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Western Europe

Prince-Bishopric of Liège: Territory

by William Willems, 13 July 2024

Historically the term 'Pays de Liège' (the 'Land of Liège') initially referred to the county of Liège in Lower Lorraine (modern Belgium).

It generally designated the area between the cities of Liège, Waremme, and Huy, plus part of Condroz, and the bordering Ardennes, located in the immediate vicinity of the city of Liège, the 'ardent' city.

Later the 'Land of Liège' also referred to the ecclesiastical principality of Liège, in particular the French and Dutch-speaking part of the episcopal principality, the latter mainly being located in the modern Belgian province of Limburg.

It was generally referred to as the 'Pays Mosan' (the 'Land of the Meuse'). This name was then also used to designate the short-lived 'Liège Republic' (1789-1791).

The diocese of the medieval bishops of Liège was, until 1559, much larger than the prince-bishopric of Liège. It largely included the territory of what are now the Dutch and Belgian provinces of Limburg. The diocese was an ecclesiastical domain over which the bishop exercised spiritual power.

It was a vast territory. From north to south it stretched from the mouth of the Meuse and the Rhine to the Semois and Bouillon, and from west to east from Leuven as far as Aachen. It was one of the largest bishoprics in the early German kingdom.

The moral and religious authority of the bishop extended over a territory which reached beyond the lands of the principality. Some prince-bishops succeeded in the tour de force of persuading the other counts of the diocese to grant them responsibility for public order over the whole of the diocese.

Since the time of Clovis, first king of a single, unified Merovingian Frankish kingdom, Frankish territories had been divided up into administrative districts called cantons.

At the head of these cantons could be found counts, functionaries who were charged with managing the territory in the name of the king, who were appointed by him, and also quite possibly deposed by him. The positions were not hereditary but, progressively however, from the ninth century onwards these counts made great efforts to make that the case, a task in which they finally succeeded.

They therefore became territorial princes whose power and riches increased at the same time as did their independence from the king, whether Carolingian or German. In the tenth century, the German emperor retained room for manoeuvre in terms of disposing of counties.

His entourage also had the idea of giving vacant canton posts to bishops. The emperor therefore made the counts genuine territorial princes but without their fiefdoms being hereditary. For a long time a bishop could not be married and could therefore not have any legitimate children.

Map of Germany AD 962
Germany in AD 962 may have had its new emperor to govern those territories which are shown within the dark black line, but it was still a patchwork of competing interests and power bases (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Socio-Political Features

The system did not just include the granting of powers but also the granting of lands each time this was possible. It was in this way that the principality was built up, starting off in the early days with odds and ends of territory which had to be meshed together, a common problem for most such principalities.

The secular (temporal) power of the prince-bishop of Liège was geographically limited to the territory of the principality. This complicated situation of inconsistent ecclesiastical and secular boundaries would not be remedied until centuries later, with the new diocese of 1559.

The prince administered justice, recruited troops, built fortifications, and produced coins, which means that Liège's bishop had powers which were similar to those of other counts and princes. Traditionally the bishop was also a great property owner.

It can be seen that it is necessary to distinguish between the diocese, property ownership, and the principality, where the bishop exercised the powers he had as a count. The three never coincided.

Throughout the Middle Ages the prince-bishops - whether they belonged to the imperial clan or were dominated by French influences - systematically aimed at enlarging their territory.

Shortly after the founding of the principality in 980 and 985, the prince-bishopric was further and gradually expanded by donations and by acquisitions through purchase or annexation.

Liège's territory grew considerably, the marquisate of Franchimont (1014) was a gift, with further donations including the seigneury and monastery of Florennes (1015), Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse, and the county of Haspinga (1040) in the Hesbaye region (Haspengouw), between the rivers Meuse and Geer.

The power of the counts of Namur was destroyed, and Dinant was stolen from them in 1070. The county of Hainaut became a vassal in 1071. Other acquisitions were the towns Waremme (1078) and Couvin and their castles, and several other castles such as Argenteau, Mirwart, and Clermont.

The lordship and castle of Bouillon were purchased in 1096 (being ceded to France in 1678).

The county of Loon (Borgloon, Looz, almost all of modern Belgium's Limburg) was most certainly annexed in 1366, and then the county of Horn (in today's Netherlands Limburg) in 1568.

They disputed the fertile territories of the Flemish Haspengouw (Hesbaye) region with the dukes of Brabant, along with the passages of the lower Meuse.

The principality of Liège developed entirely independently. Initially made up of scattered territories which belonged to two different linguistic areas (French-speaking and Dutch-speaking), the various enclaves within the territory were linked by peduncles to the Mosan spine and became aware of their territorial unity, to the detriment of their neighbours.


Main Sources

Bijsterveld, Arnoud-Jan - Bisdommen, kapittels, kloosters en kerken in de Volle Middeleeuwen (2015, in Dutch)

Biographie nationale, Académie royale des sciences, des lettres et des Beaux-arts de Belgique (Bruxelles, 1897, in French)

Daris, Joseph - Histoire du diocèse et de la principauté de Liége (1890-1899, in French)

Demarteau, J E - Liège et les principautés ecclésiastiques de l'Allemagne occidentale. Les relations de Liège avec Aix, Cologne et l'Empire - La fin (Tome XXVIII, 1899, in French)

Kurth, Godefroid - Notger de Liége et la civilisation au Xe siècle (Tome I et II, 1905, in French)

Magnette, Félix - Précis d'histoire liégeoise (1924, in French)

Marchandisse, Alain; Kupper, Jean-Louis; Vrancken-Pirson, Irène - La destruction de la ville de Liège et sa reconstruction (1996, in French)

Wahle, Eugène - Liège et ses bonnes villes (Ed, 1980, in French)

Online Sources

Catholic Encyclopaedia

Dupuis, Henry - Notger and his time (Université Liège, in French)

Grandjean, Joseph - Histoire de la Principauté de Liège (in French)

Les Belges, leur histoire (in French)

Liège Révolution (in French)

Schooyans, Michel - Archives de l'Université Catholique de Louvain (in French)

Williot, Germaine - Le Prince Evêque de Liège - Origine du pouvoir princier dans la principauté de Liège (in French)



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler & William Willems. An original feature for the History Files.