Home Moving to Belgium Society & History The history of Belgium
Last update on May 12, 2021
Written by CIA World Factbook

Belgian history involves lengthy periods under the rule of other European empires, as well as a lengthy period of imperial conquest of its own. Here’s an introduction to the history of Belgium.

Belgium became independent from the Netherlands in 1830. It was occupied by Germany during World Wars I and II. The country prospered in the past half century as a modern, technologically-advanced European state and a member of NATO and the EU. Tensions between the Dutch-speaking Flemish of the north and the French-speaking Walloons of the south have led, in recent years, to constitutional amendments granting these regions formal recognition and autonomy.

Brief history of Belgium

In 1948 Belgium became a co-signatory to the Benelux Customs Union along with the Netherlands and Luxembourg. This later became the Benelux Economic Union in 1958 and in 2008 the treaty between the three countries was renewed and revised under the title of the Benelux Union. Belgium was a founding member of NATO (it is the site of NATO Headquarters) in 1949 and the European Economic Community (EEC) (now the European Union (EU)) in 1957 and also participated in the introduction of the Euro (EUR) in a two-phased approach in 1999 (accounting phase) and 2002 (monetary phase) to replace the Belgian Franc (BEF). Belgium is also a member country of the Schengen Area in which border controls with other Schengen members have been eliminated while at the same those with non-Schengen countries have been strengthened.

A small country with no obvious start or finish

Except for the North Sea, Belgium has no natural or even realistic boundaries. Logically, the estuary of the river Scheldt should be the boundary in the north, but both banks are Dutch. The other borders are simply lines on a map with no concern given to any physical characteristics. Like colonial territories, the major European players imposed Belgium’s frontiers long before Belgium became an independent state.

Nevertheless, the Low Countries as a territory apart has actually existed in an elastic form from pre-history. The Low Countries as they are referred to here include the territories of Benelux today and sometimes a bit of Germany to the east and France to the south – at the same time – divided into independent provinces and principalities.

The first Belgians? The Omalians

Traces of man in Belgium since predawn history exists, but the earliest Neolithic group known are the Omalians, which were found only on the exceptionally fertile Hesbaye plateau near Liege. Neolithic man was the first farmer, experimenting with agriculture, stockbreeding and the use of metals.

Although the Omalians were seemingly present for thousands of years, they mysteriously disappeared leaving only their black, richly decorated pottery with loop handles for hanging, millstones and well-made tools. No graves, or urns of ashes have been found and most particularly, no weapons… indicating a peace loving people.

The Michelsbergs: the arrival of the warriors

The Michelsberg people who came onto the scene next were quite different, skilfully producing well-made weapons and tools. Operating a large quarry and flint mines, they actually manufactured implements in successive stages by workers in factories on site and commercially exported them to other tribes as far as England.

They built the first Belgian protected lake dwellings, developed farms with domesticated animals, but still hunted wild game. Considered religious, they buried their dead as skeletons stripped of flesh in caves in orderly rows and later, when more room was needed, reburied them in a communal grave.

The Metal and Bronze Age: the advent of daily shaving

Other groups also settled in the area now known as Belgium, intermingling with the Michelsberg people and utilizing their crafted tools and weapons. The most recognizable were of Spanish origin and they had a social hierarchy based on two classes – rich and poor. They built table-stones and huge tombs in the valley of the Ourthe, ate cooked meat, were farmers and bred domesticated stock while trading over unusually large distances for such primitive times.

Metals began to be used in the area for tools and weapons around 5000 BC and bronze around 1750 BC. Introducing the sword and the sickle and the continued development of cutting utensils revolutionized society.

Man cutting his beard for the first time in history symbolized an advanced people, and clothes became an important social status with increased design possibilities coming from the use of the safety pin to hold fabric firmly instead of bone.

Second Century BC: Lock up your sheep the Celts are coming!

In the final centuries before Christ, the Celts with a frightening new weapon, the iron sword, moved across the Rhine invading the countryside all the way to England. The Belgae, a Celtic people arrived late in Belgium, establishing themselves by the 2nd century BC. These were warriors, but still of an advanced civilization bringing great changes to the local tribes who rather than being annihilated were forced to submission and to the adoption of the Celtic ways.

