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next century, France emerged as the most powerful state in
Europe. Under the rule
of Louis XIV (1659-1715), the French made sustained efforts
to extend their control over the Spanish Netherlands. Louis'
ambitions were feared not only by the Spanish, but also by the
Dutch, who had no desire to see powerful France extend its borders
to their own. England also opposed French expansion, especially
after William III, ruler of the Dutch, accepted the English throne.
As a result, present-day Belgium was for much of the century
a battleground between Louis XIV and the shifting alliances of
These struggles reached their climax during the War of the Spanish
Succession (1702-1713), prompted by the death of the childless
King Charles II of Spain. Before his death, Charles had named
as his successor Philip of Anjou, who also happened to be Louis'
grandson. As one might expect, Louis informed his young relative
that it would be best for all concerned if Philip would immediately
cede the Spanish Netherlands to France. It was an offer that
Philip could not refuse, but also one that no one else in Europe
could accept. For the next decade France attempted repeatedly
to establish its rule, while Dutch, English, and Austrian armies
consistently rejected each attempt. By 1713, Louis had had enough,
and with the Treaty of Utrecht France ceded its claims over the
Spanish Netherlands to the Habsburg rulers of Austria.
In fact, the region continued to enjoy
virtual independence, paying as little attention to the Habsburg
claims as it had paid
to the claims of the weakened Spanish during the previous century.
By the end of the 18th century Belgium was ready to assert its
own identity. With the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789,
the country rose up in revolt against the Austrians, and in 1790
independence was declared in the form of the United States of
Belgium. However, the leaders of the new country were deeply
divided amongst themselves, and the Austrians rapidly re-established
control. Austria, however, soon found itself at war with the
French Republic, and by 1795 the successful French had "liberated" Belgium.
Although the French instituted far-reaching reforms that later
served as the foundations for the modern Belgian government,
they were in fact far more inclined to see Belgium as a source
of revenue and troops. Churches were seized and despoiled, massive
conscription was introduced, and popular protest was crushed
with a ruthlessness reminiscent of the Spanish occupation.
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