Flanders (Dutch: Vlaanderen) today normally refers to the Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium. It is one of the communities, regions and language areas of Belgium. Historically, the name referred to a region located in the northwestern part of present-day Belgium and adjacent parts of France and the Netherlands. Both in the historical and the contemporary meaning, the demonym associated with Flanders is Fleming, while the corresponding adjective is Flemish. Brussels is the capital of Flanders, though it is also autonomous, predominantly French-speaking and only partially under Flanders' jurisdiction.
Over the course of history, the geographical territory that was called "Flanders" has varied, and usage in English was at most periods much vaguer and imprecise than in the region itself. From around 1000 AD, Flanders historically meant the land situated along the North Sea from the Strait of Dover to the Scheldt estuary, with ill-defined southern borders. It came to refer specifically to the County of Flanders, lasting from 862 to 1795, whose territory was situated in the northwestern part of what is now Belgium (approximately the modern Belgian provinces of East and West Flanders), and what are now parts of northern France (French Flanders), and the Netherlands (Zeelandic Flanders). Through marriage, the County of Flanders was joined with most of the rest of the Low Countries around 1400 AD, and it lost its independence. Most of the county's territory became part of an independent Belgium in 1830, and during the 19th and 20th centuries, it became increasingly commonplace to refer to the entire Dutch-speaking and northern part of Belgium as "Flanders", including the Belgian parts of the Duchy of Brabant and Limburg. In the late 20th century, Belgium became a federal state in which the Dutch-speaking part was given autonomy as the Flemish Community and the Flemish Region; these two entities were effectively merged, except that only the Flemish Community, not the Flemish region, has jurisdiction over Brussels, its capital.
Flanders has figured prominently in European history. During the late Middle Ages, Flanders' trading towns (notably Ghent, Bruges and Ypres) made it one of the richest and most urbanized parts of Europe, weaving the wool of neighbouring lands into cloth for both domestic use and export. As a consequence, a very sophisticated culture developed, with impressive achievements in the arts and architecture, rivaling those of northern Italy. As part of Belgium, Flanders was initially the poorer half of the country, which was dominated by less populated but heavily industrialized French-speaking Wallonia. In the second half of the 20th century, however, there has been a gradual shift of political and economic power to Flanders, which, having modernized its economy, is now more wealthy and prosperous than its southern counterpart.
Geographically, Flanders is generally flat, and has a small section of coast on the North Sea. Flanders is agriculturally fertile and densely populated, with a population density of almost 500 people per square kilometer (1200 per square mile). It borders France to the west, the Netherlands to the north and east, and Wallonia to the south. The Brussels Capital Region is enclaved within the Flemish Region. Flanders has exclaves of its own: Voeren in the east is clamped between Wallonia and the Netherlands and Baarle-Hertog in the north consists of 22 exclaves located in the Netherlands.
The area, roughly encompassing the later geographical meanings of Flanders, was considered to be in the northern and less economically developed part of Gallia Belgica, the most northeastern continental province of the Roman Empire at its height. Linguistically, the tribes in this area were under Celtic influence in the south, and Germanic influence in the east, but there is disagreement about what language was spoken locally, which may even have been an intermediate "Nordwestblock" language related to both. By the first century BC Germanic languages had become prevalent. In the future county of Flanders, the main Belgic tribe in Roman times was the Menapii, but also on the coast were the Marsacii and Morini.
Created in the year 862 as a feudal fief in West Francia, the County of Flanders was divided when its western districts fell under French rule in the late 12th century. The remaining parts of Flanders came under the rule of the counts of neighbouring Hainaut in 1191. The entire area passed in 1384 to the dukes of Burgundy, in to the Habsburg dynasty, and in 1556 to the kings of Spain. The western districts of Flanders came finally under French rule under successive treaties of 1659 (Artois), 1668, and 1678.
During the late Middle Ages Flanders' trading towns (notably Ghent, Bruges and Ypres) made it one of the richest and most urbanized parts of Europe, weaving the wool of neighbouring lands into cloth for both domestic use and export. As a consequence, a very sophisticated culture developed, with impressive achievements in the arts and architecture, rivaling those of northern Italy. Ghent, Bruges, Ypres and the Franc of Bruges formed the Four Members, a form of parliament that exercised considerable power in Flanders.
Increasingly powerful from the 12th century, the territory's autonomous urban communes were instrumental in defeating a French attempt at annexation (1300–1302), finally defeating the French in the Battle of the Golden Spurs (11 July 1302), near Kortrijk. Two years later, the uprising was defeated and Flanders remained part of the French Crown. Flemish prosperity waned in the following century, however, owing to widespread European population decline following the Black Death of 1348, the disruption of trade during the Anglo-French Hundred Years' War (1337–1453), and increased English cloth production. Flemish weavers had gone over to Worstead and North Walsham in Norfolk in the 12th century and established the woolen industry.
