History Files
 

European Kingdoms

Western Europe

 

Belgium

FeatureBelgium sits between the Netherlands to the north and France to the south, with Germany to its east and Luxembourg at its south-east corner. Its origins far outreach the use of its name. In recent years researchers have concluded that all Europeans are descended (in part) from an early founder population of humans of the Aurignacian culture who lived in the area of Belgium around 35,000 BC (see feature link). By the time of the Iron Age it was the tribes of the Belgae which occupied the area, along with some fringe Germanic tribes in the early days of their outward expansion from Scandinavia and the southern Baltic coast in the first centuries BC and AD.

Incorporated into the Roman empire as the province of Belgica, the region was increasingly dominated by Salian Franks and then the Merovingian kingdom from AD 481. Upon the dissolution of the subsequent Carolingian empire, central and eastern Belgian lands were largely incorporated into Lotharingia, which gradually fragmented and crystallised as the duchy of Lorraine. Flanders, which then formed the western section of Belgium, was the semi-independent county of Flanders which was heavily influenced by West Francia. East Francia was in charge of the region from 843, which evolved into the Holy Roman empire (largely after 962), although Flanders remained within the French sphere of influence.

With Habsburg control of the empire, Belgian lands were first dominated by the Spanish Habsburgs (from 1555), being known as the Spanish Netherlands, and then by the Austrian Habsburgs (from 1713), as the Austrian Netherlands. As Bourbon France descended into revolutionary fervour, a brief moment of independence came under the United Belgian States (1789-1790). In 1794 the territory was invaded and occupied by revolutionary France. From 1814-1830, it formed part of the new kingdom of the Netherlands. Dissatisfied with this, the Belgians split away in 1830, and declared their own kingdom of the Belgians soon afterwards in an event that has been termed the Belgian Revolution.

The Belgian Senate building

(Information by William Willems and Peter Kessler, with additional information from External Links: Philippe becomes new Belgian king as Albert II abdicates (BBC News), and The Belgian Dynasty (Royal Family of Belgium), and Belgium.be (Official Information & Services website), and A Short History of Holland, Belgium & Luxembourg (available for download as a PDF from Stanford University), and Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

1581

In July seven provinces from the northern Netherlands claim independence from the Habsburgs of Spain to become the republic of the United Netherlands, while Spain continues to rule the southern provinces which become known as the Spanish Netherlands. The Habsburgs are thrown out of the Netherlands.

William, who remains stadhouder, now governs Holland along with the Staten Generaal (the representatives of the seven provinces). The Staten-Generaal continues to select members of the House of Orange to govern the Netherlands as stadhouder (even though there is no longer any monarch). They are kings in all but name.

1715

The Austrian-Dutch 'Antwerp Barrier Treaty' sees six barrier towns and one fortress on the territory of the new Austrian Netherlands - including Dutch garrisons, part of the Dutch defence system - being retained with the agreement of France. The closing of the Scheldt for all non-Dutch ships to trade with Antwerp is once again confirmed. At times, the number of Dutch troops is larger than the Austrian contingent in the Austrian Netherlands, but the republic effectively bankrupts itself with the scale of its ultimately useless defences.

United Kingdom of the Netherlands (Southern Netherlands)
AD 1815 - 1831

FeatureFrance annexed the Austrian Netherlands in 1795, ending the Habsburg presence in the region. The United Provinces in the north were renamed the Batavian republic while, administratively, the southern Netherlands (modern Belgium) were drawn directly under republican French rule. The Congress of Vienna in June 1815 agreed on the creation of a unified state out of the various territories of the Netherlands, immediately following which Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated at Waterloo (see feature link). Much of the grand duchy of Luxembourg and even the prince-bishopric of LiŤge would also be included in the new kingdom.

The Belgian territories which formed much of the southern half of the kingdom were not to be left in the hands of France but instead would create a single strong buffer state against any further potential French aggression. The kingdom was to be ruled by the protestant King William I of the Netherlands, prince of Orange-Nassau. It was largely created for the convenience of Europe, regardless of the wishes of the Belgian and Dutch people. Divided since the sixteenth century, the northern and southern Netherlands were now reunited. However, they had developed in markedly different ways during the two intervening centuries. The north was commercialised while the south had increasingly become industrialised. William I did much to foster the flourishing Belgian industry, commissioning the construction of new roads and canals, and the establishment of new commercial and financial companies, sometimes at his own expense. Belgium became a leader in the Industrial Revolution on the continent.

