Julius Caesar first marched his Roman legions against the ancient Belgae tribes in 58 B.C. For nearly 5 centuries thereafter, Belgium was shielded from the barbarians by the great Roman defense line on the Rhine.
From the beginning of the 5th century, Roman rule gave way to the Franks. In 800, their great king Charlemagne was named emperor of the West. He instituted an era of agricultural reform, setting up local rulers known as counts, who rose up to seize more power after Charlemagne's death. In 843, Charlemagne's grandsons signed the Treaty of Verdun, which split French-allied (but Dutch-speaking) Flanders in the north from the southern (French-speaking) Walloon provinces.
Then came Viking invaders. A Flemish defender known as Baldwin Iron-Arm became the first count of Flanders in 862; his house eventually ruled over a domain that included the Low Countries and lands as far south as the Scheldt (Escaut) in France. Meanwhile, powerful prince-bishops controlled most of Wallonia from their seat in Liège.
As Flanders grew larger and stronger, its cities thrived, and its citizens wrested more and more self-governing powers. Bruges emerged as a leading center of European trade; its monopoly on English cloth attracted bankers and financiers from Germany and Lombardy. Ghent and Ypres (Ieper) prospered in the wool trade. Powerful trade and manufacturing guilds emerged and erected splendid edifices as their headquarters.
As towns took on city-state status, the mighty count of Flanders, with close ties to France, grew less and less mighty; in 1297, France's Philip the Fair attempted to annex Flanders. However, he had not reckoned on the stubborn resistance of Flemish common folk. Led by Jan Breydel, a lowly weaver, and Pieter de Coninck, a butcher, they rallied to face a heavily armored French military. The battle took place in 1302 in the fields surrounding Kortrijk. When it was over, victorious artisans and craftsmen scoured the bloody battlefield, triumphantly gathering hundreds of golden spurs from slain French knights. Their victory at the "Battle of the Golden Spurs" is celebrated by the Flemish to this day.
The Burgundian Era
Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy in the mid-1400s, gained control of virtually all the Low Countries. His progeny, through a series of marriages, consolidated their holdings into a single Burgundian "Netherlands," or Low Countries. Brussels, Antwerp, Mechelen, and Leuven attained new prominence as centers of trade, commerce, and the arts.
This era was one of immense wealth, much of which was poured into fine public buildings, impressive mansions, and soaring Gothic cathedrals that survive to this day. Wealthy patrons made possible the brilliant works of such Flemish artists as Jan van Eyck, Hieronymous Bosch, Rogier van der Weyden, and German-born Hans Memling. Flemish opulence became a byword around Europe.
By the end of the 1400s, however, Charles the Bold, last of the dukes of Burgundy, had lost the duchy of Burgundy to the French king on the field of battle, and once more French royalty turned a covetous eye on the Low Countries. To French consternation, Mary of Burgundy, the duke's heir, married Maximilian of Austria. The provinces became part of the Austrian Habsburg Empire.
A grandson of that union, Charles V, born in Ghent and reared in Mechelen, presided for 40 years over most of Europe, including Spain and its New World possessions. He was beset by the Protestant Reformation, which created dissension among the once solidly Catholic populace. It all proved too much for the great monarch, and he abdicated in favor of his son, Philip II of Spain.
The Spanish Invasion
Philip ascended to power in an impressive ceremony at Coudenberg Palace in Brussels in 1555. An ardent Catholic who spoke neither Dutch nor French, he brought the infamous instruments of the Inquisition to bear on an increasingly Protestant -- and increasingly rebellious -- Low Countries population. The response from his Protestant subjects was violent: For a month in 1566 they went on a rampage of destruction, the Beeldenstorm (Iconoclastic Fury), that saw churches pillaged, religious statues smashed, and other religious works of art burned.
An angry Philip ordered the duke of Alba to lead 10,000 Spanish troops in a wave of retaliatory strikes. The atrocities Alba and his "Council of Blood" committed as he swept through the Spanish Netherlands are legendary. He was merciless -- when the Catholic counts of Egmont and Hornes tried to intercede with Philip, he put them under arrest for 6 months, and then had them publicly beheaded on the Grand-Place in Brussels.
Instead of submission, this sort of intimidation gave rise to a brutal conflict that lasted from 1568 to 1648. Led by William the Silent and other nobles who raised private armies, the Protestants fought on doggedly until finally independence was achieved for the seven undefeated provinces to the north, which became the fledgling country of the Netherlands. Those in the south remained under the thumb of Spain and gradually returned to the Catholic Church.
An Independent Nation
In 1795, Belgium wound up once more under the rule of France. It was not until Napoleon Bonaparte's crushing defeat at Waterloo -- just miles from Brussels -- that Belgians began to think of national independence as a real possibility. Its time had not yet come, however; under the Congress of Vienna, Belgium was once more united with the provinces of Holland. But the Dutch soon learned that governing the unruly Belgians was more than they had bargained for, and the 1830 rebellion in Brussels was the last straw. A provisional Belgian government was formed with an elected National Congress. On July 21, 1831, Belgium officially became a constitutional monarchy when a German prince, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, became king.
The new nation set about developing its coal and iron natural resources, and its textile, manufacturing, and shipbuilding industries. The country was hardly unified by this process, however, for most of the natural resources were to be found in the French-speaking Walloon region, where prosperity grew much more rapidly than in Flanders.
The Flemish, while happy to be freed from the rule of their Dutch neighbors, resented the greater influence of their French-speaking compatriots.
War & Peace
It took another invasion to bring a semblance of unity. When German forces swept over the country in 1914, the Belgians mounted a defense that made them heroes of World War I -- even though parts of the Flemish population openly collaborated with the enemy, hailing them as "liberators" from Walloon domination.
With the coming of peace, Belgium found its southern coal, iron, and manufacturing industries reeling, while the northern Flemish regions were moving steadily ahead by developing light industry, especially around Antwerp. Advanced agricultural methods yielded greater productivity and higher profits for Flemish farmers. By the end of the 1930s, the Flemish population outnumbered the Walloons by a large enough majority to install their beloved language as the official voice of education, justice, and civil administration in Flanders.
With the outbreak of World War II, Belgium was once more overrun by German forces. King Leopold III decided to surrender to the invaders, remain in Belgium, and try to soften the harsh effects of occupation. The Belgian Resistance was among the most determined and successful of the underground organizations that fought against Nazi occupation in Europe. On the other side, Flemish and Walloon quislings formed separate Waffen-SS formations that fought for the Nazis in Russia. By the war's end, the king was imprisoned in Germany and a regent was appointed as head of state. His controversial decision to surrender led to bitter debate when he returned to the throne in 1950, and in 1951 he stepped down in favor of his son, Baudouin.
Unity & Disunity
During King Baudouin's 42 years on the throne, much progress was made in achieving harmony among Belgium's linguistically and culturally diverse population. In the 1970s, efforts were made to grant increasing autonomy to the Flemish and Walloons in the areas where each was predominant, and to apportion power to each group within the national government and the political parties. Finally, in 1993, the constitution was amended to create a federal state, made up of the autonomous regions of Flanders and Wallonia (and its semiautonomous German-speaking community), together with the bilingual city of Brussels.
Baudouin died in 1993, removing one of the pillars of unity. His successor, his brother Albert II, while winning respect for conscientious effort in what is a difficult job, has not made the same personal connection with the people.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.