History Of The Netherlands – Ch. 3

A.D. 800-1000

EVEN at this advanced epoch of foreign domination, there remained as great a difference as ever between the people of the high grounds and the inhabitants of the plain. The latter were, like the rest, incorporated with the great monarchy; but they preserved the remembrance of former independence, and even retained their ancient names. In Flanders, Menapians and Flemings were still found, and in the country of Antwerp the Toxandrians were not extinct. All the rest of the coast was still called Friesland. But in the high grounds the names of the old inhabitants were lost. Nations were designated by the names of their rivers, forests, or towns. They were classified as accessories to inanimate things ; and having no monuments which reminded them of their origin, they be-came as it were without recollections or associations; and degenerated, as may be almost said, into a people without ancestry.

The physical state of the country had greatly changed from the times of Cesar to those of Charlemagne. Many parts of the forest of the Ardennes had been cut down or cleared away. Civilization had only appeared for a while among these woods, to perish like a delicate plant in an ungenial clime; but it seemed to have sucked the very sap from the soil, and to have left the people no remains of the vigor of man in his savage state, nor of the desperate courage of the warriors of Germany. A race of serfs now cultivated the domains of haughty lords and imperious priests. The clergy had immense posessions in this country; an act of the following century recognizes fourteen thousand families of vassals as belonging to the single abbey of Nivelle. Tournay and Tongres, both Episcopal cities, were by that title somewhat less oppressed than the other ancient towns founded by the Romans; but they appear to have possessed only a poor and degraded population.

The low lands, on the other hand, announced a striking commencement of improvement and prosperity. The marshes and fens, which had arrested and repulsed the progress of imperial Rome, had disappeared in every part of the interior. The Meuse and the Scheldt no longer joined at their outlets, to desolate the neighboring lands; whether this change was produced by the labors of man, or merely by the accumulation of sand deposited by either stream and forming barriers to both. The towns of Courtraig, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Berg-op-Zoom, and Thiel, had already a flourishing trade. The last-mentioned town contained in the following century fifty-five churches; a fact from which, in the absence of other evidence, the extent of the population may be conjectured. The formation of dikes for the protection of lands formerly submerged was already well understood, and regulated by uniform custom. The plains thus reconquered from the waters were distributed in portions, according to their labor, by those who reclaimed them, except the parts re-served for the chieftain, the church, and the poor. This vital necessity for the construction of dikes had given to the Frison and Flemish population a particular habit of union, goodwill, and reciprocal justice, because it was necessary to make common cause in this great work for their mutual preservation. In all other points, the detail of the laws and manners of this united people presents a picture similar to that of the Saxons of England, with the sole exception that the people of the Netherlands were milder than the Saxon race properly so called their long habit of laborious industry exercising its happy influence on the martial spirit original to both. The manufacturing arts were also some-what more advanced in this part of the continent than in Great Britain. The Frisons, for example, were the only people who could succeed in making the costly mantles in use among the wealthy Franks.

The government of Charlemagne admitted but one form, borrowed from that of the empire in the period of its decline —a mixture of the spiritual and temporal powers, exercised in the first place by the emperor, and at second-hand by the counts and bishops. The counts in those times were not the heads of noble families, as they afterward became, but officers of the government, removable at will, and possessing no hereditary rights. Their incomes did not arise from salaries paid in money, but consisted of lands, of which they had the revenues during the continuance of their authority. These lands being situated in the limits of their administration, each regarded them as his property only for the time being, and considered himself as a tenant at will. How unfavorable such a system was to culture and improvement may be well imagined. The force of possession was, however, frequently opposed to the seigniorial rights of the crown ; and thus, though all civil dignity and the revenues attached to it were but personal and reclaimable at will, still many dignitaries, taking advantage of the barbarous state of the country in which their isolated cantons were placed, sought by every possible means to render their power and prerogatives inalienable and real. The force of the monarchical government, which consists mainly in its centralization, was necessarily weakened by the intervention of local obstacles, before it could pass from the heart of the empire to its limits. Thus it was only by perpetually inter-posing his personal efforts, and flying, as it were, from one end to the other of his dominions, that Charlemagne succeeded in preserving his authority. As for the people, with-out any sort of guarantee against the despotism of the government, they were utterly at the mercy of the nobles or of the sovereign. But this state of servitude was quite incompatible with the union of social powers necessary to a population that had to struggle against the tyranny of the ocean. To repulse its attacks with successful vigor, a spirit of complete concert was absolutely required; and the nation being thus united, and consequently strong, the efforts of foreign tyrants were shattered by its resistance, as the waves of the sea that broke against the dikes by which it was defied.

From the time of Charlemagne, the people of the ancient Menapia, now become a prosperous commonwealth, formed political associations to raise a barrier against the despotic violence of the Franks. These associations were called Gilden, and in the Latin of the times Gildonia. They comprised, besides their covenants for mutual protection, an obligation which bound every member to give succor to any other, in cases of illness, conflagration, or shipwreck. But the growing force of these social compacts alarmed the quick-sighted despotism of Charlemagne, and they were, consequently, prohibited both by him and his successors. To give a notion of the importance of this prohibition to the whole of Europe, it is only necessary to state that the most ancient corporations (all which had preceded and engendered the most valuable municipal rights) were nothing more than gilden. Thus, to draw an example from Great Britain, the corporative charter of Berwick still bears the title of Charta Gildoniae. But the ban of the sovereigns was without efficacy, when opposed to the popular will. The gilden stood their ground, and within a century after the death of Charlemagne, all Flanders was covered with corporate towns.