Amongst the other actors along their path, they were in direct contact with the Greeks, coining their money and worshipping similar gods. They wore trousers and hooded coats, built oaken boats capable of sailing the high seas, which enabled them to trade the advanced iron weapons and tools produced with forges they constructed on the coal field in Hainaut.

56 BC Ceasar’s Conquest: Italians impose civilization (?)

Despite the Belgae’s fierce warrior reputation, around 56 BC Julius Cesar’s army swiftly conquered the region. Invading from the Champagne area, he defeated the huge Nervii family (Brabant) near Cambrai, and besieged and enslaved the Atuatuci (Namur Province) resulting in the surrender of the rest over the next year. (Read the highly popular “Asterix” cartoon series for delightful tales of Roman – Belgae battles).

The area flourished under Roman rule over four centuries and traces of this powerful empire may be found at every turn. Rome let the inhabitants govern themselves. Though the sparse population generally lived on large farms or estates, in the major towns popular assembly (comita) elected magistrates. As these office holders were unpaid and had to finance all ceremonies, games and such not affordable by the community, they had to be rich. But in turn, Rome granted them flattering titles and honours, which were recognized throughout the empire.

What have the Romans ever given us?

Each tribe’s centre was given a city name, resulting in thirty-five cities, each divided into districts (pagi) and what local administration was required (supervision of local authority, public works, road and bridge maintenance) was reinforced by a central administration of Roman civil servants located in Reims.

Taxation was also centralized, based on a census conducted every 15 years, which became increasingly onerous on the local population. Nevertheless, trade in foodstuffs increased enormously for the Belgae and with Roman encouragement, industry from textiles, glass and ceramics to arms, chariots and tools took on even greater importance with exports to all reaches of the empire.

The greatest benefit for the Belgae was the solidly constructed Roman road system, traces of which may still be found. The main route between today’s Cologne and Boulogne on the coast crossed two important Belgian rivers, the Schelt and the Meuse, placing the region in the heart of one of the great crossroads of Europe.

455–843 Frankish Empire: The start of the great divide

A slow peaceful invasion takes place – more like a colonisation of the sparsely populated lands of today’s Flanders. It was at this time that the division between the Flemish and Walloons originated.

The Franks were not conquerors. Accepted by the Romans as mercenaries with their own chiefs, they were loyal to Rome and considered themselves a part of its army. They used its political organisation and titles, and even dressed in Roman style. But the language became Frankish, a primitive form of Dutch, and was used throughout the region right down to Paris and the Loire. Latin was the language of the church. Frankish was used for administration. The upper/ruling classes employed both.

Merovingian Dynasty

Even Clovis, a warrior chief of Tournai and the first of the Merovingian kings who subdued the whole of Gaul in 481, took the Roman title of Patrician (representative of the Emperor in Gaul). The Franks remained pagans even though Clovis converted to Christianity, making an important alliance with the church. Having transferred his administration to Paris, Clovis and his successors, were dependent on the priests to maintain control and sent many missionaries into pagan Belgium.

While the Merovingian dynasty had civil servants, a treasury, raised taxes and did their best to aid merchants and expand trade, times became primitive, almost barbaric. Northern Gaul was increasingly isolated from the Mediterranean, which was held by the Visigoths or Burgundian kingdoms. Under attack by Arabs and Saracens, the prosperous commerce founded by the Roman Empire came to a halt.

750–843 Charlemagne was Belgian (well almost) shock

A new dynasty [the Carolingians] rose up in 750, but by the time Charlemagne’s reign began in 768, the world of Gaul had turned about. There was no gold, taxation or civil servants. No aristocrats, intellectuals or teachers. The technical skills, communication systems had all disappeared. Life was agricultural with deteriorated roads and transportation. The villages by necessity had become self-contained.

Under Charlemagne, the Frankish world became centred on the now Belgian territory, the region from which his family originated. Due to the deterioration of the economy, his administration was based on direct personal transactions, mutual service and on gifts of land, but his success in rejuvenating the life of his people was a result of his own great activities.

