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The territories which it became customary to describe collectively at the end of the Middle Ages as the Low Countries (Partes Advallenses, Nederlanden) had not, in fact, any unity, whether geographical, linguistic, or political. Extending from the Ardennes to the shores of the North Sea, the area they covered included practically the whole of the basin of the Scheldt, as well as the basins of the lower and middle Meuse and the lower Rhine. The inhabitants, north of a line drawn from Dunkirk to Maestricht, were of Frisian and Frankish origin and spoke Germanic dialects; those south of this line, although containing a strong admixture of German elements resulting from the invasions of the fifth century, had preserved a language which in its different forms, known usually by the generic name of Walloon, derived directly from Latin. As a contrast to this horizontal division of the country between the two languages, it was divided politically by a line running from north to south. The treaties of partition in the Carolingian age had in effect made the Scheldt the boundary between the kingdoms of France and Germany; to France was assigned the county of Flanders on the left bank of the river, to Germany the duchy of Lower Lorraine on the right bank. So, looked at from every point of view, the Low Countries appeared essentially as a frontier-country; the territory, the race, the language, and the suzerainty of France on the one side, of Germany on the other, were prolonged into it and came thus into juxtaposition. And henceforward in history the Low Countries were destined to be subject to the constant influence of these two great States, though eventually they were to arrive at an independent position of their own between them.

Until the beginning of the twelfth century, the weakness of the French kings left the Counts of Flanders free to develop a feudal autonomy so complete that the suzerainty of the Crown there was reduced to a merely nominal prerogative. In the duchy of Lorraine, however, the power of the Emperors succeeded in preventing the higher nobility from throwing off the yoke which it was the duty of the Bishops of Liege, Utrecht, and Cambrai to maintain. But after the War of Investitures there was a complete reversal of the situation. Absorbed by the internal troubles of Germany and their duel with the Papacy, the Emperors paid no heed to the Low Countries; and the Lotharingian nobles took advantage of this to found in their turn solid feudal principalities, after the example and on the model of their neighbours of Flanders. So, by the side of the episcopal principalities of Liege, Cambrai, and Utrecht, created by the Ottos in the tenth century to hold the lay nobles in leash, were formed the duchies of Brabant and Limburg, and the counties of Hainault, Namur, Luxemburg, and Holland-Zeeland. From that time their independence with regard to the Empire continued constantly to increase. Lorraine did not revolt against the Emperors; its interests were separate, and, while it continued to belong to them in law, it became foreign to them in practice. The troubles of the Great Interregnum (1254-73) completed the process of detachment, and to this Rudolf of Habsburg had perforce to submit. He dared not intervene when in 1288 Duke John I of Brabant by force of arms conquered the duchy of Limburg at the battle of Worringen; Limburg was henceforward to belong to the Brabançon dynasty. Eleven years later, in 1299, the helplessness of Germany was displayed in an even more deplorable light. In spite of the threats of Albert of Austria, Count John of Hainault (John of Avesnes) took possession of the counties of Holland and Zeeland, to which he claimed the succession; nor did he hesitate to march against Albert, who had advanced to Nimwegen but on the count’s approach had to beat a hasty retreat.

While German suzerainty was losing its hold over the Lotharingian nobles, French suzerainty, on the other hand, weighed more and more heavily upon the Count of Flanders. As the Capetian monarchy consolidated its power, one of the clearest objectives of its policy was to compel the obedience of its great vassal in the north, whose position became so hazardous that in self-defence he had recourse to the support of England. The first manifestation of this policy was the intervention of Louis VI in 1127 in the question of the succession to Flanders after the murder of Charles the Good. Under Philip Augustus, Count Philip of Alsace (1157-91) was forced after a long war to surrender to the Crown the territories which were from this time onwards to form the county of Artois. In 1214, Count Ferrand was involved in the disaster of Bouvines and taken prisoner on the field of battle; he was only released after subscribing to the treaty of Melun (5 April 1226), by which his obedience was assured. After him the Countesses Joanna (1202-44) and Margaret (1244-78) accepted a situation of which the French monarchy with its increasing prestige allowed no modification; by their submission they were assured of the goodwill of the king, who looked on them as useful agents of his policy and accorded them his protection against their enemies. During the long contest between the houses of Avesnes and Dampierre, deriving from the two marriages of Countess Margaret and each claiming the succession, the Crown effectively supported the latter against its rival. And this support made Guy de Dampierre, who became Count of Flanders in 1278, an effective instrument of French expansion; from that time the Capetian monarchy used every effort to bring the whole of the Low Countries under its hegemony. In vain did John of Avesnes in 1277 urge Rudolf of Habsburg to come to his rescue against Dampierre, who, thanks to France, was able to ridicule the “blunted sword of the Empire”. In fact, the house of Flanders owed the position which it was henceforward to enjoy to the obedience it shewed to its suzerain, whose designs it continued to favour. Through it the French monarchy extended its sphere of influence among the nobles on the right bank of the Scheldt, taking a hand in all their quarrels; and so completely did they submit to its interference that the moment seemed to be approaching when the Lotharingian lands of the Low Countries, which Germany no longer thought of defending, would be added to the territory of the French kingdom.

That this annexation was prevented was due much more to social causes than to political. So, in order to comprehend the sequence of events, it is necessary at this point to envisage the phenomena to which the marvellous effervescence of town life had given rise, from the thirteenth century onwards, in the basins of the Meuse and the Scheldt.

The geographical situation of the Low Countries, which made them dependent on the political fluctuations of the two great States of Western Europe, had also the effect of arousing at an early date a powerful economic vitality. Having a natural outlet to the North Sea by three rivers provided with numerous navigable tributaries, they were possessed of a complete system of communications; owing to this, the commercial movement initiated by the voyages of the Scandinavian peoples at their natural terminus—the confluence of the Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt—penetrated into the interior during the course of the tenth century. Thielt and Dorestad on the lower reaches of the Rhine appear henceforward as trading points, and their influence was soon felt higher up the rivers. In the basin of the Scheldt it spread to Arras, Cambrai, Douai, Lille, Ypres, Ghent, Saint-Omer, and Bruges; up the Meuse, to Dinant, Huy, Liege, and Maestricht. In all these places a collection of merchants and craftsmen settled round the walls which had been constructed after the Norman invasions to serve as a refuge for the populace of the neighbourhood. To the old military bourg there was thus attached the new bourg (novus burgus, portus), which grew in size as the economic life became more intense; moreover, new needs and a way of life hitherto unknown demanded a profound transformation of law and institutions. Whether they liked it or no, the territorial princes were forced to allow to the newcomers a law conformable to the needs of the life they led. In the midst of a society founded exclusively on agriculture, these newcomers, depending solely on the far more complicated business of commerce and industry, formed a distinct social group; of necessity it had to receive a recognition as a legal group as well. This group is the bourgeoisie, a new class, which acquires a definitive legal status in the course of the twelfth century by means of charters obtained from the princes. At this point the trading bourgs which it had founded around the feudal bourgs are transformed into towns; and in every town the municipal organisation was in the hands of the bourgeois who had taken up their residence within it.

Not merely for the official recognition of the bourgeoisie does the twelfth century mark an epoch in the history of the Low Countries; it was in this century too that they acquired the essentially urban character which they have preserved to the present day. Nowhere, save only in the Lombard plain, were the towns so numerous, so populous, or so active. While the earliest commercial centres continued to expand, new ones were founded; in Brabant, the towns of Louvain, Brussels, and Antwerp began to rival the Flemish towns. Town law was accorded to a number of lesser localities, which received from the princes the grant of charters imitated from those of their more important neighbours. And this fecundity of urban life has its explanation in the increasing intensity of the economic movement, of which the bourgeoisie was the instrument.

In order to explain this remarkable progress, it must be noted that it was the collaboration of industry with commerce that made it possible. The Low Countries enjoyed this extraordinary prosperity, not merely because they possessed means of communication and transit, but also, and perhaps mainly, because they were the seat of a busy industrial productivity. Since Roman times, the metal industry had been extensively pursued in the valley of the Meuse and the woollen industry in the basin of the Scheldt. The invasions of the Northmen and the disorders of the ninth century had brought them to decay but not to total extinction. They were developed anew as soon as the re-birth of commerce gave them a fresh impulse. In the eleventh century the copper industry revived at Huy and at Dinant, and at the same time the woollen industry revived in Flanders. Concentrated in the growing towns, these crafts, thanks to the commercial stream which they fed with their products, at once played the part of exporting industries. They were concerned not only with the home market but with the foreign market as well, and their possibilities of expansion became henceforward unbounded. The merchants carried these products abroad and returned with the raw material. From the beginning of the eleventh century the Flemings sold their cloth at London and furnished themselves there with wool; while from the beginning of the twelfth century the Dinant merchants went to the mines of Goslar to obtain their supplies of copper.

