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History of Flanders:
The Medieval Counts of Flanders

Counts of Flanders in the Middle Ages
Draining the Low Countries
Prosperity in the medieval wool trade
French kings fight for control over Flanders
Flanders allies with England in the 100 Years War
Joan of Arc helps drive out the English
French king vs ambitious Dukes of Burgundy
Flanders gains a Hapsburg ruler - and France gives up
The story continues on the next page....

Line of sand dunes after 9th century


Marshes at or below sea-level, gradually reclaimed from 7th century


low land


higher land

MAP: Lands of the Counts of Flanders in the Middle Ages
called the “Low Countries” [les “Pays Bas”] or the “Netherlands”.

Flanders in the Middle Ages
During most of the last 1,000 years, the people of what is now Nord/ Pas-de-Calais would not have thought of themselves as French.

Back in the 9th century, strong local lords with castles and knights on horseback were their only protection from Norman raids, the only saviours of Christianity.

While Norman knights ruled England from 1066, the Count of Flanders had castles in Lille, Douai and several other towns - controlling an area including not only the low-lying borders of northern France, but also what is now Belgium and the Netherlands. The Count was supposed to owe loyalty to the king of France, but the king was weak and safely distant.

Like lords in other outlying areas such as Brittany in the west and Burgundy in the east, the Count ruled Flanders up in the north pretty much as a separate kingdom.
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Draining the "Low Countries"
Centuries ago, much of their realm was coastal marshlands and tidal creeks - slowly reclaimed from the sea by the efforts of monks. From the 7th century, monasteries built dykes and drainage ditches enclosing land for grazing sheep and cattle. The growth of a line sand-dunes along the present-day coastline from Calais created a fairly sheltered salt-water lagoon which was easier to reclaim. In the 12th century, the Count of Flanders continued the work, organising societies of landowners - "wateringues" - to drain the marshes near St. Omer.

Later in the 15th century engineers fom the northern part of Flanders called 'Holland' would develop techniques of using windmill-driven pumps to create 'polders' to drain the rest of the area and use it for farming.
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Prosperity in the medieval wool trade
Flanders prospered as craftsmen in its towns built up a Europe-wide trade and reputation in fine woollen and linen cloth. Flax was grown around Ypres, the centre for weaving it into linen; the waters of the river Lys were suitable for retting flax.

Draining coastal marshes created additional sheep pastures, but increasing amounts of fine long fibred wool had to be imported from England. The wool trade provided over half the English king's tax revenues, collected at ports like Sandwich before it was shipped to Antwerp, Bruges or St-Omer. Inland cloth towns like Lille and Arras were supplied by barges sailing up river.

Flanders cloth was sold in international fairs at Bruges, Paris and Cologne. The region thrived, and towns like Arras became cultural and economic centres for the Christian world - demanding more independence from the lords and their taxes.
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The Count's castle at Douai
The Count 's main palace was in Lille, but in the 11th-12th centuries he built stone castles at key points around his realms to secure his power in troubled times. Douai castle's keep had 4m thick walls, surrounded by ramparts.
Normans built castles around England for the same reasons. Stone keeps still survive in Kent at Dover, Canterbury and Rochester.
Douai castle was one of those deliberately demolished in the 16th century by Philippe-Auguste to assert the French king's authority over provincial lords.

MAP: Feudal lords in the Nord/Pas de Calais region c.1369

Medieval French kings had difficulty exerting much influence over the Count of Flanders; whereas the Count of Hainaut came under the power of the Empire, and the Cambrai area was dominated by the Church.

French kings fight for control over Flanders
Kings of France tried to sieze direct control over these riches on their borders.

From their stronghold in Montreiul, they forced Flanders to give up lands in the Artois region, and then beat an Anglo-Flemish alliance at Bouvines (near Lille) in 1214 - a battle which symbolises the French claim to Nord-Pas de Calais.

Fighting continued, with bloody confrontations like the Battle of Cassel (1228 - picture R) bringing more of Flanders under French control - but in the process ruining the prosperity of the Artois (around Arras) and driving the trade to the north of the area (around Lille and what is now Belgium and Holland).

Bitter anti-French feelings lasted for centuries, and made sure that both Flanders and Hainault allied with England through much of the Hundred Years' War.
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1228 Battle of Cassel: the Flemish are slaughtered after failed attacks on the camps of the French king and his allies.

Flanders allies with England in the Hundred Years' War


1338- Hundred Years War -1453


Spanish Netherlands
under Charles V
Counts of Flanders
Dukes of Burgundy





1516 -

In France and England, a new king often had to fight rivals for the succession to the throne. In 1338, Edward III had a strong claim to inherit the French throne, which he pursued with force.

Because of links with England in the vital wool trade, and bitterness over French attacks, the Count of Flanders took England's side at the start of conflict. As lords of a border area, it suited them to play the kings of England and France against each other.

