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A Brief History of Belgium

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Episode of the September Days 1830 (on the Grand Place of Brussels), painted by Gustave Wappers
Episode of the September Days 1830 (on the Grand Place of Brussels).


Belgium only became an independent country in 1830. Before that it has belonged to nearly all major continental European powers during their heydays, including the Romans, the Franks, the Holy Roman Empire, Habsburgian Spain and Austria, Revolutionary France, and the United Kingdom of Netherlands.



The territory of modern Belgium has been inhabited by human beings for at least 100,000 years. Eastern Belgium has one of the highest concentration of Neanderthal sites in Europe. The world's very first Neanderthal remains were discovered in Engis, a suburb of Liège, in 1829. Other sites were later found at Sclayn, Spy-sur-l'Orneau, Trooz, La Naulette and Veldwezelt-Hezerwater. Remains of the world's first domesticated dogs, 33,000 years ago, were also discovered in Belgium, in Goyet Caves near Namur.

Homo Sapiens (Cro-Magnon) arrived in Belgium around 30,000 years ago. At the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, circa 26,000 to 19,000 years ago, the advance of the glaciers over northern Europe forced humans to retreat south, probably in the Franco-Cantabrian refuge, on either sides of the Pyrenees. After the melting of the ice cap around 10,000 years ago, humans progressively recolonised northern Europe.

Agriculture, domestication and pottery developed in the Near East from 9,500 BCE and progressively spread to all Europe in the next five millennia. The first Neolithic culture to reach Belgium was the Linear Pottery culture (a.k.a. LBK), which expanded from Germany circa 5,200 BCE (=> see prehistoric migration maps).

In the Late Neolithic, Belgium was recolonised by people from Seine-Oise-Marne culture, which flourished in the Fagne-Famene region of Wallonia from 3,000 BCE. They brought with them the Megalithic culture and left some substantial monuments, notably around Wéris.

The first Indo-European speakers are thought to have arrived with the introduction of the Bronze Age culture from Central Europe circa 2500 BCE. (=> see history of haplogroup R1b). They probably spoke a Proto-Celtic language.

Around 500 BCE, the La Tène culture spread from the Alps to most of Western Europe, bringing with them the Classical Celtic culture.

By the first century BCE, Belgium was divided between various Celtic tribes, among whom: the Menapians (in the provinces of East and West Flanders), the Nervians (in Brabant and Antwerp), the Eburones (in Limburg and Liège), the Atuatuci (in the Hesbaye region), the Condrusi (in Condroz), the Paemani (in Famenne) and the Treveri (in Luxembourg).


Julius Caesar conquered the whole of Gaul in 57 BCE, and famously said that of all people of Gaul the Belgians were the bravest. However, the bravery of the Belgian tribes was to be fatal to most of them. Julius Caesar exterminated the Eburones to the last one, and most of the Menapians. This created too much free space for the Romans to fill, and soon new tribes were to arrive from the North and East. Ever since Emperor Augustus, the Romans would have to fight back invadors from Magna Germania.

In 16 C.E., the sub-province of Germania Inferior is created as a subdivision of Gallia Belgica. It comprised most of the territory of modern Belgium, as well as the Southern Netherlands (Maastricht, Nijmegen, Utrecht), Luxembourg and the part of Germany west of the Rhine. It becomes a province of its own right in 89 C.E.

Around the 2nd and 3rd centuries, a Germanic tribe known as the Franks descended from Scandinavia toward the Low Countries. Surrendering to Emperor Maximian (250-310), the Salian Franks became Laeti (allies of the Romans), and were allowed to settle in Germania Inferior. They were the first Germanic tribe to settled permanently on Roman land, and thus the first to become latinised, integrating quickly, and providing numerous generals and consuls to the Empire. The Frankish way of speaking Latin eventually evolved into a new language, French. The conquest of Roman Gaul by the Merovingian dynasty was to spread the Frankish language and customs, and eventually give their name to a new country, France (=> see history of the Franks).

Merowig (447-458) was the first Frankish king mentioned by the Romans and is considered the founder of the Merovingian dynasty. He was based in Tournai, which the Romans had founded around 50 C.E. and had later been given to the Franks as a fief. His son Childeric I (437-482) helped the Romans defeat the Visigoths.

Merowig's grandson, Chlodovech, better known as Clovis I (466-511), also from Tournai, conquered the neighbouring Frankish tribes in the Low Countries and Rhineland and established himself as their sole king. He defeated Syagrius, the last Roman official in northern Gaul, then the Visigoths in south-western Gaul, thus becoming the ruler of most of the old Roman Gaul. He converted to Catholicism at the instigation of his wife Clotide, a Burgundian princess, thus spreading Christianity among the pagan Franks.

Early Middle Ages : the Frankish heritage

After two centuries, the waning power of the Merovingian dynasty prompted Charles Martel (686-741), a native of Liège, to proclaimed himself Duke of the Franks and by any name was de facto ruler of the Frankish Realms. In 732, he routed the invading Islamic armies of the Umayyad at the Battle of Poitiers, thus saving Europe from Islamisation.

At Charles' death, the power passed to his sons Pippin the Younger and Carloman. Pippin's son, Charles (768-814) would extend the Frankish empire to Saxony, Croatia, Northern Italy and Catalonia, and become known as Charlemagne ("Charles the Great"). In 800, he was crowned emperor by the Pope in Rome, declaring himself heir of the Roman Empire, with his capital in Aachen, 40km away from his native Liège. His empire was to last over 1000 years (until Napoleon dissolved it in 1806) and is better known under the name of Holy Roman Empire.

