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History of Flanders:
the Spanish Netherlands

...continued from the page on Medieval Flanders

Flanders in the Spanish Empire
The next generation - the Dutch rebellion & the Spanish armada
The Sun King expands France into Flanders
Napoleon re-unified Flanders
Continued on next page...

The story so far...
Charles V inherited the Low Countries and then Spain in the early 16th century, Flanders had been ruled by the Dukes of Burgundy. Marriage of the Duke's daughter to a Hapsburg prince led to a chain of inheritances which brought Flanders into the Spanish empire.
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Flanders in the Spanish Empire

Spain ruled the Low Countries...

..with weak opposition from England .........or France

Carlos I
Charles Quint (or "Carlos I") ruler of Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany and America - the most powerful man in Europe.
Henry VIII
King Henry VIII of England (1509-1547) - France sought him as an ally at the
Field of the Cloth of Gold, but he turned to Spain. When Henry split with the Pope, both France and Spain allied against him.
 Frances I
Frances I brought the Rennaissance to France. He tried to strengthen his royal rule over the lands that were supposed to be his, and feared being surrounded by Spain...

Charles Quint
Charles was born in Flanders, spoke French, and became Duke of Bergundy as a child. As he grew up, he inherited three more crowns from different grandparents: Hapsburg Austria, Spain, and the German lands.

He first went to Spain as a foreigner from Flanders, not speaking a word of Spanish - but he soon regarded Spain as the most important part of his empire, and set out to create a powerful dynasty for his family, the Hapsburgs.

At that time, newly-united Spain was driving out the Moors. In 1492, Columbus landed in America, and within a generation Spain had conquered the once-mighty Inca and Mayan empires. Spain was enriched by silver and gold brought back across the Atlantic by fleets of treasure ships, as well as new foods like the turkeys, potato, chocolate.... Back to top

MAP: By 1520 France was surrounded by Spanish territories. Charles V ruled his empire as a family estate, rather than a united kingdom. Each part kept its own languages, customs, laws and forms of government. Charles travelled round, holding court in different capitals.

Heavy taxes under Spanish rule
Despite the treasure pouring in from America, Charles Quint also levied heavy taxes on the towns and cloth industry of the Netherlands. He needed money for endless wars, and to built forts to protect his empire, such as at at Le Quesnoy and Gravelines. In border wars with France, he sacked Montreuil (1538), and punished Thérouanne and old Hesdin by totally destroying the towns (1553). He fought the French king for lands in Italy. Back to top

The next generation - the Dutch rebellion & the Spanish armada

Philip II inherited Flanders...

- and a Protestant rebellion, helped by England and France

Philip II was a zealous Catholic who ruled a quarter of population of western Europe, as well as Peru, Mexico and the Philipines.

Protestant Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) ruled a small kingdom with a fraction of the population and resources of either Spain or France.
Dutch rebels

Dukes of Burgundy
Dutch Republic






Austrian Netherlands




1578 -1659

to 1678

to 1713

1713 - 1790

Carlos I
Philip II
Carlos II













Map: at the time of the Armada (1588) the Spanish had regained control of the largest part the Low Countries.

DIAGRAM: The struggle to rule the Low Countries
In 1566 Philip II was short of money, and cancelled enforcement of the heresy laws. Dutch Protestants began to openly threaten Spanish rule. They held open-air prayer meetings guarded by armed men, then started smashing Catholic religious images in churches. Philip II believed up to half the population of the Low Countries had joined the Protestants, and sent in a big Army which drove the Protestant leaders into exile. With help from England and France, they returned, and captured fortified towns in the northern (Dutch) provinces. Back to top

MAP: Philip II, inherited only half of his father's unwieldy empire: Spain, Flanders, and the American colonies; Charles V's brother (the Austrian Hapsburg branch of the family) took over the troubled central European parts -Austria and the German lands, where Protestantism was also rife.

An English spy's map of Parma's siege of Antwerp - he built a huge bridge of boats across the River Scheldt to cut off Antwerp from the sea. Fighting along narrow dykes amid deliberately flooded polders in a landscape of islands, estuaries and mudflats was very difficult.

Philip II and the rebellion of Dutch Protestants
Charles V's son Philip II, a devout Catholic, took over Spain and the Netherlands from his father in 1556. Philip II married Mary Tudor, the Catholic queen of England, but he spent little time in England and did not produce a hoped-for Catholic heir. Philip persuaded Mary to join in a war with France that leaded to her losing Calais - England's last stonghold on the Continent.

By this time, there were many Protestants in the Netherlands. Like Louis XIV, Philip II believed it was his duty as a king "appointed by God" to fight for the Catholic church. Backed by the zeal of the Jesuits and the Spanish Inquisition, his savage repression of Protestants soon led to a rebellion that disrupted the Spanish empire in the Netherlands.

Bankrupted by the cost of keeping armies in the Low Countries, the Spanish Treasury stopped paying the troops in 1575. By 1577, Dutch Protestants led by William of Orange governed virtually all the Netherlands, and demanded freedom of worship. This was too much for Philip, who raised money to send his nephew the Duke of Parma with a powerful army to regain control. Back to top

In 1581 the Parma's 'Army of Flanders' started a plan to capture the rebel towns one-by-one. These were professional troops, the best in Europe. The southern provinces were soon subdued - the loyal Catholic leaders of the French-speaking towns had been uneasy allies with the Dutch protestants.

By 1585, Parma had captured the key port of Antwerp, and driven the Dutch rebels back to their northern strongholds. Their situation was desperate and morale low - Queen Elizabeth sent English troops to rescue them from collapse.

