Belgium from Revolution to the War of the Sixth Coalition 1789-1814
By Dale Pappas
Belgium, known in the late 18th century as the Austrian or Southern Netherlands, was slowly creating the foundation of the modern Belgian state at the time of the French invasion of late 1792. The Belgians in 1789, encouraged in part by their French neighbors revolted against the unpopular reforms of Habsburg Emperor Joseph II, which led to the short-lived United Belgian States the following year. Although Austrian rule returned, it was also brief as Belgium by 1795 was annexed by France. During the roughly 20 year period of French rule, Belgium, just as it had been at the opening of the eighteenth century with the War of the Spanish Succession, became the battlefield of the great powers. This was renewed with the French victory over the Austrians at Jemappes in 1792 and culminated with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. French rule was not entirely ruinous for Belgium as it saw economic growth through the origins of the Industrial Revolution in the country including the revival of the port of Antwerp and innovations in the textile industry. Administrative reforms also provided a foundation for a centralized Belgian state. Few Belgians however, mourned the defeat of the French in 1814 as the demands of the Grande Armée, including conscription as well as Napoleon’s policies regarding the Catholic Church were taxing and unpopular. The Congress of Vienna brought Belgium under Dutch rule, though within roughly fifteen years, the Belgians gained independence and established a constitutional monarchy under King Leopold I.
Revolution in Belgium 1789-1790
The Habsburgs received the ten provinces of the former Spanish Netherlands as a result of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which concluded the War of the Spanish Succession. During the reign of Empress Maria Theresa (1740-1780) the economy of the Austrian Netherlands experienced considerable growth and the local administration and the Catholic Church enjoyed numerous privileges. The provinces received autonomy in return for higher taxes through a 14th century charter known as the Joyous Entry that was recognized by the Austrian rulers. At the time of Emperor Joseph II’s accession, the Austrian Netherlands constituted the most prosperous part of the vast Habsburg Empire. Joseph however, was determined to implement sweeping reforms in the areas of administration and the privileges of the Catholic Church which were immediately challenged in the Austrian Netherlands and other vital areas of the empire including Hungary.
The opposition to the reforms regarding the Catholic Church escalated when all of the monasteries, seminaries, and schools training seminarians in the Austrian Netherlands were closed in favor of a General Seminary in Leuven in 1786. This institution was naturally designed to educate all seminarians according to the principles championed by of the emperor, ideas which were unpopular to begin with in the eyes of the bishops of the Austrian Netherlands.
Widespread riots erupted in the provinces of Hainault, Brabant, and later in Flanders over the course of 1787 in response to reforms in the area of the administration which became known as the “Small Revolution.” Brabant called upon a Brussels lawyer, Hendrik van der Noot to defend the autonomy of the province. Van der Noot led what was known as the Statist opposition to Joseph II, whose supporters sought to revoke the reforms that challenged the established privileges enjoyed by the respective provinces including Brabant as well as the influence of the Catholic Church. The emperor did in fact revoke the decrees eliminating the privileges outlined in the Joyous Entry but not those pertaining to the Church. Nevertheless, Joseph ordered the army to restore order throughout the Austrian Netherlands and a number of Belgians remained openly hostile to the government, including the faculty of the University of Leuven.
In the aftermath, Joseph treated the Austrian Netherlands as more of a captured province than the most prosperous and valued part of his empire. Shortly after he agreed to preserve the Joyous Entry, Joseph scolded the Estates of Brabant, “I do not need your consent for doing good,” he wrote. The Belgian press soon compared him to virtually every tyrant from Caligula to Cromwell. Indeed Joseph cracked down on opposition, forcing van der Noot to escape arrest just across the border in Breda in the United Provinces where he and the Statists continued to pursue Belgian independence.
Although a full-scale revolt had been averted in 1787, several groups continued to plot against Austrian rule including the Statists and the secret society known as “Pro Aris et Focis” (“For Altar and Hearth”) led by lawyers J.F. Vonck and J.B.C. Verlooy. The latter, who also became known as democrats or Vonckists sought to organize an armed uprising to drive the Austrians out in 1789 which was supported by Church leaders, who declared the emperor a heretic in June. Although the Statists ultimately desired to achieve Belgian independence, their primary concern was protecting the privileges of the provinces and the Catholic Church as opposed to the eventual plan of the Vonckists which called for a popular government along the lines of revolutionary France. For the moment however, these groups constituted an uneasy alliance and maintained a national liberation army commanded by J.A. Vandermeersch. In October 1789 the uprising began when Joseph’s reign was declared at an end from the steps of the city hall in Hoogstraten. Shortly thereafter, the Austrian army was defeated at Turnhout and Ghent. Earlier in the year the Prince-Bishop of the neighboring independent member state of the Holy Roman Empire, the Bishopric of Liège was driven out in a successful rebellion. By the close of 1789, Brussels had fallen to the rebels and the Austrians were effectively driven out of what became known as Belgium, as only the German-speaking province of Luxembourg remained under Austrian rule.
