The name Netherlands, or Low Countries, has been given historically to the entire region around the waterways of the Rhine delta. The low-lying coastal plain, needing the protection of dikes against the constant threat of flooding, has an obvious geographical unity.
But in cultural terms the Low Countries straddle deep and significant dividing lines in European history. These can be seen in terms of language – Dutch and Flemish are Germanic tongues, whereas the French spoken by the Walloons of Belgium is a Romance language. Similarly, at a later stage of history, Calvinism in Holland becomes a close and hostile neighbour to Roman Catholicism in Belgium.
The linguistic division derives from the Roman empire. Established in the 1st century BC as the province of Germania Inferior, the region of the Rhine delta is an unstable frontier. To the south, in Gaul, Roman influence is all-pervasive. To the east, in the forests of Germany, it is almost non-existent. In the Netherlands it is partial.
This intermediary position is increased from the 4th century when the Franks move into the region, settling around Tournai. They become the dominant Germanic tribe. But they are also closely allied to Rome. And they are the first barbarians to adopt Roman Catholic Christianity (as opposed to the arian version).
This northwest corner of Europe in the late 8th century is the centre of the great Frankish empire of Charlemagne . When the empire is divided in 843 into three vertical slices, ruled separately by his descendants, the Netherlands are at the northern extreme of Francia Media, the rich but geograpically unspecific central kingdom.
This alignment south through Europe, along the Rhine and down past the Alps, becomes an important theme in Netherlandish history – particularly with the rise of the duchy of Burgundy in the 14th century. By then the provinces of the Netherlands contain highly developed towns, many of them enjoying a degree of self-government as communes.
Flanders: 12th – 15th century AD
During the later Middle Ages some of the feudal lords in the Netherlands become virtually independent. Chief among them are the counts of Flanders, an area rich from trade and manufacture. Further north, Holland is also an independent county from the 12th century.
Ghent and Bruges are the two leading cities of Flanders. Ghent prospers from the weaving of cloth, mainly from English wool. Bruges is the headquarters in the Netherlands of the Hanseatic League. The Flemish cities and the counts of Flanders are frequently at odds with each other (as in the case of Jacob van Artevelde). But in the 14th century both lose their liberty to a greater power, the duchy of Burgundy (through the marriage in 1369 of Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, to Margaret of Flanders).
It takes the dukes of Burgundy the best part of a century before they establish full control over the Netherlands. The richer cities, accustomed to virtual independence as self-governing communes, resent the imposition of a centralized administration. Bruges rebels in 1437-8. An uprising of the citizens of Ghent in 1451 is only suppressed after their army is massacred by the Burgundians at Gavere in 1453.
Nevertheless this is a century of solid achievement for the cities of the Netherlands, and particularly for Bruges and Ghent. Their painters pioneer the Renaissance in northern Europe. In this respect their interests chime very closely with those of their Burgundian masters.
The dukes of Burgundy are passionate patrons of art, and in Flanders they find artists of genius. In 1425 Jan van Eyck enters the service of Philip the Good (duke of Burgundy for half a century, from 1419 to 1467) as his court painter.
Ten years later Philip’s chancellor, Nicolas Rolin, wants to commission an altarpiece for the cathedral of Autun in Burgundy. He turns to van Eyck, who provides one of the masterpieces of the northern Renaissance – a Madonna and Child, conversing on pleasantly equal terms with Chancellor Rolin, in front of an extensive view over a prosperous Christian city.
Burgundians are not the only foreigners to commission paintings in Flanders. The Flemish towns, situated at the main crossroads of northern Europe’s trade routes, attract merchants and bankers from Europe’s other great trading region – northern Italy.
Italian merchants, no less than Burgundian aristocrats, recognize the quality of the local art.
Bruges and Italy: 15th century AD
The links of trade and finance between cities in Italy and the Netherlands have been immortalized in two works of art. Giovanni Arnolfini is a merchant from Lucca living and trading in Bruges. In 1434, when newly married, he commissions a double portrait from Jan van Eyck.