In 1500, Charles V was born in Ghent. He inherited the Seventeen Provinces (1506), Spain (1516) with its colonies and in 1519 was elected Holy Roman Emperor. The Pragmatic Sanction of 1549, issued by Charles V, established the Low Countries as the Seventeen Provinces (or Spanish Netherlands in its broad sense) as an entity separate from the Holy Roman Empire and from France. In 1556 Charles V abdicated due to ill health (he suffered from crippling gout). Spain and the Seventeen Provinces went to his son, king Philip II of Spain.
Over the first half of the 16th century Antwerp grew to become the second-largest European city north of the Alps by 1560. Antwerp was the richest city in Europe at this time. According to Luc-Normand Tellier "It is estimated that the port of Antwerp was earning the Spanish crown seven times more revenues than the Americas."
Meanwhile, Protestantism had reached the Low Countries. Among the wealthy traders of Antwerp, the Lutheran beliefs of the German Hanseatic traders found appeal, perhaps partly for economic reasons. The spread of Protestantism in this city was aided by the presence of an Augustinian cloister (founded 1514) in the St. Andries quarter. Luther, an Augustinian himself, had taught some of the monks, and his works were in print by 1518. The first Lutheran martyrs came from Antwerp. The Reformation resulted in consecutive but overlapping waves of reform: a Lutheran, followed by a militant Anabaptist, then a Mennonite, and finally a Calvinistic movement. These movements existed independently of each other.
Philip II, a devout Catholic and self-proclaimed protector of the Counter-Reformation, suppressed Calvinism in Flanders, Brabant and Holland (what is now approximately Belgian Limburg was part of the Bishopric of Liège and was Catholic de facto). In 1566, the wave of iconoclasm known as the Beeldenstorm was a prelude to religious war between Catholics and Protestants, especially the Anabaptists. The Beeldenstorm started in what is now French Flanders, with open-air sermons that spread through the Low Countries, first to Antwerp and Ghent, and from there further east and north. In total it lasted not even a month.
Subsequently, Philip II sent the Duke of Alba to the Provinces to repress the revolt. Alba recaptured the southern part of the Provinces, who signed the Union of Atrecht, which meant that they would accept the Spanish government on condition of more freedom. But the northern part of the provinces signed the Union of Utrecht and settled in 1581 the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. Spanish troops quickly started fighting the rebels, but before the revolt could be completely defeated, a war between England and Spain had broken out, forcing Philip's Spanish troops to halt their advance. Meanwhile, the Spanish armies had already conquered the important trading cities of Bruges and Ghent. Antwerp, which was then the most important port in the world, also had to be conquered. On 17 August 1585, Antwerp fell. This ended the Eighty Years' War for the (from now on) Southern Netherlands. The United Provinces (the Northern Netherlands) fought on until 1648 – the Peace of Westphalia.
While Spain was at war with England, the rebels from the north, strengthened by refugees from the south, started a campaign to reclaim areas lost to Philip II's Spanish troops. They managed to conquer a considerable part of Brabant (the later Noord-Brabant of the Netherlands), and the south bank of the Scheldt estuary (Zeeuws-Vlaanderen), before being stopped by Spanish troops. The front line at the end of this war stabilized and became the current border between present-day Belgium and the Netherlands. The Dutch (as they later became known) had managed to reclaim enough of Spanish-controlled Flanders to close off the river Scheldt, effectively cutting Antwerp off from its trade routes.
First the fall of Antwerp to the Spanish and later also the closing of the Scheldt were causes of a considerable emigration of Antverpians. Many of the Calvinist merchants of Antwerp and also of other Flemish cities left Flanders and emigrated to the north. A large number of them settled in Amsterdam, which was at the time a smaller port, of significance only in the Baltic trade. In the following years Amsterdam was rapidly transformed into one of the world's most important ports. Because of the contribution of the Flemish exiles to this transformation, the exodus is sometimes described as "creating a new Antwerp".
Flanders and Brabant, due to these events, went into a period of relative decline from the time of the Thirty Years War. In the Northern Netherlands however, the mass emigration from Flanders and Brabant became an important driving force behind the Dutch Golden Age.
In 1794 the French Republican Army started using Antwerp as the northernmost naval port of France, which country officially annexed Flanders the following year as the départements of Lys, Escaut, Deux-Nèthes, Meuse-Inférieure and Dyle. Obligatory (French) army service for all men aged 16–25 was one of the main reasons for the people's uprising against the French in 1798, known as the Boerenkrijg (Peasants' War), with the heaviest fighting in the Campine area.
After the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo in Waterloo, Brabant, sovereignty over the Austrian Netherlands – Belgium minus the East Cantons and Luxembourg – was given by the Congress of Vienna (1815) to the United Netherlands (Dutch: Verenigde Nederlanden), the state that briefly existed under Sovereign Prince William I of Orange Nassau, the latter King William I of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, after the French Empire was driven out of the Dutch territories. The United Kingdom of the Netherlands was born. The Protestant King of the Netherlands, William I rapidly started the industrialisation of the southern parts of the Kingdom. The political system that was set up however, slowly but surely failed to forge a true union between the northern and the southern parts of the Kingdom. The southern bourgeoisie mainly was Roman Catholic, in contrast to the mainly Protestant north; large parts of the southern bourgeoisie also primarily spoke French rather than Dutch.
