Low Countries

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The Low Countries
The Low Countries as seen from space NasaBenelux.jpg
The Low Countries as seen from space

The European region known as the Low Countries or Lowlands (Dutch : de Lage Landen; French : les Pays-Bas), historically also known as the Netherlands (Dutch: de Nederlanden) or Belgica, is a coastal lowland region in Northwestern Europe forming the lower basin of the Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta and consisting today of the three modern "Benelux" countries: Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands – which English and French give the same name as the traditional regional name. Geographically and historically, the area also includes parts of France and Germany such as French Flanders and the German regions of East Frisia and Cleves. During the Middle Ages, the Low Countries were divided into numerous semi-independent principalities. [1] [2]


Historically, the regions without access to the sea linked themselves politically and economically to those with access to form various unions of ports and hinterland, [3] stretching inland as far as parts of the German Rhineland. Because of this, nowadays not only physically low-altitude areas, but also some hilly or elevated regions are considered part of the Low Countries, including Luxembourg and the south of Belgium. Within the European Union, the region's political grouping is still referred to as the Benelux (short for Belgium-Netherlands-Luxembourg).

During the Roman Empire, the region contained a militarised frontier and contact point between Rome and Germanic tribes. [4] With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Low Countries were the scene of the early independent trading centres that marked the reawakening of Europe in the 12th century. In that period, they rivalled northern Italy as one of the most densely populated regions of Western Europe. Guilds and councils governed most of the cities along with a figurehead ruler; interaction with their ruler was regulated by a strict set of rules describing what the latter could and could not expect. All of the regions mainly depended on trade, manufacturing and the encouragement of the free flow of goods and craftsmen. [5] Dutch and French dialects were the main languages used in secular city life.


The Low Countries from 1556 to 1648 The Low Countries.png
The Low Countries from 1556 to 1648
Southern part of the Low Countries with bishopry towns and abbeys c. 7th century Lage Landen (Frankische Tijd).svg
Southern part of the Low Countries with bishopry towns and abbeys c.7th century

Historically, the term Low Countries arose at the Court of the Dukes of Burgundy, who used the term les pays de par deçà ("the lands over here") for the Low Countries as opposed to les pays de par delà ("the lands over there") for the Duchy of Burgundy and the Free County of Burgundy, which were part of their realm but geographically disconnected from the Low Countries. [6] [7] Governor Mary of Hungary used both the expressions les pays de par deça and Pays d'Embas ("lands down here"), which evolved to Pays-Bas or Low Countries. Today the term is typically fitted to modern political boundaries [8] [9] and used in the same way as the term Benelux .

The name of the country of the Netherlands has the same etymology and origin as the name for the region Low Countries, due to "nether" meaning "low". [10] In the Dutch language itself De Lage Landen is the modern term for Low Countries, and De Nederlanden (plural) is in use for the 16th century domains of Charles V, the historic Low Countries, while Nederland (singular) is the normal Dutch name for the country of the Netherlands. However, in official use, the name of the Dutch kingdom is still Kingdom of the Netherlands, Koninkrijk der Nederlanden (plural). This name derives from the 19th-century origins of the kingdom which originally included present-day Belgium.

In Dutch, and to a lesser extent in English, the Low Countries colloquially means the Netherlands and Belgium, sometimes the Netherlands and Flanders—the Dutch-speaking north of Belgium. For example, a Low Countries derby (Derby der Lage Landen), is a sports event between Belgium and the Netherlands.

Belgium separated in 1830 from the (northern) Netherlands. The new country took its name from Belgica, the Latinised name for the Low Countries, as it was known during the Eighty Years' War (1568–1648). The Low Countries were in that war divided in two parts. On one hand, the northern Federated Netherlands or Belgica Foederata rebelled against King Philip II of Spain; on the other, the southern Royal Netherlands or Belgica Regia remained loyal to the Spanish king. [11] This divide laid the early foundation for the later modern states of Belgium and the Netherlands.


