Changing Definitions of Flanders and the Netherlands – Part 1

One of the difficulties encountered in analysing the relationship between Scotland and Flanders is that the borders of the latter have changed significantly over time. The purpose of this posting, prepared by Alexander Stevenson, is to examine some of the factors that have led to these changes. Another posting that places this evolution in Flanders’ borders within its wider territorial context will follow next week.

Origins and Early Growth of Flanders

When first mentioned, in 831, the pagus Flandrensis(‘the Flemish district’) was a large coastal district around Bruges, much of it marshland, which would later become the Franc or Liberty of Bruges. It was given in the 860s by the first West Frankish (French) king to Baldwin, a local warlord who had abducted, married and had a son by the king’s daughter Judith. Baldwin already held the district around Ghent. Charles the Bald also gave him other lands to the north-east of Ghent and between Ghent and the pagus Flandrensis, as well as the district of Ternois, around Thérouanne and Saint-Omer. Medieval chroniclers defined this as the origin of the county of Flanders and specified Baldwin as its first count.[1]

Baldwin II (879-918) took advantage of instability caused by Viking raids in the late ninth century to regain lands lost after his father’s death in 879, to take control of the districts between his northern lands and Ternois, and to take coastal lands down to the Canche. In combination, the districts under the count’s control soon acquired the plural name of Flanders (Flandriae – Vlaanderen in Flemish/Dutch though the Latin name for the county was later the singular Flandria, la Flandre in French). His son Arnulf (918-65) extended his rule by conquest across all of the land from the present course of the Scheldt down to Amiens on the Somme. Much of this was lost after his death. Thereafter, the boundary of Flanders never extended beyond the Authie. Most of the French-speaking south of Flanders fragmented into numerous autonomous lordships and counties, which were mainly recovered in the course of the eleventh century. The small, long-lasting counties of Boulogne, Saint-Pol and Guines were, however, established in the south-west, which owed allegiance to the counts of Flanders in the twelfth century but were substantially independent. The eastern limit of the county of Flanders was reached in the eleventh century. Baldwin IV (988-1035) took advantage of temporary weakness in the Holy Roman Empire to obtain the land around Valenciennes. His son Baldwin V (1035-67) followed a similar policy. Though he lost Valenciennes, he crossed the Scheldt further north and seized the south-western corner of Brabant. This and reclaimed marshes facing the island of South Beveland in Zeeland, which had been acquired in the tenth century (the Vier Ambachten – ‘Four Offices’), were thereafter termed Imperial Flanders.[2] The corresponding term for the rest of the county was Crown Flanders.Flanders c1300 (V2)

As most of the counts in the eleventh and twelfth centuries were remarkably capable and ruled for many years, the county was strongly and judiciously governed. This stability led to a population explosion, the establishment of major towns where woollen-cloth manufactures rapidly developed on a large scale, and widespread emigration, because insufficient employment was available on the land. It was then that Flanders acquired a very strong identity, which spanned both its Flemish- and French-speaking regions.[3] Whereas natives of other parts of the French kingdom and their descendants were commonly known abroad as Franks (Franci in Latin), natives of Flanders were usually termed Flemings (from the Flemish Vlamingen, Flandrensesin Latin) – though Flemish settlers in general, as opposed to individuals, were included within the term Franci in twelfth-century Scottish charters.[4]

The zenith of comital power and prestige was reached under Count Philip d’Alsace (1168-91, co-ruler with his father from 1157), who ruled much of Picardy, by right of his wife, as well as Flanders. Godfather of King Philip II (Augustus) of France, he was the young king’s guardian in 1179-80, after King Louis VII was paralysed by a stroke. Lacking children of his own, Philip d’Alsace organized the marriage of the young king to his niece – Isabella, daughter of the count of Hainault – in 1180, while Philip was still under his control. He also provided as a dowry the southern part of Flanders, the subsequent county of Artois, with the proviso that it was to remain under his control during his lifetime.[5]

Territorial Changes and the Centrality of Relations with France

When Philip d’Alsace died, Philip Augustus took Artois in the name of his son, later King Louis VIII.[6] Though now separate, Artois probably continued to be viewed abroad as Flemish. Two of Flanders’ most important towns, Arras and Saint-Omer were in the new county, but they retained close links with Flanders. Saint-Omer and Arras were two of the main markets for Scottish wool in the late thirteenth century;[7] as they must have been earlier, because in the eleventh and twelfth centuries they were the two most successful towns in Flanders.[8] And so they must have remained since both continued in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to be major producers of the types of cloth that were made from Scottish wool.[9]

Philip Augustus also removed the Tournaisis from the count of Flanders’ control. Thereafter the bishop of Tournai held the Tournaisis directly from the French crown until 1521, though the diocese was entirely Flemish, apart from the small territory of the Tournaisis; the appointment of the bishop similarly came under the French king’s control.[10] The bishops of Arras and Thérouanne, whose dioceses spanned the rest of Crown Flanders, likewise came under royal control, as both were based in Artois.