By supplying foreign merchants with goods which soon enjoyed a universal reputation for excellence, the craftsmen of the Low Countries had a large share in attracting the merchants thither. The cloth of Flanders, and soon too that of Brabant, became a principal feature in the export trade, which increased with the increasing expansion of commercial activity in Europe. In the course of the twelfth century the port of Genoa provided a centre for its distribution in the Mediterranean, while in the North it was earned on shipboard along the coasts of the North Sea and the Baltic as far as the fairs of Novgorod. In the fairs of Champagne it formed one of the principal objects of barter and of credit transactions between the merchants of Italy and of the Low Countries. In England the combined traffic in cloth and wool attained such proportions that it gave rise to the formation of the Flemish hansa of London, in which some fifteen towns of the county of Flanders participated. Bruges, where vessels were assured of an abundant supply of cloth for their homeward freight, took the place of the older markets of Thielt and Dorestad, and in the twelfth century became the chief port in the country. By about 1180 its busy traffic made it the commercial pivot of the Low Countries, while, in the thirteenth century, owing to colonies of Italians, Germans, Bretons, and Spaniards settled there, it became the chief centre of international commerce in the north of Europe. Along the gulf of Zwyn new quays were built to accommodate the vessels which owing to their increased tonnage could no longer reach the town itself; thus Damme was founded about 1180, and in the thirteenth century Hoeke, Monnikerede, and finally Sluys.

The imposing economic development of Flanders, of Brabant and certain parts of Hainault (Tournai, Valenciennes), of the district of Liège (Liège, Huy, Dinant, Maestricht), and of Holland (Utrecht, Dordrecht) had the effect not only of conferring an extraordinary influence and importance on the bourgeoisie, but also of giving rise to social phenomena of the greatest consequence. The practical effect of industries (the cloth and metal industries) which received their particular stimulus from the export trade was to produce on the one hand a numerous class of rich merchants, on the other a far more numerous class of workmen. Quite unlike most towns in the Middle Ages, in which the urban industries had as a general rule no outlet other than the local market, production in these towns depended on the boundless possibilities of the international market, with the result of a continual increase in the numbers of those who were engaged in it. In Flanders, in contrast to the smaller crafts—of bakers, smiths, butchers, and the like—each of which contained only a few dozen individuals, the gilds of fullers and weavers comprised some thousands of members. It has been computed that, in the middle of the fourteenth century, the numbers of the weavers alone at Ghent amounted at least to 4,500, so that we may infer that some 15,000 persons in all were dependent upon their labours. But, besides the weavers, there are the fullers, shearmen, dyers, and others to be taken into account; they were equally concerned in the making of cloth, and it can hardly be an over-estimate to assess the numbers of this group as at least of equal importance. The conclusion, then, is that in this town alone, in which the population at this date cannot have exceeded 50,000, some sixty per cent, of the whole, say 30,000 persons, depended for their livelihood on the great cloth-making industry. The state of affairs is analogous to that in a manufacturing town of the present day; it is evident that conditions which appear to us to be peculiarly modern were already in existence during the Middle Ages in the industrial centres of Belgium. From the thirteenth to the fifteenth century they frequently experienced all the hardships resulting from a stoppage of work. This might simply be caused by war or by some interruption in trade which prevented the arrival of wool or the exportation of cloth. But there was a more frequent cause in the inevitable conflicts which arose from the clash of opposing interests between the capitalist merchants and the wage-earning workmen whom they employed.

The craftsmen in the cloth industry differed in essentials from the normal craftsmen in the Middle Ages. They were not, in fact, petty independent masters, purchasing themselves in small quantities the raw material that they required and selling to their clients the manufactured article. In this industry the raw material, wool, was bought wholesale by the merchants at the fairs in England; the same merchants distributed it throughout the small workrooms of weavers, fullers etc., and it came back to them as textiles all ready to be sold to the foreign buyers. So the relations of the cloth merchants with the workers in cloth were remarkably similar to those of a large-scale employer dealing with home workers. The craftsmen lacked economic independence; or, to put it better, the workers in the cloth industry should be described as wage-earners rather than as craftsmen. In these conditions it was inevitable that the question of wages should soon arise between employers and employed. And it was even more obviously necessary that this must happen, because in all the towns the municipal authority was in the hands of the wealthy bourgeoisie, the class to which the wool and cloth merchants belonged. As they possessed the power, they used it naturally for their own advantage. The whole industrial organisation was contrived so as to bring rigidly under their control not merely the technical details of the industry, but all the activities and the pay of the corporations in which the various professions concerned with the making of cloth were grouped.

So it is not surprising to note grave symptoms of social unrest appearing in all the centres of this great industry in the middle of the thirteenth century. Already, in 1245, the échevins of Douai had intervened to prevent the formation of “takchans”, that is to say, of strikes. At Ghent in 1274, the weavers and fullers, following on an attempt at revolt, left the town in large numbers, to seek refuge in the towns of Brabant; but there the échevins, on the request of their Ghent colleagues, promised not to admit them. In 1280 a general movement of insurrection of the “lesser folk” against the “great folk” convulsed all the leading communes of Flanders, and also Tournai and Valenciennes. At Dinant the coppersmiths, whose economic position was exactly similar to that of the cloth workers, rose in open revolt in 1255.

The princes could not remain indifferent to disturbances which compromised so seriously the public peace. They were by no means sorry to see the haughty patricians, who by their inclinations towards independence had already aroused the uneasiness of their overlords, exposed to attacks which must perforce reduce their strength. In Brabant, the upper bourgeoisie obtained protection from the duke, and repaid it with a steadfast loyalty. But in Hainault and Flanders, the counts shewed themselves disposed to defend the malcontents against the very real abuses from which they suffered. Guy de Dampierre took advantage of the circumstances to add to his princely prerogatives at the expense of the plutocratic échevins, who were openly defying him and by their policy were tending to transform the towns into municipal republics. To thwart his efforts and to preserve their oligarchic authority, threatened by count and commons alike, they applied to a protector who was by no means averse to lend his aid, the new King of France, Philip the Fair*

Nothing could have been more tempting for this sovereign, who was bent on curbing the great vassals under his royal sway, than to have this opportunity both of weakening and of humiliating the powerful Count of Flanders. The favour with which the Crown for half a century had rewarded the submissiveness of the house of Flanders, and from which that house had reaped such great advantage, gave place henceforth to the openly avowed aim of bringing the comital independence to an end. In 1287 the king, at the urgent request of the échevins of Ghent, sent them a “sergent”, who was instructed to place them under the direct authority of the king; and he hoisted the royal banner on the town belfry. Similar “guardians” were placed in charge of Bruges and Douai, and the bailli of Vermandois extended his sphere of control to include Flanders. In fact, the government of the count was at the mercy of his suzerain’s pleasure. All who wished to resist his authority knew that they could now count on the approbation of the king.

The brutal treatment of Guy de Dampierre by Philip the Fair was not only induced by the wish to make the Count of Flanders closely subordinate to the monarchy, but also by the desire to secure the county as a base for military operations; hostilities between France and England, of which there had been a cessation since the time of St Louis, were at the end of the thirteenth century on the point of breaking out again. In his dangerous position, the idea of gaining the favour of Edward I must have presented itself to the mind of the count. Since 1293 he had been in secret negotiations with Edward, and in the nett year he betrothed his daughter Philippa to the King of England’s eldest son. Immediately the hand of Philip the Fair fell upon him; he was made prisoner and sent to the Louvre, and he only regained his freedom by handing over Philippa to his suzerain. Henceforward his position was untenable. The patricians of the towns, to whom the populace gave the name of Leliaerts (the party of the fleurs de lis), defied him openly, since they knew that he was under the king’s suspicion. The king for his part allied himself with Guy’s ancient foes, Count Florence of Holland and the Count of Hainault, John of Avesnes, whose house had been treated as an enemy by France until then. Feeling himself lost, the Flemish count decided to break with his suzerain, accusing him of violating the protection due to him as a vassal. He openly championed the party of the craftsmen against the patricians, and on 2 February 1297 made a formal alliance with the King of England, who promised to come to his help and not to make peace without his concurrence.

It was then too late, however. Deserted by the towns, which were under the control of the Leliaerts, and by the majority of the nobles, Guy could not hope to face the army which Philip led into Flanders in the following June. By September it had occupied the greater part of the county. Edward, who had just landed at Bruges, came to terms instead of fighting (October 1297), and then returned to England. His truce with Philip, which was to last until 6 January 1300, was soon turned into a definitive peace (19 June 1299), in which, in spite of Edward’s promise, the Count of Flanders was not included. From that time the old count was helpless against his suzerain and was also exposed both from north and south to the attacks of John of Avesnes, who by inheritance had added the county of Holland to his county of Hainault; his fate was therefore a foregone conclusion. A second French expedition occupied Flanders without encountering any serious resistance. In May 1300 the count surrendered to Charles of Valois, and Philip, who refused to admit him to his presence, assigned as his prison the castle of Compiegne.

The king’s purpose seemed to have been attained. Flanders lost its feudal autonomy, and as a result of its conquest sank to the position of a dependancy of the royal domain. Philip camo to visit it in great pomp in May 1301, and, pending the promulgation of a decision as to its ultimate destiny, placed Jacques de Chatillon in charge as lieutenant governor.