History of the Low Countries
Frisii Belgae
Gallia Belgica (55 BC–c.5th AD)
Germania Inferior (83–c.5th)
Salian Franks Batavi
Saxons Salian Franks
Frisian Kingdom
Frankish Kingdom (481–843)Carolingian Empire (800–843)
Austrasia (511–687)
Middle Francia (843–855) West

Kingdom of Lotharingia (855– 959)
Duchy of Lower Lorraine (959–)

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County of

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Bishopric of

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Duchy of

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Duchy of

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County of

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County of

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County of

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of Liège

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Duchy of

  Flag of the Low Countries.svg
Burgundian Netherlands (1384–1482)
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Habsburg Netherlands (1482–1795)
(Seventeen Provinces after 1543)
Dutch Republic
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Spanish Netherlands
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Austrian Netherlands
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United States of Belgium
R. Liège
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Batavian Republic (1795–1806)
Kingdom of Holland (1806–1810)
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associated with French First Republic (1795–1804)
part of First French Empire (1804–1815)
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Princip. of the Netherlands (1813–1815)
Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815–1830) Flag of Luxembourg.svg
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Kingdom of the Netherlands (1839–)
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Kingdom of Belgium (1830–)
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Gr D. of


The region politically had its origins in the Carolingian empire; more precisely, most of the people were within the Duchy of Lower Lotharingia. [12] [13] After the disintegration of Lower Lotharingia, the Low Countries were brought under the rule of various lordships until they came to be in the hands of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy. Hence, a large part of the Low Countries came to be referred to as the Burgundian Netherlands. After the reign of the Valois Dukes ended, much of the Low Countries were controlled by the House of Habsburg. This area was referred to as the Habsburg Netherlands, which was also called the Seventeen Provinces up to 1581. Even after the political secession of the autonomous Dutch Republic (or "United Provinces") in the north, the term "Low Countries" continued to be used to refer collectively to the region. The region was temporarily united politically between 1815 and 1839, as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, before this split into the three modern countries of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Early history

The Low Countries were part of the Roman provinces of Gallia Belgica and Germania Inferior. They were inhabited by Belgic and Germanic tribes. In the 4th and 5th century, Frankish tribes had entered this Roman region and came to run it increasingly independently. They came to be ruled by the Merovingian dynasty, under which dynasty the southern part (below the Rhine) was re-Christianised.

Frankish empire

By the end of the 8th century, the Low Countries formed a core part of a much expanded Francia and the Merovingians were replaced by the Carolingian dynasty. [14] In 800, the Pope crowned and appointed Charlemagne Emperor of the re-established Roman Empire.

After the death of Charlemagne, Francia was divided in three parts among his three grandsons. [15] The middle slice, Middle Francia, was ruled by Lothair I, and thereby also came to be referred to as "Lotharingia" or "Lorraine". Apart from the original coastal County of Flanders, which was within West Francia, the rest of the Low Countries were within the lowland part of this, "Lower Lorraine".

After the death of Lothair, the Low Countries were coveted by the rulers of both West Francia and East Francia. Each tried to swallow the region and to merge it with their spheres of influence. Thus, the Low Countries consisted of fiefs whose sovereignty resided with either the Kingdom of France or the Holy Roman Empire. While the further history the Low Countries can be seen as the object of a continual struggle between these two powers, the title of Duke of Lothier was coveted in the low countries for centuries. [16]

Duchy of Burgundy

In the 14th and 15th century, separate fiefs came gradually to be ruled by a single family through royal intermarriage. This process culminated in the rule of the House of Valois, who were the rulers of the Duchy of Burgundy. At the height of Burgundian influence, the Low Countries became the political, cultural, and economic centre of Northern Europe, noted for its crafts and luxury goods, notably early Netherlandish painting, which is the work of artists who were active in the flourishing cities of Bruges, Ghent, Mechelen, Leuven, Tournai and Brussels, all in present-day Belgium. Musicians of the Franco-Flemish School were highly sought by the leading classes of all Europe.

