A History of the Flemish

windmill1 I had always known that my DeBacker family was from Belgium, but I did not know specifically which part of Belgium they had come from. It was not until 1996 that I learned from a cousin of my father that our DeBacker family came from the town of Ronse (Renaix), Belgium. Narrowing it down to a specific city in Belgium was an important step and with this came the knowledge of a lineage dating back to least the early 1700′s. Of course, I was fascinated to learn that my 5th great-grandfather was named Jacques (Jacobus) De Backer and that he lived in the first half of the 18th century in east Flanders (Oost-Vlanderen), but it was not enough to merely know that Jacobus begat Judocus, Judocus begat Andreas, and so forth. It was important to try to put a face on these people by understanding who they were and where they lived. In order to do this it was important to the learn the history of the land that these people had lived in for numerous centuries.

All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third. All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws…Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are farthest from the civilisation and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually waging war…

Thus begins Julius Caesar in his book De Bello Gallico which is an account of the Roman conquest of Western Europe that began in 58 BCE. The name of the nation now known as the Kingdom of Belgium takes its name from the Belgae, a group of tribes living in northeastern Gaul in the time of Caesar. It would be wrong for me to make the claim that my Belgian ancestors and I are descendant from the Belgae. While the technology of modern DNA research might be able to prove it one way or another, the so-called Dark Ages of European history cast a deep shadow over the question of one’s specific descent from any of the many Celtic and Germanic tribes that roamed Europe 2,000 years ago. For all I know I may be descended from the Belgae through some other ancestral line such as the Belgae who later possibly settled in Ireland and gave their name to the historical Bulig and the mythological Fir Bolg. But what we can say for certain is that a large majority the people who make up modern day Belgium are descendents of the Roman Celts and Gothic Germans who lived in that region from before the fall of the Roman Empire.

Such as Gaul was divided in the time of Caesar, modern Belgium is linguistically divided today. The Flemings, who numbered about 6 million in the late 20th century, speak Netherlandic (Flemish) and live mainly in the north and west. The Walloons, numbering about 3 million, speak a dialect of French and live in the south and east. The vast majority of both groups are Roman Catholic.  For a discussion of these two linguistic groups see ‘Fleming and Walloon’ Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Even the city that my Belgian ancestors came from has officially both a Flemish name (Ronse) and a French name (Renaix). The city itself is known as de koningen van Vlaamse Ardennen (the Queen of the Flemish Ardennes). Sitting just north of the Ardennes, a forest and mountain region of southern Belgium and northern France, it is on the border that divides the French-speaking south from the Flemish-speaking north.

The modern Belgian nation did not come into existence until the early 19th century when the people of that region rose up in revolt against their Dutch neighbors to the north and formed a constitutional monarchy in 1831 known as the Kingdom of Belgium. The first king of the Belgians, Leopold I, was a German from the Saxe-Coburg family and an uncle of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. The Kingdom of Belgium was formed as a neutral nation in the hopes of putting to an ending the centuries of war that people had endured as this area that had gained it the nickname of the cockpit or battleground of Europe. That neutral purpose, of course, was not to be upheld as proven by World Wars I and II.

Administratively the Kingdom of Belgium is divided into a number of provinces - five of which make up what is known as the Flemish (Vlaamse) region. The city of my ancestors, Ronse, is in the province of East Flanders (Oost-Vlanderen) and was once a part of the historical region known as the County of Flanders. The county of Flanders was formed in 862 AD following the splitting of Charlemagne’s empire by his sons and grandsons. Through wars and dynastic marriages, the county of Flanders grew to encompass an area much larger than the two modern provinces in Belgium and included parts of northeastern France. Ironically, it was through a series of dynastic marriages that Flanders eventually came under the control of the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs.

When Margaret the countess of Flanders died in 1405 the title and property went to her husband, Philip of Valois, Duke of Burgundy. By the end of the century the county became part of the Holy Roman Empire and property of the Hapsburg family when Philip’s granddaughter, Mary of Burgundy, married the soon to be emperor Maximillan I in 1477. The two were married in the Flemish city of Ghent and both her son Philip and her grandson Charles were born and raised in Flanders. When Maximillan died in 1519 his grandson became Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire - an empire that not only included Flanders, but all of Austria and Bohemia, parts of Germany, most of Italy, and all of Spain. This of course included the Spanish new world from the coast of California to the southern tip of South America. When Charles V retired in 1556, he split his empire between his brother Ferdinand of Austria and his son Philip of Spain. Thus, Philip II of Spain inherited the county of Flanders. The Flemish did not so much care who their current ruler was as long as they did not lose anything in the way of property, rights, and life-style. One way of protecting one’s property was to keep detailed documentation and records - in other words, Get it in writing!