French language and culture dominated the upper strata of Flemish society between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries.[11] A profound backlash followed. Relations between Flanders and France became increasingly strained after the outbreak of an Anglo-French war in 1294, leading to a rebellion by Count Guy de Dampierre (1280-1305) in 1297. In subsequent campaigns, King Philip IV (the Fair) occupied Flanders and confiscated the remaining predominantly French-speaking area, including the major towns of Lille and Douai. Of the seven principal towns of twelfth-century Flanders, only Bruges, Ghent and Ypres were left within the residual county. The Flemish language became a national touchstone in the early fourteenth century, and with it an enduring antipathy towards France, particularly in Ghent. Ties to France that had greatly increased in the thirteenth century were largely severed. When comital relations with the French king strengthened and jeopardised English interests, the English government fomented major rebellions, from 1339 to 1349 and from 1379 to 1385, both based in Ghent.[12]

To counter English influence, King Charles V of France used the good offices of Margaret, countess of Artois, daughter of King Philip V of France and mother of Count Louis de Male of Flanders (1346-84), to arrange the marriage in 1369 of Louis de Male’s daughter and heir to Charles’s brother, Duke Philip of Burgundy. The catalyst for the marriage was an agreement to return the lands and towns confiscated by King Philip IV in 1304.[13] This was followed in 1382 by Louis de Male’s inheritance of Artois on the death of his mother. Though it formally remained a separate county thereafter, Louis de Male established a unified treasury and state archive for Flanders and Artois at Lille in francophone Flanders, which was retained by his Burgundian successors; the latter also appointed a single governor for both counties.[14] Later Burgundian territorial expansion and changes will be outlined in the blog posting next week, as these overlay, but did not supplant, Flemish institutions.

Shifting Borders and Definitions of Flanders

Insofar as Flanders itself is concerned, the most dramatic changes came with the Counter-Reformation. There were large Protestant populations in most of the Flemish towns, which increasingly agitated against Roman Catholicism, leading to occupation by a Spanish army in 1567 and open revolt.[15] In the following Eighty Years’ War, many thousands emigrated from Flanders, most fleeing to the northern Netherlandish provinces controlled by their co-religionists.[16] When dykes were broken in the war, the far north of Flanders facing the Scheldt delta was flooded; residual islands and a narrow peninsula were held by the Protestants, who afterwards drained the flooded lands. As its name implies, Zeelandic Flanders is now in the Dutch province of Zeeland.[17]

At some point, by association, Flanders became a general term not only for the county itself but also for neighbouring territories. How early this happened is unclear. As Hollanders and Zeelanders spoke very similar Germanic dialects to that of northern Flanders, it may have been common practice in medieval Scotland to call them Flemings. Scottish documents usually refer only to Flanders until the late sixteenth century, despite the fact that from the later fifteenth century onwards most Scottish traffic was with other Netherlandish provinces.[18]

In the most famous and widely distributed atlas of the seventeenth century, the Atlas Maior published in Amsterdam in the 1660s, Joan Blaeu commented that in Western Europe the Netherlands were then widely known as Flanders. This, he explained, was because historically most countries mainly had dealings with Flanders; though he noted that in Germany the usual term was Holland,[19] as by then it also was in Scotland.[20]

In 1980 Flanders became the official name of a ‘Flemish [Dutch-language] community’ and region spanning northern Belgium. This was based on a common identity that had developed in opposition to the French language and culture formerly dominant in the Belgian establishment. It overlies much older distinctions, which are retained in the names of subsidiary provinces. Most of the late medieval county of Flanders is now divided between the provinces of East and West Flanders, with Ghent and Bruges respectively as provincial capitals.[21] The northern fringe of the old county was taken by the Dutch in the Eighty Years’ War. Also in the seventeenth century, the south was conquered by the French: Artois in the Thirty Years’ War; French Flanders in the second half of the century. Old francophone Flanders, Artois and what used to be a Flemish-speaking area from the Aa to the Lys (Leie in Dutch) are now in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France, which has Lille as its regional capital.[22] Tournai and the Tournaisis, which were tightly bound to medieval Flanders, are now in the ‘French[-language] community’ of Belgium, the region of Wallonia and the province of Hainaut.[23]

Alexander Stevenson
October 2014

Alexander Stevenson is a retired senior civil servant. He is a historian by training and has a special interest in the Low Countries.  In 1982 he completed a PhD thesis on medieval Scottish links with the Low Countries, primarily Flanders, which he is currently reworking for publication.


