Brabant and the Brabanters

Morvern French
Friday 24 April 2015

In our research on the Flemish it is common to find references to people from Brabant who have settled in Scotland. Brabant is a neighbour to Flanders so there are similarities between the two peoples, but there are also differences. This posting, prepared by Dr John Brebner, examines the history of Brabant and explores the similarities and differences between the Brabanter and the Flemish influence, particularly in the Scottish context.


It is quite common to find in publications and public discourse the Brabanters – that is, people coming from Brabant in northern Europe – being bracketed with the Flemings. At issue in this posting are the similarities and differences in impact of both peoples on Britain and in particular on Scotland.

The map below illustrates, as of the late 16th century, the geographical proximity of Flanders and Brabant. It is important to note that the borders of Brabant have changed with the passage of time, as have those of Flanders.

The two peoples have been separated by language, at least in part. Both peoples were conquered by the Franks and more Frankish was spoken in the north of Flanders than the south, which had affinities with France. The Dutch language has its origins in Old Frankish, and in medieval times most of the works were written in Southern Low dialects like Limburgish, Flemish, or Brabantic, and it seems that Brabantian had an influence on some of the Flemish dialects.

A Brief History

During the Roman occupation the lands of the Menapii became part of Belgica or Germania Inferior.[1] When the Romans withdrew the advancing Franks, a union of mainly Germanic tribes, conquered the region and formed a shire called pagus Bracbatensis, from bracha (“new”) and bant (“region”), which lay between the Scheldt and Dijle rivers that formed its natural borders. In 843 at the Treaty of Verdun it became part of Lower Lotharingia and was ceded to East Francia at the 880 Treaty of Ribemont.

The Duchy of Brabant began to take shape when King Otto I of Germany promoted Count Godfrey of Julish to be Duke of Lower Lotharingia, or Duke of Lower Lorraine, in 959. Three years later the duchy became part of the Holy Roman Empire and Godfrey’s successors also ruled over Brabant. In 1085 Emperor Henry IV gave the Landgraviate of Brabant to Count Henry III of Leuven and Brussels. Almost a century later, in 1183, the German Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa conferred the hereditary title of Duke of Brabant on Henry I of Brabant, the son of Count Godfrey III of Leuven. The other major cities of Brabant then were Brussels and Antwerp. Henry also became Duke of Lower Lotharingia or Lorraine when his father died, and the territory of Brabant was expanded. Henry and his successors seemed to use the title of Duke of Brabant to include Lower Lotharingia and later, in 1288, following victory at the battle of Worringen, the Duchy of Limbourg and the lands over the Meuse Overmaas were added to Brabant.

Because of Brabant’s vulnerable position in continental Europe, and the impact of the Roman and subsequent invasions, militarism became a way of life for some of the Brabanters, who became a mercenary fighting force. There are numerous references to the Brabanters using longer lances, for instance. This is a specialism that the mercenaries put to good use. The different lengths of lance were introduced by Philip of Macedon, who equipped his troops with “sarissas’ or lances varying in length from 4 to 7 metres. The longest lances could be used by the men at the back to protect those on the front line.

During the turbulent post-Roman period, townships in northern Europe created their own defences and fighting forces. Mercenaries gradually became available and in demand as foot soldiers who protected the nobility and fought enemy infantry in return for keeping any booty they looted. Initially, mercenaries were recruited from people from poor areas, who often fought with bows, javelins and knives. Later, a new group emerged that used improved weaponry like the crossbows of the Genovese and other north Italians, and the mercenaries of Flanders and Brabant who also, as noted above, used longer than usual lances, or halberds. Many of these mercenaries had become experienced in urban militias. Both the Flemish and Brabanter mercenaries, who were employed by the nobility, had helmets and chainmail, unlike the poorer mercenaries.

Some Brabanters, like the Flemings, joined William the Conqueror’s invasion of Britain, but others remained in continental Europe. Of the latter group, 1,500 Brabanters under William of Cambray joined the Emperor Barbarossa’s third venture into Italy. They did not travel with Barbarossa himself but instead became a “self-catering” force travelling through Burgundy. The Abbot of Cluny described the Brabanters as a terrible plague who move through all places “with iron and blood and nothing is able to protect against them.”

