16th - 19th century

The Spanish Netherlands: AD 1579-1714

Although the existence of Belgium as an independent state dates only from 1831, a Belgian identity is evident from 1579. In that year three Catholic provinces of the southern Netherlands form the Union of arras against the Protestants to the north. Later in the same year the provinces sign a treaty with Spain which gives them a large measure of administrative freedom, while accepting the Spanish king Philip II as their monarch and his rigidly severe Catholicism as their religion.

The arrangement works. Antwerp, the home of Rubens, is a thriving and sophisticated city in the early decades of the following century.

Nevertheless the Spanish Netherlands remain in a stategically perilous state, with Protestant neighbours to north and west (the United Provinces and England) and Spain's perennial enemy, France, to the south. Warfare along the southern border is almost permanent during the late 17th century. The position becomes even more sensitive when the Spanish throne itself looks like going to the Bourbon dynasty of France in 1700.

The Spanish Netherlands are a crucial factor in the resulting War of the spanish succession, as well as being the site of many of the war's battles. The Treaty of rastatt, in 1714, resolves the issue by transferring the province from the Spanish to the Austrian branch of the Habsburgs.

Nevertheless the French are merely the most recent of the imperial powers to impose rule on this region, which over three centuries has been successively the Spanish Netherlands and the Austrian Netherlands. There is no lasting desire to become the French Netherlands, and the allied armies - arriving at last in force in 1814 - are welcomed as liberators.

The future of the region becomes one of the questions confronting the Congress of vienna later in 1814. Without consulting the people of Catholic Belgium, it is decided that they shall be merged with their very different neighbours, the Protestant Dutch, in a newly formed kingdom of the Netherlands - to be ruled by the house of Orange.

The Austrian Netherlands: AD 1714 - 1794

The southern Netherlands settle down under Austrian Habsburg rule (conducted in the same arm's-length fashion as under the Spanish branch of the family), until they are once more an issue in a major European war concerning the Habsburg dynasty. During the War of the austrian succession the French invade the province, occupying it from 1745.

The southern Netherlands are returned to Austria in 1748 by the Treaty of aix-la-chapelle. They then enjoy periods of unusual peace under Maria Theresa and of much resented reform under her son Joseph II. Dissatisfaction at his rule, combined with the exhilarating events south of the border in France, prompts an uprising which expels the Austrians from Brussels in 1789.

Over the next five years Austrian armies twice recapture the region (in 1790 and 1793) and are twice driven out by French revolutionary forces (1792 and 1794). French occupation of the Austrian Netherlands is an established fact after the conclusive battle of Fleurus in June 1794.

A year later the Convention in Paris annexes Belgium as part of the French republic (a state of affairs reluctantly accepted by the Austrian emperor at Campo formio in 1797, and confirmed four years later at Lunéville). After 1799 Belgium benefits from many of Napoleon's reforms, both administrative and legal, applied here as elsewhere in France. Similarly Belgian industries benefit from the wider market of the French empire.

Kingdom of the Netherlands: AD 1815-1830

It is a much argued question among historians whether the political unity imposed from above in 1815 on the entire region of the Netherlands has a natural validity and could have lasted. The recent centuries of European history have seen, for the most part, the emergence of nations with a clear geographical identity.

Geography unites the entire Netherlands, a region of low-lying land (as the name states) in the delta of the Rhine. But history has contributed deep divisions - of Language (the closely related Dutch and Flemish in the north, French in the south) and of Religion (Protestant in the north, Catholic in the south). To complicate matters further, the linguistic and religious boundaries are not the same.

These historical problems, and the distrust arising from them, complicate the efforts of William I to rule the entire area. Suitable gestures are made. The seat of government is to alternate annually between The Hague and Brussels. Dutch is made the official Language (being spoken by all in the north and by many in the south), but this rule is only enforced in the Flemish regions.

Inevitably there is much to complain about. Religious liberty, standard in the north and now imposed on the south, pleases southern liberals but offends southern Catholics. The north, with a smaller population, has as many seats in the states general as the south. And French Catholics are being ruled by a Dutch Protestant king.

William I benefits in the early 1820s from an increase in prosperity in both parts of his kingdom and from bitter disagreement in the south between the liberal and Catholic factions. But in 1828 the two sides come together in a pact known as the 'union of parties'. Together they sponsor a petition drawing attention to southern grievances. By the end of 1829 it has more than 300,000 signatures, representing a tenth of Belgium's population.

Unrest is therefore already in the air when News from paris, in July 1830, raises the tension in Brussels - and sets off the events which finally divide the Netherlands into two independent nations.

This History is as yet incomplete.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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