Hoping for a memorial to himself and his wife, Giovanni could not possibly have made a wiser investment. The Arnolfini Marriage is now one of the most famous paintings in the world. It is also an early glimpse of the Italian interest in Flemish art which will result, later in the century, in the spread southwards of the northern technique of oil painting.
An altarpiece of about 1475 proves very influential in this same respect when it reaches Florence. Tommaso Portinari, the agent in Bruges for the Medici bank, commissions from Hugo van der Goes an altarpiece for the church of St Egidio in which his family has a chapel.
The central panel of the triptych shows the Virgin with her newly born Child visited by angels and shepherds, while the kneeling Portinari family are presented from the side panels by saints. This large altarpiece makes the journey south by sea and river. It is the most imposing example of the northern style of painting to have reached Florence, the heart of the southern Renaissance.
Habsburg rule: AD 1482-1559
The Netherlands acquire a new ruling dynasty in 1482, when the Habsburgs inherit all the territories of Burgundy. For more than half a century the new regime is reasonably successful. The Habsburgs are at ease in the prosperous Netherlands; they cherish their valuable new acquisition. Charles V is born in Ghent (in 1500) and grows up in Mechelen at the court of his aunt Margaret of Austria – acting as regent on his behalf in Burgundy, after the early death of his father in 1506.
But Charles’s broader responsibilities soon remove him from his childhood home. He becomes king of Spain in 1515 and leaves the Netherlands two years later.
Charles’s personal link with the region no doubt contributes to the relative calm which prevails in the Netherlands until 1555, when he formally transfers the rule of the duchy to his son Philip in a ceremony in Brussels – the city to which the seat of government has been moved, from Mechelen, in 1531.
Even so, during the four decades of Charles’s largely absentee rule there have been significant changes of attitude in the province.
There is an increasing sense of resentment at being on the periphery of the vast Spanish empire, with its different priorities and frequent demands for tax. And Calvinist ideas, infiltrating down the Rhine from Basel and Strasbourg, make many doubly resentful that the distant ruler of the Netherlands is Catholic as well as Spanish.
These circumstances would lead to unrest at the best of times. Philip aggravates them. Unlike his father, he is Spanish in upbringing. His appointments to the government in Brussels take little heed of local sensitivities. To add to his difficulties, a peace of 1559 between Spain and France opens the Netherlands border to energetic French Calvinists.
William of Orange and the duke of Alba: AD 1559-1568
Philip II’s first regent in the Netherlands is his half sister, Margaret of Parma. There is local unrest under her rule, but also an assumption that compromise may be possible. William of Orange, heir to large estates in the Netherlands and known from his quiet skill in negotiation as William the Silent, emerges as one of the leaders of those demanding change.
Religious toleration and freedom from the attentions of the Inquisition are among the demands most commonly made. But the Protestant cause is not well served by the intemperate behaviour of some of the Calvinists. Iconoclastic mobs go on the rampage in August 1566, smashing the treasures of many churches in the Netherlands.
Hearing of such events, Philip II resolves upon severe measures. He instructs the duke of Alba, a veteran of many campaigns, to march north with an army from Italy. He is to restore order in the Netherlands regardless of what measures may be required.
Alba, arriving in August 1567, introduces a rule of terror but does so at first by stealth. He lulls two of the leading dissident nobles, the counts of Egmont and of Horn, into accepting his hospitality. He then has them arrested, summarily tried and executed. They are merely the most distinguished victims of Alba’s tribunal, which becomes known in the Netherlands as the Council of Blood.
Alba’s agents act with the quiet efficiency of a modern police state. In 1568, in the early hours of Ash Wednesday (the morning after the pre-Lent carnival, when revellers are likely to be off their guard), fifteen hundred suspects are visited in their homes and taken from their beds. All, according to Alba’s note on the incident, are executed.
William of Orange, wisely keeping his distance from Alba, slips into exile – and so remains available to lead the armed resistance to Spanish rule which now begins to develop.