Trade and Prosperity: Stirrups and the return of the bishops

Establishing a hierarchy of chieftains loyal to him, Charlemagne enlarged the frontiers of the Empire eastward into Germany overcoming the Saxons. He established a new trading area north and south for Flemish wool and textiles and the metal products of Wallonia. New contacts with the Mediterranean world, via the Rhine and the Adriatic brought further trade, while advancing technology from those lands, such as the watermill for milling grain, freed a large source of manpower for other work.

It is interesting to note that the introduction of the stirrup into Europe during this period. This revolutionized warfare by permitting horsemen to carry heavy armour, thus becoming deadly fighting machines.

Christianity, which had fallen to such a low status that there were no bishops in Belgium during the 6th century, slowly returned in strength in the 7th and the Carolingian family established numerous important abbeys throughout its reign.

830–900 The Norsemen are coming: hide your sheep (again)

Belgium ceded to Lothair by his three grandsons, which became known as the Duchy of Lotharingia [Loring]. This coincided with external attacks on the whole region by major enemies: Arabs, Avars, Hungarians, Slavs and the most ferocious, the Norsemen. Sweeping up rivers on their small Viking ships, the pagan warriors of Scandinavia devastated the surrounding countryside.

By using the stolen horses of their first victims they would rape the countryside, then rapidly evacuate the scene before armed resistance could be organized.

With its navigable rivers, the Belgian countryside was exceptionally hard hit. The abbeys and their priests were specially targeted as the Norsemen blamed the church for the suppression of their fellow pagan Saxon tribes in Germany. The Vikings even set up a fortified camp in Louvain where they were finally defeated in 891 by the Emperor, Arnold of Carinthia, but their actual disappearance from the scene is believed to be due to the lack of new settlements to pillage.

Devastation: Belgium becomes wasteland (again)

Belgium had become a wasteland by the year 900. After almost 60 years of attacks by the Norsemen and continued invasions by the Hungarians, the population that had not been slaughtered had sought miserable refuge in castles of local lords or fled into Germany or France. There were no governments in the towns except the feudal lords. All commerce had halted – the entire structure of society was gone.

Restoration measures had to be supported by those of defence. During the last 20 years of the 9th century the construction of urban fortifications of the cities against the invading hoards had reached its height. The disintegration of society not only proved profitable to the local lords as the only authority capable of defending the people, but with the slaughter or flight of the priests, the great wealth and property of the abbeys fell into their hands.

Feudal Society: Plague, famine and insurrection

The people returned no longer to great rural estates, but to the protection of the lords’ fortified cities and towns, each with its own military organization. Feudal principalities such as the County of Flanders, Namur, Hainaut and the Duchy of Brabant appeared. These turbulent counts set themselves up as independent communities, resisting the attempts of the kings, dukes and ruling bishops to control them. Unfortunately for the people, the next four centuries were ones of repetitive struggles for domination – all too complicated to be covered here.

Then in the 13th and 14th century the opposition to the lords came from the people themselves seeking greater power with the craft unions coming to the fore. Local disruptions, insurrections, revolutions, inter-city wars, famine, along with the horrors of the plague were the order of the day.

Belgium responsible for Crusades

This was also the period of the great crusades [four from 1095 – 1204]. To the people who had survived horrible slaughter, great starvation, anarchy–and were still subject to the tyrannies and oppressions of petty nobles–the church had become all-important as their defender. Despite repeated slaughter of the participants and completely innocent “infidels”, the crusades, which all started in Belgium, received a mix of sincere and fanatic support. Driven to religious fervour by monks and led by the lords–the most famous being Godfrey of Bouillon–thousands of ordinary men and their families went through great deprivation only to be massacred on reaching the Middle East.

Burgundian Era

As Regent of France, Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy had intervened on the part of his father-in-law, the Count of Flanders, in the final major revolution of the 14th century (Flanders’ cities vs the Weavers).

On the latter’s death, the Duke inherited the Count’s title and lands. Now known as Bold the Count of Flanders he was considered a farsighted ruler and pursued a policy of marriages of state that unified the Low Countries.

Followed by Duke John the Fearless under his son Duke Philip the Good (power rather than piety), all the provinces of today’s Belgium and Holland, came under his control and the region grew to be the richest in Europe.