In the aftermath of the revolt, the States-General of the former Austrian Netherlands was convened for the first time since the 17th century. In January 1790 under the direction of its secretary, an Antwerp priest and Statist leader named Pierre van Eupen the body passed the Act of Union, which created the United States of Belgium. This was the first time the state had ever formally been recognized as “Belgium.” The union however, proved as short-lived as the reprieve from Austrian rule, due to the struggle for control of the government between the Statists and the Vonckists. Van der Noot and the Catholic Church successfully excluded Vonckists from the government and convinced the majority of the population, which was strongly Catholic, that the Vonckists were allies with the godless French revolutionaries. In response, armed bands scoured Belgium in search of Vonckists in a bloody event known as the Summer Terror, which forced a number of leading democrats including Vonck into exile in France.
In addition to the political struggle, the Belgian army was defeated in a campaign to seize Luxembourg from the Austrians. The Statists continued to argue that foreign aid would help Belgium sustain its independence. However, none was forthcoming as in July 1790 representatives of Britain, Prussia, and the United Provinces reached an agreement at Reichenbach that affirmed the Austrian restoration of Belgium so long as the Austrians recognized the traditional privileges of the provinces. The new Austrian emperor, Leopold II agreed to restore the Joyous Entry and the conditions for the Austrian restoration were outlined in the convention of The Hague in December 1790. Thus, the Belgian defeat in Luxembourg, the debilitating political struggle between the Statists and Vonckists, and the international agreements at Reichenbach and The Hague allowed for a return of Habsburg rule in Belgium only a year after the last of the Austrian troops evacuated Brussels.
French Occupation and Austrian Restoration 1792-1793
In April 1792 France declared war on Austria, thus initiating the conflict that gave the French Revolution its first victories over the armies of the ancien régime arrayed against it, which later included in addition to Austria and Prussia, Britain, Spain, and the United Provinces among others. According to Patricia Chastain Howe, the French choice for war in 1792 was deeply influenced by a desire to liberate the ten Belgian provinces and the Bishopric of Liège and unite them in a democratic republic in what she labeled the “Belgian Plan.” Charles-François du Périer Dumouriez and Pierre LeBrun, who both served at one point in their careers as French foreign ministers, were the visionaries of this Belgian republic. LeBrun played a pivotal role in the uprising in Liège and Dumouriez commanded the first French army to invade Belgium during the period in November 1792. Dumouriez considered himself a Walloon or French speaking native of the Belgian provinces as his family had ancestral ties to Flanders. French armies invaded Germany and Savoy, while Dumouriez and another French army, bolstered by Belgian émigrés, advanced into Belgium. General Dumouriez, fresh from the famous engagement with the Prussians at Valmy, routed an outnumbered Austrian force under Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen at Jemappes on 6 November. Brussels fell to the French after a brief action at Anderlecht the following week and once again the Austrians had been driven from Belgium.
Jemappes was a crucial victory for the French cause and not only because it enabled the successful invasion of the Belgian provinces. It was according to Simon Schama an event that at the time was arguably of greater importance than Valmy for French morale. Numerous prints celebrated the battle of Jemappes and a theatrical production of the same name was performed by a famous acting troupe that had been frequent performers at Versailles before the revolution.
Belgians for the most part were willing to support the French initially as opposed to the Austrians. French culture in many areas of Belgium gradually grew in importance over the course of the 18th century, particularly after the French army’s occupation during the War of Austrian Succession from 1745-1748. Support for France’s policies in Belgium was bolstered by the proposed opening of the Scheldt River by LeBrun, which connected the port of Antwerp to the sea in November 1792 for economic considerations. The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia upheld a Dutch blockade which crippled the economy of Antwerp and resulted in the rise of Amsterdam as the commercial center of the region. News of the opening of the Scheldt coupled with the French victory at Jemappes caused considerable alarm in Britain and the United Provinces and eventually contributed to the widening of the war against France.