William also created the new state universities of Ghent and LiŤge, and the university of Leuven was placed under state control to remove it from Catholic influence. Secondary schools were also established. The favourable economic situation initially reinforced the king's popularity amongst the middle class. The union made economic sense, and for a while it seemed that the enforced alliance of the two countries might work. But neither the Dutch nor the Belgians were very keen on this union. The Dutch rather despised the subservient attitude of their southern neighbours, while Catholic Belgium was unhappy at being joined to Calvinist Holland. With Dutch the official language, the Belgian French regional elite felt sidelined, despite the Belgian population outnumbering the Dutch.

(Information by William Willems, with additional information from External Links: The Belgian Dynasty (Royal Family of Belgium), and Belgium.be (Official Information & Services website), and A Short History of Holland, Belgium & Luxembourg (available for download as a PDF from Stanford University), and Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

1821 - 1827

Conflicting interests between the north Netherlands and the south create an economic split after 1821. King William I is not willing to protect the south to the detriment of the north, which leads to grievances against the government. Unionism arises in 1827, merging forces from both young progressive Belgian liberals and Catholic clerics who want to restrict the king's power. The king agrees to make concessions but refuses to release his ultimate authority.

King William I of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands
King William I of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands struggled to please both halves of his state despite fostering industry and trade in both of them, with the result that the two halves split in 1831

1830 - 1831

Following his attempt to restore the Ancien Rťgime in full, the July Revolution in France overthrows King Charles, and he abdicates in favour of his ten year-old grandson, Henri, duke of Bordeaux. The revolution also results in some instability in nearby Hessen-Homburg and Belgium. In the tracks of the revolution, King Williamís refusal to ease the reigns of power generates the 'Belgian Revolution' of August and September in the same year. The result is an independent Belgian state by 1831.

Kings of the Belgians / Modern Belgium
AD 1831 - Present Day

Modern Belgium occupies a block of territory between the Netherlands to the north and France to the south, with Germany to the east and Luxembourg at its south-east corner. Belgium is one of the six founding countries of the European Union and its capital, Brussels, hosts the official seats of the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, and the European Council, as well as one of two seats of the European Parliament (the other being Strasbourg). Belgium is also a founding member of the Eurozone, NATO, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), and the WTO, and part of the trilateral Benelux Union and the Schengen Area.

FeatureThe country has a long and rather complicated history that goes back further than may be imagined. In recent years researchers have concluded that all Europeans are descended (in part) from an early founder population of humans of the Aurignacian culture who lived in the area of Belgium around 35,000 BC (see feature link). By the time of the Iron Age it was the tribes of the Belgae which occupied the area, along with some fringe Germanic tribes in the early days of their outward expansion from Scandinavia and the southern Baltic coast in the first centuries BC and AD.

Towards the end of the Roman empire, its province of Belgica fell under the control of the Salian Franks, with Clovis forming the Merovingian kingdom in AD 481 which incorporated Belgium's territory. Upon the dissolution of the subsequent Carolingian empire, central and eastern Belgian lands were largely incorporated into Lotharingia, which gradually fragmented to become the duchy of Lorraine. The western section of Belgium was formed of the semi-independent county of Flanders which was heavily influenced by West Francia. East Francia was in charge of the region from 843, which evolved into the Holy Roman empire (largely after 962), although Flanders remained within the French sphere of influence. With Habsburg control of the empire, Belgian lands were first dominated by the Spanish Habsburgs (from 1555), as the Spanish Netherlands, and then by the Austrian Habsburgs (from 1713) as the Austrian Netherlands. During the depths of revolutionary France's revolutionary fervour, a brief moment of local independence came under the United Belgian States (1789-1790), with France invading in 1794. From 1814-1830, Belgium formed the Southern Netherlands section of the new kingdom of the Netherlands. Dissatisfied with this, the Belgians split away in 1830, and declared their own kingdom soon afterwards in an event that has been termed the Belgian Revolution.

FeatureThe roots of the House of Wettin, of which the royal family of Belgium is a branch, stretch all the way back to the high Middle Ages. The Treaty of Leipzig in 1485 gave rise to the division of the House of Wettin of the electorate of Saxony into the Ernestine and Albertine lines. The senior Ernestine line itself divided several times, and one of its descendants was Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. He was invited to become the country's first king by the Belgian National Congress. He had been married to Charlotte, daughter of George IV of Britain, but she had died in labour. His sister married the king's younger brother, Edward, duke of Kent, and gave birth to Victoria, queen of Great Britain from 1837 (see more information about Belgium's royal dynasty via the feature link, right).