This angered Philip II, who sent the Spanish Armada in 1588 to escort the Duke of Parma's army across the North Sea to invade England and put a friendly Catholic on the English throne. Driven off at the sea battle of Gravelines, the Armada failed. The English and Dutch gained new confidence in attacking the Spanish at sea around the world. Spain did not agree to a truce until 1609 - and did not recognise the Dutch Republic until 1648. Back to top

Map: Spanish Netherlands around the time of the Armada 1588, showing the northern rebel Protestant provinces [
orange], which had English support during their struggle.

Prosperity of the remaining provinces

While religious fighting continued and the Thirty Years' War (1618-48) left much of Germany in ruins, the loyal Catholic provinces in the Low Countries accepted firm Spanish rule and enjoyed a period of prosperity.

Many churches were built, and poured money into commissions for religious art. Flemish artists passed easily between Holland and the Spanish Netherlands [see Flemish Art and religion]. Spanish governors gave charters empowering Flemish towns to levy taxes, hold markets, and control traders; invested in draining marshes, new canals and projects like the Exchange in Lille - the Vieille Bourse (1652) and the large squares in Arras (R).

INVESTMENT: Vieille Bourse in Lille, an exchange for the cloth merchants - built 1652, a legacy of Spanish rule.

...half a century later...

France claims Flanders...

from the weakened Spanish; the Dutch look for allies..

STRONG: King Louis XIV now the strongest and most ambitious ruler in Europe - took advantage of Spain's weakness to capture much of Flanders for France

Carlos II of Spain - the defeat of the Armada showed that Spain was not all-powerful. Defending the enormous world empire used up all the treasure from America and more. Debts piled up, and inflation and corruption further weakened the now tottering empire.

Leader of the young Dutch Protestants, young Prince
William of Orange (descendant of the rebel leader assassinated by the Spanish in 1584) looked for allies to stop Louis XIV taking over the whole of the Low Countries. In 1688 he acieved this by becaming King of England...

WEAK: Charles II (1660-1685) - his father lost his kingdom in a Civil War and was beheaded. Charles II depended on secret subsidies from French King Louis XIV

French expansion
By the middle of the 17th century, France was the rising power in Europe. Spain was weakened by wars, corruption and inflation; England by the English Civil War, in which Charles I was beheaded. From the 1660s, a powerful young French king, Louis XIV, took advantage of the other powers' weakness. He waged an initially successful campaign, nibbling away at the decaying Spanish Empire. Year-by-year, his army besieged and captured more towns in Spanish Flanders.

As his armies fought their way eastwards, Louis instructed his military engineer Vauban to build a chain of strong fortifications to secure his new territories.

Dutch opposition
As French successes brought them nearer to Holland, Dutch 'stadholder' protestant prince William of Orange rallied the Dutch army and beat them back. He also married English king Charles I's grand-daughter Mary - hoping to bring England in on the Dutch side. Because of Mary's ancestry and William's religion, they were invited to take the English throne in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, replacing unpopular catholic king JamesII - and ensuring that the English and Dutch fought together for the next few decades.

The War of the Spanish Succession
By the end of the 17th century, the feeble old Spanish King Carlos II was obviously near death. Because France was already so powerful, the rest of Europe was alarmed that a French heir might inherit both Spain and its Empire. England, Holland and Austria formed an alliance, and crushingly defeated Louis' armies. The allies were led by the brilliant English general Marlborough, who had Blenheim palace built for him as a reward. Back to top

map: Louis XIV conquests 1651-1713


France - inherited by Louis XIV


captured by 1659


captured by 1680


captured by 1680, given back 1713


1713 boundary of France


remaining Spanish


Dutch Republic 1648

Map: Louis XIV captured much of Spanish Flanders - in 1670, he reached the southern parts of Holland. The peace treaty in 1713 left Flanders divided by an artificial border

Treaty of Utrecht 1713
The Allies insisted that Spain and its Empire should be split. The Austrian branch of the Hapsburg family took over the remains of the Spanish Netherlands. In a fairly humiliating peace treaty in 1713, Louis bought peace by sacrificing his gains in what is now Belgium, even though Vauban had built forts round that area. His kingdom was nearly bankrupt with the expense of years of fighting. But he did manage to hang on to Calais, Lille and the lands behind - so it was "two steps forward, one step back". Back to top

1. 17th century Citadelle in Lille - built by Vauban as part of ring of fortifications to protect France's new territories in Flanders.
2. French King Louis XIV set up a Parlement in Douai to administer his new territories in Flanders Back to top

Napoleon re-unifies Flanders
The French Revolution declared war on Britain,in 1793. Napoleon used its military power to extend to its "natural frontiers" on the river Rhine. The whole of Flanders came under French rule again -including what is now Nord-Pas de Calais, Belgium and Holland. When Napoleon was finally defeated, the 1815 peace settlement returned France to its 1713 borders, and initially set up a unified state for the Netherlands. Back to top

What happened to Flanders in the after Napoleon?
....story continued on the next page

Places to visit:
Le Palais de Justice - Flemish Parliament building in Douai
Le Vieille Bourse - the old exchange in Lille, built under Spanish rule

Background information
Beer - Belgium and the North have different drinking habits to the rest of France
Vauban & his fortifications - Louis XIV's master military engineer
Napoleon - joined all of Flanders and Holland to his French Empire
William of Orange - coordinated resistance to Louis XIV's expansion into the Spanish Netherlands
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Medieval Flanders
Spanish Netherlands

Food & drink

Flanders after Napoleon


Medieval wool trade


 Flemish Art


Follow these links to explore Flemish history & traditions




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