If the French occupation was greeted with enthusiasm by the patrician Leliaerts, whose dominance was thereby guaranteed, for this very reason the workers in the cloth industry, on whom the yoke of the masters weighed more heavily than ever, were driven to despair. The catastrophe which had befallen the house of Dampierre fell on them too; and the King of France, allied to their enemies and to their count’s enemies, was doubly hateful to them. Moreover, from their retreat abroad, the sons of Guy were entering into secret correspondence with the leaders of the popular party. So the “commune” identified its cause with that of the dynasty, and against the royal fleur de lys, the badge of the patricians, they adopted the black lion of the count’s banner. The Clauwaerts (the party of the lion’s claw) and the Leliaerts confronted one another in a conflict which arose out of the social barriers between them, but which was transformed by circumstances into a political and national struggle. By the strangest of accidents the democratic movement of the workers championed the cause of feudal legitimacy.

The bitterness of party feeling, manifested first in rioting, was to result in an explosion. The hatred against the French was intensified by the arrogant behaviour of the mercenary soldiers of Châtillon and by the difference of their speech from the Flemish dialect. In the night of 17-18 May 1302, when the governor had come to Bruges to punish a revolt there, the people rose, massacred the soldiery as well as a large number of patricians, and gained possession of the town.

This insurrection, known to modern historians as the “Matins of Bruges”, was the culmination of the agitation fomented by a popular leader, the weaver Peter de Coninck, who had already been for some time in communication with William of Juliers, the young nephew of Guy de Dampierre. It was the signal for a general rising in the whole of northern Flanders, in which not only the workmen and the lower bourgeoisie in the towns took part, but also the peasants of the coastal region, where the nobles had unwisely taken advantage of the French occupation to oppress them. Ghent alone remained in the hands of the patricians. The popular confidence reached its height when first William of Juliers and then Guy of Namur, one of Guy de Dampierre’s sons, arrived to take the lead in the insurrection and to share the general danger.

It was to be expected that the king would avenge without delay the outrageous affront which had been inflicted upon him. His army was composed of Genoese mercenaries and of a numerous body of knights reinforced by contingents from John of Avesnes; it seemed that it must inevitably crush all resistance. On 11 July 1302 it met the Flemish troops before the walls of Courtrai. The weavers and fullers of Bruges formed the nucleus of these troops, and added to them were the craftsmen of the lesser gilds, the inhabitants of the smaller towns, and the peasants of the neighbourhood. They were improvised troops, but they were inspired by blind hatred of the enemy, whose victory would have forced them again under the yoke which they had just shaken off. In addition, the young princes who were in command had disposed them very skilfully behind trenches. Victory was finally assured them by the overweening pride of the French knights; these, anticipating an easy success, made a reckless charge which broke on the stout pikes of the Flemings. It was a victory which astounded Europe, and which caused the double triumph of Clauwaerts over Leliaerts and of the Flemish dynasty over the King of France.

The results of the battle of Courtrai were hardly less important than those of the battle of Bouvines a century before, which they directly reversed. Bouvines had been the commencement of the uninterrupted progress of the French monarchy in Flanders, and by means of Flanders in the whole of the Low Countries; Courtrai brought this development to an end. Certainly Philip the Fair could not tamely submit to the disaster which had just shaken his prestige. But he found himself now confronted by a popular resistance, the more formidable because the people had acquired self-confidence. In 1303, after an expedition which had no result, he concluded a truce and had to resign himself to the return of the aged Guy de Dampierre into his county. A fresh campaign, in 1304, only resulted in the indecisive battle of Mons-en-Pévèle (18 August). Robert of Bethune, who had just succeeded his father, consented to the peace of Athis-sur-Orge in June 1305, in order to be reconciled with his suzerain; but it could not be made effective owing to the indignation which it aroused among the people. On the death of Philip the Fair, war was resumed, but Louis X failed in a fresh attempt to occupy Flanders (1315). After five years of latent hostility, his successor, Philip the Tall, at last concluded a definitive peace at Paris on 5 May 1820 with the adversary whom he could not conquer. The count surrendered to the Crown all his Walloon lands, that is to say the districts of Lille, Douai, and Orchies; in return for this sacrifice he recovered the rest of his fief. The protracted effort of the monarchy to absorb Flanders had only resulted therefore in the acquisition of a portion of the territory. It abandoned the annexation of the Germanic region in the north, where a territory quite modest in size acquired a wholly disproportionate influence and wealth owing to the international port of Bruges and the two great manufacturing towns of Ypres and Ghent.

The peace of 1320 was a political peace only; it did not restore social peace within the country. The two parties did not come to terms. The patricians, deprived of power by the dominance of the popular movement, which had everywhere been favoured by the recent course of events, were bent on recovering their authority. In all the towns a struggle, concealed or avowed, kept rich and poor at daggers drawn. This unrest was increased by the rivalries which were revealed in the heart of the industrial population among the workmen's corporations, the control of which was disputed between the weavers and the fullers. Between the towns themselves the clash of interests and above all the differences in their governments, according as Laliaerts or Clauwaerts were in power, produced perpetual disturbances. Finally, in the agricultural districts near the coast, inhabited by a peasantry which had obtained very advantageous conditions from charters granted in the thirteenth century, and which had taken an active part in the war, ill-feeling had been dangerously aroused by the return of the nobles who had been driven out during the recent events. And then, in addition to all this, there was the burden of a heavy indemnity to the King of France, by the terms of the peace of 1320.

Ghent took a line of its own. There the patricians had regained the government, and they tried to make Bruges the scapegoat, accusing it of being alone responsible for the rising against Philip the Fair.

Affairs reached a crisis in 1323, when the popular party at Bruges broke into open revolt against the new count, Louis of Nevers; he was suspected of being a mere tool of King Charles IV, whose niece he had married, and consequently of favouring the party of the Leliaerts. This was the starting-point of a civil war which threw Flanders into confusion for five years, and in its atrocity revealed the intensity of social hatred which had for so long been brewing. The country was divided into two camps: on the one side, the craftsmen of Bruges, who were joined by their Ypres colleagues, by the smaller towns of western Flanders, and also by the peasants of maritime Flanders; on the other, Ghent, the rallying-point of the Leliaerts, was allied with the nobles and the count. In the maritime districts, the brutalities of the peasant mobs reached incredible heights of cruelty. Nobles and rich men were forced to put their own relatives to death under the eyes of the mob. The Church itself was threatened: priests had to take to flight or else were forced to say Mass in spite of the interdict laid on the country by the bishops. The count was surprised by the rebels at Courtrai and handed over to the people of Bruges; by them he was compelled to surrender the government to his uncle Robert of Cassel, a dangerous intriguer, who pretended to support the revolt in the hope of deposing his nephew.

No sooner was Louis at liberty again than he begged the new King of France, Philip of Valois, to grant him the protection due from a suzerain to his vassal. His request could not be refused; and it was a great satisfaction for the Crown to have the grandson of Robert of Bethune soliciting its support. The king knew, besides, that the burgomaster of Bruges had just offered Edward III to recognise his claims to the throne of France and to accept him as the lawful sovereign of Flanders. Philip himself took the field at the head of his troops. On 23 August 1328 they met on the slopes of Mt Cassel bands collected from the castellanies of Fumes, Bergues, Bourbourg, Cassel, and Bailleul, led by a peasant of Lampemesse, Peter Zannekin. The battle was short but bloody. It ended in a massacre of the untrained bands, who were incapable of manoeuvring and were broken by the charges of the French knights. The disaster of Courtrai was avenged, and the self-confidence the rebels had acquired was immediately dissipated. Bruges and Ypres opened their gates to the conqueror without resistance. The burgomaster of Bruges was taken to Paris, and there drawn and quartered. As for the count, his vengeance was on a par with his rancour. He confiscated all the charters and privileges of the rebel towns and castellanies, and condemned Bruges and Ypres to the demolition of their ramparts, the exile of the most guilty of their citizens, and the payment to him of an annual tribute in perpetuity.

It might seem strange that the King of France did not take advantage of his victory once more to break down the autonomy of Flanders. It is well-known, however, that, since the death of Philip the Fair, the power of the monarchy had considerably weakened; above all, the imminence of a fresh conflict with England prevented the Crown from undertaking an enterprise which would have dissipated its forces. Philip was convinced, besides, and rightly so, that by the service he had just rendered to Louis of Nevers he had secured the count’s loyalty and obedience. Such gratitude, in fact, did Louis henceforth display that it extended even to the sacrifice of his own life. In the diplomatic campaign which Edward III inaugurated in the Low Countries to gain allies, before launching the Hundred Years’ War, the count refused, with an obstinacy that was as creditable to his character as it was disastrous to his people’s interests, to listen to any suggestions that he should take sides against his suzerain and saviour.

