A Brief History of Belgium
Belgium is one of the newer countries of Western Europe, having gained its independence less than 200 years ago. For the previous two millennia it was a playground and often also a battleground for the great powers of Europe and virtually every one of them held sway over it at one time or another.
What follows is a quick summary of Belgium's history.
From Caesar to Charlemagne
When Julius Caesar conquered Gaul the people he found living in present-day Belgium were the
Belgae, one of various Celtic tribes of early Gaul. The Romans called their new province
In the fifth century, as the Roman Empire was slowly fading the Franks, a
Germanic tribe, threw the Romans out of Gaul. Several centuries later Charlemagne reunited Gaul and added most of the rest of Western Europe to his empire. Apart from the wars he fought in order to expand his empire his reign was also notable for his fostering of commerce, arts, and classical learning. However, his successors were not equal to the task of keeping the empire intact and gradually Belgium was split: Flanders, the northwestern part, fell to France and the southeastern part went to Germany.
This split heralded the beginning of the power of the Counts of Flanders, and cities on important commercial routes such as Bruges, Ghent and Ypres became very prosperous, with the result that Belgium consisted of strong fortified and virtually autonomous cities in Flanders, and less unified cities in the south. The golden age for Flanders started: England wool was imported and woven into fine cloth and sold in the European continent.
The powerful neighbour to the south, France, wanted to extend its control to the north of Belgium in order to lay its hands on the wealth of Flanders. This of course antagonised England. The Hundred Years’ War ensued which eventually ended with Burgundy, an ally of England, becoming the ruler of Flanders in 1384.
The Burgundian era
Under Philip the Good Burgundia expanded its sphere of influence to the southern part of Belgium, including Brussels and Liège. A great period of cultural development commenced especially with regards to painting such as by the Flemish Primitives, the Van Eyck brothers being the most famous among them.
As Bruges’ water passage to the North Sea slowly silted Antwerp, on the Scheldt River, became
commercially the most dominant city in Flanders.
In the middle of the 16th century a long period of instability began. The catalyst was the ascent of Protestantism in the Low Countries. The catholic kings of Spain tried to stamp out the new religion in a particularly brutal way, which only succeeded in fomenting open rebellion to the Spanish authority. In 1648 the Treaty of Munster was signed, not only granting independence to the Netherlands but more disastrously for Antwerp allowing
the closing of the Scheldt River to navigation. This meant that Antwerp gradually lost its commercial status.
The long road to independence
Over the next hundred years or so, starting with the rule of Louis XIV, France
made several attempts to extend its control over Belgium. None of the other powers in Europe were particularly
keen to see this happen with the result that many battles were fought over, and
in, Belgium. Eventually, in 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht was signed where France agreed to leave Belgium to the Habsburg rulers of Austria. This meant virtual independence for Belgium, but not for long as infighting among the Belgians and the rise of Napoleon helped to return Belgium under French rule.
After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo the powers of Europe decided to merge Belgium with its northern neighbour, the Netherlands. However, a revolution soon started and on 20th January 1831 Belgium was finally granted independence.
Capital of the EU and NATO
The Belgians chose as their first king Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. During his reign Belgium started to flourish economically and culturally. His son, Leopold II, hired Stanley to explore the vast expanse of Congo in Africa which he kept as his personal fiefdom until his death when he gifted it to the Belgian government. Congo remained a Belgian colony until 1960.
The next two kings, Albert I and Leopold III, each had to face a world war. In particular Word War I was devastating for Belgium as it was mainly fought on Belgian ground. After the end of World War II Leopold III, who had surrendered to the German army rather than fleeing to London along with his government, was confronted with substantial opposition upon his return from Germany and eventually abdicated in favour of his son Baudouin. Upon the latter’s death in 1993 his brother Albert II succeeded him to the throne.
After World War II Brussels took on a leading role as co-founder of the European Community, and
became the capital of what is now called the European Union (EU). It is also the headquarters of the NATO. In 1957 Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg founded the Benelux Union.