Home Moving to Belgium Society & History The history of Belgium: Part three
Last update on June 15, 2020

The arrival of the powerful Dukes of Burgundy in the 15th century brings wealth and power to the Low Countries, but the division between Belgium and Holland unravels it all.

Following almost four centuries of petty power disputes between local lords, the 15th and 16th centuries mark the arrival of the powerful Dukes of Burgundy and a rise in wealth and power to the ‘Low Countries’ region. But it doesn’t last as the division between Belgium and Holland begins to form.

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.


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.