In the same year as the battle of Cassel, Edward III married at York the princess Philippa, daughter of William I of Avesnes, Count of Hainault and Holland. This marriage was the reward for the assistance given by the count to Edward in 1326, when he put at his disposal the splendid chivalry of Hainault for his use in the war against his father; and William became in consequence the king’s right-hand man in the Low Countries. It was through his mediation, powerfully seconded by the bait of English gold, that the Duke of Brabant broke off the alliance he had recently concluded with Philip of Valois and promised his adhesion to Edward. The collaboration of the Count of Flanders, the master of Bruges and the North Sea coast, would have been much more valuable from the military point of view; but neither to solicitations nor to promises would Louis of Nevers pay any heed. Edward then resolved to employ a method which had already more than once brought success to his predecessors in their conflicts with Flanders: he prohibited the exportation of wool to that country. This struck a blow at the heart of the cloth industry, and a terrible crisis broke out in the towns. Enforced stoppage of work brought ruin to the merchants and starvation to the working classes. Since the regular entry into the country of the raw material was a necessity of existence, the needs of the public welfare obviously dictated a rapprochement with Edward, who alone could bring back its prosperity. In this all parties were in agreement; patricians and people alike condemned the policy of the count, who was sacrificing his subjects to his loyalty to the King of France. Ghent, which had defended the cause of Louis in the previous crisis, was now the first to abandon him. Under the pressure of necessity, the bourgeoisie organised in the town an administration of Public Weal entrusted to the charge of five captains (hooftmannem) and the deans of the weavers, the fullers, and the lesser crafts. The captain of the parish of Saint-Jean, James van Artevelde, was by common consent placed at the head of this organisation, over which he soon acquired the preponderating influence of an actual dictator.

This man, the most celebrated of the burgher politicians who are so numerous in Belgian history, came into power solely in order to put an end to the crisis which was racking his fellow-countrymen. Very different from the demagogues who have previously been mentioned, he belonged to a patrician family, and his power can only be explained by the common catastrophe which, falling alike upon rich and upon poor, had for the moment welded them together. He was able to act in the name of them all, and that probably accounts for the confidence he received immediately from Edward III. In 1337, ignoring the impotent rage of the count, he entered into negotiations with Edward, and obtained from him the reentry of the wool. This first success won all Flanders to his policy. Ghent, where he was supreme, was, until his death, itself supreme over the towns as a whole. The prestige he enjoyed proved to be so irresistible that even the King of France was prepared to recognise the neutrality of Flanders during the war, provided the King of England would do the same. But, in the great conflict which had just broken out between the two Crowns, neutrality was impossible. From Antwerp, where he had landed in July 1338, Edward directed all his efforts to draw the Flemings into an alliance with him. If they had no part, however, in the ineffectual expedition which he launched against France in October 1339, they were soon obliged to take the decisive step. The flight of the count, who had taken refuge in France to escape from the tutelage of Ghent and Artevelde, facilitated events; besides, Artevelde could not hesitate long about declaring openly for Edward, whose support made his own influence secure. On 26 January 1340 he had him recognised at Ghent, by the delegates of the three great towns of Flanders, as the lawful heir of St Louis and the true King of France.

The effect of so striking an insult to Philip of Valois did not correspond with the expectations of Artevelde and his supporters. The siege of Tournai (July-September 1340), to which the Flemings sent contingents to assist the troops of Edward, resulted in a check, and soon afterwards hostilities were suspended by the truce of Esplechin. When they were resumed in October 1342, the scene shifted to Normandy. Edward was not to appear again in Flanders, where his presence was indispensable if the ascendancy of Artevelde was to be maintained. For prosperity had returned with the wool, and the temporary harmony, which had been the result of the common distress, gave place again to internal dissensions. The greater towns profited by the count’s absence to oppress the smaller and to ruin their industry; while Ypres and Bruges endured with impatience the hegemony of Ghent. In Ghent itself, the powerful craft of the weavers aimed at getting the control of affairs and upsetting to its own advantage the equilibrium established in 1338 among the various groups of the population. On 2 May 1345, an open struggle broke out between them and the fullers, who were cut to pieces. From that time the fall of Artevelde was certain. His patrician rank made him suspect to the victorious faction, and only the intervention of the English king could have saved him. But Edward could not abandon his military designs for the sake of Artevelde; all that he would grant him was a rapid interview at the port of Sluys. On his return to Ghent, about 22 July, the celebrated tribune perished in the course of a riot stirred up by his adversaries. In the following year Louis of Nevers also met his death on the battlefield of Crecy (26 August 1346).

The weavers’ party, since the death of Artevelde in possession of Ghent, strove to obtain the mastery in all the towns, and so provoked a fresh civil war. Under the lead of its mortal enemies, the fullers, there was a rising in every town against the extreme form of democratic government which it aimed at introducing everywhere. At Ypres and at Bruges the people massacred the weavers, and appealed to the young Louis de Maele, who had just succeeded to the county by the death of his father. On 13 January 1349 the capture of Ghent, the last refuge of the weavers, brought the whole of Flanders under his authority.

The fate of his father would have been sufficient to deter Louis de Maele from following his example, and his ambitious and practical mind fully realised the danger. It was evident that the power of the towns made it impossible to govern Flanders contrary to their interests. The problem consisted, then, in avoiding a fresh rupture with England without at the same time openly violating the feudal obligations by which the count was bound in his capacity as vassal of the French king. Over a long period Louis was able, with a reasonable measure of success, to preserve a balance between the two sovereigns, so that, though neither of them trusted him, they both had to keep on terms with him. It was the more important for them to avoid a breach, since the succession of his mother to the county of Artois and the county of Burgundy (Franche Comté) in 1361 guaranteed to him at no distant date a territorial power such as none of his ancestors had possessed. In 1351 the question had been raised of the marriage of his daughter and sole heiress to an English prince, and later of a fresh betrothal, when her hand was promised to a French prince. But the unexpected death of the latter caused negotiations to be reopened which would have resulted in her marriage with Edmund, Earl of Cambridge, had not the King of France, Charles V, put forward a counterproposal still more flattering to Louis’ ambitions. Accordingly, in 1369, Margaret of Flanders married the king’s own brother, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. The marriage-settlement contracted for the return to the county of Flanders of the territories of Lille, Douai, and Orchies, which had been separated from it in 13201. This, however, did not prevent Louis from making a new move towards England, and he soon became regarded as openly on its side. He was, however, like his father and for the same reasons, to be forced to appear as a suppliant at the French Court.

The weavers’ party, beaten in 1349, was not long in recovering its position. The rise in the cost of living, which had been the sequel to the Black Death every where in Europe, had caused the spread of mystical tendencies, imbued with communistic aspirations, which added new elements to the existing social discontent. The contrast between rich and poor was emphasised more violently than before and rekindled the old hatreds. The weavers did not fail to turn this to immediate account. In opposition to “the Good” (Goeden)—the capitalist and conservative bourgeoisie—they put themselves at the head of “the Bad” (Kwadien), the name given by contemporary writers to that section of the people which was inspired by vague aspirations after social reform. The count’s authority formed a natural rallying-point for all those who were frightened by such ideas, and it became the more hateful to the reformers as he more and more openly gave his backing to the cause of46 those who have something to lose,” a characteristic expression applied to all who had possessions—nobles, merchants, craftsmen—in contrast to those who lived from day to day on their pay. Flanders, then, became actually the theatre of a class-struggle, every phase of which was watched with excitement by the outside world. At Paris in 1358 Étienne Marcel relied on the aid of popular leaders, and soon the cry “Long live Ghent” was raised in the streets of the French capital to celebrate the triumph of the weavers. For, after risings which were pitilessly repressed, they succeeded in 1379 in again getting control of the chief town, and their example caused their comrades in Bruges and Ypres immediately to rise. For a few months their domination over the whole county was maintained by a reign of terror. Governors (beleeders) were appointed to replace the count's baillis, and the peasantry were compelled, whatever their views, to send contingents to the revolutionary forces. But the excesses of the weavers provoked the resistance of all the interests they were so brutally trampling under foot. In May 1380 Bruges paved the way for a reaction which spread rapidly to the other towns; and the count, supported by the nobles, assumed the direction of the movement. As in 1349, the weavers, nothing daunted, made Ghent their refuge and defied the coalition against them. Philip van Artevelde, son of the great tribune who had met his death at their hands in 1345, put himself at their head1. Too little is known about him to discover the motives underlying his action. Perhaps the explanation lies in his desire to emerge from the obscurity in which he had lived up till then, perhaps in his adhesion to the social dreams of Lollard mysticism; or perhaps he hoped, with the prestige of his name, to be able to renew the alliance of Ghent with England. He solicited her intervention, but in vain. In the desperate situation in which he found himself, he determined to cut the knot by a bold stroke. On 3 May 1382 the forces of Ghent marched straight upon Bruges and captured it after an easy victory which temporarily restored the fortunes of the weavers.