A series of convenient deaths of important local nobles assisted his consolidation of the lands, but his greatest achievement was the organization of the court. He subjugated the nobility and established the divine status of the sovereign. Philip the Good established the role of future kings as absolute monarchs.

Prosperity

The nobles went along enthusiastically competing and intriguing for places in the court. Prestige was heightened with the creation of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Complete with sumptuous ceremonies, the rigid requirements of birth, ethics and attainments, The Order satisfied the nobles’ need to be considered a privileged class. The Low Countries now achieved great prosperity in industry and trade affecting all levels of society. Philip the Good’s fiefdom was considered the most advanced in Europe. The great Katholieke Universiteit Leuven was founded at this time.

Progress came to a halt under the reign of his son, the 4th Duke, Charles the Bold (1467–1477), marked by the total destruction of Liège and wars with the towns of Alsace. His death in a battle with their allies, the Swiss, aroused brutal popular insurrection against his civil servants throughout the Low Countries. Taking advantage of the internal conflicts Louis XI of France conquered Burgundy, which then became a province of France.

The surviving civil servants and nobles of the Duke’s party tried unsuccessfully to seize Flanders. With all the Low Country provinces in favour of turning to the Hapsburgs of Germany as their defender, Mary of Burgundy the Duke’s daughter was married to Archduke Maximilian, the son of Emperor Frederick III. Thus the fate of the region passed into the hands of the Hapsburgs.

House of Hapsburg

Archduke Maximilian was soon involved in a brutal civil war to obtain the regency for his children on the early death of Mary. Devastation reigned once again with the old Flanders towns favouring France in conflict with the German-oriented newer communities of Brabant and Holland. While he succeeded in subduing the rebels, the Archduke shortly turned the reigns over to his son Philip I on his own ascension as Emperor of Germany. This was the beginning of one of the largest and most important kingdoms ever. Philip I [the Handsome] of the Low Countries married Princess Joanna [the Mad], and their son, Charles, inherited Castile and Aragon, Naples and Sicily, Spanish America and the Indies — through his grandfather he became the head of the House of Hapsburg and inherited the Low Countries, the Artois, Austria, the Tyrol and Styria. Thus in 1516, in a ceremony in Brussels’ Church of St Gudule, Charles, Sovereign of the Low Countries and Duke of Burgundy was proclaimed Charles V, King of the Spanish Empire in 1516.

Charles V

The reign of Charles V was one of renewed prosperity for the Low Countries, now called The Spanish Lowlands, and they became a centre of the flourishing Renaissance. The working life of intellectuals was extended into the winter by the use of window glass in prosperous homes and buildings. And the invention of spectacles permitted smaller-sized books, which lead to improved printing and moveable type.

Charles used the local nobility for staffing his personal guard and for his best regiments. The people who identified with the Empire became worldwide merchants and explorers. The spirit of liberty was at its height and the political regime was essentially republican.

Through the Estates General, nobility had wide powers from controlling the public purse and approval of international treaties to consulting on matters of justice. In addition, the Estates General had to consent to the inauguration and recognition of each sovereign prince. The general population, even the middle classes, however, remained ignorant and superstitious leading to a furious fanaticism in the religious wars to come.

Philip II

Charles V abdicated in favour of his son in 1555. In contrast to that of his father, the reign of Philip II in the second half of the 16th century was one of continual conflict. Raised in Spain, Philip V ruled through his appointed governors and remained remote from the dominating lords of the Lowlands. Due to wars with France, the Spanish Kingdom was near bankruptcy while the independent Estates General or Councils of the Lowlands were increasingly obstinate in fulfilling his demands for desperately needed funds. One of their stipulations was that the Spanish troops be withdrawn. The military leaders consisted mainly of impoverished Spanish nobles, who were arrogant, deeply pious and, having brought along their own families, had little contact with and intensely offended the local people.

Revolt of the Dutch

As a fervid Catholic, Philip II fully believed his dynasty and the greatness of his kingdom were bound closely to the church and it was his position to defend it. This alone would have brought him into conflict for the liberal Lowlands had become a refuge for the embattled Calvinists from Germany and France whose belief’s spread to many of the area’s important leaders and people.

