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History of Belgium

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The Burgundian Period

Under Philip the Good (ruled 1419-1467), the Burgundian empire in Belgium expanded and began to flourish. Philip gained control of the southeastern areas, including Brussels, Namur, and Liege. He suppressed the independence of the cities, brought them under central rule from Brussels, and consolidated the region's economy. Philip's reign brought new prosperity and, with it, a great era of cultural development. Painting especially reached new highs in the work of Robert Campin, the brothers van Eyck, and Rogier van der Weyden. After Philip's death, his rule over present-day Belgium passed first to Charles V. In the 1490s, as Bruges' waterways to the sea gradually silted up, trade shifted further north and Antwerp emerged as the pre-eminent commercial city in the region.

The ascension of Philip II to the Spanish throne in 1555 brought on the next crisis in Belgium's history, as King Philip's strident Spanish Catholicism coincided tragically with the rise of Protestantism in northern Europe. In the Flemish cities especially, Protestantism was a deeply political movement, linked to the long tradition of resistance to aristocratic domination. Social unrest in the cities was met by Philip with harsh and rigid repression, including the introduction of a massive Spanish military presence in the north as well as the execution of thousands of Protestants. By 1565, a powerful League of Nobility, under the leadership of William of Orange and Count Egmont (governor of Flanders), had joined in the opposition to Spain. Philip responded by sending in the notorious Duke of Alva at the head of an army of 10,000 troops. Alva outlawed William, executed Egmont and other leading nobles in Brussels' Grand'Place, and began terrorizing the country. Popular opposition exploded, particularly in the north, and within a few years Alva found himself powerless to exercise control over any but the southern cities, which had remained much closer to the Catholic church.

By 1576, William's power in the north was virtually unchallenged, and he came to terms with the Spanish. The United Provinces, as the northern regions came to be known, struggled for the next seventy-five years to maintain their independence. The Catholic regions to the south remained faithful to Spain, becoming known as the Spanish Netherlands. In 1648, with the Treaty of Munster, the much-weakened Spanish not only recognized the independence of the United Provinces, but also agreed to close the Scheldt to navigation. As a result, Antwerp and Ghent, like Bruges before them, lost their predominance as the region's centers of trade. For the next several centuries, the Dutch port of Amsterdam would play that role.

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