A History of Belgium
The Ancient Celts
Beginning in 57 BC, Julius Caesar extended the power of Rome into the region of Europe that is now Belgium. The people he encountered there were the Belgae, one of the various Celtic tribes of early Gaul, and the Romans dubbed their new province Gallia Belgica. In the fourth century AD, with Rome in decline, control of Gaul was ceded to the Franks, a Germanic tribe that the weakened empire employed as mercenaries. As the Franks flourished, they decided to dispense with their Roman employers. By 431, they had established an independent dynasty, the Merovingian, with its capital at Tournai. Soon after, under Clovis I (c.466-511), the Merovingians succeeded in pummeling the last of the Romans in Gaul.
They held large parts of present day France and Belgium as well as southwestern Germany. Clovis also adopted Christianity, thus gaining the support of the Church.
After Clovis’ death the Merovingian kingdom began to fragment, and the Frankish lands did not come together under single rule again until the reign of Pepin III (the Short) in 751. Pepin deposed the last of the Merovingians and founded the Carolingian dynasty, which is named after his son Charlemagne.
Charlemagne succeeded his father in 768 and ruled for almost a half century, creating during that time an empire that covered nearly all of continental Europe, with the exception of Spain and Scandinavia. In 800, Pope Leo III crowned him Emperor of the West. Although Charlemagne spent much of his reign conquering and subduing various parts of Europe, he also did much to foster commerce and the arts. The beginnings of organized trade along Belgium’s rivers was one result of his reign, as was the preservation of classical learning and the arts.
On Charlemagne’s death, his empire was divided, and familial feuding led finally to the Treaty of Verdun in 843. Under the terms of the treaty, three of Charlemagne’s grandsons split the empire between them. West Francia, under Charles the Bold, formed the basis of France. The Middle Kingdom was given to Lothair, though it would soon fragment. East Francia, under Louis the German, became the basis of Germany. West Francia included the narrow strip of land north and west of the Scheldt river in today’s Belgium. The remainder of present-day Belgium was included first in the Middle Kingdom, under Lothair, but it gradually came under the sway of the German kings.
brusselsThis division was soon to have great consequences for the development of Belgium’s nascent cities. In the northwestern part of Belgium, which nominally belonged to the young kingdom of France, there arose the powerful Counts of Flanders. The first of these was Baldwin Iron Arm, who amply demonstrated his independence from the French by carrying off and marrying one of the daughters of Charles the Bold. Baldwin also began the process of creating fortified towns in Flanders in order to curtail the depredations of the Norsemen. The first of these was Ghent (c.867), and the process was continued by Baldwin’s heir (Baldwin II) with the fortification of Bruges and Ypres. The southeastern part of today’s Belgium eventually became part of the Duchy of Lower Lotharingia or Lorraine, under the German kings.
In 977, Charles, Duke of Lorraine, built the fortress on the Senne River that was the foundation of Brussels. For the most part, however, the southeastern portion of today’s Belgium became split into a number of minor spheres of power, one of which was the prince-bishoprie of Liege.
At the outset of the new millennium, Belgium consisted of the cities of Flanders, unified under their strong Counts, and the less unified cities to the south and east of the Scheldt. As the Norse raids fell off and Europe’s major kingdoms gradually stabilized, trade began to grow by leaps and bounds. For Flanders in particular, this was the beginning of a golden age. By importing wool from England and weaving it into fine cloth for sale on the continent, the Flemish cities became exceedingly wealthy, populous, and powerful. By 1300, Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres, in particular, had gained virtual autonomy from aristocratic rule, developing the proud civic culture that still distinguishes them today.
Needless to say, this situation did not please the aristocracy, who itched to regain control over such attractive sources of wealth and power. The Counts of Flanders wanted to regain their local authority, and France very much wanted to reassert its claims to Flanders. In 1302, the cities successfully rejected such claims, utterly defeating the French nobility at the Battle of the Golden Spurs. But the aristocracy persisted, and its unity eventually proved stronger than that of the cities, where local rivalries complicated unified resistance. By 1329, the independence of the cities had been broken, and Flanders once again came under the control of France.