Once in Italy they joined Barbarossa and fought with him to be rewarded with armour, horses and money; but when their job was done they moved into France, devastating monasteries and extorting money. They were a strong menace to everyone in their way, so much so that once Barbarossa and the King of France became reconciled, they agreed in 1171 to act against the ruthless Brabanters. Also, the Third Lateran Council excommunicated and gave eternal damnation to those who dared to employ them or refused to take up arms against all “Brabanters, Aragonese, Navaronese, Basques and Triaverdiner”.[2]

There is no reference to the Flemish in the excommunication of the Brabanters and sundry others who, in Pope Leo’s words, “exercise such enormous cruelties against Christians, as not to pay any respect to either churches or monasteries, or to spare widows or orphans, young or old, or any age or sex, but who, after the manner of pagans, lay waste and ravage in every direction”. The Brabanters were little influenced by their excommunication, and moved on to the southwest of France.

The Flemings and Brabanters were subject to different political forces over time. Henry II, for instance, ordered the expulsion of Flemings from England because Flemish mercenaries led by William of Ypres had fought against him. Brabanters, meanwhile, continued as troops of the English kings at least up to the reign of Richard the Lionheart, even though it was Brabanters who had taken part in putting down Richard’s rebellion against his father Henry II. Roger de Hoveden, who died around 1201, wrote that Henry “had with him 20,000 Brabanters who served him faithfully, but not without the great pay which he gave them.”[3] It is not clear if this refers to Henry taking on some Brabanter mercenaries, as well as the Brabanters who were normally part of his army, or that he just paid his Brabanters well.

In 1173 Henry II of England used his army of Brabanters to put down uprisings in Normandy and Brittany. Later Richard the Lionheart also employed Brabanters. Mercadier, a leader of the Brabanters, declared after Richard’s death that, “I fought for him strenuously and loyally. I never opposed his will, but was prompt in obedience to his orders.”[4]

According to E.C. Llewellyn, Henry II usually reserved his Brabanter mercenaries for use in France.[5] When there was a rebellion in England, the Brabanters successfully defended an attack on Dunwich, but some opposing Flemings under Earl Bigod took Norwich. When hostilities ceased, those Flemish troops were permitted to leave Britain peacefully. Three thousand other Flemings serving under the Earl of Leicester in the south of England fared less well. The local peasantry was so incensed by their cruelty and looting that they rose up against them, and very few of that group of Fleming mercenaries escaped alive.

The Brabanters and Scotland

As is well known to readers of this blog, King David I brought Freskin to Scotland, who, among other things, helped establish burghs and castles along the Moray Firth, e.g. at Boharm and Duffus. There are concentrations of Brabanters, and notably Brebners/Bremners, in a number of the places where castles had been built by Freskin. Other variants of Brabant origin names found in Scotland (and other parts of Britain), are set out in the box below.

Variants on Brabant Origin Surnames

Brebner, Bremner, Bremmer, Brembre, Brabner, Brimer, Brymner, Brymer, Brabham, Brabazon, Brabancon.

King David’s span of control in due course extended as far north as Caithness, where many Brebners/Bremners reportedly settled. One estimate suggests that even relatively recently as much as 60-70% of Brebner/Bremners in Scotland were located in Caithness. Why there was such a concentration in Caithness is not known. One possibility, favoured by this author, is that a force of Brabanters may have been deliberately stationed there to guard against further Viking incursions. Many Brabanters may have subsequently settled in the region, perhaps eventually becoming, or being joined by, weavers from Brabant. Note that the ancient Scots word for weaver is “Braboner”. Place name evidence also supports the settlement of Brabant origin peoples in Caithness: there are villages named Brabster and Brabstermire in the county.

Whereas the early Brabanters were concentrated in the far north of Scotland, there were concentrations of early Flemings in the Moray Firth area and in the Lanark/Clydesdale area. Both sets of ancestors would have come over with William the Conqueror.

In subsequent periods both Flemings and Brabanters came to Scotland, bringing with them skills as weavers. The Flemings came in larger numbers. Often they came with the encouragement of the authorities of the day, who wished to see a skills transfer to the local population.

Over time other groups of Flemings and, to a lesser extent, Brabanters became assimilated through trade into places on the east coast like Berwick, Edinburgh, St Andrews, Perth, and Aberdeen.

Some References to Brabanters in the Historical Record

Throughout the later Middle Ages there are references to people with Brabanter origin names. One, William Brembre, a grocer, became Lord Mayor of London. He was not a likeable man, executing twenty-six prisoners at Newgate Prison, for example, and probably murdering enemies of his. He was eventually tried and executed for his crimes.