Flanders joins Burgundy...
In 1369 the Count died, and the French king had - for the time being - driven the English from their early conquests in the north of France. He was in a strong position to force the Count's only child, Marguerite of Flanders, to marry his brother Philip, Duke of Burgundy. The marriage joined the Low Countries in the north with Burgundy in the east.

The dying English king Edward III had hoped to strengthen the Anglo-Flemish alliance by marrying the sought-after heiress to his fifth son - instead his ally was now controlled by France.
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1346 - Winning the battle of Crecy helped Edward III capture Calais - which became a key base for English traders, and warring expeditions on the Continent.

...then Burgundy splits with the French crown
This did not last! In 1380 the French king died, his son became insane and had no children. In 1407 the French royal family divided into two camps in a feud over who should succeed. The powerful Duke of Burgundy lost, but decided to set up his own empire instead.

The English took advantage of French divisions to invade again. In 1415 Henry V wiped out the flower of the French nobility at the Battle of Azincourt, and conquered the north and west of France - very nearly succeeding in achieving his grandfather Edward III's ambitions. Burgundy again allied with England, and the weak French king cowered in the south in the small remaining part of his kingdom.

Joan of Arc helps drive out the English
In 1429, Joan of Arc began her quest to unite the French behind the future Charles VII and drive the English out of France. Joan was captured by Burgundian troops, handed over to the English and burnt as a witch in 1431 - but she inspired a French revival, which drove the English out of all their French lands except Calais by 1453.
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MAP: Flanders became part of Burgundy in 1369 by marriage. Another marriage joined them with Austria in 1477. By 1520 France was surrounded by Spanish territories - brought together by Charles V through various inheritances from different branches of the Hapsburg family.

Charles V is referred to as "Charles Quint" , but in Spain is called "Carlos I" - not to be confused with Carlos V, who came several generations later....


MAP: the split of Burgundy in 1477


MAP: the Unification of France after the 100 Years' War

(see Times History Atlas)

Burgundy: the rising star of Europe
The luxury of the Burgundian court in Flanders: a life of hunting, jousting, luxury clothes, banquets, music, art and festivities.

-----Art --------Fressin castle------Arras tapestries

French king vs ambitious Dukes of Burgundy
In 1461, Louis XI became king and faced a revolt by powerful lords, of whom the most formidable was the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold.

While Louis XI wanted to bring Burgundy under his control, Charles the Bold had ambitions to join the north and south parts of his lands - making Burgundy into a "middle empire" between France and Germany.

Though France signed peace with England in 1475, fighting continued with Burgundy, and the Duke's lands in what is now the Pas-de-Calais were ravaged.
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Flanders gains a Hapsburg ruler - France gets Artois
In 1477 the Duke gained a new ally by marrying his daughter, Marie, to Maximillian, son of the Hapsburg king of Austria. In a twist of fate, Charles was killed almost immediately in the siege of Nancy - fighting Swiss as well as French forces on the border of his southern lands. So through Marie's husband, Burgundy became part of the Austrian Hapsburg Empire.

In the settlement, Louis XI gained Artois, Picardy and the French part of Burgundy - leaving Maximillian with Flanders and the Bergundian lands in Germany.

Facing so strong a foe, Louis XI settled for what he had gained, and left Flanders to remain in foreign hands for over two centuries. Meanwhile, Maximillian married their son to a mad Spanish princess, Juana of Castile. His grandson, Charles grew up in Flanders.
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Charles "the Bold", the last Duke of Burgundy. In 1477, having married his daughter to a Hapsburg prince, he unluckily died fighting, in an over-ambitious attempt to join the 2 parts of his kingdom.

Charles V's inheritance
As a young man, Charles V (1500-1558) accumulated a huge unwieldy empire through various inheritances from each of his parents. He inherited Burgundy and Flanders from his father, Spain and the new lands in America from his mother's parents (Ferdinand and Isabella who re-united Spain), Austria and the German empire from his father's father.

By 1520 Charles was above all king of Spain - then Europe's most powerful country with wealth pouring in from a new rich empire in America. He could barely speak a word of Spanish, but Flanders, his boyhood home, was henceforth to be just one small part of his realms. Back to top

What happened to Flanders in the Spanish Empire?
....story continued on the next page

Places to visit:
Musée des Beaux-Arts in Arras - surviving medieval tapestries

Background information
Hundred Years War - story of the English-French wars that left Flanders in foreign hands for centuries
Medieval art
Medieval wool trade
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Medieval Flanders
Spanish Netherlands
Flanders after Napoleon


Medieval wool trade

Flemish traditions

Follow these links to explore Flemish history & traditions




A-Z © Copyright 1999-2002 Invicta Media Last updated 6th February 2002; 6th April / 20th October 2000