As Calvinism grew stronger and increasingly important the people became inordinate in their demands. Meanwhile, the King made all the wrong moves through his representative Cardinal Granvelle who as Governor was in continual power disputes with the Estates. Philip finally disarmed himself by accepting the recall of his troops and then the Cardinal.

The resulting anarchy caused unemployment and mob destruction of church property. With increasing excesses by the Protestants, in 1567 the King sent in the Duke of Alba with his troops to restore order. Six years of excessive brutal repression followed. There were public executions without hearings of some 10,000 to 20,000 Protestants including the very rich and important Counts of Egmont and Hoorn.

While the Duke was temporarily successful in achieving peace, to raise the much-needed funds for the Kingdom he introduced a turnover tax on every transaction. This move halted all economic activity overnight and turning the entire country, including the Duke’s catholic supporters, against him and Spain. The uprisings, sieges, battles and atrocities which followed, including the massacre of Catholic Mechelin, led to the final breach between Spain and the Lowlands’ inhabitants.

1578–1596 Alessandro Farnese

By the time Alba was replaced by a new Governor, Alessandro Farnese in 1573, the Low Countries were divided into four distinct districts:

  • South: Luxembourg, Namur, Limburg and part of Hainaut – Catholic
  • North: Holland and Zeeland – Calvinist
  • Center: Brabant and Flanders – Calvinist minority dominating by terror
  • Far South: Southern, now French provinces – Calvinist in civil war against Catholics rallying to Spain The Artois, southern Hainaut, southern Flanders (Arras, Lille, Valenciennes & surrounding region)

Under Farnese, the southern provinces signed a Catholic Union ‘Peace of Arras’ in 1579, followed immediately by a Protestant one ‘Union of Utrecht’ led by William of Orange. Thus the future Holland and Belgium were born.

Farnese was to bring Flanders and Brabant back into the fold by military siege and by diplomacy forbidding Protestant worship, but letting the Calvinist practice their religion quietly or emigrate. Nevertheless, the huge emigration of its people to the north during this traumatic period not only deprived Belgium of immense wealth and intellect for several generations, but it heightened the extremists’ influence in each country and deepened the divide between them.

Spanish Lowlands: Burn the witch!

The Spanish Lowlands, now made up of Flanders, Brabant, Hainaut, Namur and Luxemburg, became Philip’s defender of the Catholic faith in the north. It was established as an independent domain under his daughter, the Infanta Isabella and her husband, Archduke Albert retaining. The country became ultra pious under the Infanta. Religious orders increased immensely and the Jesuits established some thirty colleges, but the Catholic hold on the people stifled literature and thought. Life for the remaining Protestants became increasingly difficult, driving many more into Holland. The rest became heretics who could be tried as witches – meaning the death penalty. Death at the stake and witch hunting became a key tool for the persecution of Protestants. Thousands of innocents were burned.

Independent domain of Spain

Already devastated by the religious wars, as the border area between the northern Protestant states and the Catholic south, the remaining Spanish Lowlands came under repeated attacks. The people endured a life under siege within the shelter of city walls. Trading came to a halt as the seaward outlets had been cut off. Germany, the major trading partner, had been almost destroyed during the Thirty Years War (population declined from 20 million to three to four million). As the commercial elite had sold out and fled north there were no longer any merchants, brokers, exchanges or bankers. The country’s only recourse was to turn inward, and successfully modernised its agriculture. It reached the point of self-sufficiency.

Yet this was the age of colonial expansion with great cities like London and Amsterdam dominating their incredibly prosperous countries. Belgium however refused to change, maintaining its autonomous cities and regions with the lords, the church hierarchy and the guilds rivalling each other over concerns related to their local privileges.

Austrian rule 1715–1792: Belgium isolated

After the Peace of Utrecht (1713), the Lowlands came under the sovereignty of Emperor Charles VI, the head of the German branch of the House of Hapsburg in Vienna. Austria was now the seat of the Supreme Council, but this made little difference, as Belgium had become virtually isolated from the main currents of European civilisation. The 27-year reign of his governors in Belgium started with the perpetual disputes over local rights and privileges, but may be termed as relatively peaceful and very pious.