The French quickly lost Belgian support however after issuing the Decree of 15 December, which eliminated all of the privileges enjoyed by the Belgian provinces and the Catholic Church under Austrian rule. These were the same privileges that van der Noot and the Statists defended in 1787 and that many Belgians fought to preserve in 1789. With the exception of the local Jacobins, Belgians were furious with the French action and sent numerous petitions to Paris and Dumouriez to revoke the decree. In an effort to prevent a counterrevolutionary victory, France annexed Belgium in February 1793. This backfired however as the following month, Dumouriez was defeated by the Austrians at Neerwinden and the Belgians made no effort to resist the Austrians. Instead, they destroyed French symbols including the liberty tree in the Grand Place in Brussels. Dumouriez fled to the Austrians and never held again held a field command in the service of any of the countries where he sought refuge. He died in England in 1823. LeBrun was executed during the Reign of Terror for the French failures in Belgium and Holland in 1793. France’s misfortunes in Belgium were quickly reversed though as victory in the battle of Fleurus in June 1794 drove the Austrians from Belgium for the last time.
French Annexation and Belgian Opposition 1794-1799
In the months following the victory at Fleurus, the French looted much of Belgium while exacting a considerable sum from the defeated Austrians. The widespread looting prompted Belgian landowners to request that France once again annex Belgium, which they did in October 1795. As a result of the annexation, the French established a lasting union of the former provinces of the Austrian Netherlands, the Bishopric of Liège, and the Duchy of Bouillon which had been separate entities for a thousand years.
Although the looting ceased, social conditions worsened for the Belgians as the French directly challenged several important institutions, including the Catholic Church and the Dutch language. The Church, which in the Habsburg era had been the largest landowner in Belgium, saw its property confiscated by French authorities. Clerical robes were forbidden in public as was the ringing of church bells. Crosses were also removed from churches and any monastic orders not tied to education were immediately disbanded. Priests were forced to take oaths of “hatred” against royalty which many refused and in turn faced deportation. In 1797, the University of Leuven was closed and its rector died in captivity in French Guiana.
Beginning in 1794, the French took measures to limit the public influence of the Dutch language spoken in Flanders while fostering the use of French throughout Belgium. At that point, all public proclamations across Belgium had to be published in French. The following year, Dutch was abolished as an official language of the government in Brabant and Flanders and Flemish newspapers were closed by the authorities. This process continued throughout the course of Napoleonic rule in Belgium. Although the Flemish population was concerned with the measures taken against their language, the introduction of conscription through the Law of 5 September 1798 caused the greatest opposition to the French administration.
The opposition to conscription in Flanders sparked the Peasants’ Revolt that began in the town of Overmere in October 1798. Eventually the rebellion spread to the German-speaking province of Luxembourg, though the nobility refrained from supporting the rebels throughout Belgium. Despite the lack of support from the nobles and the absence of foreign aid, the rebels besieged Leuven and a number of French garrisons, and even threatened Brussels. French troops however, crushed the rebellion with considerable reinforcements arriving from France. Retaliation from the French was swift and brutal as hundreds were shot or imprisoned in response to the rebellion. Although the French had ruthlessly suppressed the Belgian rebels, banditry presented another form of resistance to the regime though the brigands often targeted Flemish farmers and the French alike.
Napoleonic Belgium 1799-1814
The coup of Brumaire elicited little response from the Belgian population. Although the Belgians were considered French citizens and Belgium’s annexation recognized by European powers, particularly after the Treaty of Campo Formio between France and Austria in 1797, most Belgians were not interested in French politics. Furthermore, abstaining from political affairs including elections was utilized as a form of defiance among those who longed for Belgian independence. The rise of Napoleon however, dashed any hopes of another uprising against the French. Indeed, the Belgian leadership had been decimated by this point as Vonck died in France in 1792 while van der Noot was imprisoned by French authorities in 1796.
Since the French annexation of Belgium in 1795, the French government moved to implement a number of institutions and policies, including a universal tax system and the organization of the local administration into several departments. In comparison to the chaos that existed in the early months following the French victory at Fleurus, the administration by 1797 was quite efficient. Under Napoleon the Belgian departments continued to improve as the French sought to complete the political, social, and economic integration of Belgium into France. Indeed, one of the lasting legacies of Napoleonic rule in Belgium was the elimination of the diverse legal codes that existed in the various provinces in favor of the Code Napoleon. Napoleon also set out to win the loyalty of the old nobility, while adding new members to this class. A number of Belgian nobles served as officials and in some cases Napoleon restored property to gain the favor of the nobility.