From as far back as the 12th century the Flemish people living in urban centers known as communes had begun to know a degree of autonomy and prosperity that was not known by others in Europe. In the late Middle Ages, Flanders and the surrounding provinces became the trading hub of Europe. For the Flemish, the textile and linen industry had made the people very prosperous. Sheep merchants in England shipped wool to Flanders where Flemish weavers made cloth for the rest of Europe. The period of plague known as the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War (1338-1453) disrupted and destroyed trade throughout Europe and the merchants and artisans of Flanders found themselves to be in a unique position both geographically and politically to rebuild and restore the economy of Europe. Prior to Mary of Burgundy’s marriage to Maximillan, the people of Flanders took steps to protect themselves against what they saw as threat to their well-being. In 1477, the people of Flanders and the surrounding provinces, under the leadership of a political assembly, known as the States-General, compelled Mary of Burgundy to sign a charter of rights known as the Great Privilege. By this charter, the provinces and towns of the region recovered all the local and communal rights that had been abolished by the dukes of Burgundy. In this charter, the young princess was made to promise not to make war, make peace or raise taxes without the consent of the provinces and not to make appointments of foreigners to official posts. 

Over the next three hundred years, the people of Flanders and the other provinces found themselves in a constant struggle to retain their age-old rights and privileges. Following the death of Mary of Burgundy in 1482 the Hapsburgs, first under Maximilian and then under Charles V and Phillip II, sought to impose a more centralized government and a stronger church on the provinces of the low countries. These efforts provoked resistance by the people of the region and by the 1560s led to open revolt. To put down the revolt Philip II of Spain sent the Duke of Alba and 20,000 troops to the Netherlands.

The Spanish invaders were ruthless in their treatment of the Flemish. Whole cities were destroyed and heavy taxation was enforced in the effort to quell the rebellion. The provinces also fought amongst themselves, but in 1576, despite religious differences, they united in their efforts to throw off the Spanish yoke. This truce did not last long and union split into two groups, the Union of Utrecht (which approximates modern-day Netherlands) and the Union of Arras (which approximates modern-day Belgium).

The Spanish were driven out of the north in the 1590′s and although the war ended in 1609 the rest of Europe was still very much in turmoil over the religious differences between Protestants, Calvinists, and Catholics. The independence of the Northern provinces was not officially recognized by the Spanish until the Thirty Years War ended in 1648. Since the ‘recent’ troubles for the Low Countries had begun in 1568, the Dutch know of the Thirty Years War as the Eighty Years War.

While the Dutch were enjoying their freedom, their Flemish cousins in the south remained under the control of the Spanish Hapsburg. Despite all the warfare and turmoil, the Spanish Netherlands did see a resurgence of economic and social growth in the early 17th century. The textile industry saw a boom and artists such Rubens and van Dyck flourished. Cities such as Ghent and Brugges grew into major trading centers. Agriculture fared well with the building of canals and some degree of political freedom was seen as the Flemings were allowed to control their own internal affairs. Foreign affairs continued to be controlled by the Spanish and when the port of Antwerp was closed to outside trade in 1648, the economy of Flanders began to decline.

The start of the 18th century saw the beginning of another series of wars that were to have an impact on the Flemish. The War of Spanish Succession began when Charles II of Spain died in 1700 without leaving an heir. The French wanted to pick a Bourbon to succeed Charles and Austrians wanted a Hapsburg. The war lasted for thirteen years and during this time the French, English and the Dutch took advantage of the situation. Each took turns invading and occupying Flanders. The treaties of Utrecht, which ended the war in 1713, divided the Spanish inheritance and Flanders now came under control of the Austrian Hapsburgs. Not much changed under the Austrians. Thirty years later another war was started over the question of succession. This time the Germans objected to the Austrian’s choice. Charles VI had chosen his daughter, Maria Theresa to succeed him and the German electors did not want a woman on the throne. Thus began the War of Austrian Succession, which lasted eight years.

Under the rule of Maria Theresa, the Austrian Netherlands prospered just as it did in the first half of the Spanish rule, but just as things were starting to go well they suddenly went bad. In 1780, Joseph II succeeded his mother to the throne and decided that he wanted to remodel the Netherlands. He starting closing schools, disbanding religious orders, and taking away the centuries old rights and privileges that the Flemish held so dear. The people of the provinces of the Austrian Netherlands were outraged and a revolution was begun. The revolt resulted in the formation of the United States of Belgium, but the republic did not last long because once again the people of the region could not hold the union together.  Within a year, the Austrians regained control. In 1790, Joseph II had died and Leopold II came along offering the restoration of rights and other consolations, but the Belgians decided that they had had enough and refused to cooperate. Not wanting to take ‘No’ for an answer the Austrians invaded. By now, the French Revolution was well under way and the French looking for a place to export the revolution decided that the southern Netherlands was a good place to start. Therefore, in 1792 the French joined in the fight against the Austrians. By 1795, the southern Netherlands were annexed to the French Republic.

At first, the French were welcomed as liberators and the revolutionary spirit reigned in 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.

Belgium remained under French control until Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The victors in this final Napoleonic conflict, the British and the Austrians, decided that they knew what was best for Belgians and, without so much as asking, they joined Belgium to the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Fifteen years later the Belgians were able to assert their independence and finally a free and neutral Kingdom of Belgium was born.