Belgium – The History of The Belgian Tower

IN the separate introductions to the various towns, dealing rather with origins than with history, I shall lay stress chiefly on the industrial and municipal facts, which in Belgium, indeed, are all-important. I give here, however, a few general notes on the political history of the country as a whole, chiefly dynastic. These may serve for reference, or at least as reminders ; and in particular they should be useful as giving some information about the originals of portraits in the various galleries.

The two portions of the modern kingdom of Belgium with which we are most concerned in this Guide are the County of Flanders and the Duchy of Brabant. The first was originally a fief of France; the second, a competent member of the Empire. They were commercially wealthier than the other portions of the Gallo-German borderland which is now Belgium n ; they were also the parts most affected by the Burgundian princes; on both which accounts, they are still by far the richest in works of art, alike in architecture, in painting, and in sculpture.

The vast Frankish dominions of the Merovingians and of the descendants of Charlemagne — of the Merwings and Karlings, to be more strictly Teutonic — showed at all time$ a tendency to break up into two distinct realms, known as the Eastern and West-ern Kingdoms (Austria—not, of course, in the modern sense—and Neustria). These kingdoms were not artificial, but based on a real difference of race and speech. The East-ern Kingdom (Franken or Franconia) where the Frankish and Teutonic blood was purest, became first the Empire, in the restricted sense, and later Germany and Austria (in part). The Western Kingdom (Neustria) where Celtic or Gallic blood predominated, and where the speech was Latin, or (later) French, became in time the Kingdom of France. But between these two Francias, and especially during the period of unrest, there existed a certain number of middle provinces, sometimes even a middle kingdom, known from its first possessor, Lothar, son of Charlemagne, as Lotharingia o Lorraine. Of these middle provinces, the chief northern members were Flanders, Bra ant, Hainault, and Liège.

Flanders in the early Middle Ages was a fief of France; it included not only the modern Belgian provinces of East and West Flanders, but also French Flanders, that is to say, the Department o the Nord and part of the Pas de Calais. AS early as the Treaty of Verdun (843), the land of Flanders was assigned to Neustria. But the county, as we know it, ready grew up from the possessions of a noble family at Bruges and Sluys, the head of which was originally known as forester or ranger. In 862, the King of France, as suzerain, changed this title to that of count, in the person of Baldwin Bras-de-Fer (Baldwin I.). Baldwin was also invested with the charge of thé neighbouring coast of France proper, on tenure of defending it against the Norman pirates. In 1006, his descendant, Baldwin IV., seized the Emperor’s town of Valenciennes; and having shown his ability to keep his booty, he was invested by the Franconian Henry II. with this district as a fief, so that he thus became a feudatory both of France and of the Empire. He was also presented with Ghent and the Isles of Zealand. Baldwin V. (1036) added to the growing principality the districts of Alost, Tournay, and Hainault. The petty dynastic quarrels of the eleventh century are far too intricate for record here; in the end, the domains of the counts were approximately restricted to what we now know as Flanders proper. A bare list of names and dates must suffice for this epoch : – Baldwin V. (1036—1067) ; Baldwin VI. (1067—1070) ; Robert II. (1093-1111) ; and Baldwin VII. (IIII-1119).

After this date, the native line having become extinct, the county was held by foreign elective princes, under whom the power of the towns increased greatly. Among these alien counts, the most distinguished was Theodoric (in French, Thierry; in German. Dietrich; or in Dutch, Dierick) of Alsace, who was a distinguished Crusader, and the founder of the Chapel of the Holy Blood at Bruges (which see).

