My trip to Paris reminded me how easy it is to hop on the Eurostar and head to Europe, inspiring me to do so again. Having never been to Belgium, it seemed an ideal destination to choose.
Bob Monkhouse once joked that he went the Belgium and it was closed*. But Bob was far from the first to dismiss Belgium as a boring country. Many people make this claim. In truth, Belgium isn’t just geographically at the centre of Europe. It’s also central to Europe’s whole story. For centuries Belgium has been at the heart of many of Europe’s major events. As such, much of Europe’s history can be understood simply through understanding the history of this ‘boring’ country. It’s for this reason that Belgium can simultaneously be branded boring and the ‘Battle ground of Europe.’
During the Iron Age the region of central and Western Europe was inhabited by various Celtic tribes. These fierce warrior people and their sophisticated culture had dominated the region for centuries, if not millennia. But their dominance was about to come to an end.
For several centuries an initially insignificant southern city state had been growing in both power and might. This growth was accompanied by growing ambitions of westward expansion into central Europe. The consequence was a massive and ferocious clash of profoundly different civilisations. It’s hard to overstate the significance of this event. It was a huge crossroads in Europe’s story. It could have easily gone either way. And whichever way it went would send Europe down a drastically different path. A different outcome would have led to a Europe likely unrecognisable today. But, with their formidable armies of well-trained soldiers, the Romans pushed westwards and gradually subdued and largely eradicated Europe’s pagan Celtic tribes.
The vast region that comprised much of France and Belgium was dubbed Gaul by the Romans. It was gradually conquered during several invasions from the 2nd century BC to around 60BC. The area now called Belgium was inhabited by a group of Celts called the Belgae; it was from them that the word ‘Belgium’ would later be created.
When the Roman Empire began collapsing during the 5th century control of the region was ceded to a Germanic tribe called the Franks. It was this change that led to Belgium’s language division with a Germanic-based north and Latin-based south. This dividing line still exists today, extending beyond Belgium and cutting Europe almost in half.
The Franks’ territory, comprising large parts of France, Belgium and southwest Germany, began to fragment during the 7th century, only to be reunited again during the 8th century under the Carolingian dynasty founded by Pepin III (also known as Pepin the Short – a name that I’m sure he loved).
After Pepin’s death in 768AD his son, Charlemagne, inherited the empire. Charlemagne expanded his territory through conquest resulting in unification of most of Western Europe. It was this unification that eventually gave rise to the great European powers of France and Germany. Charlemagne’s impact was so great that he’s often dubbed the ‘Father of Europe’. His empire stretched across almost the entire continent from Hamburg to Rome, from halfway across Austria to the border of Spain. Besides conquest, Charlemagne was also interested in commerce. It was this interest that inspired the growth of organised trade along Belgium’s rivers.
There had been settlements in Brussels since pre-history, but its development really began during the 7th century when Saint Gery built a chapel on the banks of the Senne River (although the city wasn’t officially founded until 979). The city’s name is generally thought to be derived from the Old Dutch Broekzele or Broeksel, meaning ‘home in the marsh.’
Brussels became an important part of the trade route between Bruges, Ghent and Cologne. Its ideal location helped the settlement grow quickly from a town into a city. It soon became a bustling hub of trade and enterprise, particularly noted for its porcelain and tapestries.
Charlemagne’s death led to a great family feud. This resulted in his vast kingdom being divided between his three grandsons. One inherited West Francia, the basis of France. Another inherited East Francia, the basis of Germany. And another inherited the Middle Kingdom, which was unstable and soon fragmented.
Belgium was split between West Francia and the Middle Kingdom. In the northwest arose the powerful Counts of Flanders. Here wool was imported from England and weaved into fine cloth, helping the cities become extremely rich and populous. Many people might be surprised to learn that, owed to this great commerce, by 1340 Ghent had grown to become Europe’s second largest city (after Paris).