England, as the supplier of raw wool to the cloth trade, was more than a little displeased by this outcome. It stopped sending wool, and began a long attempt to break French power, both in Flanders and in France itself. For almost a century, the French and English clashed repeatedly in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), and in Flanders the struggle coincided with repeated attempts by the cities to regain their autonomy. The struggles finally ended when Philip the Bold of Burgundy, who had benefited from Burgundy’s long alliance with the English against the French, became the ruler of Flanders in 1384.
The Burgundian Period
Under Philip the Good (ruled 1419-1467), the Burgundian empire in Belgium expanded and began to flourish. Philip gained control of the southeastern areas, including Brussels, Namur, and Liege. He suppressed the independence of the cities, brought them under central rule from Brussels, and consolidated the region’s economy. Philip’s reign brought new prosperity and, with it, a great era of cultural development.
Painting especially reached new highs in the work of Robert Campin, the brothers van Eyck, and Rogier van der Weyden. After Philip’s death, his rule over present-day Belgium passed first to Charles V.
In the 1490s, as Bruges’ waterways to the sea gradually silted up, trade shifted further north and Antwerp emerged as the pre-eminent commercial city in the region
The ascension of Philip II to the Spanish throne in 1555 brought on the next crisis in Belgium’s history, as King Philip’s strident Spanish Catholicism coincided tragically with the rise of Protestantism in northern Europe. In the Flemish cities especially, Protestantism was a deeply political movement, linked to the long tradition of resistance to aristocratic domination. Social unrest in the cities was met by Philip with harsh and rigid repression, including the introduction of a massive Spanish military presence in the north as well as the execution of thousands of Protestants. By 1565, a powerful League of Nobility, under the leadership of William of Orange and Count Egmont (governor of Flanders), had joined in the opposition to Spain. Philip responded by sending in the notorious Duke of Alva at the head of an army of 10,000 troops.
Alva outlawed William, executed Egmont and other leading nobles in Brussels’ Grand’Place, and began terrorizing the country. Popular opposition exploded, particularly in the north, and within a few years Alva found himself powerless to exercise control over any but the southern cities, which had remained much closer to the Catholic church.
By 1576, William’s power in the north was virtually unchallenged, and he came to terms with the Spanish. The United Provinces, as the northern regions came to be known, struggled for the next seventy-five years to maintain their independence. The Catholic regions to the south remained faithful to Spain, becoming known as the Spanish Netherlands. In 1648, with the Treaty of Munster, the much-weakened Spanish not only recognized the independence of the United Provinces, but also agreed to close the Scheldt to navigation. As a result, Antwerp and Ghent, like Bruges before them, lost their predominance as the region’s centers of trade. For the next several centuries, the Dutch port of Amsterdam would play that role.
brusselsOver the next century, France emerged as the most powerful state in Europe. Under the rule of Louis XIV (1659-1715), the French made sustained efforts to extend their control over the Spanish Netherlands. Louis’ ambitions were feared not only by the Spanish, but also by the Dutch, who had no desire to see powerful France extend its borders to their own. England also opposed French expansion, especially after William III, ruler of the Dutch, accepted the English throne.
As a result, present-day Belgium was for much of the century a battleground between Louis XIV and the shifting alliances of his opponents.
These struggles reached their climax during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713), prompted by the death of the childless King Charles II of Spain. Before his death, Charles had named as his successor Philip of Anjou, who also happened to be Louis’ grandson. As one might expect, Louis informed his young relative that it would be best for all concerned if Philip would immediately cede the Spanish Netherlands to France. It was an offer that Philip could not refuse, but also one that no one else in Europe could accept. For the next decade France attempted repeatedly to establish its rule, while Dutch, English, and Austrian armies consistently rejected each attempt. By 1713, Louis had had enough, and with the Treaty of Utrecht France ceded its claims over the Spanish Netherlands to the Habsburg rulers of Austria.
