Changing Definitions of Flanders and the Netherlands – Part 2

It is important when examining the relationship between Scotland and Flanders to define clearly the borders of the latter, as these changed over time. The definition of Netherlands has likewise changed significantly over time. Alexander Stevenson’s posting last week focused specifically on Flanders. In this week’s posting the focus is on overarching jurisdictional changes that have transformed definitions of both Flanders and the Netherlands. The text begins in the Roman period and moves through the Frankish phase, to the Burgundians and Habsburgs, and on to the present day.

Roman and Ecclesiastical Provinces

Like other countries in Europe, the origin of our names for the present states of Belgium and The Netherlands dates back to the Roman Empire. After itsconquest by Julius Caesar, Gaul was soon divided into three provinces. The most northerly of these was Gallia Belgica (Belgic Gaul), with a provincial capital initially at Rheims but for much of the Roman period at Trier. In the later first century AD, the frontier area to the south and west of the lower reaches of the Rhine and Meuse was removed from Belgica to form the separate province of Germania Inferior (Lower Germany), with a provincial capital at Cologne. There was further reorganisation throughout the Roman Empire at the end of the third century. Belgica was split in two to form the provinces of Belgica Prima and Belgica Secunda, with capitals at Trier and Rheims respectively. Germania Inferior was renamed Germania Secunda; the other German province, Germania Superior (Upper Germany), with its capital at Mainz, wasrenamed Germania Prima and separated from Germania Secunda by the extension of Belgica Prima to the Rhine.[1] All collapsed in the fifth century, with the decay of the Roman Empire.[2]

They were revived as ecclesiastical provinces under the Carolingians, in the eighth and ninth centuries, with very similar common boundaries west of the Rhine to those in Roman times. Belgica Secunda, the archdiocese of Rheims, was essentially unchanged. It comprised what later became the counties of Flanders, Artois and Hainault, the south-west of the duchy of Brabant (including Brussels, but not Louvain), Antwerp, Mechelen, Picardy, part of the Île-de-France to the north of Paris, and much of Champagne. Germania Secunda, the archdiocese of Cologne, expanded to the north and east to include all of what are now The Netherlands and NW Germany, since these lands were also within the Frankish empire.[3] Thereafter, as relates to what are now France and the Benelux countries, the boundaries of Belgica Secunda, Germania Secunda and Belgica Prima barely altered in the Middle Ages.

The Franks and their Successors

The Franks, though their name is now associated with France, were a Germanic people. Towards the end of the Roman Empire, they had been encouraged to settle as foederati (allies) in Germania Secunda and the north of Belgica Secunda, to hold back other barbarians.[4] Tournai – later the see of the bishop whose diocese comprised the greater part of the late medieval county of Flanders – was the capital of the Frankish warlord Clovis, who united the Frankish tribes in the late fifth century, conquered most of Gaul, and was later noted as the first king of France.[5] When the Frankish empire was partitioned in 843, the northern and north-eastern frontier of West Francia (France) was established on the southern edge of marshes in the Scheldt delta and along the River Scheldt.[6] That remained the border of the French kingdom until the end of the Middle Ages. It also formed the northern and eastern boundaries of the medieval diocese of Tournai (adjoined on the east bank by the diocese of Cambrai, covering the north of the archdiocese of Rheims outside the kingdom of France, and to the north by the diocese of Utrecht, in the archdiocese of Cologne).

Over time, the other Frankish kingdoms were reunited within the Holy Roman Empire. While France became a hereditary monarchy, the emperor was elected as king of the Germans (confusingly, ‘Romans’ was soon substituted for ‘Germans’): only when crowned by the Pope did he formally become Emperor. Of the six electors believed in the late Middle Ages to have elected the emperor since Carolingian times (three ecclesiastical, three lay), the representatives of the western provinces were the archbishops of Cologne, Mainz and Trier. De jure, these six electors were also the emperor’s principal advisers.[7] Theoretically, the Peers of France fulfilled a similar function in the French kingdom; there were originally twelve peers (six ecclesiastical, six lay), including the archbishop of Rheims (premier peer) and the count of Flanders.[8] The origins of the Electoral College and of the Peers of France are lost in the mists of time. Both bodies originated before the thirteenth century.

