The history of Belgium could fill page after page in a very lengthy book. Suffice it to say that quite a lot has gone on over the centuries in this small yet historically significant land. As the site for the Battle of Waterloo in the 1800s, Belgium had already seen its fair share of wars in years prior, and it would not see an end to them for many more to come. Both World Wars took tolls on the Belgian people, yet the country managed to survive it all, fervently holding onto the rich Belgian culture that persists to this day. One of the more interesting things about Belgian culture is the fact that both Dutch and French are widely spoken here. These linguistic differences between fellow countrymen are indicative in their own way of just how interesting Belgium history is.
Belgium history really started to take shape when the Romans moved in. This was some 2,000 years ago, and ever since, this relatively small country has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs. By the fifth century AD, Frankish tribes started to arrive in Belgium, and shortly after Belgium fell under Merovingian rule. The Merovingian kingdom controlled much of Western Europe between the fifth and eighth centuries. In the year 800, however, that would start to change as Charlemagne was appointed the leader of the Holy Roman Empire. Christianity really started to spread throughout Europe and into other parts of the world during this time, and Charlemagne had strict attachments to the Catholic Church. Charlemagne passed away in 814, but not before leaving his hefty mark not only on the history of Belgium, but on the history of Europe as a whole. By 843, Belgium had split into the Dutch-speaking northern territory of Flanders, and the southern, French-speaking region of Wallonia, or Walloon. This split is still significant in Belgian culture, as northern Flemish cities like Brugge, Ghent, and Antwerp are still predominantly Dutch-speaking, while southern and eastern cities like Dinant and Liege are predominantly French-speaking.
Liege became a powerful Belgian city in the 800s, as it was the main seat for the controlling prince-bishops. Belgium was very much a land of city states in the early Middle Ages, and though some of these entities enjoyed relative autonomy, the country still fell under the rule of the Counts of Flanders. These Counts ruled over what is essentially today Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. The Gravensteen Castle in Ghent dates back to 1180, when the Counts of Flanders were riding high. In the latter part of the 1300s, the Counts of Flanders were starting to lose control over modern-day Belgium, and after strategic marriages formed new and powerful alliances, the French Duke of Burgundy assumed control. This marked a significant turning point in the history of Belgium, as cities like Brussels, Brugge, Leuven, and Antwerp experienced their Golden Ages. Flemish cities in Belgium became some of the wealthiest and most important cities of the day, and grand buildings were erected and wonderful guilded homes sprung up. The ornate Town Hall in Leuven is a sign of the wealth and prosperity that some of the Belgium cities were enjoying in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
By the sixteenth century, Belgium had fallen under control of the Spanish crown, which was tied to the mighty Hapsburg Dynasty. Carlos V, who was born in Ghent in the year 1500, abdicated the throne in 1556, due largely to religious tensions. The Protestant religion had begun to make its mark on Belgian culture during Carlos V’s reign, and when the throne was turned over to his son, Philip II, the Inquisition in Belgium was well under way. Together with the duke of Alba, Philip II brought his reign down on the oft-rebellious Belgium citizens, even going so far as to hold public beheadings in Brussels’s stunning Grand Place. The Eighty Year’s War, which ended in 1648, saw Holland push Spain out, but Belgium would remain under Spanish rule. In the early 1700s, Belgium and its citizens were looking to make a new identity for themselves, but by 1795, Belgium history again saw French rule return. In 1814, Napoleon would suffer his legendary defeat at Waterloo, which is just south of Brussels. The next fifteen years of Belgian history involved inclusion in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, though in 1830, Belgium won its independence. For centuries, Belgians had stood proud and firm, enduring battle after battle. Finally, they had a country all their own. A just reward it was for all that Belgium’s people had been through.
Belgian culture is very much a product of Belgium history, and as Brussels continues to become a central base for the growing European Union, Belgium’s international role will only increase. The earlier part of the 1900s involved devastation by two World Wars, but now Belgium is standing taller than ever. The history of Belgium is virtually on display everywhere you go in the country, and it’s just part of what makes a Belgium vacation so enjoyable. For more insight into Belgium history during your trip, you can visit some of the country’s historical museums, which are in good supply across the land.