The count in his humiliation had no resource but to implore the aid of the King of France, to whom until then he had paid such scanty heed. His son-in-law, Philip the Bold, had no difficulty in persuading the young Charles VI to take this opportunity of brilliantly asserting his suzerain rights over Flanders, and of crushing at the same time a revolt which threatened to infect France as well. On 27 November 1382, the French army won a decisive victory at West-Roosebeke; Philip van Artevelde was among the slain. However, “the horrible weavers”, with heroic persistence, clung to the hope of revenge. The King of England decided to come to their aid, and in 1383 the Bishop of Norwich landed at Calais and then laid siege to Ypres. The resistance of the town and the approach of a French army forced him to retreat. But Ghent, which received some assistance in troops from Richard II, continued to resist and to fight. Louis de Maele died on 30 January 1384 without witnessing its capitulation. But Philip the Bold, who at last entered into his inheritance, was determined to bring matters to a conclusion. The skilful diplomacy, of which he was later to give so many proofs, succeeded where force had failed. On 18 December 1385 the people of Ghent made peace with their new overlord, on condition of the maintenance of all their privileges and the granting of a general amnesty. A new era was opened, over which the house of Burgundy was to preside; so this house brought to an end a period of political and social upheaval which had lasted for more than a century.

As Flanders, so the prince-bishopric of Liège, Brabant, the episcopal cities of Tournai and Utrecht, and the town of Valenciennes in Hainault were agitated throughout the whole of the fourteenth century by the conflict of “the great folk” and “the lesser folk”, “the Good” and “the Bad”, rich and poor. But it is unnecessary to deal as fully with them, because in no case were the antagonists as powerful, and particularly because no outside power played a part in their quarrels. The Emperors were too weak and were too completely dissociated from the territories on the right bank of the Scheldt to think of intervening, as we have seen the French kings continually did in Flanders. Moreover, neither princes nor towns asked for their aid, knowing full well that it would be useless to make the appeal.

In all the industrial towns of the Low Countries, the battle of Courtrai had provoked a popular rising which was almost exactly analogous to the upheaval of Liberalism throughout Europe after the Paris revolution of 1848. In Brabant, where the duke actively supported the patricians, the revolt was quite easily crushed; it was not until 1378 that the craftsmen at Louvain were admitted to a share in the municipal government, and Brussels had to wait until 1421 before obtaining a similar regime. In the principality of Liége, on the other hand, the weakness of the prince-bishop helped “the lesser folk” as against “the great folk”; and, to maintain themselves, the latter had to ally with the nobles. Passions were roused to such an extent that in 1312, after a battle in the streets, the people drove their antagonists into the church of St Martin, and there pitilessly did them to death by setting the building on fire. After that the struggle went on unceasingly until at last, in 1384, “the great folk” had to recognise their defeat and surrender to the 32 crafts the right of choosing exclusively from among themselves the members of the communal government. This constitution, giving the power to the craft-gilds and dividing it equally among them, was made possible by the fact that Liege, unlike the Flemish towns, had no branch of industry powerful enough to claim a distinctive position. It was therefore possible to establish a regime in which the whole bourgeoisie was distributed among the crafts and these were all placed on an equal footing. The result was an extremely vigorous political life, but it was disturbed during more than two centuries by the jealousies of the 32 privileged bodies, so that the general concord was continually being broken.

In all the towns, however, where an exporting industry prevailed, the organisation which was ultimately established aimed at giving representation to all the prevailing interests. At Dinant, for example, from 1348 onwards the administration of the commune was divided between “the good folk” (the well-to-do bourgeoisie), the copper-smiths, and the group of smaller crafts. In Flanders and Brabant, the preponderance of the cloth industry led to similar arrangements. Political power was to be shared by the various social groups, which were divided in the different towns either into “members” (leden) or “nations” (natien). But, as has been made sufficiently clear already, the demands of the workmen very often upset the delicate equilibrium of these structures. They did not take permanent shape until the end of the fourteenth century, when the decline of the urban cloth trade reduced the strength of the powerful corporations which owed their former vigour to its prosperity. From that time they were maintained almost unchanged for centuries, and in several towns it even happened that the constitution continued, down to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, to give the crafts in the cloth industry a special place in the urban council, while in fact those crafts were so much reduced that they counted no more than a few dozen members.

It may appear somewhat strange that towns as powerful as those of the Low Countries never achieved the position of free towns, which was achieved by the German towns though they were inferior both in wealth and population. The explanation of this fact must, it would seem, be found in the attitude of the territorial princes in the Low Countries. These, as a general rule, were careful to avoid refusing the towns the autonomy which was indispensable to their development, and were satisfied with maintaining their own right of oversight which meant little real interference. The social conflicts of the fourteenth century, in which they were forced to intervene, strengthened rather than diminished their authority by identifying it with the cause of the anti-revolutionary elements in the ranks of the bourgeoisie.

Moreover, since the end of the thirteenth century, the territorial princes had been obliged, owing to the increasing expense of their courts, their governments, and their wars, to appeal for larger and larger subsidies from the towns. Their treasuries were mainly fed by the supplies which they demanded under the form either of aids (beden) or of loans. The leading communes naturally took advantage of this to obtain a share in the direction of affairs. Already in the course of the thirteenth century, we find their representatives appearing in the prince’s council, hitherto reserved for members of the clergy and nobility. From the beginning of the fourteenth century their share in the government of the principality became not only regular but preponderating, and it was guaranteed by charters. In Brabant, Duke John II, on the verge of bankruptcy, paid for the financial assistance of the towns by instituting, on 27 September 1312, a council composed of representatives from the towns and the nobility, which was to assemble every three weeks in order to see to the privileges and the customs of the duchy being observed. Two years later, in 1314, the towns obtained the right of ratifying the appointment of the high officials of the duchy, of giving consent to all alienations of the demesne, and of overseeing the coinage. In 1356, Duke Wenceslas swore to abide by the terms of the famous document known as the Joyeuse Entrée (Blijde Incomst), which remained until the end of the eighteenth century as the basis of the Brabançon constitution- It established a political régime by which the prince was bound not to declare war, coin money, or conclude an alliance without the consent of the country represented by the three privileged orders of clergy, nobles, and towns; the delegates from these formed the assembly which was known, from the fifteenth century onward, as the Estates of Brabant.

The constitution of the principality of Liège was different from that of Brabant; it was derived out of the peace-treaties of the fourteenth century, which were the result of the internal discords in this turbulent principality. The most famous of these, the Peace of Fexhe in 1316, bestowed on “the country’s opinion”, that is to say, the decision of the canons of the cathedral (representing the clergy), the nobility, and the towns, the right of determining on the customs, which meant that these classes were associated with the bishop in legislation. Adolf and Engelbert of Mark sought in vain to shake off this tutelage; their reigns were in consequence one long struggle. The next bishop, John d’Arckel, at last accepted, on 2 December 1373, the Peace of the Twenty-Two, which placed all the episcopal functionaries under the supervision of a tribunal of twenty-two persons—four canons, four knights, and fourteen burgesses; it met every month to enquire into the conduct of the officials, and its decisions were final. This left the prince with only the semblance of power, so that it is not surprising to find in the sequel that the bishops, whenever they possessed the means, strove to rid themselves of this yoke. The Peace of Fexhe and the Peace of the Twenty-Two continued, however, to be regarded by the Liégeois as the most precious guarantee of political liberty. In 1789 these venerable survivals from the Middle Ages were used as a pretext for the revolution—in reality inspired by the Declaration of the Rights of Man—which they launched against their bishop.

In the counties of Hainault and Holland, where the power of the towns was limited, equilibrium was easily established between the three orders of clergy, nobility, and bourgeoisies there too they were summoned by the princes, from the fourteenth century onwards, to give their consent to demands for subsidies.

In Flanders, on the other hand, Bruges, Ypres, and Ghent exercised a preponderating influence, so that no such collaboration was possible. They boasted of being “the three pillars on which the country is supported”, and the characteristic expression, “the three members of Flanders”, which this triumvirate assumed, well depicts their ambition to subordinate the whole country to their interests. The count was continually being forced to negotiate with them; and if he did not come completely under their control, it was because their continual discords prevented them from forming a coalition against him. Moreover, the clergy, the nobles, and the smaller towns supported him against the dominance of the three great communes. In such circumstances, there was no possibility of establishing a constitutional regime which should define, as in Brabant and the bishopric of Liège, the share of the country as a whole in the settlement of its political affairs.


Chance, which so often decides the fate of dynasties, was responsible for the introduction from abroad of new houses into the Low Countries during the fourteenth century; and the ultimate destiny of them was to be the reunion, within less than three-quarters of a century, under the sceptre of the dukes of Burgundy, of all the Lotharingian principalities on the right bank of the Scheldt with the county of Flanders. In 1345 the house of Avesnes became extinct with the death of William II, and his heritage—the counties of Hainault, Holland, and Zeeland, and the Frisian territories which the counts were actively engaged in conquering—passed to his sister Margaret, the wife, since 1324, of the Emperor Lewis the Bavarian. Ten years later, on the death of John III (1355), the duchies of Brabant and Limburg became the property of his eldest daughter Joan, who in 1347 had married Wenceslas of Luxemburg, the brother of the Emperor Charles IV. Finally, as has been already stated, in 1384 Margaret, daughter of Louis de Maele, inherited Flanders conjointly with her husband Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.