FeatureThanks to its fragmented history and the strong influences the north, east, and south received from Dutch, German (Flemish), and French speakers respectively, today's Belgium retains strong cultural divisions. The second half of the twentieth century was marked by rising tensions between the Flemish-speaking and French-speaking populations, fuelled by differences in language and culture and the unequal economic development of Flanders and Wallonia. In 1962 the linguistic frontier was formalised by law. Despite the reforms, tensions between the Flemish and French-speaking communities continued, resulting in a transition from a unitary to a federal arrangement between 1970 and 1993. There are still many tensions, though, and speculation is often rife that the kingdom will be split in two by them (see feature link, right, for details of how a prime minister is selected following federal elections).

(Information by William Willems and Peter Kessler, with additional information from Urban Africa; Histories in the Making (Africa's Urban Past), David M Anderson & Richard Rathbone (Eds), and from External Links: Philippe becomes new Belgian king as Albert II abdicates (BBC News), and Belgium ex-King Albert II faces fine if refuses DNA test (BBC News), and The Belgian Dynasty (Royal Family of Belgium), and Belgium.be (Official Information & Services website), and The Belgian Constitution of 1994, and Belgium's former monarch King Albert II legitimises his lovechild Delphine BoŽl (Tatler), and Delphine BoŽl officially granted Princess title (RTL).)

1831 - 1865

Leopold I 'the Nestor of Europe'

Formerly Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

1831

Belatedly realising that international support for the continuation of his united kingdom of the Netherlands is not going to be forthcoming, William I launches the Ten Days Campaign on 2 August 1831. His troops plunge deep into Belgian territory, winning several encounters and occupying Antwerp. Leopold appeals to France for assistance which sends its own forces. The Dutch are unwilling to face the French, instead withdrawing almost entirely. Only Antwerp remains occupied, until November 1832.

Dutch troops at Waterloo
Under imperial France between 1804-1814, troops from Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands had been forced to serve in the French ranks right up until the end, so when they stood in the allied lines at Waterloo in 1815 their reliability was doubted by some, although many of their units did indeed stand firm and suffered heavy casualties

1837

Leopold's niece, Victoria, accedes to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland a few weeks after her eighteenth birthday, thereby ensuring that her controlling mother will not be regent. Uncle Leopold becomes her mentor. However, as a woman, Victoria is prevented by Salic Law from also inheriting Hanover, so that passes to the next in line; another uncle in the form of Ernest Augustus, duke of Cumberland.

Charlotte

Daughter. Became consort to Emperor Maximilian of Mexico.

1865 - 1909

Leopold II

Brother. m archduchess of Austria. Died with no male heir.

1885 - 1890

The Berlin Conference recognises the independent state of the Congo, and Leopold II becomes the owner and absolute ruler of the Congo Free State (until 1908, when it became the Belgian Congo), through his own efforts. In 1890, during the Brussels International Conference, a treaty is signed against the African slave trade and slave smuggling. This treaty forms the basis of a campaign against slavery in Africa.

1909 - 1934

Albert I

Nephew. Died in climbing accident.

1914 - 1918

Having jointly guaranteed in 1839 to support the neutrality of Belgium, when the country is invaded by Germany, Belgium's allies, Britain, France, and Russia, are forced to declare war against imperial Germany and Austria at midnight on 4 August in what becomes known as the Great War or First World War. The small Belgian army eventually retreats into France to join the allies there on what becomes the trenches of the Western Front.

On the colonial frontier in Africa, in 1916 Ruanda-Urundi, part of German East Africa, falls into Belgian hands. The territory is taken into Belgian military occupation (until 1924) when a Belgian military expedition drives out the Germans as part of the allied East African Campaign.

Belgium refugees in 1914
Belgian refugees (looking surprisingly jolly) were photographed here in 1914, on the road between Malines and Brussels while they attempted to outrun the invading imperial German army

1920

Two years after the end of the war, just like his cousin in Great Britain, the king quietly drops the name Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. No decree is issued, leading to some confusion for later chroniclers. The family name is changed to 'of Belgium' in the three major languages of the country.

A region that had formerly been part of imperial Germany is allocated to Belgium under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The region of Eupen-Malmedy is formally annexed to Belgium in 1920 and later becomes part of the province of LiŤge, in 1925. Eventually the region becomes known as the German-speaking 'East-Cantons', one of Belgium's three federal communities.