There are other, less well known, Brabanters who appear in historical records. For instance, in 1489 Agnus Brebner of Elgin witnessed a document, and in 1507 an Andrew Brebnere was admitted as a burgess of Aberdeen. In 1508 Johne Brabner “in Cottishill was summoned, warned and charged to appear before the Sheriff of Aberdeen along with Jonet Funzeis in the Newtown of Brux, and Waltir Bothill in Unerdrummelouche to answer a charge of stealing a cow valued at 28 shillings from Marioun Moises”.[6] William Brabner was a quhytfischer (whitefisher: not herring or salmon) in Futtie (near Aberdeen) in 1601.

In more recent times records show that John Brebner of Corskie was the grandfather of William Brebner (1713-1801), who acquired the Barony of Learney in 1747. William’s son Alexander (c.25th June 1753) became Lord Provost of Aberdeen.


In summary, Brabanters and Flemings had much in common. Much of their early history was a shared one. Both were enterprising peoples who were traders and artisans. William’s invasion of Britain was the entry point for soldiers from both Flanders and Brabant. Both peoples were a significant source of mercenaries in the medieval period, but Brabanters were often the fighters of choice as pikemen and infantry.

The two peoples were also different in some ways. The Flemings were not always welcome in England or Scotland and were forced out at various times. The Brabanters, who had less of a presence in Britain, appear to have been less subject to the whims of the rulers of the day. The Flemings, interestingly, fought both with and against the Brabanters at various times.

Regarding Scotland, the Brabanters and Flemings settled in different parts of the country. The Brabanters settled primarily in the far north (Caithness) while the Flemings settled mainly in the border areas and along the east coast, as far north as the Moray Firth.

The trading relationship between Scotland and Flanders appears to have been more robust in medieval times than it was with Brabant, as was specifically the wool trade and the weaving relationship.

John Brebner
April 2015

Dr John Brebner has a long-standing interest in the history of the Brabant people and has done extensive research on the topic. He is a psychologist by training and lectured at Queen’s College, St Andrews (which became Dundee University in 1966), then at the University of Adelaide from 1969 to 2004. He was Dean of Arts at Adelaide in the late 1980s. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at Wolfson College, Oxford. Dr Brebner has published widely in psychology journals.


[1] Wikipedia. Various quotes from text dealing with the history of Brabant.
[3] Roger de Hoveden, History of England, vol. 1 (London, 1853).
[4] The quotation is from Michael Prestwich, Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages: The English Experience (New Haven, 1999).
[5] E. C. Llewellyn, ‘The Influence of Low Dutch on the English Vocabulary’:
[6] Sheriff Records of Aberdeenshire, published by the New Spalding Club.

One reply to "Brabant and the Brabanters"

  • Alexander Stevenson
    Alexander Stevenson
    Wednesday 20 May 2015, 6.18pm

    The duchy of Brabant was not created until 1183, whereas Brabantine mercenaries were most prominent in the 1160s and 1170s. At that time Brabant itself was a minor county to the west of Brussels (first noted in the ninth century as the ‘pagus Bracbatensis’ – the district of Brabant). Most of these mercenaries cannot have been natives of so small a territory. Instead, this is probably best understood as a generic term for mercenaries of Germanic origin. A letter of the mid-1160s from the abbot of Cluny to the king of France refers to “German [mercenaries], who are called ‘Brabantiones’…” (Recueil des historiens des Gaules et de la France, vol. 16, p.181). What are now NW Germany, the Nertherlands, plus Belgium and France east of the Scheldt were all allocated to the short-lived kingdom of Lotharingia, after the break-up of the Carolingian Empire in 843. That in turn split. The northern part was known in Latin as Lotharingia Inferior (Lower Lotharingia), but the name by which it was commonly known would have been different. Latterly, the entire area of the duchy of Lower Lotharingia may loosely have been termed Brabant. The later dukes of Lower Lotharingia came from the House of Brabant, and the first duke of Brabant took that title while his father was still alive. Thereafter the term Brabant came to be confined to the territories under direct rule of the duke of Brabant – the margravate of Antwerp, county of Leuven, lordship of Mechelen and landgravate of Brabant. Until then it probably had a much wider application. So the ancestors of the Bremners of Caithness may not have come from the area covered by your map, but from the Netherlands or the Rhineland.

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