Two, therefore, of these three dynasties were of German and imperial origin, while the third was closely related to the French royal family. But the Empire was unable to take advantage of the opportunity offered it to regain its lost suzerainty over the Low Countries. Lewis IV, absorbed in his struggle with the Papacy, had died in 1347 without having made any effort on his wife’s behalf; in fact, he left her at daggers drawn with her son, William of Bavaria, who fiercely disputed with her the possession of Holland and Zeeland. As for Charles IV, the marriage of his brother Wenceslas with Joan of Brabant meant a most fortunate increase in the domains of the house of Luxemburg; but he was content with this advantage, and made no attempt to exploit it in the interests of the Empire. So, in their political outlook, the princely houses just established in the Low Countries turned their backs on Germany, since Germany had given them no support. With surprising rapidity they assimilated the manners and speech of their subjects, and their political horizon was bounded by the frontiers of the rich territories they had just inherited.

The house of Burgundy, on the other hand, was assured of the support of France. Charles V had considered the securing of the succession to Louis de Maele for his brother as a striking political success. There was every indication that Philip the Bold in his capacity as “prince of the fleurs de lis” would restore the prestige of the Crown in Flanders, and would definitely wrest that country from English influence. Never had any prince in the Low Countries possessed a power comparable with his. To his duchy of Burgundy were added the counties of Burgundy, Artois, and Flanders, which he held from his wife, and as the minority of the young king, Charles VI, had made him one of the regents of the kingdom, he was able also to employ to his own advantage the military and financial resources of France. His far-sighted ambition led him to recognise at once the splendid prospects that lay before him in the Low Countries. In 1384, the same year that he took possession of Flanders, he succeeded in winning the good graces of the old Duchess of Brabant, who had recently been left a widow; and a few months later he contrived to unite the houses of Burgundy and Bavaria by a double marriage, which weaned the Wittelsbach house from the alliance it had been contemplating with England. Shortly afterwards, under cover of promoting French interests, he won a still more considerable success. In 1387 he persuaded the counsellors of Charles VI to send an army to the assistance of the Duchess of Brabant when she was being attacked by the Duke of Guelders, who had just taken an oath of fealty to Richard II. Joan repaid this service by tearing up the testament in which she had bequeathed her duchy to the house of Luxemburg in default of issue of her marriage with Wenceslas. She recognised Philip as her heir, in spite of the feeble protests of the wretched King of the Romans, Wenceslas of Luxemburg, whose rights of suzerainty and dynastic interests were alike infringed. The Estates of Brabant, however, hesitated to accept a count of Flanders as their prince. To avoid hurting their susceptibilities, Philip transferred his rights to his second son, Antony; for the moment it was enough for him to have introduced the younger branch of his house into the Brabançon territories.

The progress of Burgundian influence in the Low Countries might have been taken as synonymous with the progress of French influence in the time of Philip the Bold. But after his death (27 April 1404) it became evident that this would no longer be the case. John the Fearless was, in fact, the most dangerous engineer of the anarchy which afflicted the kingdom during the long madness of Charles VI. No adequate study of his policy has yet been made, so that it is not possible to follow his motives or to explain apparent contradictions. But there can be no doubt that his chief purpose was to settle the Burgundian power on a solid foundation in the basins of the Meuse and the Scheldt. It was there that his mortal enemy at the French Court, the Duke of Orleans, sought to strike at him. The rights in the duchy of Luxemburg which Louis of Orleans caused Jost of Moravia to cede to him, and also the alliance which he negotiated in 1405 between the Duke of Guelders and Charles VI, gave just cause to fear that he was planning to lend his dangerous aid to the hitherto quite ineffective protests of the Kings of Germany. The cowardly assassination of his rival on 23 November 1407 naturally forced John the Fearless to take a leading part in the civil war, for which he was himself responsible, between the Armagnacs led by the house of Orleans and the Burgundians, as they significantly called themselves. He was careful, however, not to entangle himself in this struggle to the extent of endangering his interests. When war was resumed between France and England in 1415, he maintained a dubious neutrality. While his brother Antony, faithful to his duty as a member of the house of Valois, went to his death at Agincourt (25 October 1415), he himself entered into negotiations with Henry V, which prevented the latter from assisting the attempts of the new King of the Romans, Sigismund, to wrest Brabant from the Burgundian dynasty. Antony's son John was recognised as their rightful prince by the Estates of Brabant, who could be certain of the support of John the Fearless. Not long afterwards, the young Duke of Brabant was married by his uncle to Jacqueline of Bavaria, who had just succeeded to the counties of Hainault, Holland, and Zeeland, so that the house of Burgundy replaced the house of Bavaria in those regions. The enraged Sigismund in vain assigned these territories as fiefs to the Bishop of Liege, John of Bavaria; but, to be successful in this, he needed the support of England, and England remained neutral. In view of the imperial claims, this neutrality was so valuable to the duke that he took steps to make it more certain. Without declaring himself openly, he drew nearer to Henry V, so that in France, among the partisans of the dauphin, he was regarded as a public enemy; and on 10 September 1419, in an interview with the dauphin on the bridge at Montereau, he also fell a victim to assassination.

This murder necessarily drove his son and successor, Philip the Good, into the English camp. Henry V had no more dependable ally in the war in which the French kingdom all but came to an end. Just as James van Artevelde had recognised Edward III in 1340 as the true King of France, so Philip in 1420 signed the Treaty of Troyes which declared the dauphin deprived of all his rights; and, after the death of Henry V on 31 August 1422, it lay with him to direct the government of France during the minority of Henry VI. That he abandoned it to the Duke of Bedford, with whom he was on terms of the closest confidence, was due to his political insight which saw the magnificent prospects of aggrandisement in the Low Countries. His collaboration with England was not merely imposed on him by the duty of avenging his father; he reckoned on making it impossible for Charles VII to interfere with his aims, and with fortune on his side he was able to realise them with surprising rapidity.

In 1422, Jacqueline of Bavaria left her husband John IV of Brabant, the son of Antony, and, without waiting for the annulment of this marriage, contracted another with Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, the brother of the regent of France, Bedford. This bold coup threatened to deprive the house of Burgundy of the Bavarian inheritance, but it was foiled by the energetic action of Philip. While he obtained from the Pope the promise to annul Jacqueline’s marriage and from Bedford that he would abandon Gloucester to his fate, he drove the latter from Hainault and seized the person of Jacqueline, whom he kept prisoner at Mons (1424). The escape of the adventurous princess upset the situation once more; and the Emperor Sigismund also took advantage of the death of John of Bavaria to renew his claims to Hainault, Holland, and Zeeland. Philip, however, having induced his cousin John IV to surrender to him the administration of Jacqueline’s territories, invaded Holland. During two years (1426-28) he waged war on his rival, defeating Gloucester’s troops at Brouwershaven and winning the assistance of the bourgeois party of the Kabiljauws against the noble party of the Hoecks who supported the countess. Finally, by the Treaty of Delft on 3 July 1428, he obtained recognition as governor (ruwaert) and inheritor of the districts of Hainault, Holland, Zeeland, and Friesland. The last scene in this drama was brought about by a final piece of folly on Jacqueline’s part. In spite of her promise not to enter into another marriage, she wedded Frans van Borselen in 1436. To save her husband from execution, she had to consent to abdicate in favour of Philip.

While he thus seized by force of arms the territories of Jacqueline, he entered peacefully into possession of Brabant and Limburg. The death of the miserable John IV on 17 April 1427, followed by that of his brother and successor, Philip of Saint-Pol, on 4 August 1430, brought the younger branch of the house of Burgundy to an end in the two duchies. Disregarding the persistent claims of the Emperor Sigismund, who was as obnoxious in words as he was inoffensive in deeds, the Estates of Brabant pronounced unanimously for Philip the Good. His hereditary rights were too manifest for them to take any account of imperial suzerainty, which was barred by lapse of time; the Empire had for a long time been only a name to idle small feudal States of Lorraine, nothing, in fact, but a geographical expression. Confident in the attitude of his new subjects towards him, Philip could disregard the alliance concluded against him in 1433 by Sigismund and the King of France. He only replied to it by an insolent manifesto, in which he accused the Emperor of having been bought by the “dauphin’s” gold; by allying himself with the murderer of Philip’s father, he had lost all rights over the son.

However, since he was now in possession of Brabant, Limburg, Hainault, Holland, Zeeland, and also of the county of Namur, which he had purchased in 1421, his position in relation to the Empire, of which all these territories formed part, became embarrassing. He could not conceal the fact that he held them simply by virtue of occupation and in constant defiance of public law. Also, as he was now master of the Low Countries, in which he had only possessed Flanders and Artois at the beginning of his career, the English alliance was no longer indispensable to him. In 1435, he obtained dispensation from the Pope for the oath he had formerly taken to Henry V, and on 21 September recognised Charles VII as the lawful King of France and concluded with him the Peace of Arras, the clauses of which he dictated himself. The king was quite content to pay the price of the humiliating terms exacted for the murder of John the Fearless, in order to detach the duke from the English alliance. He restored to him a large amount of territory and revenue in Burgundy, exempted him from the feudal duty of homage during his own lifetime, and ceded to him, though indeed with the right of redemption, the Somme towns which formed a powerful military barrier for the Low Countries against France. The treaty, in fact, recognised Philip as virtually sovereign, and afforded him the expectation of securing some day for his dynasty the actual title, which was not yet accorded to himself.

He had undoubtedly foreseen that England, weakened by the discords in its government, would be unable to take any revenge for a treachery which was as disastrous for it as it was profitable to France. After vain attempts to detach the Flemings and the Dutch from the duke, and after hostilities in which its commerce suffered as much as that of the Low Countries, it gave way, and signed a commercial treaty in 1439 which was afterwards regularly renewed. Things might have turned out differently if a last attempt of the Emperor Sigismund, who hoped to profit by the Anglo-Burgundian rupture to wrest Brabant from Philip, had not resulted in a miserable failure. The Brabançons declared themselves ready to risk their lives and their possessions on behalf of “their true and lawful master”; however, they had no need even to take up arms. Rich in illusions as he was ill-provided with means of fighting, the Emperor magined that a mere demonstration would be enough to rally the usurper’s subjects to his side. The Landgrave of Hesse, who was given the task of carrying out his design, had only 400 lances at his disposal. A rising of the peasants in Limburg was all that was needed to throw them back in disorder on Aix-la-Chapelle (1437).

Sigismund only survived this last discomfiture a few weeks, and his death left Philip free to enter into possession of Luxemburg, the succession to which he had bought from its heiress, Elizabeth of Gorlitz, in the year of the Peace of Arras. The King of the Romans, Albert of Austria, did not succeed in preventing this further advance of the Burgundian power to the detriment of the Empire, and his successor Frederick III, taught by experience, judged it prudent not to continue to treat the duke any longer as an enemy. He raised no opposition when the Estates of Luxemburg took the oath to Philip in 1451, and looked on with indifference when Philip assumed the protectorate, one after the other, of the episcopal principalities of Cambrai, Liège, and Utrecht, into which he succeeded, during the years 1439-57, in introducing members of his own family.

By the middle of the fifteenth century, then, thanks to favourable circumstances and to the energy and dexterity of its head, the house of Burgundy had succeeded in raising itself to the rank of a great power. It had realised to perfection the plans conceived by Philip the Bold. Between France, England, and Germany the provinces of the Low Countries formed a compact block, and the duke, who had dictated the Peace of Arras to Charles VII, had triumphantly resisted Henry VI, and had made advisable the self-effacement of the Emperor, enjoyed a prestige which none of these kings could rival. The vow which he took in 1454, in a scene of dazzling festivities, to lead a new crusade against the Turks, seemed to prove that his ambition soared to the role of defender of Christendom. But his constant good fortune had given him illusions about himself; actually his position was brilliant rather than secure. Though Frederick III dared not imitate the attitude of Sigismund towards him, yet he carefully refrained from investing him with the numerous fiefs which he had occupied in spite of imperial protests; and he obstinately refused to grant Philip the title of king which would have given the final sanction to his success. But, more important still, since France had regained the upper hand in its long duel with England, Charles VII was openly preparing to take the offensive against this house of Burgundy which in his eyes was nothing but a traitor vassal. He sought to stir up the German princes of the Rhine valley against Philip, he bought up the claims of Ladislas of Hungary to Luxemburg, and he spoke of making the Burgundian territories which held from the French Crown subject to the decisions of the Parlement at Paris. The accession of Louis XI on 22 July 1461 aggravated still more the already strained relations. Philip, grown old, allowed himself to be duped by this Machiavellian genius, and himself did away with the most advantageous clause in the treaty of Arras when he restored to the king the Somme towns. At last, however, he realised the danger of the direction in which he was being led, and two years before his death he handed over to his son the reins of government (1466).

There is hardly a more striking contrast than that between Louis XI and Charles the Bold. Their portraits by Philippe de Commynes, which have become classic, have given later ages a fixed impression of them; but he certainly seems to have exaggerated the ambition and the imprudence of the latter, to whom indeed he turned traitor, in order to throw into higher relief the wisdom of the former, who was his benefactor. Whatever Charles may have wished, he could only, in face of the fixed intention of his adversary to ruin the house of Burgundy, have maintained himself by force of arms. From the time of his accession, war was inevitable, and at first he only undertook it in self-defence. But, goaded on by Louis XI, as Napoleon was goaded on by England, he allowed himself to be drawn into enterprises beyond his strength, and, finally, at Nancy he met his Waterloo.

The revolt of the high nobility of France against Louis XI in 1465 (the War of the Public Weal) gave Charles an opportunity of weakening his enemy which was too good to be missed. On 15 July the king was defeated at Montlhery and surrendered to him that bulwark of the Burgundian domains, the Somme towns, which Louis1 diplomacy had contrived to redeem from Philip the Good. Then Charles turned against the Liégeois. The extremely democratic nature of their institutions had led them to revolt at once against their new bishop, Louis of Bourbon, whom they rightly suspected of plotting against their liberties in agreement with Burgundy. Charles VII was not slow to offer them his protection, and Louis XI had just concluded a formal alliance with them. Believing that this gave them complete freedom of action, they had expelled their bishop, set up a “mambourg” in his place, and invaded the duchy of Limburg. Their punishment was the complement of Louis XI’s defeat; on 22 December 1465 they were compelled to recognise the Duke of Burgundy as their “guardian” in perpetuity. The following year, a revolt at Dinant was savagely repressed by the sack and burning of the town (25 August 1466). This cruelty, so far from intimidating the Liégeois, merely embittered them. It was only too easy for Louis XI to use them again as the instruments of his designs, or rather to sacrifice them to his political ends. Their defeat at Brusthem on 28 October 1467 forced them to accept a sentence which revealed the pride and the wrath of their conqueror. The constitution of the country was repealed, the privileges of the city were abolished, Roman Law was substituted for the national customs, and the “perron”, the ancient symbol of the communal liberties of Liège, was removed to Bruges to adorn the Place de la Bourse. The old episcopal principality was at an end; it was, in fact, no more now than an appendage to the Burgundian domains.

In crushing so decisively the Liégeois, Charles was punishing particularly the instruments of Louis XI. A new war with this implacable adversary was an unavoidable necessity. To get the better of him, the duke returned to the alliance with England, which was sealed on 12 July 1468 by his marriage with Edward’s sister Margaret of York. He was preparing to take the field when Louis, counting on keeping him in check by negotiations, proposed an interview at Péronne. There Louis almost became the victim of his own intrigues. He had forgotten, says Commynes, that he had just instigated the indomitable Liégeois to a new revolt. It broke out too soon, and, in order to deliver himself from the hands of his enemy, the king did not hesitate to sacrifice his sovereign rights as well as his personal honour. He consented to remove Flanders from the jurisdiction of the Parlement at Paris, and made no scruple about attending at the vengeance which Charles took upon the too-trusting Liégeois; “as a splendid example”, the duke ordered the burning of the city to last for a space of seven weeks.

So the first passage of arms between king and duke had ended to the latter’s advantage. Elated by the prestige he had won in the eyes of Europe from his easy victories, he began from this time to give the rein to his ambition. His end undoubtedly was to make Burgundy into a great power; to achieve that, a necessary preliminary was to get hold of the territories which separated the county and duchy of Burgundy from the Low Countries. So, in 1469, he bought Upper Alsace from Sigismund of Austria. The possession of this district brought him into contact with the Swiss. At once, the idea of utilising these warlike mountaineers in place of the ruined Liégeois came into Louis’ mind, and in 1470 he concluded a treaty of alliance with them. The civil war, which his protégé Warwick was starting in England against Edward IV, made him hopeful that the moment had come when he could take his revenge for the humiliation of Péronne; and he cited Charles to appear before him on the charge of high treason. However, the ensuing hostilities only resulted in truces (October 1471, November 1472) which settled nothing. On the other hand, the conquest of Guelders and of the county of Zutphen shortly afterwards (1473) increased still further the power of Burgundy. Charles thought that he would then obtain from the Emperor the royal title which his father had already coveted. But Frederick III slipped away at the critical moment, and Charles, who had come to Treves on purpose to receive the crown, was in the most exasperating of all situations for a man of his character: he was left looking ridiculous (September 1473).

From this foiled coronation dates the series of reverses which the hatred of Louis XI awaited as the fruits of his own devising, but which his adversary, blinded by pride and passion, could neither foresee nor escape. To humiliate the Emperor, he persisted in the siege of Neuss in 1474, undertaken at the request of the Archbishop of Cologne against the Chapter who were supported by Frederick. He was so certain of immediate success that, when he started on the enterprise, he promised Edward IV to rejoin him in a year’s time at Calais and to assist in reconquering the kingdom of France. But when after eleven months’ effort he was forced to raise the siege, he found that the French expedition had come to nothing, as Louis had managed to come to terms with Edward IV. Charles made up for this disappointment by marching against Lorraine, where Duke René, relying on the support of France, had just declared war upon him. The annexation of this duchy in November 1475 filled the gap which still remained, after the conquest of Alsace, between the Low Countries and Burgundy. It was Charles’ last success. The expedition which he led the next year against the Swiss, the allies of Louis XI and the enemies of his own allies, the Duchess of Savoy and the Duke of Milan, failed in front of the castle of Grandson on 3 March 1476. To restore Burgundian prestige without delay, the duke decided on a fresh campaign. Ill-prepared and ill-conducted, it ended in the crushing defeat of Morat (22 June). Charles ought then to have resigned himself to peace. But he was blinded by a desperation which bordered on madness, and wasted valuable time in impossible schemes for revenge. At last, when Rene of Lorraine had returned to his duchy and blocked the road to the Low Countries, he reassembled his shattered forces and moved northwards again. But, instead of making all possible haste, he halted in front of Nancy, his mind centred on its capture. It was before the walls of this town that the Swiss attacked him on 5 January 1477. Two days later his body was discovered on a frozen pond, half-eaten by wolves and bearing the marks of three mortal wounds upon it. The power of Burgundy, so glorious four years before, seemed to be irretrievably ruined. Louis XI invaded Artois, the Liégeois resumed their independence, and the sole heiress of the duke, his daughter Mary, was a prisoner in the rebel town of Ghent, terrified lest she should be handed over to the King of France.


The rapid accomplishment of the union of all the territories of the Low Countries under the Burgundian sceptre was undoubtedly due to two main causes: the ability of the princes and the favourable circumstances they enjoyed. But it must be recognised that it would have been impossible without the consent of the various peoples. The Liégeois who under the feeble government of their bishops had practically created a petty republic and were very jealous of their independence, were alone in offering resistance to the duke, and moreover its obstinate character was largely due to the intrigues of Louis XI. Everywhere else, as we have seen, the attempts of the Duke of Orleans, Sigismund, Henry VI, to win over the inhabitants resulted in dead failure. In Brabant and Limburg, as in Hainault, Holland, and Zeeland, the Estates recognised Philip the Good as their prince. The insurrections of Bruges (1436) and Ghent (1450-53) against him had none of the character of national risings. They were the last attempts of the two great towns to defend privileges which no longer corresponded to their real interests. It is sufficient to remark that the rest of Flanders left them to fight alone; this shews that they were only fighting for an out-of-date parochialism.

In truth, the work of the dukes of Burgundy was done just at the proper moment and corresponded to the needs of the time. The subdivisions of the Middle Ages could not have been continued into the fifteenth century without causing the Low Countries to be dissolved in a medley of dynastic wars and municipal struggles, or without involving them fatally in the last phase of the Hundred Years’ War, which would have ruined and dismembered them. It was their good fortune, thanks to the power of Philip the Good, to have been able to preserve the blessings of peace in the midst of the formidable conflict between France and England. The alliance of their prince with England from 1419 to 1435 guaranteed to them a period of rest and prosperity. And the benefits they obtained from this contributed greatly to bind them to the dynasty which had created for them a situation of such advantage.

The social and political conditions of the period also favoured the house of Burgundy. The decay of the cloth industry in the towns during the second half of the fourteenth century led to the migration of the working classes who had for so long been keeping up a revolutionary agitation within them. So, with political peace came social peace also, and both the well-to-do bourgeoisie and the nobility looked upon the prince as indispensable for its continuance. He was able, for the good of his subjects and the increase of his own influence, to turn to advantage in other directions the changes which were transforming the economic equilibrium of the country. Philip the Good encouraged with all his might the extension into the country-districts of the cloth industry, which was no longer a monopoly of the towns; he protected, in spite of the protests of Bruges, the development of the port of Antwerp which was to have so brilliant a future; he supported, against the hostility of the Hanseatic League, the steady progress of the Dutch shipping. Further, it must be noted that the uniting of all the territories of the Low Countries under the authority of a single dynasty allowed a freedom to commerce and general intercourse such as had not existed before. From 1433 onwards the duke was able to issue coinage which had legal currency through the whole of his dominions.

From all this there resulted a prosperity which astonished the rest of Europe. The dazzling luxury with which the dukes liked to be surrounded was the counterpart to the wealth of their subjects. And it was in its artistic efflorescence that this period, which was distinguished for painters like the Van Eyck and Van der Weyden, architects like Jean de Ruysbroeck and Mathieu de Layens, sculptors like Claus Sluter, musicians like Jean Ockcgem and Josquin des Prés, received its loftiest and noblest expression. Philippe de Commynes called the Low Countries a “promised land”, and the expression does not seem exaggerated when we look at the smiling champaign and the charming town-views which form the background in the paintings of the time. At the present day, it is still to the Burgundian age that Belgium owes the finest pieces in its museums and the most characteristic monuments in its streets.

The Low Countries, after they had been united into one territorial whole, still remained quite separate from the ancestral domains of their princes, the duchy of Burgundy and the free county (Franche Comt^); they were too far apart from one another in distance, and quite different in history, race, and interests. For political reasons, as we have seen, Charles the Bold sought to gain possession of Alsace and Lorraine, and thus to extend his dominions continuously without a break from the shores of the North Sea to the Jura. But neither he nor his father had any thought of extending to their Burgundian lands the system of government they had established in their northern territories. The most they did was to admit into their council and to attach to their service a number of jurists and military and other officials, who came originally from Burgundy properly so called; these, being strangers to the Low Countries, were the more pliant instruments of ducal authority.

The way in which the unification came about explains the characteristics of the State which the dukes created. It was not, as we have seen, due in any way to conquest; it was simply the result of the recognition by the Estates of the different territories in turn of the rights which Philip the Good acquired by inheritance himself or by purchase from their hereditary ruler. The duke, therefore, did not impose himself on his subjects as an alien ruler; he appeared, to each of the regions into which the Low Countries were historically divided, as its66 natural prince? To the Flemings he was merely Count of Flanders, to the Brabançons Duke of Brabant, to the people of Hainault or of Holland he was Count of Hainault or Count of Holland, and so on. By these diverse titles he ruled over the whole, and each of the districts which in turn were united beneath his sceptre preserved its own peculiar constitution. In the full meaning of the term, the Burgundian monarchy was a federal monarchy.

But the association into one body politic of so many principalities, which had for so long been separate, put them in an entirely new relation both to one another and to the reigning dynasty. Their conjunction went far beyond the level of a merely personal union; it reached to that of a political union. Above the regional constitutions the dukes built a framework of institutions, which extended their competence throughout the whole country. The Great Council, presided over by the Burgundian chancellor, in which representatives of all the provinces had a seat, took cognisance of all matters of general interest; and, little by little, it imposed its authority over all the spheres which were outside the local constitutions. The financial organisation, which was put under the supervision of the three Chambres des Comptes of Lille, Brussels, and the Hague, achieved its complete shape as it gained in centralisation. In 1471, the institution of Compagnies d’ordonnance established a standing army recruited from the whole country. In judicial matters, a special Chamber of the Great Council, which was separated off from the parent body in 1473 to become the Parlement of Malines, acted as a court of appeal and extended its jurisdiction over all the ducal domains. The process of unification was not manifested only in the sphere of government properly so called. In 1430, the creation of the Order of the Golden Fleece indicated the clear intention of the duke to attach the high nobility of the Low Countries to his own person and policy. Much more important was the summons by Philip the Good in 1463 of representatives of all the local Estates in his dominions to a single assembly at Bruges, which borrowed from France the name of Estates General. But the Estates General of the Low Countries were to play a much more important role than those of France. Without their consent it was impossible to raise taxes, since in each of his territories the duke had to ask for them from its particular Estates, and these Estates General were in fact a congress of local Estates. Their financial importance gave them at an early date a political importance which resulted, during the revolution of the sixteenth century, in their becoming the organ of national opinion.

It can be seen, therefore, that the Burgundian monarchy was a monarchy doubly tempered, firstly by its federal character, and secondly by the political tradition which had obliged the princes, from the end of the thirteenth century onwards, to keep on good terms with the Estates-There can be no doubt, however, that the dukes, like all the princes of their time, looked on personal government as the ideal form of government. The wise opportunism of Philip the Good avoided any open display of this. But Charles the Bold never managed to control his absolutist tendencies; and they were largely responsible for the dangerous revolt which broke out on the news of his death.

It must be recognised, besides, that this personal rule, of which contemporary opinion was so apprehensive, did initiate certain excellent reforms, which proved so beneficial that they won acceptance. In 1386 Philip the Bold established in Flanders a “Chamber” which was the origin of the Councils of Flanders, Brabant, and Holland for justice, and also of the financial organisation already mentioned. The opposition aroused at the outset by these innovations is not hard to understand. It was the natural consequence of the social transformations which were setting up the modern State, the organ of the “common weal,” against all the champions of outworn privileges, who in effect were championing their own “private weal.'”

To sum up, then. The Burgundian State, while it laid between France and Germany the foundation on which the kingdoms of Belgium and Holland stand at the present day, at the same time caused these countries to pass from the civilisation of the Middle Ages to that of modern times.