By the marriage in 1477 of Mary of Burgundy, daughter of Charles the Bold, to the German prince Maximilian (later Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I), all of the rich Burgundian realm except the duchy itself passed to the control of the Habsburg family. Maximilian’s grandson, Charles, inherited Netherlands (which included present-day Belgium) in 1506. Charles ascended the throne of Spain in 1516 and later became Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In 1549 he decreed that Netherlands be formally joined to the possessions of Spain.
Philip II of Spain, Charles’s successor, tried to suppress Protestantism and forbade all trade between his subjects and the outside world. Many of the inhabitants of the northern Low Countries had converted to Protestantism during the Reformation, and religious feeling intensified with Roman Catholic Spain. Philip’s policies provoked a rebellion in Netherlands that began in 1566. This upheaval was partly a religious and economic struggle and partly an attempt to preserve local traditions of self-government. Spanish armies were defeated, but the strife between the predominantly Catholic south and the Protestant north continued. In 1581 seven northern provinces (Gelderland, Friesland, Holland, Groningen, Overijssel, Utrecht, and Zeeland) declared their independence as the United Provinces of The Netherlands, while the southern provinces (Belgium) remained loyal to Spain.
Philip II continued to pursue reconquest of the north without success. In 1609, with neither side capable of a decisive victory, Philip III of Spain signed a 12-year truce with the rebels.
By the time this accord expired, the Thirty Years' War was raging, and the Spanish Netherlands was once again a battleground. In 1635 the Dutch and the French joined forces to divide the Spanish Netherlands, but still could not dislodge the Spaniards. A succession of Franco-Dutch victories finally forced the Spanish king, Philip IV, to accept a separate peace with the Dutch in 1648. The south, present-day Belgium and Luxembourg, remained a Spanish domain. By the Treaty of Münster, the Dutch gained some territory on their southern border, notably Maastricht, and Spain agreed to close off shipping from the Schelde River, which flowed through Dutch territory but which was Antwerp’s sole outlet to the sea. The great port city, a center of commerce, thus entered a period of decline. France, with a growing coalition of European powers, continued the war with Spain. Throughout his long reign the French king, Louis XIV, refused to abandon his quest for the Spanish Netherlands. By the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659, France gained several frontier areas, and through subsequent conquests won possession of additional towns. The Spanish Netherlands became an important pawn in the next major European conflict, the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714).
A settlement concluded at Utrecht in 1713 gave France part of Flanders, including Dunkerque and Lille. The bulk of the territory, however, came under the control of the Habsburg rulers of Austria, with a stipulation that its fortresses on the French border be garrisoned by the Dutch. Until the end of the 18th century the area was generally known as the Austrian Netherlands.
During the War of the Austrian Succession in 1744, the country was occupied by the French, but it was restored to Austria by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. Except for this invasion, Belgium’s Austrian era was initially peaceful. This tranquility was disrupted in 1781 when the Austrian emperor, Joseph II, decided to raze the border fortresses and reopen the Schelde estuary. The Dutch mounted an effective blockade and again closed the river to trade. Then, in 1787, as part of his effort to centralize the administration of the far-flung Habsburg domains, Joseph abolished provincial autonomy in the Austrian Netherlands. The loss of local control led to a general uprising, which coincided with the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789-1799). Most of the Austrian garrisons were forced to capitulate, and on January 11, 1790, a Belgian republic was proclaimed. Quarrels between social and religious factions shook the new state from the outset, and within a year of Joseph’s death in 1790, his successor as Austrian emperor, Leopold II, reestablished control. A conciliatory and enlightened ruler, he revoked his predecessor’s decrees, but the new regime won little popular support. After Leopold was succeeded by Francis II in 1792, Austria became embroiled in war with the revolutionary government of France.
Belgium was twice occupied by the French army, and the country was formally ceded to France by the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797. "Belgium" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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