Sunday, August 1, 2010

Belgium: Center of Europe

Everyone today knows that Belgium is "cockpit of Europe", the center of power, the headquarters of the European Union and the NATO alliance. What is not always realized is that this is nothing new, throughout the historie of western civilization Belgium has been at the center of power and a place where decisions were made that impacted peoples all across the continent and in some cases all around the world. The first great ruler in Western Europe after the fall of Rome was the Emperor Charlemagne, king of the Franks, who the Pope made the new western Emperor. He built his cathedral at Aix-la-Chapelle and kept his favorite residence there and when he was not out fighting barbarians (which was most of the time) he liked staying in Aix-la-Chapelle. Today this is just inside the border of Germany (Aachen) but for most of the history of Europe this area was considered to be part of Belgium, not on the very edge of Germany, but the heart of the Franco-German empire of Charlemagne that covered western Europe. Aix-la-Chapelle was long considered part of the diocese of the bishop of Liege whose territory even considered Emperor Charlemagne a saint. For many years this was the most important and central city to the Holy Roman Emperors.
For many, many years, especially in the 16th Century but some time before and long after, the city of Antwerp was the most important center of commerce probably in the world. No other city in Europe was as central to the economy of the whole continent as Antwerp was. This was because of its central and strategic location which is also why in earlier years King Edward III of England made his base there during the Hundred Years War and the famous Crusader and first King of Jerusalem, Godfrey de Bouillon (who has been blogged about) was also having the title of Marquis of Antwerp. When ships from all over Europe but especially the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish ships but also French, English, Nordic and their Italian navigators in many cases were all going out to explore the oceans and discover the unknown parts of the world Antwerp was most often the home base and Antwerp then became the most important city for international global trade as French ships with furs from Canada, Dutch ships with rum from the Caribbean Sea and Portuguese ships with spice from the Far East and others brought their ships to Antwerp.
Finally of course there is Brussels which was a major center of power in Europe long before there was an EU or even a Kingdom of Belgium. The Dukes of Lower-Lorraine first started developing Brussels in the late 900's. After Margaret III of Flanders married the Bold Duke Philippe of Burgundy the houses of Valois and Hapsburg began to come together and because of that Brussels became the capital city of the whole region considered the Low Countries. The future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was first proclaimed King Carlos I of Spain in Brussels and the city was the central hub in the Spanish-Austrian-Hapsburg empire that stretched all across Europe and even to the Americas. The palace at Coudenberg was where Charles V finally abdicated and, because of its location at the heart of Europe and because of the importance of the Flemish ports Brussels really was the unofficial first city of the continent and was certainly so during the era of Hapsburg rule.

Obviously, even when this began to change with the breaking away of the Dutch (so we have the Spanish Netherlands and Austrian Netherlands) Brussels was never going to be just another European city. After the French Revolutionary Wars when all the Low Countries were united under the Dutch House of Orange, in the Kingdom of the United Netherlands, Brussels, as the first city of Belgium, was to be the co-equal capital of the kingdom alongside Amsterdam. The intention was for Belgium and the Netherlands to be partners in the new kingdom but of course that did not work out and led to the Belgian Revolution eventually, which started in Brussels as well. However, the Prince of Orange (future King Willem II of the Netherlands) lived in Brussels, he had his son and heir there and was more sympathetic to the Belgians and more popular in the country than his father was.

The city of course became the capital of the first King of the Belgians, Leopold I, who tore down the city walls and started a new era of industrial buildup. Ever since the city has been on the cutting edge of advancement and, as most know, in 1949 became the headquarters of the NATO alliance against the forces of the communist Eastern bloc and as early as the 1960's was well on its way to becoming the capital of Europe with the first steps, starting economically, being taken toward what would become the European Union. I know a few people who would say that we have come from the Dark Ages to the new Dark Ages but, opinions aside, from all that time to this Belgium has been in the middle of things in the circles of power in Europe.
The Palace of Coudenberg favored by Emperor Charles V
Kings of the Belgians Royal Palace

1 comment: