguistic groups for divide-and-rule purposes, Belgium’s Jewish population fared terribly, and the small Roma (gypsy) minority was all but wiped out.
When Belgium was liberated in 1944, Léopold's brother Charles was appointed as regent, a duty he carried out until Léopold's abdication.
Despite the serious wartime beating, Belgium rebounded rapidly, fuelled by the coal and iron industries. In 1958, Brussels' World Fair showcased Belgium's great industrial advances, a message driven home by the unique architecture of the Atomium. The same year Brussels became the provisional seat of the European Commission, and in 1967 NATO moved its headquarters to Brussels from France, the French having withdrawn from NATO’s military wing.
But linguistic tensions remained and a 'language frontier' was officially delineated in 1963, creating four language areas (Dutch-, French- and German-speaking communities plus bilingual Brussels). As in many Western nations, the peace-and-love attitude of the Flower Power era was shaken in 1968 by violent student-led demonstrations. In Belgium these riots took a particular intercommunal turn at Leuven, where the Francophone part of the city’s world-famous university was effectively forced to leave the stridently Flemish city, decamping eventually to Louvain-la-Neuve.
During the 1970s the global economy was hard hit by an overnight quadrupling of oil prices. The ‘old’ heavy industries (mining, glass, iron) slumped, and with them the formerly prosperous steel and mining cities of Wallonia. Well-intentioned attempts to shore up its moribund factories with subsidies and socialist rhetoric proved futile. But while the post-industrial Walloon economy stagnated, the more diversified, smaller-scale industries of Flanders were less affected, and in later years the Flemish economy surged ahead as investment in newer technologies bore fruit. Increasingly an economic angle was added to the disputes between linguistic communities. State reforms of the 1980s and '90s gave parliaments to both the linguistic communities and to the three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Capital), overlaid within a newly federalised state.
Into the 21st Century
Towards the end of the 20th century Belgium was rocked by infamous paedophile scandals and rising racism. The 1999 elections booted out the Christian Democrat party after 40 years in power. The decade that followed was characterised by party-political gridlock, reflecting an increasing polarisation of politics along linguistic lines. A series of uncomfortable coalitions would take months to form, and fully 1½ years in the case of the 2010 election. Government that was traditionally based on multiparty compromise had become a tense, tetchy affair. However, Belgium muddled through the 2008 financial crisis and, in a nail-biting episode, managed to save the banking sector when a major Belgo-Dutch bank was teetering over the abyss. In 2012, the worst rumblings of a potential north–south split were, at least temporarily, resolved by the devolution to regional level of numerous powers. And in 2018, Belgium's success in reaching the World Cup semifinals saw a wave of national feeling unprecedented in the preceding decades.