How Did Belgium Become a Country?

Belgium had a long history of being conquered or traded between European empires. But in 1830, Belgians turned the tables and achieved independence.

Jun 16, 2024By Dale Pappas, PhD Modern European History, MA History, BA History, Italian Studies

how belgium become country

 

In 1830, France’s Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand claimed, “There are no Belgians, there never have been, and there never will be: there are Frenchmen, Flemings or Dutchmen (which is the same thing) and Germans.”

 

Indeed, for centuries, the area of present-day Belgium, formerly known as the Southern Netherlands or southern Low Countries, was a battlefield between rival European powers. Talleyrand thus thought that 1830 would be business as usual in Belgium. In other words, European states like France and Austria would settle any issue regarding the area. But that same year, uprisings in Brussels and elsewhere showed that many people disagreed with Talleyrand’s view of Belgium.

 

Origins 

William the Silent, Prince of Orange, by Hendrik Hondius I, 19th century. Source: National Library of Wales

 

The name “Belgium” derives from Julius Caesar’s description of an area of Gaul inhabited by the Belgae, a confederation in existence since at least the 3rd century BCE. However, for much of history, a map of Europe would not include Belgium.

 

In fact, it is necessary to understand Dutch history in order to appreciate how Belgium became a country in the 19th century. Our Dutch history lesson begins with the country’s struggle for independence from Spain during much of the 16th and early 17th centuries. The northern part of the Netherlands became independent as the United Provinces or Dutch Republic in 1648.

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The new Dutch state’s leader was the Stadtholder William the Silent. On top of his position in the United Provinces, William was also Prince of Orange and founder of the Orange-Nassau branch. Samuel Humes explains that a seventh-generation descendant of William the Silent, William I, would play a central role in the story of Belgian independence.

 

The southern part of the Netherlands, which would one day become Belgium, remained under Spanish rule. However, in 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht transferred the Spanish Netherlands to the Austrian Habsburgs. Samuel Humes explains that the Austrian Netherlands soon became the wealthiest part of the Habsburg Empire.

 

The French Revolutionary Wars & The Belgian Revolution

Habsburg Emperor Joseph II, by Anton von Maron, 1775. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

As is the case across much of Europe, modern Belgium’s history begins in the French Revolutionary era. At the time, the Austrian Netherlands consisted of ten provinces. However, there was also the prince-bishopric of Liège, independent of Habsburg rule but still part of the Holy Roman Empire.

 

Each province maintained traditional privileges and autonomy in the early decades of Habsburg rule. In fact, before 1789, there was no common government or institutions in Belgium save those created by the Habsburgs.

 

But by the 1780s, Habsburg Emperor Joseph II started to roll back Belgian autonomy. Joseph’s unpopular policies met resistance from two separate groups. On the one hand, conservatives known as Statists opposed Habsburg reforms. They wanted to restore each province’s traditional privileges.

 

A group of revolutionaries known as Vonckists opposed Joseph’s reforms on the other end of the political spectrum. Led by Jan-Frans Vonck or Jean-François Vonck, they envisioned a republic along the lines of that recently created next door in revolutionary France.

 

Increasing opposition to Austrian rule briefly united these two Belgian groups. When Joseph II challenged traditional governance in the province of Brabant, the Statists and Vonckists took joint action. Vonck and Statist leader Hendrik van der Noot led rebels to victory over the Austrians at Turnhout.

 

Belgian leaders declared a United Belgian States, including Liège, in January 1790. But independence was short-lived. Statists and Vonckists clashed, which brought the Austrians back that November.

 

Austrian rule proved equally short-lived. French revolutionary forces took control of Belgium by late 1792.

 

Napoleonic Belgium 

Battle of Fleurus, by Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse, 1794. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

The Austrians did briefly strike back against the French, but ultimately, Belgium fell under French control.

 

Belgium increasingly became connected to France following the Austrian defeat at Fleurus in 1794. By 1796, all laws passed in France automatically applied to Belgium. As historian Alexander Grab explains, French rule got off to a rocky start because of the unpopularity of anti-religious policies. In fact, the French had to suppress a major revolt in 1798 after the anti-religious measures combined with mandatory military service sparked outrage.

 

Napoleon further centralized the Belgian state to suit the French Empire’s needs. Building on a policy begun in 1795, French became the official language of government across Belgium. Moreover, Belgian elites increasingly embraced French as their preferred language regardless of their background.

 

Despite opposition to many French policies, Belgium’s economy prospered under Napoleon. Several industries, including textiles and coal mining, flourished during much of the period. The port of Antwerp also experienced a commercial revival.

 

Napoleon’s defeats at the 1813 Battle of Leipzig and campaign in France in 1814 resulted in his exile to the island of Elba. His enemies met to map Europe’s future at the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna.

 

In Vienna, British Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh envisioned an enlarged Dutch state as a strong buffer against any future French expansion in Europe. As a result, Castlereagh encouraged William, Sovereign Prince of the Netherlands, to occupy present-day Belgium. Historian Adam Zamoyski points out that Castlereagh believed there would be no opposition to a Dutch occupation.

 

The United Kingdom of the Netherlands 

Portrait of King William I of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, Joseph Paelinck, 1819. Via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Most Belgians did not wish to become a part of an enlarged Dutch state. However, William became King William I of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands on March 16, 1815. Roughly three months later, Napoleon was defeated for the final time at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. William also became the head of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, exchanging his ancestral lands of Orange-Nassau with the King of Prussia.