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, National Gallery, London Van Eyck - Arnolfini Portrait.jpg
Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait , 1434, National Gallery, London

Seventeen Provinces

In 1477 the Burgundian holdings in the area passed through an heiress—Mary of Burgundy—to the Habsburgs. Charles V, who inherited the territory in 1506, was named ruler by the States General and styled himself as Heer der Nederlanden (lit.'Lord of the Netherlands'). He continued to rule the territories as a multitude of duchies and principalities until the Low Countries were eventually united into one indivisible territory, the Seventeen Provinces, covered by the Pragmatic Sanction of 1549, [17] while retaining existing customs, laws, and forms of government within the provinces. [18]

The Pragmatic Sanction transformed the agglomeration of lands into a unified entity, of which the Habsburgs would be the heirs. By streamlining the succession law in all Seventeen Provinces and declaring that all of them would be inherited by one heir, Charles effectively united the Netherlands as one entity. After Charles' abdication in 1555, the Seventeen Provinces passed to his son, Philip II of Spain. [19]


The Pragmatic Sanction is said to be one example of the Habsburg contest with particularism that contributed to the Dutch Revolt. Each of the provinces had its own laws, customs and political practices. The new policy, imposed from the outside, angered many inhabitants, who viewed their provinces as distinct entities. It and other monarchical acts, such as the creation of bishoprics and promulgation of laws against heresy, stoked resentments, which fired the eruption of the Dutch Revolt. [20]

After the northern Seven United Provinces of the seventeen declared their independence from Habsburg Spain in 1581, the ten provinces of the Southern Netherlands remained occupied by the Army of Flanders under Spanish service and are therefore sometimes called the Spanish Netherlands. In 1713, under the Treaty of Utrecht following the War of the Spanish Succession, what was left of the Spanish Netherlands was ceded to Austria and thus became known as the Austrian Netherlands.

Late Modern Period

The United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815–1830) temporarily united the Low Countries again before it split into the three modern countries of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.

During the early months of World War I (around 1914), the Central Powers invaded the Low Countries of Luxembourg and Belgium in what has been come to be known as the German invasion of Belgium. It led to the German occupation of the two countries. However, the German advance into France was quickly halted, causing a military stalemate for most of the war. In the end, a total of approximately 56,000 people were killed in the invasion. [21]

During World War II, when Adolf Hitler's gaze turned his strategy west toward France, the Low Countries were an easy route around the imposing French Maginot Line. He ordered a conquest of the Low Countries with the shortest possible notice, to forestall the French, and prevent Allied air power from threatening the strategic Ruhr Area [ vague ] of Germany. [22] It would also provide the basis for a long-term air and sea campaign against Britain. As much as possible of the border areas in northern France should be occupied. [23] Germany's Blitzkrieg tactics rapidly overpowered the defences of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

All three countries were occupied from May 1940 until early 1945. During the occupation, their governments were forced into exiled in Britain. In 1944, they signed the London Customs Convention, laying the foundation for the eventual Benelux Economic Union, [24] an important forerunner of the EEC (later the EU). [25]


One of the Low Countries' earliest literary figures is the blind poet Bernlef, from c.800, who sang both Christian psalms and pagan verses. Bernlef is representative of the coexistence of Christianity and Germanic polytheism in this time period. [26] :1–2

The earliest examples of written literature include the Wachtendonck Psalms, a collection of twenty five psalms that originated in the Moselle-Frankish region around the middle of the 9th century. [26] :3

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Seventeen Provinces</span> Union of states in the Netherlands in the 15th and 16th centuries

The Seventeen Provinces were the Imperial states of the Habsburg Netherlands in the 16th century. They roughly covered the Low Countries, i.e., what is now the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and most of the French departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais (Artois). Also within this area were semi-independent fiefdoms, mainly ecclesiastical ones, such as Liège, Cambrai and Stavelot-Malmedy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Southern Netherlands</span> Historical region in Belgium

The Southern Netherlands, also called the Catholic Netherlands, were the parts of the Low Countries belonging to the Holy Roman Empire which were at first largely controlled by Habsburg Spain and later by the Austrian Habsburgs until occupied and annexed by Revolutionary France (1794–1815).

