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The Battleground

Over the 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 his opponents.

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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