 

For many Belgians, William’s policies confirmed their worst suspicions about joining the kingdom. William, for instance, mandated the Protestant Dutch Reformed faith as the kingdom’s official religion. He also set out to make Dutch the official administrative language across the country.

 

Although Belgians were primarily Flemings or Walloons and spoke French or Dutch dialects, they were overwhelmingly Roman Catholics. Moreover, the upper classes of even Flemish areas preferred to speak French, a legacy of Napoleonic rule. Finally, although Brussels joined The Hague as a co-capital, Dutch officials massively outnumbered Belgians. Thus, to many Belgians, this seemed to be a Dutch kingdom in all but name.

 

1830 was a challenging year for the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and European leaders who feared revolutionary outbreaks inspired by the French Revolution of 1789. Belgium’s independence involved both issues.

 

Barricades in Brussels: The Movement for Belgian Independence, 1830

Battle for the Town Hall, Paris, 28 July 1830, by Jean-Victor Schnetz, 1833. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

For starters, William’s kingdom experienced a poor harvest. Poor economic conditions only emboldened Belgian nationalists. However, the movement for Belgian independence was also inspired by the revolutionary events of July 1830 in France. In Paris, Bourbon King Charles X abdicated amid unrest in favor of Louis-Philippe, the Duc d’Orléans, who became a sort of “Citizen King.”

 

Revolutionary activity in Brussels spilled over in late August 1830. In fact, several public events celebrating King William’s birthday were canceled in anticipation of riots. But the opera at the Theater de la Monnaie in central Brussels continued as scheduled on the evening of August 25, 1830. After the performance of the opera La Muette de Portici, theatergoers joined swelling crowds outside, singing patriotic arias from the show. Riots followed across Brussels.

 

Concerned citizens in Brussels formed a militia to protect the city from the riotous crowds. Representatives from the militia approached King William’s son, Prince William, to mediate a separation of the northern and southern Netherlands. But the prince refused.

 

Instead, King William sent another son, Prince Frederick, and inexperienced Dutch troops to quell the growing rebellion in Brussels. But Prince Frederick learned that Belgian rebels had set up barricades across the city’s strategic points. Furthermore, volunteers from across the country joined the revolutionary movement.

 

Fearful of directly storming the barricades, Frederick launched an ill-advised bombardment of Brussels. In response, angry militia leaders joined the rebel volunteers and formed a provisional committee to defend the city.

 

Dutch troops withdrew, leaving the rebel black, yellow, and red colors hoisted in Brussels. This would soon be the Belgian national flag.

 

Belgium Gets a King 

Portrait of King Leopold I of Belgium, unknown artist, 1850. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

After the Dutch withdrawal, Belgian rebels established a provisional government under Charles Latour Rogier. On October 4, 1830, this government issued a Declaration of Independence, much like the famous American example from 1776.

 

A furious King William sought international intervention to defend his territory. But he would be disappointed with the reaction. Instead of protecting the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, the diplomats at the Congress of Vienna had created European leaders who recognized an independent Belgium under certain conditions. This included finding a suitable king to govern a constitutional monarchy.

 

European powers settled on Prince Leopold of the German state of Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha. Leopold took the oath to assume the Belgian throne on July 21, 1831. This date is now celebrated as Belgium’s national day.

 

Historian Richard J. Evans points out that Leopold had spent much of his young life to date in the Imperial Russian military. He served with distinction as a cavalry officer in the 1813 Battle of Kulm against French troops and ended the Napoleonic Wars as a general.

 

Besides his German princely title and Russian military commission, Leopold was also a member of the British royal family because of his marriage to Princess Charlotte. Charlotte had died in childbirth, and Leopold agreed to marry a French princess as part of the negotiations to take the throne.

 

The Ten Days’ Campaign 

Dutch Military Encampment, 1831, unknown artist, 1831-5. Via Rijksmuseum and Wikimedia Commons.

 

A Belgian state had clearly taken shape by 1831. However, King William refused to recognize Belgian independence or Leopold’s kingdom. The Belgians then presented William with a chance to retake his former territory.

 

In the summer of 1831, Belgian troops invaded William’s territory in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. European leaders, though, did not oppose Belgium’s annexation of Luxembourg. An enraged Dutch population prompted William to invade Belgium in the so-called Ten Days’ Campaign.

 

Dutch troops invaded Belgium on August 2, 1831. Leopold called on a French army to help drive the Dutch out. French troops quickly forced the Dutch to retreat. Only one Dutch garrison remained in the Belgian city of Antwerp. Alarm soon turned to the French army, which was suspiciously slow to leave Belgium. Following international pressure, the French left on September 30.

 

With the war’s end, Luxembourg’s territory was split between Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. King William’s family retained control of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg until 1890.

 

However, the Dutch remained in the fortress of Antwerp. In response, French troops once again fought the Dutch in November 1832. The British Royal Navy supported the French this time and helped force the Dutch surrender of Antwerp in December 1832.

 

Aftermath 

Photo of the Royal Palace in Brussels. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

King William I finally recognized Belgian independence through the 1839 Treaty of London. This document is relevant for more than its role in the story of Belgian independence. For instance, the Treaty of London provided international recognition of Belgian neutrality. In 1914, Germany’s violation of this agreement by invading Belgium led to Britain’s entry into World War I.

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By Dale PappasPhD Modern European History, MA History, BA History, Italian StudiesDale Pappas has taught History and Academic Writing at the high school and university levels in the United States and Europe. He holds a PhD in Modern European History from the University of Miami. Dale researches the history of tourism in the Mediterranean and the political history of Modern Greece. When he needs a breather from world travels, Dale lives between Miami, FL and Athens, Greece.