The Pragmatic Sanction of 1549 was an edict, promulgated by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, reorganising the Seventeen Provinces of the present-day Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg into one indivisible territory, while retaining existing customs, laws, and forms of government within the provinces.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Eighty Years' War</span> War in the Habsburg Netherlands (c. 1566/1568–1648)

The Eighty Years' War or Dutch Revolt was an armed conflict in the Habsburg Netherlands between disparate groups of rebels and the Spanish government. The causes of the war included the Reformation, centralisation, excessive taxation, and the rights and privileges of the Dutch nobility and cities.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">County of Holland</span> Former State of the Holy Roman Empire and part of the Habsburg Netherlands (1091–1795)

The County of Holland was a state of the Holy Roman Empire and from 1433 part of the Burgundian Netherlands, from 1482 part of the Habsburg Netherlands and from 1581 onward the leading province of the Dutch Republic, of which it remained a part until the Batavian Revolution in 1795. The territory of the County of Holland corresponds roughly with the current provinces of North Holland and South Holland in the Netherlands.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">County of Artois</span> Historic province of the Kingdom of France

The County of Artois was a historic province of the Kingdom of France, held by the Dukes of Burgundy from 1384 until 1477/82, and a state of the Holy Roman Empire from 1493 until 1659.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Burgundian Netherlands</span> The Netherlands from 1384 to 1482

In the history of the Low Countries, the Burgundian Netherlands or the Burgundian Age is the period between 1384 and 1482, during which a growing part of the Low Countries was ruled by the Dukes of Burgundy. Within their Burgundian State, which itself belonged partly to the Holy Roman Empire and partly to the Kingdom of France, the dukes united these lowlands into a political union that went beyond a personal union as it gained central institutions for the first time.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Spanish Netherlands</span> Historical region of the Low Countries (1556–1714)

Spanish Netherlands was the Habsburg Netherlands ruled by the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs from 1556 to 1714. They were a collection of States of the Holy Roman Empire in the Low Countries held in personal union by the Spanish Crown. This region comprised most of the modern states of Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as parts of northern France, the southern Netherlands, and western Germany with the capital being Brussels. The Army of Flanders was given the task of defending the territory.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Duchy of Limburg</span> Duchy of the Low Countries (1065–1795)

The Duchy of Limburg or Limbourg was an imperial estate of the Holy Roman Empire. Much of the area of the duchy is today located within Liège Province of Belgium, with a small portion in the municipality of Voeren, an exclave of the neighbouring Limburg Province. Its chief town was Limbourg-sur-Vesdre, in today's Liège Province.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Burgundian Circle</span> Imperial circle of the Holy Roman Empire

The Burgundian Circle was an Imperial Circle of the Holy Roman Empire created in 1512 and significantly enlarged in 1548. In addition to the Free County of Burgundy, the Burgundian Circle roughly covered the Low Countries, i.e., the areas now known as the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg and adjacent parts in the French administrative region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais. For most of its history, its lands were coterminous with the holdings of the Spanish Habsburgs in the Empire.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Duchy of Brabant</span> 1183–1794 northwestern state of the Holy Roman Empire

The Duchy of Brabant, a state of the Holy Roman Empire, was established in 1183. It developed from the Landgraviate of Brabant of 1085–1183, and formed the heart of the historic Low Countries. The Duchy comprised part of the Burgundian Netherlands from 1430 and of the Habsburg Netherlands from 1482, until it was partitioned after the Dutch revolt of 1566–1648.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Terminology of the Low Countries</span>