Until the late twelfth century the kings of the French were weak, while the German emperors were strong. The position then reversed. Whereas the territories of the Empire became increasingly autonomous, the principalities within the French kingdom were steadily brought within royal jurisdiction until the mid-1290s.[9] The Anglo-French wars thereafter derailed this drive to create a unified kingdom. Marriages now became a particularly important tool of the French kings to stabilise relations in border areas, with some terrible results. The worst of these were the claim it gave to the English kings Edward III and Henry V to the French crown – which Edward III promoted in part to legitimise a Flemish revolt against a Francophile count of Flanders[10] – and the opportunities it provided for a cadet branch of the French royal family to establish an independent power base.

Burgundians and Habsburgs

The first Valois duke of Burgundy was remarkably astute, and the marriages he arranged transformed his fortunes and those of his heirs. Philip the Bold was King Charles V of France’s youngest brother and chief supporter. His marriage in 1369 to Margaret de Male, heiress to the counties of Flanders and Artois, two other French counties and a quasi-French county (the free county of Burgundy – the Franche-Comté) was intended to consolidate French royal control in these areas. He had been given the duchy of Burgundy in 1363 by his father (after the extinction of the earlier ducal line) and he took his principal title from that; but, after the death of his father-in-law in 1384, the greater part of his revenues came from Flanders. His wife’s aunt was the childless duchess of Brabant and Limburg. His eldest son, John the Fearless, succeeded him as duke of Burgundy in 1404, and became count of Flanders, Artois and Burgundy on the death of his mother the following year. The second son, Anthony, inherited the marquisate of [Antwerp] and lordship of Mechelen from his mother and became duke of Brabant and Limburg on the death of his great-aunt in 1406. Philip the Bold also arranged marriages between his family and that of the ruler of the counties of Hainault, Holland and Zeeland. When Anthony’s line died out in 1430, the only acceptable heir to Brabant, Limburg, Antwerp and Mechelen was John’s son, Philip the Good (1419-67). When the Hainault, Holland and Zeeland line also failed, about the same time, he inherited these too (through his mother).[11]

Although these territories had separate institutions and were divided between France and the Empire, Philip the Good and his heirs were determined to form them into a separate, unified state. They also added to their territories by purchase and conquest. There was much resistance within the territories themselves to the imposition of overarching controls, and hostility from France and Germany. The Valois dukes of Burgundy established some federal institutions for their northern territories – a great council consisting of senior officials who moved around with their court, an intermittent parliament, the States General in the 1460s, and a treasury and court of appeal in Mechelen in the 1470s – but failed to achieve more. Only later did Brussels become a permanent overall seat of government.

Philip’s son, Charles the Rash (or Bold) was killed in 1477, when attempting further conquests aimed at joining his northern territories with the two Burgundies. In the same year his only child Mary (1477-82) married Maximilian, the heir of the Emperor and himself later Emperor, and lost the duchy of Burgundy.[12] Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (and, through his mother, king of Spain), their grandson (1506-55), sealed a treaty with the king of France in 1526 that transferred to him sovereignty over Artois, Flanders and the Tournaisis. This formalised his unilateral incorporation of all three into what was termed the Burgundian Circle of the Empire in 1521. He also forced through a unified succession law, the Pragmatic Sanction of 1549, which finally guaranteed the continuation of a common inheritance ‘in all our said patrimonial and hereditary lower lands and Burgundy’ (en tous nosdits Pays patrimoniaux et héréditaires d’embas et de Bourgoigne).[13] In other words, there was then no generally agreed term for what are now called de Nederlanden in Dutch, les Pays-Bas in French, and the Low Countries or Netherlands in English.

