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Brussels History

The Celtics occupied much of northern Europe from about 400 BC until they there subdued by Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire. The area was conquered and made a Roman province, remaining under Roman rule for centuries. After the fall of the Roman Empire, a Germanic tribe called the Franks took control of the region. Under the rule of Clovis I, the Franks established the Merovingian dynasty around 500 AD. Towards the end of the 6th century,

St Gery, the bishop of Canbria, built a chapel on the swampy lands by the Senne River that is now Brussels. Legend has it that Brussels grew out of the settlement around the chapel. The Merovingian’s ruled until 751 AD when they were overthrow by Pepin the Short and his cohorts.

Pepin founded the Carolingian Dynasty. The Carolingian Dynasty ruled from 751 until 987 AD. Pepin’s son Charlemagne accomplished great feats during his rule, pushing back the Moors. His kingdom spanned into Italy and southern Germany. The Pope crowned Charlemagne emperor of the west in 800 AD. After Charlemagne’s death, the empire was divided by the River Scheldt under the Treaty of Verdun in 843. Both of Charlemagne’s grandsons acquired a region. Lothair I took the Lorraine while Charles the Bald took West Francia. Consequently, history took two new paths.

Bruges and Ghent were developing as strongholds and in 977 the Duke of Lorraine moved to the St. Gery island (now Brussels). Two years later, Brussels was officially founded. Towards the end of the 11th century, the Count of Leuven built his fortress in Brussels. Brussels was developing primarily because it was the main trade route between Cologne and Bruges. The merchant class had emerged and was gaining power in the beginning of the 1300’s. Ghent and Bruges had grown to become practically independent city states.

In 1302, Flemish workers, drastically under matched, took on the French army under Philip IV and won. The Flemish victors collected hundreds of pairs of golden spurs from the French, which they paraded victoriously. The battle became known as the Battle of the Golden Spurs. Flanders earned their independence. However, French supporters later leveraged their power and in 1329 Flanders again became part of France.

During the Hundred Years’ War, Flanders sided with the French and the English responded by cutting off trade relations with Flanders. Merchants and workers suffered financially. The region fell into a period of unrest. A series of conflicts broke out between workers, merchants, and the Flemish aristocracy.

In 1355, Duke Jean II died without a male heir. His daughter Jeanne succeeded him and married Wencesles of Luxembourg. They moved their court from Leuven to Brussels. In 1384, the throne of Flanders was passed on to Philip the Bold of Burgundy. The Burgundians gained control of most of what is Belgium today.

During the 15th century, the Burgundian empire had grown vast under the rule of Philip the Good. The empire spanned central eastern France, modern day Belgium and the Netherlands. Philip was a beloved ruler and the empire prospered during his rule. Philip resided in Brussels and the city became a magnet for artists, poets, and composers. Brussels’ Grand Place began to take shape during this time. After Philip’s death, his son Charles the Bold tried to expand the empire but was killed in battle leaving the door open for the French to seize the French part region of Burgundy. Charles’ daughter Mary was only left the Low Countries to rule. She married Maximilian I of the ruling German-Austrian family and later the Holy Roman Emperor. After Mary’s death, the Low Countries were passed onto her son Philip the handsome. Philip married Joanna of Castile and they ruled Castile together for 1 year before Philip died. The unified kingdom was passed to their son Charles V. After his grandfather Maximilian’s death, Charles V also became the Holy Roman Emperor. Hence, Charles V ruled Austria, Germany, Burgundy, and the Low Countries. During his rein, he was by far the most powerful ruler in Europe. However, the advances in learning during the Renaissance along with the spread of reformation made ruling the vast empire too difficult. Charles announced from his palace in Brussels that he was abdicating. He passed his Spanish crown to his son, Philip, and the crown of the Holy Roman Empire to his brother, Ferdinand.

Philip II decided to rule from Spain. Philip II was a devoted Catholic and preferred residing in a location that was predominantly Catholic. The Protestants living in Belgium and the Low Countries resented him for this. This resentment soon turned into rebellion. The leader of the rebellion was William the Orange. William won numerous battles against the Spanish rule and gained control of the Low Countries and much of Belgium. Philip II responded by sending a massive army battle William. Ultimately, Philip regained control of the Belgium. This region became known as the Spanish Netherlands. Brussels was established as the capital. Meanwhile, the northern provinces declared independence and formed the United Provinces. William of Orange became Governor.