This popular opposition took, however, another form in the northern parts of the country, which still bore the common name of Friesland; for there it was not merely local but national. The Frisons succeeded in obtaining the sanction of the monarch to consecrate, as it were, those rights which were established under the ancient forms of government. The fact is undoubted; but the means which they employed are uncertain. It appears most probable that this great privilege was the price of their military services ; for they held a high place in the victorious armies of Charlemagne; and Turpin, the old French romancer, alluding to the popular traditions of his time, represents the warriors of Friesland as endowed with the most heroic valor.

These rights, which the Frisons secured, according to their own statements, from Charlemagne, but most undoubtedly from some one or other of the earliest emperors, consisted, first, in the freedom of every order of citizens ; secondly, in the right of property a right which admitted no authority of the sovereign to violate by confiscation, except in cases of downright treason; thirdly, in the privilege of trial by none but native judges, and according to their national usages; fourthly, in a very narrow limitation of the military services which they owed to the king; fifthly, in the hereditary title to feudal property, in direct line, on payment of certain dues or rents. These five principal articles sufficed to render Friesland, in its political aspect, totally different from the other portions of the monarchy. Their privileges secured, their property inviolable, their duties limited, the Frisons were altogether free from the servitude which weighed down France. It will soon be seen that these special advantages produced a government nearly analogous to that which Magna Charta was the means of founding at a later period in England.

The successors of Charlemagne chiefly signalized their authority by lavishing donations of all kinds on the church. By such means the ecclesiastical power became greater and greater, and, in those countries under the sway of France, was quite as arbitrary and enormous as that of the nobility. The bishops of Utrecht, Liege, and Tournay, became, in the course of time, the chief personages on that line of the frontier. They had the great advantage over the counts, of not being subjected to capricious or tyrannical removals. They therefore, even in civil affairs, played a more considerable part than the latter; and began to render themselves more and more independent in their episcopal cities, which were soon to become so many principalities. The counts, on their parts, used their best exertions to wear out, if they had not the strength to break, the chains which bound them to the footstool of the monarch. They were not all now dependent on the same sovereign; for the empire of Charlemagne was divided among his successors : France, properly so called, was bounded by the Scheldt; the country to the eastward of that river, that is to say, nearly the whole of the Nether-lands, belonged to Lorraine and Germany.

In the state of things, it happened that in the year 864, Judith, daughter of Charles the Bald, king of France, having survived her husband Ethelwolf, king of England, became attached to a powerful Flemish chieftain called Baldwin. It is not quite certain whether he was count, forester, marquis, or protector of the frontiers; but he certainly enjoyed, no matter under what title, considerable authority in the country; since the pope on one occasion wrote to Charles the Bald to beware of offending him, lest he should join the Normans, and open to them an entrance into France. He carried off Judith to his possessions in Flanders. The king, her father, after many ineffectual threats, was forced to con-sent to their union; and confirmed to Baldwin, with the title of count, the hereditary government of all the country between the Scheldt and the Somme, a river of Picardy. This was the commencement of the celebrated county of Flanders; and this Baldwin is designated in history by the surname of Bras-de-fer (iron-handed), to which his courage had justly entitled him.

The Belgian historians are also desirous of placing about this epoch the first counts of Hainault, and even of Holland. But though it may be true that the chief families of each canton sought then, as at all times, to shake off the yoke, the epoch of their independence can only be fixed at the later period at which they obtained or enforced the privilege of not being deprived of their titles and their feudal estates. The counts of the high grounds, and those of Friesland, enjoyed at the utmost but a fortuitous privilege of continuance in their rank. Several foreigners had gained a footing and an authority in the country; among others Wickmand, from whom descended the chatelains of Ghent; and the counts of Holland, and Heriold, a Norman prince who had been banished from his own country. This name of Normans, hardly known before the time of Charlemagne, soon became too celebrated. It designated the pagan inhabitants of Den-mark, Norway, and Sweden, who, driven by rapacity and want, infested the neighboring seas. The asylum allowed in the dominions of the emperors to some of those exiled outlaws, and the imprudent provocations given by these latter to their adventurous countrymen, attracted various bands of Norman pirates to the shores of Guelders; and from desultory descents upon the coast, they soon came to inundate the interior of the country. Flanders alone successfully resisted them during the life of Baldwin Bras-defer; but after the death of this brave chieftain there was not a province of the whole country that was not ravaged by these invaders. Their multiplied expeditions threw back the Netherlands at least two centuries, if, indeed, any calculation of the kind may be fairly formed respecting the relative state of population and improvement on the imperfect data that are left us. Several cantons became deserted. The chief cities were reduced to heaps of ruins. The German emperors vainly interposed for the relief of their unfortunate vassals. Finally, an agreement was entered into, in the year 882, with Godfrey the king or leader of the Normans, by which a peace was purchased on condition of paying him a large subsidy, and ceding to him the government of Friesland. But, in about two years from this period, the fierce barbarian began to complain that the country he had thus gained did not produce grapes, and the present inspiration of his rapacity seemed to be the blooming vineyards of France. The emperor Charles the Fat, anticipating the consequence of a rupture with Godfrey, enticed him to an interview, in which he caused him to be assassinated. His followers, attacked on all points by the people of Friesland, perished almost to a man; and their destruction was completed, in 891, by Arnoul the Germanic. From that period, the scourge of Norman depredation became gradually less felt. They now made but short and desultory attempts on the coast; and their last expedition appears to have taken place about the year 1000, when they threatened, but did not succeed in seizing on, the city of Utrecht.

