Belgium is the heir to several ancient medieval powers, and you will see traces of them everywhere as you travel through this country.
After the collapse of the Carolingian Empire in the 9th century, the area that today makes up Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg was part of Lotharingia, a short-lived kingdom that was soon absorbed by the Germanic Empire. However, the special character of “Lower Lotharingia” remained in the feudal kingdom: It is the origin of the Netherlands, a collective term that includes present-day Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
The largely autonomous fiefdoms of the Netherlands were among the richest places in medieval Europe, and you will find traces of this past wealth in the rich buildings of Bruges, Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Louvain, Tournai, Mons, etc. These cities gradually came under the control of a powerful and ambitious family: the Dukes of Burgundy. The dukes’ entire empire stretched from the Netherlands to the borders of Switzerland. Through wealth, strategy and alliances, the Dukes of Burgundy attempt to restore Lotharingia. The death of the last duke, Charles the Bold, puts an end to this dream. However, the treasures of the Dukes of Burgundy are preserved in Belgian museums and monuments as a testimony to their reign.
The powerful Habsburg family then inherited the Netherlands. The reform was the reason why Belgium and the Netherlands were initially separated: The northern half of the Netherlands embraced Protestantism and rebelled against Habsburg rule, while the southern half remained loyal to its ruler and the Catholic faith. These two halves roughly correspond to today’s Belgium and the Netherlands.
Belgium was first called the Austrian Netherlands, then the Spanish Netherlands, depending on which branch of the Habsburgs ruled it. The powerful German Emperor and King of Spain, Charles V, was born in the Belgian city of Ghent and ruled from Brussels. Many places in Belgium bear his name, including the city of Charleroi and even a brand of beer. Every year, the people of Brussels imitate his first parade in their city in what is called the Ommegang.
Belgium was briefly part of the Napoleonic Empire. After Napoleon’s defeat, a large Kingdom of the Netherlands was created, encompassing the entire Netherlands. However, religious opposition remained and the division was exacerbated by political differences between Belgian liberals and Dutch aristocrats. Belgium became independent from the Netherlands in 1830 after a short revolution and war against the Netherlands.
It was occupied by Germany during both World Wars and has many graves near the battle zones, most of them near Ypres (in English, Ypres is the archaic name of the city, mustard gas is another name for mustard gas because of its intensive use during the First World War). It has developed over the last half century into a modern and technologically advanced European state that is a member of NATO and the EU. Tensions between the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north and the French-speaking Walloons in the south have led to constitutional changes in recent years that grant formal recognition and autonomy to these regions.