Under Baldwin of Hainault (1191–1194) Artois was ceded to France, together with St. Omer and Hesdin. Henceforth, Ghent superseded Arras as the capital. Baldwin IX. (1194-1206) became a mighty Crusader, and founded the Latin Empire of Constantinople. Indeed, the Crusades were largely manned and managed by Flemings. He was followed in Flanders by his two daughters, Johanna and Margaret, under whose rule the cities gained still greater privileges. Margaret’s son, Guy de Dampierre, was the creature of Philippe IV. of France, who endeavoured to rule Flanders through his minister, Châtillon. The Flemings answered by just revolt, and fought the famous Battle of the Spurs near Courtrai, already described, against the French interlopers (see Bruges). In 1322, Louis de Nevers (Louis I.) became count, and provoked by his Gallicizing and despotic tendencies the formidable rebellion under Van Artevelde (see Ghent). The quarrel between the league of burghers and their lord continued more or less during the reigns of, Count Louis II (1346) and Louis III., who died in 1385, leaving one daughter, Margaret, married to Philip the Bold (Philippele-Hardi) of Burgundy.

The political revolution caused in Flanders and Brabant by the accession of the Burgundian dynasty was so deep-reaching that a few words must be devoted to the origin and rise of this powerful family, a branch of the royal Valois of France. The old Kingdom of Burgundy had, of course, been long extinct; but its name was inherited by two distinct principalities, the Duchy of Burgundy, which formed part of France, and the County of Burgundy (Franche Comté), which was a fief of the Empire. In the fourteenth century, a new middle kingdom, like the earlier Lotharingia, seemed likely to arise by the sudden growth of a practically independent power in this debatable land between France and Germany. In 1361, the Duchy of Burgundy fell in to the crown of France; and in order, as he thought, to secure its union with the central authority, John the Good of France ( Jean-le-Bon), during the troublous times after the Treaty of Bretigny, conferred it as a fief upon his son, Philippe de Valois (Philip the Bold, or Philippe-le-Hardi) who married Margaret of Flanders, thus uniting two of the greatest vassal principalities of the French crown. In 1385, on the death of Louis III., Philip succeeded to the County of Flanders, now practically almost an independent state. After him reigned three other princes of his family. John the Fearless ( Jean-sans-Peur, 1404—1419) will be remembered by visitors to Paris as the builder of the Porte Rouge at Notre-Dame de Paris. Philip the Good (Philippele-Bon, 1419—1467) was the patron of Van Eyck and Memling. (His portrait by Roger van der Weyden is in the Antwerp Gallery.) Charles the Bold (Charles-le-Téméraire, 1467 -1477) raised the power of the house to its utmost pitch, and then destroyed it. (His portrait by Memling is in the Brussels Gallery.) Contrary, however, to the belief of John the Good, the princes of the Valois dynasty in Burgundy, instead of remaining loyal to the crown of France, became some of its most dangerous and dreaded rivals.

All these dukes, as French princes, played at the same time an important part in the affairs of France. They also won, by marriage, by purchase, by treaty, or by conquest, large territories within the Empire, including most of modern Belgium and Holland, together with much that is now part of France. They were thus, like their Flemish predecessors, vassals at once of the Emperor and the French king; but they were really more powerful than either of their nominal overlords; for their central position between the two jealous neighbours gave them great advantages, while their possession of the wealthy cities of the Low Countries made them into the richest princes in mediæval Europe. It was at their opulent and ostentatious court that Van Eyck and Memling painted the gorgeous pictures which still preserve for us some vague memory of this old-world splendour. At the same time, the increased power of the princes, who could draw upon their other dominions to suppress risings in Flanders, told unfavourably upon the liberties of the cities. The Burgundian dominion thus sowed the seeds of the Spanish despotism.