It is remarkable that, although for the space of one hundred and fifty years the Netherlands were continually the scene of invasion and devastation by these northern barbarians, the political state of the country underwent no important changes. The emperors of Germany were sovereigns of the whole country, with the exception of Flanders. These portions of the empire were still called Lorraine, as well as all which they possessed of what is now called France, and which was that part forming the appanage of Lothaire and of the Lotheringian kings. The great difficulty of maintaining subordination among the numerous chieftains of this country caused it, in 958, to be divided into two governments, which were called Higher and Lower Lorraine. The latter portion comprised nearly the whole of the Netherlands, which thus became governed by a lieutenant of the emperors. Godfrey count of Ardenne was the first who filled this place; and he soon felt all the perils of the situation. The other counts saw, with a jealous eye, their equal now promoted into a superior. Two of the most powerful, Lambert and Reginald, were brothers. They made common cause against the new duke; and after a desperate struggle, which did not cease till the year 985, they gained a species of imperfect independence Lambert becoming the root from which sprang the counts of Louvain, and Reginald that of the counts of Hainault.

The emperor Othon II., who upheld the authority of his lieutenant, Godfrey, became convinced that the imperial power was too weak to resist singly the opposition of the nobles of the country. He had therefore transferred, about the year 980, the title of duke to a young prince of the royal house of France; and we thus see the duchy of Lower Lorraine governed, in the name of the emperor, by the last two shoots of the branch of Charlemagne, the dukes Charles and Othon of France, son and grandson of Louis d’Outremer. The first was a gallant prince : he may be looked on as the founder of the greatness of Brussels, where he fixed his residence. After several years of tranquil government, the death of his brother called him to the throne of France; and from that time he bravely con-tended for the crown of his ancestors, against the usurpation of Hugues Capet, whom he frequently defeated in battle; but he was at length treacherously surprised and put to death in 990. Othon, his son, did not signalize his name nor justify his descent by any memorable action; and in him ingloriously perished the name of the Carlovingians.

The death of Othon set the emperor and the great vassals once more in opposition. The German monarch insisted on naming some creature of his own to the dignity of duke; but Lambert II., count of Louvain, and Robert, count of Namur, having married the sisters of Othon, respectively claimed the right of inheritance to his title. Baldwin of the comely beard, count of Flanders, joined himself to their league, hoping to extend his power to the eastward of the Scheldt. And, in fact, the emperor, as the only means of disuniting his two powerful vassals, felt himself obliged to cede Valenciennes and the islands of Zealand to Baldwin. The imperial power thus lost ground at every struggle.

Amid the confusion of these events, a power well calculated to rival or even supplant that of the fierce counts was growing up. Many circumstances were combined to extend and consolidate the episcopal sway. It is true that the bishops of Tournay had no temporal authority since the period of their city being ruined by the Normans. But those of Liege and Utrecht, and more particularly the latter, had accumulated immense possessions; and their power being inalienable, they had nothing to fear from the caprices of sovereign favor, which so often ruined the families of the aristocracy. Those bishops, who were warriors and huntsmen rather than ecclesiastics, possessed, however, in addition to the lance and the sword, the terrible artillery of excommunication and anathema, which they thundered forth without mercy against every laic opponent;. and when they had, by conquest or treachery, acquired new dominions and additional store of wealth, they could not portion it among their children, like the nobles, but it devolved to their successors, who thus be-came more and more powerful, and gained by degrees an authority almost royal, like that of the ecclesiastical elector of Germany.

Whenever the emperor warred against his lay vassals, he was sure of assistance from the bishops, because they were at all times jealous of the power of the counts, and had much less to gain from an alliance with them than with the imperial despots on whose donations they throve, and who repaid their efforts by new privileges and ex-tended possessions. So that when the monarch, at length, lost the superiority in his contests with the counts, little was wanting to make his authority be merged altogether in the overgrown power of these churchmen. Nevertheless, a first effort of the bishop of Liege to seize on the rights of the count of Louvain in 1013 met with a signal defeat, in a battle which took place at the little village of Stongarde. And five years later, the count of the Friesland marshes (comes Frisonum Morsatenorum) gave a still more severe lesson to the bishop of Utrecht. This last merits a more particular mention, from the nature of the quarrel and the importance of its results.