As previously noted, French was the sole official language in Belgium under Napoleon. Knowledge of French was crucial to obtaining official positions as well as access to education. A number of lycées opened throughout Belgium and two medical schools were founded in Brussels and Ghent. A law school was also established in Brussels, though despite this attention to higher education, primary education was largely neglected.
French rule in this period also contributed to the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in Belgium. The port of Antwerp regained economic significance after port activity resumed in 1796. Antwerp was later fortified and became one of the empire’s leading ports. The mines of Hainault and Liège served as an important resource for the empire while the glass industry in Namur enjoyed success under the French. Liège also became the home of the fourth largest arms manufacturer in the empire. The textile industry in Ghent and Verviers boomed during the imperial years until the Peninsular War. These successful aspects of French administration resulted in the positive reception for Napoleon when he toured the Belgian departments in 1803.
Belgium’s situation regarding the Catholic Church changed little in the early years of the Consulate. However, the signing of a concordat between Napoleon and the Pope in 1801 allowed for the reversal of the French policies toward the Catholic Church that had been so unpopular in Belgium. Although the activities of the Church resumed, it clearly became a symbol of Napoleonic rule in Belgium rather than returning to its pre-French position. Napoleon reorganized the bishoprics there for the first time since the 16th century, and appointed several bishops loyal to the empire. The bishops and priests preached personal devotion to Napoleon as well as adherence to French policies including conscription.
Conscription, though unpopular as it was throughout much of the empire, was far more successful in Belgium during the Napoleonic Wars than in the 1790s. Between 1798 and 1813, the Belgian departments furnished over 200000 troops, about 6 percent of the population. Although the Belgians did not revolt in response to conscription during the Napoleonic Wars as they had in 1798, the years of war and mounting losses became sources of discontent.
Belgian opposition to the Napoleonic regime also stemmed from the decline of French power as a result of the unsuccessful campaigns in Russia and Spain and Napoleon’s policies regarding the Catholic Church. While the war-weary population was disheartened by staggering casualties, Napoleon’s campaigns also placed a tremendous strain on the Belgian economy. By 1813 the textile industry centered in Ghent and Verviers faced a severe crisis due to the Peninsular War which resulted in thousands losing their jobs. Despite the previous success of the textile industry, wages for the textile workers were low, which proved disastrous during that time as famine spread throughout Belgium while French power declined.
Several priests began to voice their discontent with Napoleon’s policies regarding the Catholic Church and the state of affairs in Belgium. Corneille Stevens of Namur wrote a number of anti-Napoleonic pamphlets following the exile of the Pope from Rome in 1809. Stevens and the bishops of Ghent and Tournai, De Broglie and Hirn, were imprisoned in response to their anti-French activities, which included calling for all to pray for Napoleon’s excommunication. French actions toward these church leaders caused widespread outrage in Belgium that was augmented by the Werbroeck affair. Joseph Werbroeck was the mayor of Antwerp and supporter of Napoleon who was removed from office and tried for fraud. Although he was acquitted, Napoleon ordered a retrial and Werbroeck died in prison before the conclusion of the trial. This incident further enraged the Belgian population and only strict censorship and policing by 1813 secured the Napoleonic regime in Belgium for the moment. This was short-lived, as by early 1814 the Allies had driven the French from Belgium with little resistance.
Although the majority of Belgians were not disappointed with France’ misfortunes during the War of the Sixth Coalition, those who had served the emperor in the campaigns of the Grande Armée were an exception. In fact, the first association of Grande Armée veterans to commemorate their exploits in the name of Napoleon was founded in Bruges in 1815. However the greater number of Belgians on the battlefield of Waterloo fought against Napoleon.
With the French driven from Belgium, many local officials and the Catholic Church desired a return of Austrian rule in hopes of having the traditional privileges restored. Metternich however, had abandoned the idea of restoring the Austrian Netherlands despite its past importance to Austria. Instead the Congress of Vienna confirmed the award of Belgium to the Kingdom of the Netherlands under King William I that had originally been granted by the 1814 Treaty of Paris. Economic conditions improved in the early years of Dutch rule and the clergy moved to restore their privileges from the Habsburg era. They reopened schools and supported the group of professors that urged the king to reopen the University of Leuven. The Protestant King William however, increasingly isolated the Catholic Belgian population, both Flemish and Walloon which eventually resulted in a revolution in 1830 that finally gave Belgium lasting independence. Although independence was achieved at this point and a constitutional monarchy established that exists to this day, forging a common national identity in a country with three official languages and distinct populations proved a considerable challenge.