Under the Pragmatic Sanction, what were by then seventeen provinces, and the Franche-Comté, passed to Charles V’s son Philip (named after his paternal grandfather and Burgundian ancestors), who also inherited Spain. Philip persuaded the Pope in 1559 to agree to a fundamental ecclesiastical reorganisation in all but two of the Seventeen Provinces (the then detached provinces of Limburg and Luxembourg). Aimed at suppressing the heresy of Protestantism, it cut ties to the archdioceses of Rheims and Cologne and created a separate and greatly enlarged episcopal hierarchy ‘in that part of Lower Germany’.[14] As late as the 1660s, Blaeu republished a 1608 map of the Low Countries with the Latin title, Novus XVII Inferioris Germaniae Provinciarum Typus (‘New Map of 17 Provinces of Lower Germany’). He included it at the beginning of a volume of his Atlas Maior titled Nederlanden in Dutch, Belgique in French and Belgica in Latin editions. The volume is in two parts, royal and federal:[15] a remnant Roman Catholic state in the south, ruled by a Spanish king but formally still part of the Holy Roman Empire; an independent confederation of Protestant provinces in the north. Torn apart in the Eighty Years War (1568-1648), they are now usually called in English the Spanish Netherlands and the Dutch Republic.[16]

Morphing Identities and Names

As the provinces established a shared identity, separate from the Empire, Belgica seemed a suitably classical collective name. Albeit most of the north was in the former Roman province only very briefly under the Emperor Augustus, and much of the rest had soon been incorporated in Germania Inferior. The geographical associations of the latter also changed over time. The old Roman province had become Germania Secunda, the archdiocese of Cologne. By contrast, in the Middle Ages, Germania Inferior was adopted as a general term for all the north German lands. Translated into the vernacular as Nederduitsland, Niderdeetslant and variants of these, it was generally abbreviated to Nederland, Niderlant and the like– the abbreviated vernacular term for the south German lands was Oberlant.[17] The omitted duits is the origin of our word Dutch. This English form originally meant German; its first occurrence in the OED with its present meaning is dated 1568. Duits is still the Dutch word for German. Since Nederland was the form latterly used in common speech in the northern provinces, its hold was too powerful to break. It was retained as the abbreviated name of the Dutch state; while the plural Nederlanden became a term for the provinces in general; and Dutch-speakers’ word for their language is Nederlands.

Belgica had little traction in the Germanic-language northern provinces, but French and Latin forms were commonly used in the multilingual Habsburg south. There Belgica was an appropriate name. The southern provinces had all been part of the Roman province of Belgica (at least for about a century in the first century BC/AD), and much of the country – including Flanders, which was never in Germania and was incorporated in the Empire only in 1521 – had continued to be in Belgica, ecclesiastically, until 1559.

The south remained in the Holy Roman Empire until conquered by the French revolutionaries in 1794; direct rule having switched from the Spanish to the Austrian Habsburgs in 1714 without other institutional change.[18] Reunification of the northern and southern provinces, in a United Kingdom of the Netherlands, followed in 1815; but in religion, culture and associated sympathies they had drifted so far apart in the intervening centuries that the south broke away in 1830 to form the present Kingdom of Belgium. The French name was unchanged; België was adopted as the Dutch-language version; and Belgium, always widely used as an alternative classical form and the usual form in the eighteenth century, superseded Belgica.[19] The subordinate structure was largely unchanged until 1980. Then (as noted in the previous posting) a linguistically-based federal structure was established in Belgium, overlying the old provinces, with Flanders as the regional name for the entire Dutch-speaking north of the country.[20] Formally, the Flemish community, the abbreviated name ‘the Flemish’ has since entered English dictionaries as a term for Dutch-speaking Belgians in general.

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] Fritz Heichelheim and others, A History of the Roman People (6th edn, Pearson, 2014), 204, 267, 268, 321, 412, 414; (map of Belgica and Germania, c.70AD); (map of the late Roman Empire, which is defective in that it fails to extend Belgica Prima to the Rhine).