1922

The post-war Treaty of Versailles has divided the German East Africa colonial empire between the allied League of Nations. Ruanda-Urundi is now officially awarded to Belgium as a mandate (until 1946 when the League of Nations is dissolved and succeeded by the United Nations (UN), and the mandate over Ruanda-Urundi is replaced by a 'UN Trust Territory', still under Belgian administration).

1934 - 1940

Leopold III

Captured and surrendered to Germany in 1940. Deported.

1939 - 1944

On the eve of the Second World War in 1939, Belgium announces a policy of neutrality. On 10 May 1940, Nazi Germany invades Belgium nevertheless. King Leopold, as commander-in-chief of the Belgian army, is compelled to surrender unconditionally while his government withdraws into France. Leopold remains under house arrest until D-Day on 6 June 1944. Then he is whisked off to Germany and then Austria. His brother in Belgium takes up the position of regent during his absence (officially from 1945).

1944 - 1950

Charles

Regent. Brother of Leopold III.

1945 - 1948

Following its release from renewed German occupation during the Second World War, Luxembourg abandons its neutrality and becomes a front-rank enthusiast for international co-operation. In 1948 Luxembourg furthers its attempts to encourage a more unified Europe by becoming a founder member of a customs union with Belgium and the Netherlands.

City of Luxembourg 2014
Modern Luxembourg, and the City of Luxembourg pictured here, is a wealthy, peaceful state which serves as a significant financial and service centre

1950

A public referendum reveals that Leopold is still considered king despite having acted unconstitutionally in 1940 by refusing to accompany his government into exile. He returns to the country to resume his duties, but left-wing politicians cannot accept him and a constitutional crisis results from the 'Royal Question'. Leopold abdicates on 16 July 1951 in favour of his son, Baudouin.

1950 - 1951

Leopold III

Restored. Abdicated. Died 1983.

1951 - 1993

Baudouin

Son. Died 31 July 1993. No heir.

1960

To the north of Angola, the Belgian Congo achieves independence from Belgium as the Democratic Republic of Congo, while the former French region of Middle Congo becomes the Republic of the Congo.

1962

The UN Trust Territory of Ruanda-Urundi which has been administered by Belgium since its creation in 1946 (and before that under a League of Nations mandate since 1922), has been prepared for an independence which now becomes official. Revolts and violence against the Tutsi, the ruling class which has controlled a mostly-Hutu population, has already spiralled into the Rwandan Revolution, and now the territory develops into the independent states of Rwanda and Burundi.

1991

The country establishes absolute primogeniture for the Belgian throne. No longer will the crown automatically pass to the eldest or most suitable male relative. Now females are just as eligible, with the result that the daughter of King Phillippe, Princess Elisabeth, born in 2001, becomes the first female heir apparent.

1993 - 2013

The unexpected death of King Baudouin catapults his younger brother, Albert, onto the throne. While he entirely fulfils the duties of his office, from 2005 he is dogged by allegations that he had fathered a love child in 1968 during a long affair with Baroness Sybille de Selys Longchamps in 1966-1983. The alleged child, Delphine BoŽl, continues to support those allegations after Albert abdicates the throne in 2013, citing ill health.

Delphine BoŽl
Delphine BoŽl, born in 1968, is a professional artist but, having won her case against the former King Albert II to prove that he is her biological father, she fought on to be accepted as his legal daughter and officially the fifteenth in line to the throne

1993 - 2013

Albert II

Brother. Abdicated on 21 July 2013, National Day.

2010 - 2011

King Albert exercises his authority in mediating between political leaders when it comes to the formation of a government. Parliament is in stalemate, leaving Belgium without a government for a total of 541 days after elections have failed to find a clear winner. Tensions between the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking communities within Belgium often run high, with the issue having brought down several governments in the past, but this may be the first time that a government has failed to be formed at all until the king intervenes.

2013 - 2018

Delphine BoŽl continues to pursue the allegations against Albert II now that he is no longer protected by immunity. DNA testing in 2018 proves her case and Albert accepts the decision. She is regarded as his biological daughter, but legal paternity has not yet been established. She also continues to fight for the right to use the titles that are due to her as the former king's daughter, with the right to be known as Delphine of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, 'Princess of Belgium', being won through a court decision on 1 October 2020.

2013 - Present

Phillippe

Son. Born 1960.

Princess Elisabeth

Daughter and heir apparent. Born 2001. Duchess of Brabant.