[1] The most accessible accounts in English are: David Nicholas, Medieval Flanders (Longman, 1992), 13-17; Jean Dunbabin, France in the Making, 843-1180 (Oxford, 1985), 68-9.

[2] Nicholas, 17-20, 39-51; Dunbabin, 69-74, 207-11; Frans Beekman and others, Geschiedenis van Zeeland: Prehistorie – 1550 (WBooks, 2012), 107.

[3] Nicholas, 56-70, 97-123; Dunbabin, 141-3, 212-3, 269-74, 318-23.

[4] Early Scottish Charters Prior to 1153, ed. Archibald Lawrie (McLehose, 1905), passim; Regesta Regum Scottorum, I-II, ed. G W S Barrow (Edinburgh, 1960 & 1971), passim.

[5] Nicholas, 71-3, 85-9; Dunbabin, 323; Hans van Werweke, Eeen Vlaamse graaf van Europees formaat: Filips van de Elzas (Fibula-Van Dishoek, 1976), passim; Gérard Sivéry, Philippe Auguste (Perrin, 2003), 47-57.

[6] Robert Fawtier, The Capetian Kings of France, trans. Lionel Butler and R J Adam (Macmillan, 1960), 111-14.

[7] Patrick Chorley, ‘The cloth exports of Flanders and northern France during the thirteenth century: a luxury trade?’, Economic History Review, 2nd series, XL (1987), 349-80; Recueil de documents relatifs à l’industrie drapière en Flandre (1re. partie): des origines à l’époque bourguignonne,  ed. Georges Espinas and Henri Pirenne (4 vols, Librairie Kiessling, 1906-24), I, 196, 237, III, 234-58.

[8] Nicholas, 105, 117-21, 132.

[9] Simonne Abraham-Thisse, ‘Le commerce des draps de Flandre en Europe du nord: faut-il encore parler du déclin de la draperie flamande au bas moyen âge?’ in Drapery Production in the Late Medieval Low Countries: Markets and Strategies for Survival (14th-16th Centuries), ed. Marc Boone and Walter Prevenier (Garant, 1993), 167-204.

[10] Henri Pirenne, Histoire de Belgique I : des origines au commencement du XIVe siècle (5th edn, Maurice Lamertin, 1929), 224-5.

[11] Nicholas, 80-96, 139-49.

[12] Ibid., 186-201, 209-25, 227-31.

[13] Françoise Autrand, Charles V (Fayard, 1992), 531-4; Richard Vaughan, Philip the Bold: The Formation of the Burgundian State (Longman, 1962), 4-6.

[14] Ibid., 16, 128-32; Richard Vaughan, Valois Burgundy (Allen Lane, 1975), 111-13.



[17]; (note particularly the two Blaeu maps of 1645).

[18] Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland: General Index, ed. Cosmo Innes and others (HM Register House, Edinburgh, 1875), 543-4; Extracts from the Burgh Records of Aberdeen, 1398-1629, ed. John Stuart (2 vols, Spalding Club, 1844 & 1848), passim; Index to Extracts from the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, 1403-1589, ed. James Marwick (Scottish Burgh Record Society, 1892), passim.

[19] Joan Blaeu, Atlas Maior : Belgica Regia & Belgica Foederata, ed. Benedikt Taschen (Taschen, 2006), 57.

[20] Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland: General Index, 643-4. But Low Countries was the usual term from the 1570s to the 1640s: id., 800-1.


[22] Much of the old county of Hainault was also seized by Louis XIV. The coastal county of Boulogne was already French, having been absorbed into the French royal domain in 1501. The county of Guines was taken by the English soon after the capture of Calais in 1346, absorbed into the Pale of Calais, and retaken by the French with Calais in 1558. Saint-Pol remained a separate county until the old order was abolished in the French Revolution, sometimes under Burgundian and Habsburg suzerainty, but mainly under French rule.






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