Under the long reign of his daughter, the extremely popular Empress Maria-Therese (1740–1780), efforts were made to restore Belgium’s earlier prosperity. New construction increased major roadways from some 40 miles to 620 miles at the end of the century, including the important cross-country highway from Aachen and Ostend. A new rugged three compartment, spring mounted stagecoach was introduced with greater capacity, comfort and speed. Further, with the addition of horse-drawn canal boats serving food aboard for those who wished leisurely comfort, Belgium became a much-travelled country.

Reforms and Revolt: The short lived United States of Belgium (USB)

Her son and successor, Emperor Joseph II, coming to the throne in 1780, attempted to reform the local political and social scene and free it from the heavy hand of the church and nobles. After abolishing all contemplative religious orders and most of the ecclesiastical seminaries, he applied censorship of sermons and took a census of church property for eventual confiscation. Then just ahead of the French Revolution (1789) he attacked the ingrained position of the burghers and the nobility by abolishing all privileges. In place of the independent provinces and their governing Estates-Generals, he established nine districts (much like today’s provinces) with appointed administrators, and completely reorganised the judicial system in a manner much similar to that effected later by Napoleon. His changes affected every branch of the country and would have been judged admirable except that with no transitional period involved, overnight hundreds of thousands of office-holders lost their livelihood without compensation.

The explosion of protests overwhelmed even the supporters of administrative reform. Meanwhile the whole continent was aflame with revolutionary ideals following the turbulence in Paris. The ensuing uprising sent the Austrian troops in flight to Luxembourg and led to the declaration and adoption of the Constitution of the States of United Belgium, based on that of the new USA. With reprisals by the new Emperor Leopold II aided by the Statists (those who wanted a return to the old set up) the Constitution was abolished but the region remained in turmoil.

In the meantime, the people of the Bishopric of Liège, highly prosperous, ultra-liberal with a large industrial proletariat and always independent of the Lowlands, revolted against their Hapsburg Bishop as well (August 1789 – just two months after the taking of The Bastille in Paris).

Belgium unites as a country

Both revolutions collapsed on the return of the Austrian Army. The inhabitants of the two regions overrode their mutual loathing and sent an appeal to France, their only hope. Though the French revolutionaries had originally made proclamations of neighbourly peace, it was the Belgians themselves who influenced this change by requesting help in their struggle for liberation. It may be said that 20 January 1792 is the real birthday of modern Belgium, the date when the refugees in Paris formed the Committee of United Belgians and Liégois. In April they adopted a new Belgian constitution with a referendum, an appeal to the people and provision for an assembly to be elected by universal suffrage of all citizens of voting age.

Belgium was liberated by military action with the victors acclaimed even by the Statists and while elections followed, confusion reigned due to a general European war against France. Liège voted annexation to France, but with the defeat of the French armies, Belgium was reoccupied by the Austrians for 14 months. This short period saved the new country from the class and religious hatreds, which arose at that time in France under Robspierre.

When France retook the country in June 1794 there was only minor emigration, no confiscation of property and though out of power, the former governing classes kept their fortunes and maintained their influence. Some anti-clericalism arose with the destruction of some abbeys and convents. While the clergy lost its great fortunes and land, their influence on the people remained. In contrast to France, there was no class hatred or civil war in the following century.

Annexation by France 1795–1813

The annexation by France in 1795 swept away the old feudal system, uniting Liège and the former Spanish Lowlands under liberated laws. Given the same rights of equality, justice and freedom of action as French citizens, the Belgians received their new status with enthusiasm. Some difficulties arose amongst the pious Belgian Catholics concerning the anti-religious campaign – confiscation of the immense landed property of the church and oath-taking requirements of priests, and peasants rebelled against conscription into the French army. However, Belgium received great benefits, as a part of France and eventually on Napoleon’s reconciliation with the Pope the people felt free to support the Empire wholeheartedly.

Belgium rose to be the most advanced industrial region of the French Republic. With far reaching new markets opened for Belgian products, profits rose to great heights. The population rate soared, while productivity increased immensely in both industry and agriculture. The successes of Napoleon resulted in an industrial boom, while even his ceaseless wars augmented Belgium’s prosperity in meeting the ever-increasing supply demands of the French army.