In fact, the region continued to enjoy virtual independence, paying as little attention to the Habsburg claims as it had paid to the claims of the weakened Spanish during the previous century. By the end of the 18th century Belgium was ready to assert its own identity. With the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the country rose up in revolt against the Austrians, and in 1790 independence was declared in the form of the United States of Belgium. However, the leaders of the new country were deeply divided amongst themselves, and the Austrians rapidly re-established control. Austria, however, soon found itself at war with the French Republic, and by 1795 the successful French had “liberated” Belgium. Although the French instituted far-reaching reforms that later served as the foundations for the modern Belgian government, they were in fact far more inclined to see Belgium as a source of revenue and troops. Churches were seized and despoiled, massive conscription was introduced, and popular protest was crushed with a ruthlessness reminiscent of the Spanish occupation.
The New Kingdom
Belgium – King Albert II and Queen PaolaWith the rise of Napoleon, French rule over Belgium became more constructive, including the revitalization of industry and (with the opening of the Scheldt) the partial recovery of Antwerp. With Napoleon’s fall, the great Allied powers decreed that Belgium would become a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, ruled by the pro-Dutch William of Orange. By 1830 the Belgians’ patience had run out. Revolution erupted in Brussels and quickly spread across the country. William made a brief effort to regain control, but within a few months he withdrew. On 20 January, 1831, after centuries of external rule, Belgium was recognized as an independent nation.
The Belgians chose Leopold of Saxe-Coburg to be their first King, under a constitution that significantly limited the power of the monarchy.
Under Leopold I and then his son Leopold II, Belgium flourished both economically and culturally.
Leopold II was succeeded in 1909 by Albert I, his nephew. Albert’s reign was dominated by World War I, during which most of the country fell under extremely harsh German occupation despite determined resistance. The Belgian army survived the invasion, and it played a central role in retaking the country at the end of the war. Albert lived until 1934, when he died in a tragic climbing accident. His wife Elisabeth is remembered as a great patron of the arts. Together with Eugene Ysaye, she founded the world-renowned Queen Elisabeth Contest, Belgium’s foremost musical competition.
Belgium – King Albert II and Queen Paola – BTO/NYCAlbert was succeeded by his son Leopold III, who like his father was soon confronted by war. In 1940, Germany invaded Belgium and Holland. As the blitzkrieg swept across the country, the Belgian government evacuated to London. Leopold, however, surrendered to the German forces when the Belgian lines at Kortrijk were broken. The territories of Eupen, Malmedy and St. Vith were annexed to the German Reich and the rest of Belgium occupied. Leopold was held prisoner in the palace of Laeken before being taken to Germany. When the Allied Forces liberated Belgium at the end of 1944, popular feeling against Leopold was substantial, and his brother Prince Charles assumed regency.
Belgium – King Baudoin and Queen Fabiola – BTO NYC/USALeopold III returned to Belgium in 1950, but popular opposition to his rule remained substantial. In 1951, he abdicated in favor of his son Baudouin.
In the post-war period, Brussels has gradually taken on its role as the ‘capital’ of Europe. It is the headquarters of the European Community and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well as gaining a reputation as the foremost European center of international business. In 1957, Belgium formed, with the Netherlands and Luxembourg, the Benelux Union.
Perhaps the most significant of the postwar developments has been the increasing local autonomy of various regions of the country. In 1977 the country was divided into three administrative regions: Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels. In 1980, the Belgian constitution was changed to recognize this separation, shifting the structure of the nation to a federation. In 1995, the provinces of Flemish Brabant and Walloon Brabant were created from the old province of Brabant, leaving Belgium with a total of 10 provinces.
When King Baudouin died in 1993, his brother Albert II succeeded to the throne. Albert II is married to Paola Ruffo di Calabria. The Royal couple has three children, Prince Philip (the official heir to the throne), Princess Astrid (who is married to Archduke Lorenz of Austria), and Prince Laurent.