Ultimately French rule over the course of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars eliminated the provincial autonomy of the former Austrian Netherlands and served as a key force in creating the modern Belgian state. Economic conditions improved with the exception of the final years of the Napoleonic Wars. The privileges enjoyed by the Catholic Church were also removed by the French though the influence of the Church remained a significant aspect of Belgian society. The duration of French rule established the French language as another dominant feature of society that would not be challenged by the Dutch speaking Flemish population until the mid-19th century.
Beales, Derek. Enlightenment and Reform in Eighteenth Century Europe. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.
Chadwick, Owen. The Popes and European Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Cook, Bernard A. Belgium: A History. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.
De Vries, André. Flanders: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Grab, Alexander. Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.
Howe, Patricia Chastain. Foreign Policy and the French Revolution: Charles-François Dumouriez, Pierre LeBrun, and the Belgian Plan, 1789-1793. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008.
Pawly, Ronald. Wellington’s Belgian Allies, 1815. Oxford: Osprey, 2002.
Rogiers, J. and N.C.F. van Sas. “Revolution in the North and South, 1780-1830” in, History of Low Countries, edited by J.C.H. Blom and E. Lamberts. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006 p. 275-318.
Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1989.
Grab, Alexander. Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003. p. 76.
Rogiers, J. and N.C.F. van Sas. “Revolution in the North and South, 1780-1830” in, History of Low Countries, edited by J.C.H. Blom and E. Lamberts. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006 p. 275-318. p. 291.
 Ibid; p. 292.
 Beales, Derek. Enlightenment and Reform in Eighteenth Century Europe. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005. p. 272-273.
 Howe, Patricia Chastain. Foreign Policy and the French Revolution: Charles-François Dumouriez, Pierre LeBrun, and the Belgian Plan, 1789-1793. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008. p. 28-29.
 Grab, Alexander. Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003. p. 77.
 Cook, Bernard A. Belgium: A History. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. p. 46.
Howe, Patricia Chastain. Foreign Policy and the French Revolution: Charles-François Dumouriez, Pierre LeBrun, and the Belgian Plan, 1789-1793. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008. p. 35.
Rogiers, J. and N.C.F. van Sas. “Revolution in the North and South, 1780-1830” in, History of Low Countries, edited by J.C.H. Blom and E. Lamberts. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006 p. 275-318. p. 295.
Howe, Patricia Chastain. Foreign Policy and the French Revolution: Charles-François Dumouriez, Pierre LeBrun, and the Belgian Plan, 1789-1793. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008. p. 1.
Ibid; p. 23.
Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1989. p. 642.
De Vries, André. Flanders: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. p. 10.
 Howe, Patricia Chastain. Foreign Policy and the French Revolution: Charles-François Dumouriez, Pierre LeBrun, and the Belgian Plan, 1789-1793. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008. p. 132.
 Grab, Alexander. Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003. p. 77.
 Cook, Bernard A. Belgium: A History. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. p. 49.
 Howe, Patricia Chastain. Foreign Policy and the French Revolution: Charles-François Dumouriez, Pierre LeBrun, and the Belgian Plan, 1789-1793. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008. p. 186.
Cook, Bernard A. Belgium: A History. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. p. 49-50.
Chadwick, Owen. The Popes and European Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. p. 477.
Ibid; p. 479.
De Vries, André. Flanders: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. p. 11.
Grab, Alexander. Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003. p. 81.
Rogiers, J. and N.C.F. van Sas. “Revolution in the North and South, 1780-1830” in, History of Low Countries, edited by J.C.H. Blom and E. Lamberts. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006 p. 275-318. p. 300.
Grab, Alexander. Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003. p. 82.
Ibid; p. 82.
 Grab, Alexander. Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003. p. 83.
Rogiers, J. and N.C.F. van Sas. “Revolution in the North and South, 1780-1830” in, History of Low Countries, edited by J.C.H. Blom and E. Lamberts. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006. p. 275-318. p. 302.
Pawly, Ronald. Wellington’s Belgian Allies, 1815. Oxford: Osprey, 2002. p. 22.
 Rogiers, J. and N.C.F. van Sas. “Revolution in the North and South, 1780-1830” in, History of Low Countries, edited by J.C.H. Blom and E. Lamberts. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006 p. 275-318. p. 303.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2012