Belgium, a modern nation

Support for the Empire broke down in the last four years of the Empire commencing with religious strife following Napoleon’s break with the Pope. The Belgian Bishops’ dispute with the Empire aroused Catholic opposition, particularly amongst the Flemmings. Further, increased compulsory military duty resulted in large-scale refusals and desertions, while the growing dictatorial nature of the Imperial regime became strongly resented. The subsequent takeover by the allies in 1813 was quick (only Liège remained pro-French) and met no opposition.

Nevertheless, the French regime had established the basis for Belgium as a modern nation. It had lifted its administration, socially and politically, out of a past of privilege, with modern laws, freedom and justice. It had unified Belgian citizens to think of themselves as one people for the first time and brought into being a new social class – a hard working elite who had prospered under the Empire and who would be the nation’s leading families for many generations.

Union with the Netherlands 1815–1830

To ensure equality of power, two capitals – Brussels and Den Haag – were established where equal numbers of deputies would alternately sit in the governing body, the Estates General. Most importantly, in view of their historical relations, freedom of worship was guaranteed.

Economically the partnership was ideal with Belgium’s powerful industry (particularly as it was now separated from its French market) complementing Holland’s shipping trade with its wealthy colonies. Unfortunately, the Belgians had not been consulted and considered themselves being treated as second-class citizens.

They were disgruntled that the lesser-populated Dutch country enjoyed an equal number of votes in the Estates General. They were soon complaining that there were a disproportionate number of Dutchmen in the civil service (though this was in reality due to a high illiteracy rate in the Flemish countryside resulting in fewer trained Belgians available).

King William created prosperity by reorganising and revitalising industry, trade and credit (he established the industrial bank, the Société Générale), bringing unbelievable wealth to the Belgian south. Unfortunately he made little effort to be popular. An excellent economist, he was authoritarian, disliked any parliamentary system and consistently refused advice.

Belgians revolt 1830

King William caused serious resentment in the early to mid 1820s by establishing Dutch as the official language and taking anti-clerical measures by control of education and the seminaries. By the end of the decade the situation had become explosive.

The opposition was demanding freedom of education and the press, industry stagnated throughout Europe and unemployment rose drastically. The workers’ purchasing power was waning rapidly with frozen wages and rising food prices. With an enormous increase in population, workers’ sons were out on the streets demanding jobs, and the middle-class was clamouring for reform and political power through a parliament.

A minor disruption by young unemployed workers outside the Opera House, Théâtre de la Monnaie, in Brussels following a performance for the King’s birthday on 23 August 1830 set off a series of small skirmishes including the bombardment and burning of Antwerp (though no one believed or wanted it to be the start of a revolution). During this confusing period a number of provisional governments were set up and while elections followed, an indignant Europe readied itself to restore the power to William or see the division of the country.

An independent Belgium

Power politics now came to the fore. To maintain the balance of power and deter an incipient general war in Europe, the major nations agreed to the independence of Belgium. Its congress elected Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the throne of Belgium, but the new King Leopold had barely made his ceremonial entry into Brussels in July 1831, when Holland launched an attack. Nearly defeated, but saved by the French army, Belgium was to remain in a state of war with Holland for the next nine years.

Enter Leopold I

King Leopold I came to the throne of Belgium with very influential connections and a rather extraordinary past. Already in 1830, he had accepted and then refused the throne of Greece.

A very handsome, shrewd and dignified man with an appealing personality, he moved in the highest ranks of European society. A brother-in-law of the Czar’s brother, he had married the heiress presumptive to the English crown, Princess Charlotte (who had broken her engagement with the Prince of Orange, his future adversary, King William I).

He thus became an English citizen, and briefly, the Prince Consort of England. Following Charlotte’s death and that of their baby one year later, he stayed on at Kensington. Another sister’s subsequent marriage to the Duke of Kent placed him in the royal family once more, becoming the favourite uncle to the future Queen Victoria. Remaining in close contact through letters throughout his life, she married his nephew by an elder brother, Prince Albert. Eventually, he became the son-in-law of the King of France, his second wife Louise Marie, daughter of King Louis Philippe.