In 843, when Charlemagne's son passed away, the empire was divided into three part. Charles the Bald inherited Western Francia, which would become known simply as France. The eldest son, Lothair I, inherited Middle Francia, where most of present-day Belgium lied. Louis the German received East Francia. The three brothers were soon at war with each others. Louis recovered most of Lothair's lands, and became the heir of the Holy Roman Empire.

Modern Belgium and Luxembourg corresponds roughly to the Duchy of Lower Lorraine, one of the eleven stem duchies of the Kingdom of Germany. This duchy was further subdivided into the Duchy of Brabant, the Prince-Bishopric of Liege and the Counties of Luxembourg, Namur, and Hainault. The County of Flanders (modern provinces of East and West Flanders) was part of the Kingdom of France between the 9th and 15th centuries, then returned to Imperial control with the Habsburgs (see below).

Late Middle Ages : political conflicts

The Vikings raided most of Flanders in the 9th century and were finally defeated near Leuven in 891. Flemish feudal domains fortified into walled cities during these troubled times. They had laid the foundation for the establishment of guilds and became Flanders main source of wealth. Flemish cities like Bruges, Ghent and Ypres developed into cloth manufacturing and trading centres, importing wool from England and exporting to all the known world - as far as Russia and North Africa.

In 1302, Flemish guild members disguised as peasants defeated the French knights of King Philip IV in front of Kortrijik at the celebrated Battle of the Golden Spurs. This gave rise to a first sentiment of Flemish nationalism, which persists to this day. The Flemings were nevertheless subjugated three years later by Philip IV, and the rich cloth Flemish cities of Lille and Douai added the royal territory (and remaining part of France to this day).

The Principality of Liège, including most of the present provinces of Liege, Namur and Limburg and some parts of Luxembourg, remained an independent state within the Holy German Empire until the French Revolution. Many conflicts occured between the Prince-bishops of Liège and Dukes of Brabant, or the Counts of Namur and Luxembourg. The most famous one is the so-called Guerre de la Vache ("War of the Cow") between 1275 and 1278.

In the 15th century, most of present-day Belgium went to the Duke of Burgundy through a series of political marriages. The Dukes of Burgundy ruled their Netherlandish possession from Brussels, which from that time became the capital of the Low Countries. It is then that the Grand Place was first built (although it had to be reconstructed after Louis XIV bombarded and destroyed it in 1695).

Renaissance & Habsburg rule

In the early 1500's, the monarchies of Habsburg (from Austria), Burgundy and Spain were united under the reign of Charles V of Habsburg, in the largest European empire ever since Roman times (which had ended 1000 years earlier) and until Napoleon (300 years later). It included present-day Spain, Austria, eastern France, the Benelux, southern Italy, some Northern Italian city-states, Germany and the newly acquired American colonies, from Mexico to Peru. Charles V was born in Ghent, in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, but was educated in French by his Burgundian entourage. He first ruled his empire from Brussels, then travelled extensively around his European possession and settled in Spain, where his stayed even after retiring, until his death.

The empire was subsequently divided between Charles V's son Philip II, who became king of Spain and its American colonies, Southern Italy and the Netherlands (i.e. most of the present-day Benelux), and Charles V's brother, Maximilian, who received the Holy Roman Empire and the Austrian Empire.

Modern times to now

Belgium remained under Spanish dominion until the 1713, when it was ceded back to Austria following the War of Spanish Succession. The region was officially part of the Kingdom of Germany, within the Holy Roman Empire, until 1792, when it was annexed to France. The French completely reorganised the political division of the Low Countries into départements of similar sizes, which were the forerunners of the modern provinces.

In 1815, after Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo, 17km south of central Brussels, Belgium came briefly under Dutch rule in what was called the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.

15 years later, the Catholic Belgians revolted against the Protestant-dominated Dutch administration and were granted independence. A German prince known as Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, was elected to become the first King of the Belgians. He was the uncle of Queen Victoria of Great Britain.

Belgium quickly became an industrial as well as colonial power. King Leopold II secured control over Congo as a private possession in 1885. In 1908, accused of exploitation and mass killings, the king was compelled to cede Congo to the Belgian state. The situation in the Congo improved dramatically. Schools and hospitals were built, and the Belgian Congo developed into a model, paternalistic colony.

Despite its small size, Belgium became one of the major world powers, thanks to its thriving economy. In 1900, it had the highest GDP per capita in Europe. The country hosted four Universal Expositions before WWI, respectively in 1897, 1905, 1910 and 1913. Only the United States and France staged more Expositions. The first true Universal Exposition after WWII took place in Brussels in 1958. It is for this event that the Atomium, one of Brussels's most recognizable symbols, was built.

In 1914, the neutrality of Belgium was ignored and Germany invaded the country. The western front line ran from the fields of Flanders through the North of France. The historical town of Ypres was razed to the ground. The Belgian colonial forces in Congo occupied Germany's East African colonies. After the war Belgium accepted the administration of Rwanda and Burundi.

Belgium was occupied by Germany again in WWII, although the fighting were pretty much limited to the Battle of the Bulge, i.e. the German counter-offensive on the Americans in the winter 1944-45.

Nowadays, Brussels is not only Belgium's capital, but also the capital of the European Union, as well as the headquarters of NATO and many other major multinational organisations.

Highlights of major events and achievements in Belgian history

Timeline of Flemish and Walloon history
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