An Claidheamh Soluis, August 12, 1905.
When the Roman Empire crumbled to pieces, the Low Countries became swordland to a race of fair-haired and blue-eyed warriors from the North. These were the Franks. In the heart of Belgium was the home – won by the strong hand – of the most famous of all the Franks, – the Salians. It was the destiny of this tribe – which did not at the time muster more than 5,000 fighting men – to throw up one of the great empire-builders of the world.
Clovis, King of the Salian Franks, evolved order and unity out of the chaos which followed on the break-up of the Roman dominion in the West. He pushed his conquests northward to the Rhine and southward to the Mediterranean, bringing under his sceptre almost every acre of Gallic territory that had once owned the supremacy of Rome. Dying in 511, he left his dominions to be divided amongst his sons. This was a reversion to chaos, and during the three centuries which followed Belgium changed hands as often as a prince arose who felt himself strong enough to wrest it from whatsoever descendant of Clovis happened to hold it at the moment.
Thus, chance and change held sway until there sprang from Belgian soil a second and a greater empire-maker, – Charlemagne. Under Charlemagne, Aix – then regarded as a Belgian town – became the capital of a dominion stretching from the Baltic to the Mediterranean and from the Atlantic to the mountains of Bohemia.
But Charlemagne died, and his death was followed by another partition of territories, and by another reversion to chaos. Belgium fell to Lothaire, grandson of the conqueror. Later on it was contended for by the Emperors of Germany and the Kings of France. In 954 the Emperor Otto conferred it on Bruno, Archbishop of Cologne, who divided it into two duchies, Upper and Lower Lorraine. In the list of the rulers of Lower Lorraine occurs the famous name of Godfrey de Bouillon, King of Jerusalem. In the eleventh century we find Belgium split up into a multiplicity of counties, marquisates, and duchies, governed by
feudal chiefs owning a nominal allegiance to the empire, but in reality independent and absolute. Strife reigns on all sides. France and Germany still contend for the overlordship, the Walloons of Luxemburg, Namur, Hainaut, and Liege generally siding with the former, the Flemings of Brabant and Flanders usually with the latter. When the dividing line through Courtrai and Louvain is kept well in mind, much that is dark and involved in the story becomes clear and intelligible.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a new and significant movement began to manifest itself. This was the rise of the great industrial municipalities. Bold merchant princes brought wealth and fame to the town of Flanders and Brabant: Antwerp and Ghent and Bruges became the marts or manufactories of Western Europe. With property came a sense of importance, an impatience of tyranny, a contempt for the wastrel nobles.
Each city developed into a miniature republic governed by its Guilds. Princes sought alliances with these civic communities, and foreign nations – England amongst the number – entered treaties with them. Sometimes the cities went to war with one another, and sometimes they combined and chastised the nobles. These are the picturesque days which re-live in the pages of Conscience. At Courtrai in 1302 the municipalities triumphed over the aristocracy; but at Roseberque in 1382 the men of Ghent, fighting under gallant Phillip van Artevelde, suffered a disastrous defeat, and feudalism received a new lease of life. Two years later, Flanders and Artois came into the possession of the Dukes of Burgundy. Within half a century Holland, Zealand, Hainaut, Brabant, Limburg, Antwerp and Namur had been added to the domain of the same house. Luxemburg, Guelders and Friesland followed. To this splendid inheritance succeeded
in 1467 Charles the Bold, the great protagonist of Louis XI of France. Charles dreamt of adding Alsace, Lorraine, and Liege to his dominions, and of exchanging a ducal for a royal crown. He and his projects perished at the battle of Nancy in 1477.
With the accession of Mary, the daughter of Charles, Belgian history enters on a new phase. By Mary’s marriage with the Archduke (afterwards Emperor) Maximillian, the Low Countries were brought under the shadow of the mighty house which then ruled Austria and was soon to succeed to the gigantic empire of Spain. Under Phillip the Fair, Maximillian’s son and representative, Belgium flourished apace; but the ambitions of Charles V (a Netherlander born) – added to the religious discords of the sixteenth century – were soon to plunge it into a new turmoil. In 1540 the Netherlands were inseparably united to the crown of Spain. Fifteen years later Charles was succeeded by his son, Phillip II, and into Belgian history comes the sinister figure of the Duke of Alva. Alva is the Cromwell of the Low Countries: he had the thoroughness, the ruthlessness, the dour and sombre genius of the man of Drogheda and Wexford. The Spanish occupation was Belgium’s trial by fire. She passed through it, scathed indeed, but unbroken in spirit. Alva, after all, was less thorough than Cromwell.
A further period of vicissitudes followed. The Northern Netherlands, under William the Silent, achieved independence. By marriages, deaths, and treaties, the Belgian Netherlands passed from Spain to Austria, from Austria to Spain, and from Spain back to Austria again. They were twice conquered by the armies of Louis XIV; they were many times overrun by the English; they shook beneath the tread of Turenne and Condé, of William III and Marlborough, of Prince Eugene and Marshal Saxe; they were coveted and fought for by Holland, Spain, Austria, Germany, France, and England. As the outcome of all this warring, portions of northern or Flemish Belgium fell to Holland; a good deal of southern or Walloon Belgium to France; the rest remained to Austria. A desperate attempt to loosen the Austrian grip was crushed in 1790.
But meantime Europe had been shaken by the cataclysm at Paris. One of the first acts of revolutionary France was to pour her armies into the Netherlands. Belgium quickly exchanged an Austrian for a French yoke and was straightaway parcelled out into French departments. The Abbé Sieyès obligingly provided a constitution. And now the destinies of Belgium become interwoven with those of a more tremendous conqueror than either Clovis or Charlemagne. When Napoleon ruled France, he sent his brother Louis to reign in the Low Countries. As part of Napoleon’s colossal empire Belgium flourished again; the Emperor, who visited it repeatedly, laboured strenuously for its advancement, and dreamt of making Antwerp in wealth and commerce the rival of London.
Finally, it was on Belgian soil that Napoleon fell, fighting alone against Europe. Belgians do not love his memory. They forget that he made them prosperous, recollecting only that he made them slaves. He ranks with Alva in the Flemish imagination as an impersonation of foreign conquest. In the Wiertz Gallery at Brussels there is a terrific picture which shows the soul of Napoleon in hell. He is surrounded by the bleeding victims of his wars, who point accusing fingers at him; on his drawn brow is the imprint of an immortal sorrow. It is Belgium’s unjust, but not unnatural, verdict on the last and greatest of her conquerors.
The Treaty of Paris (in which she had no say) united Belgium to Holland as the Kingdom of the Netherlands. One would have thought that the union had in it the seems of permanence, for the Fleming and the Dutchman were akin, and spoke the same language. But the Walloon had to be reckoned with. The Walloon could have borne the supremacy of France, but to bend the knee to a Dutchman was not in his nature.
The Dutch, with blind stupidity, prescribed the speech of the Walloon, prohibited its use in courts of justice and in official life, packed the public service with Dutchmen, and in every way acted to perfection the part of “pre-dominant partner.” Walloon sentiment flamed into madness; encouraged by the success of the French Revolution of 1830, the populace of the Walloon towns of the South broke into revolt; the Dutch troops, at first successful near Brussels, were compelled to retire before advancing bands of insurgents. Then – an unexpected, though not an inexplicable development – the Flemings of the North, akin though they were to the Dutch in race and language, made common cause with the Walloons, and before a united Belgium the Dutch power went down. A National Convention met in Brussels drew up a Constitution, and offered the crown of free Belgium to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. He accepted. The Belgian Revolution was accomplished and a new state entered into the European Commonwealth.