Establishment of a parliamentary system

At the same time, the parliamentary system, though somewhat weak, was becoming firmly established with two major political forces: the Catholics (largely rural and dominating education) and the Liberals (mainly from the big cities) who struggled for domination throughout the 19th century. Voting rights were extended, the government becoming more centralised, while reforms were being made in public education, credit and free trade.

Despite economic difficulties in its beginning years, the country surged to even greater heights of prosperity. This was the age of iron and steel. Innovations and tremendous expansion of metal working led to lower prices which in turn led to vastly increased demand. Belgium was turning into an industrial giant.

This development had little in way of benefit for the workers, however, whose situation was steadily worsening. Wages remained incredibly low, child labour was at its height, and to meet the demand for workers, already impoverished peasants moved into the factories.

Leopold and the Belgian Congo

King Leopold II, who succeeded his father in December 1865, took little interest in internal politics being concerned mainly with developing Belgium’s commercial strength. Considering it vital for an industrial state to have colonies supplying the needed raw materials, he set about finding one.

From about 1870 to 1905, he employed his army officers (available to him as Supreme Commander) for exploration, his diplomats for European negotiations, and his own immense wealth (a financier, through shrewd investments he’d vastly increased the substantial wealth he’d inherited from his father) to establish the Congo as a personal domain. He hired the services of the English explorer Stanley (who had discovered the upper course of the Congo) to sign treaties with some 500 local chieftains. He manipulated the competing colonial nations to recognise the new independent Congo and finally, himself as its Chief of State in 1885.

The Congo was uniquely his personal property, comprising some 1.25 million square miles. It was a financial monarchy of state monopolies, with forced labour and controlled commercialism. The eventual public outcry on the exposure of abuses of forced labour and exploitation of the native peoples at the turn of the century led to the international demand the Congo be annexed to Belgium, which, after great reluctance, Parliament did in 1909.

Belgium: The empire strikes back

The King employed his influence and often his own wealth in the interest of Belgian ventures worldwide. With his support, the country acquired a financial empire of 3,800 miles of railroad track in South America, 1,900 miles in China, a monopoly of public services and electrical supply in 75 major foreign cities throughout Europe and Russia. Belgium’s extensive, worldwide investment included 56 large firms in Germany, 68 in Spain and 70 in France.

Leopold II was one of the dominating figures of the 19th century, yet despite his prodigious efforts for Belgium’s expansion, he was not popular at home. Aloof, outspoken and unhappily married to Marie-Henriette, Archduchess of Austria and Princess Royal of Hungary (who lived apart in the Ardennes), his trysts with numerous women in Paris scandalised his conservative, catholic kingdom.

He lost his only son early, treated his four daughters harshly (the lovely Stephanie married the Archduke and heir to the Austrian throne, Rudolf, of Mayerling fame) and died lonely and embittered at having to give up the Congo.

All this time, the country concerned itself with internal politics, notably the heightened struggle between the Catholic and Liberal parties over education.

The rise of socialism

During the long battle over the establishment of free state schools by the Liberals to reduce the Catholic’s control of education through church schools, the politicians on both sides paid little attention to the misery of the peasants and workers. Belgium was the richest country in Europe, yet wages remained at bare subsistence levels. When foreign competition threatened its industry, it was considered a logical step to lower wages to reduce production costs.

Socialism’s rise was slow and cautious, but inevitable. Regular peaceful mass marches of workers demanded universal suffrage, and finally in 1890 they brought the two major parties to compromise on an increase in the electorate from 137,000 voters to 1.350 million (all males over 25). But these included 500 thousand privileged voters as fathers of families, taxpayers and holders of university degrees with extra votes totalling 1.24 million against the remaining 850 thousand. Thus the system heavily favoured the petty bourgeoisie and the Catholic peasantry, resulting in the Catholics sweeping the surprised Liberals out in the next elections. Though steadily losing ground, the Catholic party remained in power for 30 years, while the Socialist party starting with 30 seats maintained it’s goal of universal suffrage.

By the end of Leopold II’s 44-year reign in the first decade of the 20th century, the population had grown to 7.5 million from four million in 1830, with farm workers decreasing to 23 percent (lower than US). Belgium, with the world’s most advanced railroad system, had become the fourth greatest industrial power and was exporting a third of its production.