Jean-sans-Peur was murdered by the Dauphih, afterwards Charles VII. ; and this cousinly crime threw his son, Philippe-le-Bon, into the arms of the English. It was the policy of Burgundy and Flanders, indeed, to weaken the royal power by all possible means. Philip supported the English cause in France for many years; and it was his defection, after the Treaty of Arras in 1435, that des-strayed the chances of Henry VI. on the Continent. The reign of Philippe-le-Bon, we saw, was the Augustan age of the Burgundian dynasty. (Fully to understand Burgundian art, however, you must visit Dijon as well as Brabant and Flanders.) Under Charles the Bold, the most ambitious prince of the Burgundian house, the power of the dukes was raised for a time to its highest pitch, and then began to collapse suddenly. A constant rivalry existed between Charles and his nominal suzerain, Louis XI. It was Charles’s dream to restore or recreate the old Burgundian kingdom by annexing Lorraine, with its capital, Nancy, and conquering the rising Swiss Confederacy. He would thus have consolidated his dominions in the Netherlands with his discontinuous Duchy and County of Burgundy. He had even designs upon Provence, then as yet an independent county. Louis XI. met these attempts to create a rival state by a policy of stirring up enemies against his too powerful feudatory. In his war with the Swiss, Charles was signally defeated in the decisive battles at Granson and Morat, in 1476. In the succeeding year, he was routed and killed at Nancy, whither the Swiss had gone to help René, Duke of Lorraine, in his effort to win back his duchy from Charles. The conquered duke was buried at Nancy, but his body was afterwards brought to Bruges by his descendant, the Emperor Charles V., and now reposes in the splendid tomb which we have seen at Notre-Dame in that city.

This war had important results. It largely broke down the power of Burgundy. Charles’s daughter, Mary, kept the Low Countries and the County of Burgundy (Imperial) ; but the duchy (French) reverted to the crown of France, with which it was ever after associated. The scheme of a great Middle Kingdom thus came to an end ; and the destinies of the Low Countries were entirely altered.

We have next to consider the dynastic events by which the Low Countries passed under the rule of the House of Hapsburg. In 1477, Mary of Burgundy succeeded her father, Charles, as Countess of Flanders, Duchess of Brabant, etc. In the same year she was married to Maximilian of Austria, King of the Romans, son of the Emperor Frederic III. (or IV.). Maximilian was afterwards elected Emperor on his father’s death. The children of this marriage were Philip the Handsome (Philippe-le-Beau, or le Bel; Philippus Stok), who died in 1506, and Margaret of Austria. Philip, again, married Johanna (Juana) the Mad, of Castile, and thus became King of Castile, in right of his wife. The various steps by which these different sovereignties were cumulated in the person of Philip’s son, Charles V., are so important to a proper comprehension of the subject that I venture to tabulate them.

During the lifetime of Maximilian, who was afterwards Emperor, Mary, and her son Philippe-le-Beau, ruled at first in the Low Countries (for the quarrel between Maximilian and I Bruges over the tutorship of Philippe, see p. 59). After the death of Isabella of Castile, Ferdinand retired to Aragon, and Philippe ruled Castile on behalf of his insane wife, Juana. Philippe died in 1506, and his sister, Margaret of Austria, then ruled as regent in the Netherlands (for Charles) till her death in 1530. Charles V., born at Ghent, in 1500, was elected to the Empire after his grandfather, Maximilian I., and thus became at once Emperor, King of Spain, Duke of Austria, and ruler of the Low Countries. (In 1516 he succeeded Ferdinand in the Kingdom of Spain, and in 1519 was elected Emperor.)

The same series of events carried the Netherlands, quite accidentally, under Spanish rule. For Charles was an absolutist, who governed on essentially despotic principles. His conduct towards Ghent in 1539 brought affairs to a crisis. The Emperor, in pursuance of his plans against France, had demanded an enormous subsidy from the city, which the burgesses constitutionally refused to grant, meeting the unjust extortion by open rebellion. They even entered into negotiations with Francis I.; who, however, with the base instinct of a brother absolutist, betrayed their secret to his enemy, the Emperor. Charles actually obtained leave from Francis to march a Spanish army through France to punish the Flemings, and arrived with a powerful force before the rebellious city. The Ghenters demanded pardon ; but Charles, deeply incensed, entered the town under arms, and took up his abode there in triumph. Alva, his ruthless Spanish commander (portrait in the Brussels Gallery), suggested that the town should be utterly destroyed; but the Emperor could not afford to part with his richest and most populous city, nor could even he endure to destroy his birth-place. He contented himself with a terrible vengeance, beheading the ringleaders, banishing the minor patriots, and forfeiting the goods of all suspected persons. The city was declared guilty of lèse-majesté, and the town magistrates, with the chiefs of the Guilds, were compelled to appear before Charles with halters round their necks, and to beg for pardon. The Emperor also ordered that no magistrate of Ghent should ever thenceforth appear in public without a halter, a badge which became with time a mere silken decoration. The privileges of the city were at the same time abolished, and the famous old bell, Roland, was removed from the Belfry.