[2] Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 (Allen Lane, 2009), 83-88.

[3] Roger Reynolds, ‘The organisation … of the Western Church, 700-900’ in New Cambridge Medieval History (NCMH), II (Cambridge, 1995), 587-93; Pouillés de la province de Reims, ed. A Longnon, (2 vols. , Librairie Klincksieck , 1907-8), passim.The archdioceses of Trier and Mainz also crossed the Rhine, Mainz extending through central Germany and almost as far north as Hamburg.

[4] Heichelheim, 478.

[5] Wickham, 112-13.

[6] Réné Poupardin, ‘The Carolingian kingdoms (840-877)’ in Cambridge Medieval History, III (Cambridge, 1922), 23-8. Though this volume is mainly long superseded, Poupardin provides a particularly good description of the circumstances and terms of the Treaty of Verdun. He also comments on the long-term instability to which this partition gave rise, because of the incoherence of the transient middle kingdom.

[7] Len Scales, The Shaping of the German Identity: Authority and Crisis, 1245-1414 (Cambridge, 2012), 277-8. These origins are mythical. There were originally more German electors; at some point the king of Bohemia joined their number, and remained an elector when the German electors were reduced to six in the thirteenth century, but he was not a hereditary imperial office holder, unlike the others: id., 272-6;

[8] Though lacking references, Wikipedia has a good summary: The early Capetian kings were elected by the rulers of the six great fiefs, which in the thirteenth century were to be noted as the lay pairies: Robert Fawtier, The Capetian Kings of France: Monarchy and Nation, 987-1328, trans. Lionel Butler and R J Adam (Macmillan, 1960), 48-9, 60-1. The count of Flanders traditionally carried the sword of Charlemagne – the only tangible link the French kings had with the great Frankish emperor – in the French coronation ceremony (recently noted by Neil MacGregor in the Radio 4 broadcast, Germany: Memories of a Nation: the Battle for Charlemagne).

[9] Fawtier, passim; Eckhard Müller-Mertens, ‘The Ottonian kings and emperors’ in NCMH, III (Cambridge, 1999), 233-66; Hanna Vollrath, ‘The western empire under the Salians’ and Benjamin Arnold, ‘The western empire, 1125-1197’ in NCMH, IVii (Cambridge, 2004), 38-72, 384-422; Michael Toch, ‘Welfs, Hohenstaufen and Habsburgs’ in NCMH, V (Cambridge, 1999), 375-404.

[10] Jonathan Sumption, The Hundred Years War I: Trial by Battle (paperback edn., University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 291-4.

[11] Richard Vaughan, Valois Burgundy (Allen Lane, 1975), 14-22. The other two French counties (Nevers, adjacent to the duchy of Burgundy, and Rethel, near Rheims) were inherited by the third son of Philip the Bold and Margaret de Male, and thereafter descended through his sons. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the government of Brabant had insisted on their duchy remaining separate and on their duke speaking the local Dutch dialect. That was not possible in 1430. As Philip the Good spoke Flemish, a closely related Dutch dialect, he was acceptable in a way that his two younger male cousins were not.

[12] Id., 95-123, 194-226; Henri Pirenne, Histoire de Belgique III: de la mort de Charles le Téméraire a l’arrivée du duc d’Albe dans les Pays-Bas (1567) (3rd edn., Maurice Lamertin, 1923), 181-206.

[13] Pirenne, 93-5, 139-42;

[14]; Pirenne, 411-13; Aubert Miraeus, Opera Diplomatica et Historica I (2nd edn., Louvain, 1723), 472-6 (quotation at 472).

[15] Joan Blaeu, Atlas Maior: Belgica Regia & Belgica Foederata, ed. Benedikt Taschen (Taschen, 2006), 1-2, 50-1, 58-9;


[17] Scales, 467-8; Willem Frijhoff and Marijke Spies, Dutch Culture in a European Perspective: 1650: Hard-Won Unity, trans. M. Scholz (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 59-61.




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