Belgium History, Philip the Fair, John the Fearless, Charles of Habsburg

During the struggle with Philip the Fair, Count Guy of Flanders, although supported by the guilds and by Edward I of England, was made a prisoner. In retaliation the people of Bruges massacred all Frenchmen in the city. Philip sent in a strong army to subdue the rebels. On July 11, 1302, in the Battle of the Golden Spurs at Courtrai (Kortrijk), however, the French were defeated by the Flemish militia. The result of this victory was the emancipation of Flanders. It also barred the road to the Rhine, so far as France was concerned.

France now tried to bring about, through a policy of matrimonial alliances, that which she had not been able to achieve by force. To this end Charles V of France secured for his brother, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy ( 1384-1404), the hand of the rich heiress, Margaret of Maele, Countess of Flanders. The plan, however, did not work out, and the House of Burgundy instead of becoming a vassal became a rival; instead of binding France and Belgium together, it tore them apart.

John the Fearless, son of Philip and Margaret, had already adopted the Flemish slogan, Ick Hou (I hold). At his death, his son, Philip the Good ( 1419-1467), heir of Burgundy, Flanders, and Artois, conceived the plan of rebuilding the "middle kingdom" of Lothair. In this attempt he almost succeeded. For the first time since Charlemagne, one ruler governed the entire country. In the interior, Philip, "Founder of Belgium," sought to unify the provinces through weakening the power of the communes and the nobility. At his death the country was in a prosperous condition. Philip's son, Charles the Bold, even more than himself, was determined to establish a powerful kingdom. But in striving to unite Burgundy and the Low Countries, by annexing Lorraine and Alsace, he met a formidable foe in Louis XI, King of France. Charles the Bold died before the walls of Nancy in 1477. His daughter and successor, Mary of Burgundy, without experience and without strength, was surrounded by enemies. Belgium's fate depended upon the marriage of Mary. She chose Archduke Maximilian of Habsburg, son of Emperor Frederick III of the Holy Roman Empire. Mary's reign was short. She died on March 25, 1482, leaving a son, Philip the Handsome, who inherited the provinces at the age of four. Philip married Joanna (the "Mad"), daughter of the sovereigns of Aragon and Castile, and in consequence became king of these two great kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula in 1504. Two years later Philip died. It was because of this marriage that the destiny of the Belgian Provinces was to be linked to that of Spain for an eventful century and a half.

Philip's son, Charles of Habsburg, born in Ghent in 1500, was recognized as sovereign by the States-General of the provinces; he became King of the Spanish countries and Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V. His immense possessions encircled France and, after the Battle of Pavia, in 1526, he forced the French King, Francis I, to sign the Peace of Madrid by which the latter renounced all claims to overlordship of Flanders and Artois. Francis I assented, also, to the cession of Tournai; and the Seventeen Provinces were transformed into a solid group called the "Circle of Burgundy." The "Transaction of Augsburg" ( 1548), as this centralizing act was called, was followed the next year by the "Pragmatic Sanction," which declared the Circle indivisible. Charles V had his capital at Brussels, and the provinces that were later to become modern Belgium became the heart and nucleus of his vast empire. A native of these regions, Charles chose to make them his real center, and under his rule the Belgian Provinces had one of their best periods. The case was to be quite different when Charles' son, Philip II, born in Spain and spiritually a Spaniard, succeeded him. The state conceived by Charles V could live only on the condition that it be governed according to the directions of its founder--a strong authority tempered by a respect for traditional liberties and by a collaboration of its citizens.

Charles V returned to Brussels in 1555 to lay down the scepter with which he had ruled half the world. In a remote monastery, he retired from life, and the sovereignty passed to his son, Philip II of Spain. The Low Countries now became a tool for the carrying out of Spanish power politics. Philip governed Belgium with the aid of foreign officials, maintained Spanish troops within its borders, and used Belgian resources to wage his wars and discharge his personal obligations.

The nobility and the communes found themselves in opposition to this foreign rule; all groups united in a revolutionary and national effort. Even the Calvinists, in 1565, united with the other groups in the Compromise of the Nobles. Philip II, however, decided to act. He sent the "bloody" Duke of Alva to chastise the rebels, and triumphed over William the Silent. Thereupon William withdrew from the south and declared himself protector of the Northern Provinces (the modern Netherlands). In 1576 the States-General of the Southern Provinces ( Belgium) met with the northern delegates in a sovereign assembly and signed the Pacification of Ghent, by which all the provinces united to drive out the Spaniards. The revolution at first appeared successful, but internal religious strife soon created discontent in Hainaut and in Artois. A new party, called the "Malcontents," was formed. Civil war started anew. The break between the Catholic South and the Protestant North was complete.

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