Thenceforth Charles treated the Netherlands as a conquered Spanish territory. He dissolved the monastery of St. Bavon, and erected on its site the great Citadel, which he garrisoned with Spaniards, to repress the native love of liberty of the Flemings (see Ghent). In subsequent risings of the Low Countries the Spaniards’ Castle, the stronghold of the alien force, was the first point to be attacked; and on it depended the issue of freedom or slavery in the Netherlands. Charles also established the Inquisition, which is said to have put to death no fewer than one hundred thousand persons.

In 1555, the Emperor abdicated in favour of his son Philip, known as Philip II. of Spain. But his brother Ferdinand, to whom he had resigned his Austrian dominions, was elected Emperor (having been already King of the Romans) as Ferdinand I. From his time forth, the Empire became more exclusively German, so that its connection with Rome was almost forgotten save as a historic myth, degenerating into the mere legal fiction of a Holy Roman Empire, with nothing Roman in it. Thus, the Netherlands alone of the earlier Burgundian heritage remained in the holding of the Austrian kings of Spain, who ruled them nominally as native sovereigns, but practically as Spaniards and aliens by means of imported military garrisons.

Philip II. austere, narrow, domineering, fanatical — remained only four years in the Netherlands, and then retired to Spain, appointing his half-sister, Margaret of Parma (illegitimate daughter of Charles V.), regent of the Low Countries (1559 — 1567). She resided in the Ancienne Cour at Brussels. Her minis-ter, Granvella, Bishop of Arras, made himself so unpopular, and the measures taken against the Protestants were so severe, that the cities, ever the strongholds of liberty, showed signs of revolution. They objected to the illegal maintenance of a Spanish standing army, and also to the Inquisition. In April, 1567, as a consequence of the discontents, the Duke of Alva was sent with ten thousand men as lieutenant-general to the Netherlands, to suppress what was known as the Beggars’ League (Les Gueux), now practically headed by the Prince of Orange (William the Silent). Alva entered Brussels with his Spanish and Italian mercenaries and treacherously seized his two suspected antagonists, Count Egmont and Count Hoorn. The two patriotic noblemen were imprisoned at Ghent, in the Spaniards’ Castle, were condemned to death, and finally beheaded in the Grand’ Place at Brussels. (For fuller de-tails of the great revolutionary movement thus inaugurated, see Motley’s ” Rise of the Dutch Republic,” and Juste’s ” Le Comte d’Egmont et le Comte de Homes.”) Alva also established in Brussels his infamous ” Council of Troubles,” which put to death in cold blood no less than twenty thousand inoffensive burghers. His cold and impassive cruelty led to the Revolt of the United Provinces in 1568 —a general movement of all the Spanish Netherlands (as they now began to be called) to throw off the hateful yoke of Spain. Under the able leadership of William of Orange, the Flemings besieged and reduced the Spaniards Castle at Ghent. In the deadly struggle for freedom which ensued, the Northern Provinces (Holland), aided by their great natural advantages for defence among the flooded marshes of the Rhine delta, succeeded in casting off their allegiance to Philip. They were then known as the United Netherlands. The long and heroic contest of the Southern Provinces (Belgium) against the Spanish oppressor was not equally successful. A desperate struggle for liberty met with little result, and the Spanish sovereigns continued to govern their Belgian dominions like a conquered country. In 1578, Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma (son of Margaret), was sent as Governor to the Nether-lands, where he remained in power till 1596. In the prosecution of the war against the Northern Provinces (Holland), he besieged Antwerp, and took it after fourteen months, in 1585. In the ” Spanish Fury ” which followed, Antwerp was almost destroyed, and all its noblest buildings ruined. Nevertheless, under Parma’s rule, the other cities recovered to a certain extent their municipal freedom; though the country as a whole was still treated as a vanquished province.