During the Middle Ages the duchy of Burgundy expanded northwards into large parts of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, becoming known as the Burgundian Netherlands. The first Burgundian duke, Philip the Good, was the richest man in Europe. It was during this period that Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg first became known as the Low Countries. After growing to become one of Europe’s largest dukedoms, due to no male heir, Burgundy reverted back to French control in 1477.
The next significant ruler was Charles V, born in Ghent in 1500. He became ruler of the Low Countries aged fifteen, and was crowned king of Spain the next year. His kingdom continued to expand incorporating parts of Italy and territories in the new world before being crowned king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. As a consequence, he became one of the most powerful men in Europe, and, during the early period of his reign, it was from Brussels that he ruled his great empire.
When Charles abdicated in 1555 control of the region passed to his son, Philip II of Spain. This was only roughly forty years after Martin Luther had sparked the Reformation by nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door. The massive schism that resulted led to northern Europe becoming mainly Protestant (apart from Ireland), whereas southern Europe remained Catholic. Philip’s fierce Catholicism was in direct conflict with this Protestantism that was spreading throughout northern Europe, especially in the Flemish regions. Uprisings in the region were greeted with brutal reprisals leaving thousands executed. After many years of violent turmoil, in 1648 and at the end of the Thirty Years War, a weakened Spain finally recognised the independence of the northern region. It became known as the Netherlands. The south remained loyal to Spain, becoming known as the Spanish Netherlands (roughly Belgium and Luxembourg).
During the next century France grew to become Europe’s most powerful state. Its intention to expand into the Spanish Netherlands aroused fear in both the Spanish and Dutch, as well as William III, king of the Netherlands and England. As a result Belgium became a battleground throughout much of the century as various powers resisted France’s attempts to dominate Europe.
These struggles reached a violent climax during the War of the Spanish Succession in the early 18th century. After a decade of bitter fighting against Dutch, English and Austrian armies France abandoned her claims to the Spanish Netherlands and ceded power to the Austrian Habsburg Empire. But peace wasn’t maintained for long.
By the end of the century, encouraged by the French Revolution, the region revolted against the Austrian rulers. Independence was declared in 1790 and the United States of Belgium was born. Political divisions resulted in this situation being short-lived and, while at war with Austria, France annexed the region, with any protests being ruthlessly crushed.
Only twenty-five years later Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo altered the situation again. In order to preserve Europe’s fragile power balance, and to undermine any future French ambitions of northern expansion, The United Kingdom of the Netherlands was created. The country comprised the modern nations of Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. It was of little concern to those involved that this forced together people of different religions, customs and languages, but this indifference would prove the new country’s undoing.
The new country’s throne was given to the unpopular king of William of Orange-Nassau. His attempts to impose Dutch as the national language angered both the French speaking regions and the Flemish speakers, who considered their language distinct from Dutch. The problems came to a head during the Belgian revolution of 1830, a revolution rather amusingly sparked by an opera performance. Belgium claimed independence in 1831 and Brussels became the new capital. Seven years later the western part of the country was ceded as the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
Independence was followed by a major language shift in Brussels away from Dutch towards French. This is indicative of the complex language story across the country. The country is divided into three regions based mainly on language. The northern region of Flanders speaks mainly Dutch (Flemish). Wallonia in the south speaks French. The third region is that of Brussels (there is another area which speaks German, but it’s not an official region). Brussels, situated only a few miles from the official language boundary, is bilingual. As noted above, this boundary extends beyond Belgium and marks the line between two of the major European languages of the Latin-based south and the Germanic-based north.
Independence also resulted in Léopold of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, the future uncle of Queen Victoria, becoming King Léopold I of Belgium in 1831. His son, Leopold II, developed colonial ambitions resulting in the disastrous acquisition of the Congo. Millions of Congolese died because of Leopold’s ruthless exploitation and forced labour. Hugely disgraced, his death in 1909 ended the country’s colonial ambitions (although the Congo territory was held until 1960).
In light of this complex history, since WWII, Brussels has increasingly played the role of the ‘capital’ of Europe, becoming the headquarters of the EU and NATO.
*One of my all-time favourite Bob Monkhouse jokes was the one “They all laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now.”