In 1815 the Dutch Senate was reinstated (Dutch: Eerste Kamer der Staaten Generaal). The nobility, mainly coming from the south, became more and more estranged from their northern colleagues. Resentment grew both between the Roman Catholics from the south and the Protestants from the north and among the powerful liberal bourgeoisie from the south and their more moderate colleagues from the north. On 25 August 1830 (after the showing of the opera 'La Muette de Portici' of Daniel Auber in Brussels) the Belgian Revolution sparked off and became a fact. On 4 October 1830, the Provisional Government (Dutch: Voorlopig Bewind) proclaimed the independence, which was later confirmed by the National Congress that issued a new Liberal Constitution and declared the new state a Constitutional Monarchy, under the House of Saxe-Coburg. Flanders now became part of the Kingdom of Belgium, which was recognized by the major European Powers on 20 January 1831. The de facto dissidence was finally recognized by the United Kingdom of the Netherlands on 19 April 1839.
Kingdom of Belgium
In 1830, the Belgian Revolution led to the splitting up of the two countries. Belgium was confirmed as an independent state by the Treaty of London of 1839, but deprived of the eastern half of Limburg (now Dutch Limburg), and the Eastern half of Luxembourg (now the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg). Sovereignty over Zeeuws Vlaanderen, south of the Westerscheldt river delta, was left with the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which was allowed to levy a toll on all traffic to Antwerp harbour until 1863.
The French-speaking bourgeoisie showed very little respect for the Dutch-speaking part of the population . French became the only official language in Belgium and all secondary and higher education in the Dutch language was abolished.
In 1834, all people even remotely suspected of being "Flemish minded" or calling for the reunification of the Netherlands were prosecuted and their houses looted and burnt. Flanders, until then a very prosperous European region , was not considered worthwhile for investment and scholarship. A study in 1918 demonstrated that in the first 88 years of its existence, 80% of the Belgian GNP was invested in Wallonia. This led to a widespread poverty in Flanders, forcing roughly 300.000 Flemish to emigrate to Wallonia to start working there in the heavy industry.
All of these events led to a silent uprising in Flanders against the French-speaking domination. But it was not until 1878 that Dutch was allowed to be used for official purposes in Flanders (see language legislation in Belgium), although French remained the only official language in Belgium.
In 1873, Dutch became the official language in public secondary schools. In 1898 Dutch and French were declared equal languages in laws and Royal orders. In 1930 the first Flemish university was opened.
The first official translation of the Belgian constitution in Dutch was not published until 1967.
Flanders (and Belgium as a whole) saw some of the greatest loss of life on the Western Front of the First World War, in particular from the three battles of Ypres. Due to the hundreds of thousands of casualties at Ypres, the poppies that sprang up from the battlefield afterwards, later immortalised in the Canadian poem "In Flanders Fields", written by John McCrae, have become a symbol for lives lost in war.
Flemish feeling of identity and consciousness grew through the events and experiences of war. The occupying German authorities took several Flemish-friendly measures. More importantly, the experiences of many Dutch-speaking soldiers on the front led by French-speaking officers catalysed Flemish emancipation. The French-speaking officers often gave orders in French only, followed by "et pour les Flamands, la même chose!", meaning "and for the Flemish, the same thing!" (which did not help the Flemish conscripts, who were mostly uneducated farmers and workers unable to have understood what had been said in French). The resulting suffering is still remembered by Flemish organizations during the yearly Yser pilgrimage in Diksmuide at the monument of the Yser Tower.
Several Flemish parties still advocate for more Flemish autonomy, some even for Flemish independence (see Partition of Belgium), whereas the French-speakers would like to keep the current state as it is. Recent governments (such as Verhofstadt I Government) have transferred certain federal competences to the regional governments.
The 2007 federal elections showed more support for Flemish autonomy, marking the start of the 2007–2011 Belgian political crisis. All the political parties that advocated a significant increase of Flemish autonomy gained votes as well as seats in the Belgian federal parliament. This was especially the case for Christian Democratic and Flemish and New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) (who had participated on a shared electoral list). The trend continued during the 2009 regional elections, where CD&V and N-VA were the clear winners in Flanders, and N-VA became even the largest party in Flanders and Belgium during the 2010 federal elections, followed by the longest-ever government formation after which the Di Rupo I Government was formed excluding N-VA. Eight parties agreed on a sixth state reform which aim to solve the disputes between Flemings and French-speakers. The 2012 provincial and municipal elections however continued the trend of N-VA becoming the biggest party in Flanders.
These victories for the advocates of much more Flemish autonomy are very much in parallel with opinion polls that show a structural increase in popular support for their agenda. Since 2006, certain polls have started showing a majority in favour of Flemish independence. Those polls are not yet representative, but they point to a significant long-term trend.