The next great landmark of Belgian history is the passage of the Spanish Netherlands under Austrian rule. The first indefinite steps toward this revolution were taken in 1598, when Philip II. ceded the country as a fief to his daughter the Infanta Isabella (Clara Isabella Eugenia) on her marriage with Albert, Archduke of Austria, who held the provinces as the Spanish governor. (Portraits of Albert and Isabella by Rubens in the Brussels Gallery.) The new rulers made the country feel to a certain extent that it was no longer treated as a mere disobedient Spanish appanage. After the troubles of the Revolt, and the cruel destruction of Antwerp by Parma, trade and manufactures began to revive. Albert and Isabella were strongly Catholic in sentiment; and it was under their régime that the greater part of the rococo churches of Antwerp and other cities were built, in the showy but debased taste of the period, and decorated with large and brilliantly coloured altar-pieces. They also induced Rubens to settle in the Netherlands, appointed him court painter, and allowed him to live at Antwerp, where the trade of the Low Countries was still largely concentrated. During their vice-royalty, however, Brussels became more than ever the recognized capital of the country, and the seat of the aristocracy.

After Albert’s death in 1621, the Netherlands reverted to Spain, and a dull period, without either art or real local history, supervened, though the wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were in great part fought out over these unfortunate provinces, ” the cockpit of Europe.” The campaigns of Marl-borough and Prince Eugene are too well known as part of English and European history to need recapitulation here. At the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Peace of Rastadt, in 1714, assigned the Spanish Netherlands to Austria, thus entailing upon the unhappy country another hundred years of foreign domination. Nevertheless, the Austrian Netherlands, as they were thenceforth called (in contradistinction to the ” United Netherlands ” or Holland), were on the whole tolerably well governed by the Austrian Stadtholders, who held their court at Brussels, and who were usually relations of the Imperial family. Few memorials, however, of Maria Theresa, of Joseph II., or of Leopold II. now exist in Belgium, and those few are not remarkable for beauty. It was during this relatively peaceful and law-abiding time, on the other hand, that the Upper Town of Brussels was laid out in its existing form by Guimard. As a whole, the Belgian provinces were probably better governed under Austrian rule than under any other régime up to the period of the existing independent and national monarchy.

The French Revolutionists invaded Belgium in 1794, and committed great havoc among historical buildings at Bruges and elsewhere. Indeed, they did more harm to the arts of the Netherlands than anybody else, except the Spaniards and the modern ” restorers.” They also divided Belgium into nine departments; and Napoleon half sneeringly, half cynically, justified the annexation on the ground that the Low Countries were the alluvial deposit of French rivers. The Belgian States formed part of Napoleon’s composite empire till 1814, when those Southern Provinces were assigned by the Treaty of London to Holland. In 1815, during the Hundred Days, the Allied Armies had their headquarters at Brussels, and the decisive battle against Napoleon was fought at Waterloo. The Congress of Vienna once more affirmed the union of Belgium and Holland; they remained as one kingdom till the first revolutionary period in 1830. The South-ern Province then successfully seceded from the Dutch monarchy : indeed, the attempted fusion of semi-French and Catholic Belgium with purely Teutonic and Protestant Holland was one of those foredoomed failures so dear to diplomacy. A National Congress elected Leopold of Saxe-Coburg as King of the Belgians (Roi des Belges), and the crown is now held by his son, Leopold II. For nearly seventy years Belgium has thus enjoyed, for the first time in its history, an independent and relatively popular government of its own choosing. The development of its iron and coal industries during this epoch has vastly increased its wealth and importance; while the rise of Antwerp as a great European port has also done much to develop its resources. At the present day Belgium ranks as one of the most thickly populated, richest, and on the whole most liberal-minded countries of Europe. Its neutrality is assured by the Treaty of London, and its army exists only to repel invasion in case hat neutrality should ever be violated.