In 1598 Philip gave the provinces to his daughter, Isabella, who shortly afterward married the Archduke Albert of Austria. Belgium, for the first time, was recognized as a separate sovereignty by the Powers of Europe. This independent status, unfortunately, did not last long. In 1621 the Archduke Albert died, leaving no children, and the provinces reverted to the King of Spain, Philip IV.
War broke out again. Belgium was now squeezed between Holland and France. Richelieu made known his policy by stating that wherever ancient Gaul had existed a new Gaul must be set up. In conformity with his natural boundary theory, he was determined to extend the borders of France to the Rhine. This would necessitate the annexation of Belgium--the country that stood between him and his objective. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 left Belgium in the possession of Spain, and cut her off from the sea by severing the mouth of the Scheldt.
Shortly after this, Louis XIV launched his imperialistic policy. In England he found his strongest opponent. The great commercial island began to look upon the Belgian Provinces as the cornerstone of her European policy.
Spain, after having refused to sign the Treaty of Westphalia, was defeated by France in 1659. As a result, she lost Dunkirk-which was turned over to England--a part of Artois, and eleven strategic cities of the Belgian Provinces. Twelve more cities of the Southern Provinces went to France following the Treaty of Aix-laChapelle in 1668. Louis XIV, not yet satisfied, decided to go to The Hague in search of the "keys to Brussels." All Europe once more became involved. At the Treaty of Nijmegen ( 1678), the King of France took thirteen additional cities and what was left of Artois. He also fixed the southern border of Belgium to suit himself, leaving all roads open to invasion. Until 1684 he went on, in spite of treaties, arbitrarily helping himself to whatever territory he desired. In that year, Spain acknowledged the situation as a fait accompli and signed the Truce of Regensburg.
This, however, was not the end. The war went on. Belgium was the principal theater of operations. The French General, François Villeroy, bombarded Brussels, destroying the magnificent buildings of the town square, and burning some 3,800 houses. In the meantime, Louvois, Louis XIV's Minister of War, inaugurated his barbarous system of destruction by ordering that "Flanders be put in a position whereby she would be unable to contribute anything to Spain for a long time to come." In 1697 universal weariness led to the Treaty of Rijswijk, and the menace of French annexation was temporarily brought to an end. It is worth noting, at this point, that the "bloodless revolution" of 1689 in England put William of Orange and Mary on the English throne, and the ties between England and the Low Countries were thereby drawn closer.
Charles II, King of Spain, died in 1700. Louis XIV claimed the Low Countries for his grandson and, by force of arms, moved in. The English general, John Churchill Marlborough, however, met him at Ramillies and drove him back to the frontier. In 1709 the Battle of Malplaquet appeared to have put an end at last to French domination in Belgium. But Charles of Habsburg, who, as King of Spain, had been the tool of the English and the Dutch, now became Emperor--and, hence, ruler of the Germans. If he were permitted to keep the Low Countries, the English Channel would be opened to Germany. The British could not tolerate this. So England, following her established balance-of-power policy, swung over to the side of France.
This was in 1713. The Treaty of Utrecht followed. England, playing the Continental Powers against each other, easily permitted the Low Countries to go back to Charles of Habsburg, but obtained for Holland the right to occupy eight cities of the Southern Provinces as barriers against France. The Scheldt River was to remain closed--thus keeping these provinces shut off from the sea. By a clause of utmost importance, the new sovereign was forced to respect the rights of the Belgians, the indivisibility of the territories, and the unity of the country. One hundred and fifty years of struggle were behind them, and the Belgians found themselves still condemned to a languishing economic and political life. They continued to be exposed to the ambitions of France.
The Southern Provinces as a unit had passed to the Habsburgs of Austria. In 1715 Emperor Charles of Habsburg became Charles VI of Belgium. Following the philosophy of the "Enlightened Despots," he ruled until 1740. The wheels of the new government, with its numerous councils and committees, acquired momentum. In 1740 the remarkable and energetic Maria Theresa inherited her father's crown. Her admirable qualities, together with favorable circumstances, made her reign over Belgium a very satisfactory and gratefully remembered period. Joseph II, her son, called "the philosopher on the throne," succeeded her. Imbued with progressive ideas of the French school, he outlined for himself a definitely liberal policy--a political blueprint which he was determined to put into effect. He lacked, however, the knowledge of his subjects and the art of adapting himself to circumstances. Convinced that great things must be done at once, he set out to destroy all that was contrary to his doctrine, without taking into consideration the deep roots of religious habits and national traditions. His reforms among the Belgians failed. When he died, February 20, 1790, the French Revolution was already under way.
On January 11, 1790, the States-General of Belgium had founded the Confédération des Etats Belgiques Unis; for the second time since Charles V, the provinces tried to establish an independent union. The first Congress met on February 20th, the day that Joseph died. Joseph's brother, Leopold II, succeeded him as Emperor, and the Austrian army soon put an end to the incipient United States of Belgium. The menace of French annexation once more was at the frontier.
Under the Directory, in 1797, the two French generals, Charles François Dumouriez and Jean Baptiste Jourdan, conquered Belgium. On October 17, 1797, weakened by Napoleon's victories, the Emperor of Austria at Campo-Formio formally renounced his sovereignty over the Low Countries.
After centuries of effort France had solved "the Occidental question" in her own favor by making the Rhine her eastern frontier. Belgium in turn, however, had suffered the worst setback to independence in her history. Like France, Belgium had experienced a variety of regimes, but all were inspired by the same principle-administrative centralization. Each had left its stamp on the religious and social life of the country.