The region fell into a period of peace and prosperity for several years. Religious wars between the Catholics and Protestants then began to heat up, which eventually lead to the Thirty Year War. The United Provinces took the side of the French. As a military strategy, the Spanish sealed off Antwarp’s access to the sea so that goods could not be shipped to the through the United Provinces to the River Scheldt. Antwerp and Brussels also suffered as a result.

In 1689, William of Orange became King of England through marriage. William’s armies put forth efforts to stop Louis XIV of France from expanding his territories. Louis XIV then marched on Brussels, destroyed much of the city, then left. Afterwards, Louis made an attempt to gain control the Spanish Netherlands from his Grandson who had been passed the Spanish crown after King Charles II died without and heir in 1700. England, the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany opposed Louis, which lead to the War of Spanish Succession. Shortly after the war ended, the Netherlands was passed onto the Emperor of Austria, Charles VI, and thereafter became know as the Austrian Netherlands.

Charles VI died in 1740. His daughter, Maria Theresa, succeeded him. Maria appointed her brother-in-law, Charles Lorraine, the keeper of the Austria Netherlands. Charles later set up a dazzling court in Brussels. Charles hosted glorious parties and him and his court lived lavishly. Meanwhile, the people suffered economically. Maria’s crown passed to her son, Joseph II, after her death. Joseph was a noble ruler with good intentions. He introduced many new reforms. One of the more controversial reforms was to allow Protestants to build churches. Even though Joseph had good intentions, his reforms were bold and many considered them to be oppressive. The growing opposition eventually let to a revolt and Belgium declared its independence. During this time, Joseph was in weakened condition. He died in February 1790. His successor, Leopold II, crushed the revolt and Belgium lost its independence.

In 1792, Napoleon and the French army went to war with the Austrian rule. The French achieved victory and took control of Belgium. After Napoleon’s defeat, the Belgians celebrated believing that they had finally become an independent nation. However, the Congress of Vienna decided that instead of granting Belgium independence they would lump Belgium and the Netherlands together forming a new nation under the rule of William of Orange. Unhappy with the Congress of Vienna’s decision, Belgium again revolted. Despite efforts from William of Orange, Belgium won their independence in 1831.

Pring Leopold of Saxelobug chosen to be the king of Belgium. He took the thrown as King Leopold I. Leopold took as his queen Louis-Marie, the daughter of King Louis Philippe of France, in 1832 therefore strengthening Belgium’s relationship with France. The new nation blossomed due in part to the industrial revolution that was sweeping through Europe. The first public railway opened and Brussels University was founded in 1834. Belgium continued to flourish under Leopold II. The population, in Brussels, grew from 250,000 to 600,000 during his rule. The coal industry grew to become Belgium’s main source of income.

In the beginning of the 20th century, Belgium was drug into WWI despite a declaration to remain neutral. Germany's invasion of Belgium was met by strong defenses by the Belgium army under King Albert I. Still, Germany gained control of Belgium and occupied the region until the end of the war. Like most of Europe, Belgium faced difficulties rebuilding after WWI.

In the 1930’s, Germany grew more and more fearful under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. Germany invaded the Netherlands and Belgium on May 10th 1944. King Leopold III surrendered to Germany forces. The Germans occupied Belgium until September of 1944. Germany bombed Antwerp and Liege as one Hitler’s last attempts to sustain power. Ultimately, American troops defeated Hitler’s forces. After the war, Leopold was looked on unfavorable for his surrender. Opposition to Leopold’s rule grew stronger and Belgium was on the brink of civil war when Leopold abdicated and his son, Baudovin I, became king. Baudovin heeled the nation and once again Belgium became a prosperous nation.

Modern political views lead to restructuring of Belgium’s government. The division between the Flemish north and the French speaking south made it difficult to select a center for government. A compromise was reached and three regional governments, one in Wallonia, Flanders, and Brussels, were established under the Saint Michel Accords of 1993.

The creation of the European Union has favored Belgium. Due to its geographic location, Brussels was made the headquarters of the European Nation in the 1960’s.

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