The Low Countries comprise the coastal Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta region in Western Europe, whose definition usually includes the modern countries of Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. Both Belgium and the Netherlands derived their names from earlier names for the region, due to nether meaning "low" and Belgica being the Latinized name for all the Low Countries, a nomenclature that became obsolete after Belgium's secession in 1830.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Duchy of Luxembourg</span> 1353–1797 state of the Holy Roman Empire

The Duchy of Luxembourg was a state of the Holy Roman Empire, the ancestral homeland of the noble House of Luxembourg. The House of Luxembourg became one of the most important political forces in the 14th century, competing against the House of Habsburg for supremacy in Central Europe. They would be the heirs to the Přemyslid dynasty in the Kingdom of Bohemia, succeeding the Kingdom of Hungary and contributing four Holy Roman Emperors until their own line of male heirs came to an end and the House of Habsburg received the territories that the two Houses had originally agreed upon in the Treaty of Brünn in 1364.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Habsburg Netherlands</span> Entire period of Habsburg rule in the Low Countries (1482-1797)

Habsburg Netherlands was the Renaissance period fiefs in the Low Countries held by the Holy Roman Empire's House of Habsburg. The rule began in 1482, when the last Valois-Burgundy ruler of the Netherlands, Mary, wife of Maximilian I of Austria, died. Their grandson, Emperor Charles V, was born in the Habsburg Netherlands and made Brussels one of his capitals.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Burgundian inheritance in the Low Countries</span>

The Burgundian inheritance in the Low Countries consisted of numerous fiefs held by the Dukes of Burgundy in modern-day Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and in parts of France and Germany. The duke of Burgundy was originally a member of the House of Valois-Burgundy and later of the House of Habsburg. Given that the dukes of Burgundy lost Burgundy proper to the Kingdom of France in 1477, and were never able to recover it, while retaining Charolais and the Free County of Burgundy, they moved their court to the Low Countries. The Burgundian Low Countries were ultimately expanded to include Seventeen Provinces under Emperor Charles V. The Burgundian inheritance then passed to the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs under King Philip II of Spain, whose rule was contested by the Dutch revolt, and fragmented into the Spanish Netherlands and the Dutch republic. Following the War of the Spanish succession, the Spanish Netherlands passed to Austria and remained in Austrian hands until the French conquest of the late 18th century. The Bourbon Restoration did not re-establish the Burgundian states, with the former Burgundian territories remaining divided between France, the Netherlands and, following the Belgian Revolution, modern-day Belgium.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">County of Flanders</span> Historical territory in present-day Belgium, France, and the Netherlands

The County of Flanders was one of the most powerful political entities in the medieval Low Countries, located on the North Sea coast of what is now Belgium. Unlike its neighbours such as the counties of Brabant and Hainaut, it was within the territory of the Kingdom of France. The counts of Flanders held the most northerly part of the kingdom, and were among the original twelve peers of France. For centuries, the economic activity of the Flemish cities such as Ghent, Bruges and Ypres made Flanders one of the most affluent regions in Europe, and also gave them strong international connections to trading partners.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Burgundian State</span> Territories of the Dukes of Burgundy

The Burgundian State is a concept coined by historians to describe the vast complex of territories that is also referred to as Valois Burgundy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pan-Netherlands</span> Irredentist concept which aims to unite the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg

Pan-Netherlands, sometimes translated as Whole-Netherlands, is an irredentist concept which aims to unite the Low Countries into a single state. It is an example of Pan-Nationalism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gewest</span> Historical regional subdivision of the Netherlands

Gewest is a Dutch term often translated as "region". It was used to describe the various different polities making up the Low Countries, which covered what is now the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of northern France, until the annexation by France in the late 18th century. The term is now mostly associated with the official titles of the constituent states of Belgium.

The origins of the Eighty Years' War are complicated, and have been a source of disputes amongst historians for centuries.



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