Brabant emerging

Merovingian Brabant

During Roman and Carolingian times the lands to the south of the Rhine had been subjected to some form of unified administration. After the death of Charlemagne the Carolingian Empire collapsed. Brabant and Flanders profited from this collapse as they were able to grew into powerful regional powers. They were able to built on structures that had been developed during those previous period

Several of the Merovingian noblemen (Arnulfings and Pippins) from the Moselle Valley (Metz area) owned properties in the area that we now call Brabant, especially in the pagus Toxandria.

It looks more like it that they received these properties through their marriages with powerful Merovingian women such as Itta, Plectrudis and Alpahida. However, the exact relationship between these families and Brabant is still unclear.

At the same time, several clerical aristocrats who settled in our region came from France. These two streams of influence are going to shape the region for close to the next thousand years.

Pagus Bracbatensis

Modern Brabant started to obtain its place in history from that boarder position that was established at the Treaty of Verdun in 843. This created three regions: East Francia, West Francia and the Middle Kingdom (what became Lotharighia) squeezed in the middle. Ongoing infighting between the heirs of Carolingian Empire saw the Middle Kingdom became a play-ball of its two larger contenders. This on the one saw eventually the disappearance of the Middle Kingdom  but at the same time an increase in regional power as for  the two competing rulers the area largely remained an outpost. In all of this turmoil the ancient pagus Bracbatensis  became the border between the Middle Kingdom and West Francia.

The pagus was roughly bound to the north and the west by the river Escaut, in the south by the river Haine and to the east by the Silva Carbonaria – coal forest and the river Dijle.

Bishopric Cambrai
Bishopric Cambrai

It roughly equals the arch deaconate Brabant within the bishopric of Kamerijk (Cambrai) which in turn was part of the archbishopric of Liege. However, until the 11th century there were no independent land owners or nobles powerful enough to claim possession of this area. It simply is known as a geographic region on the border of Francia. The area was under imperial suzerainty. It was not until Charles the Bald  that we officially come across the name Brabant, it is mentioned for the first time at the Treaty of Meerssen in 870 – this treaty saw Lotharinghia being carved up between East and West Francia –  at that stage the pagus consisted already of four counties:

  • County of Brussel (historically named Ukkel) between the Zenne and Dijle. Around 1100 this came under the influence of the Counts of Leuven.
  • County of Ename (later on also called the County of Aalst) this was  the northern part of the pagus between the Scheldt and the Dender.
  • Landgraviate Brabant (names arrives around 1086), between Dender en Zenne.
  • The southern part of the pagus has been since the 11th century been part of the County of Henegouwen (Hainault) perhaps ruled from Chièvres.

They were further subdivided in doyennés [1. Vanderkindere. A (1902) La formation territoriale de principautés belges au moyen âge].  Vanderkindere used some different names but the counties are the same. The regions were:

Brabant and surrounding pagi


  • Brussels (Brucsella) – west of the river Dender (the name means large house – sali – in waterland – brôk)
  • Alost (Aalst) – east of the river Dender and the Maerke river in the north (doyennés : Alost, Grammont and Pamele)
  • Hal –  doyenné south of Brussels
  • Walloon Brabant – between the river Maerke in the north and the Haine (Hene) in the south: (doyennés: Chièvres, Lessines ands Saint-Brixe)

The historic importance of Brabant, throughout the ages, has always led to a strong historical awareness of the people linked to this region. This is also why Brabant became a valuable name and later dukes even abandoned their previous titles and links to territories such as Leuven and Lotharingia in favour of Brabant.

There are very early links between Holland Brabant and Flanders, the economic powerhouse of Northwest Europe at that time. It was in Brabantine town of Bladel that Dirk in 922, from the West Frankish King Charles III the Simple – received, as a reward for his assistance in putting down a revolt from some of his vassals – lands at Egmond (which lay just north of his possessions of Kinhem-Kennemerland Holland) to found an Abby. The foundation took place from the St Bavo Abbey in Ghent.

After various other treaties, wars and intrigues Lotharinghia was finally fully annexed by the East Francia King Henry the Fowler in 926. In order to protect their borders the rulers on both sides heavily depended on the regional powers and this group was able to become the leading forces in what was the old Lotharinghia.

By around the year 1000 Brabant would have had a population of around 40,000 people (roughly 20% of the total of the Low Countries).

Boarder protection

So also the official annexation didn’t stop these power struggles. In order to protect its boarders with an aggressive Flanders (part of West Francia), motte and bailey fortresses were established along the river Schelde by the first Holy Roman Emperor Otto II at Ename (950), Valenciennes (950) and Antwerp (985). These places were established as margraves.

The Counts of Flanders continuously challenged this boarder area. Valenciennes was the first to fall in 1006, Ghent in 1018, Ename in 1033 and Antwerp in 1055.

To indicate the leadership that Flanders was taken, merchants from Flanders were at that time already travelling Europe with reports of their activities coming from London, Genoa and Florence.

In the 11th and 12th century we see a real explosion in new villages, new castles and new large stone churches, catering for literally thousands of churchgoers.

Otto II most probably also asked the Bishop of Liège to extend his ecclesiastical influence further into this region, Otto offered the bishop in 980 property in Mechelen, to built here an abbey. The bishop was able to extend its power along the river Demer and around Brussels.

New aristocrat families were able to rise to power in these, from the emperor independent territories, namely the ‘van Grimbergen’ and the ‘van Aarschot’ and in the forest Waverwoud, which also stood under the control of bishop, the Berthouts family established its powerbase.


Aarschot, Rotselaar, Weselaar, Grimbergen, Schoonhoven

The counties of Duras, Grez and Aarschot developed in the 11th and 12th centuries in the area of the former county of Hesbaie, which then disappeared from the records.  Aarschot lies on the river Demer, 15 km north-east of Louvain/Leuven in the present-day Belgian province of Flemish Brabant. Godfried Count van Aarschot is reported as having sold the county of Aarschot to the duke of Brabant in 1172 to finance his participation in the Third Crusade.  Godefroi de Brabant, younger son of Henri III Duke of Brabant, is recorded as Lord van Aarschot in the late 13th century [1. Vanderkindere. A (1902) La formation territoriale de principautés belges au moyen âge].

Under Charles V’s Governess Queen Maria of Hungary, Filips van Croÿ. Lord of Aarschot became one of the most powerful nobles in the Low Countries when he became the Head of the Council of Finances. He already at that time was Governor of Hainault and later also of Luxembourg. However, to limit his power he had to quit his position as Governor of Luxembourg

Close to Aarschot was Land of Rotselaar home of the Lords of Rotsesaar another powerful family in the early years of the Duchy .

Another close by County was Weselaar, also this family became integrally involved in the politics of Brabant.

Shoonhoven on the Demer also produced a powerful family who had their seat of power in the County of the same name.

An 8th century fortress at the river Zenne, might have been built on the site of earlier Roman fortification. The Abbey of Grimbergen became an important centre of Christianity in the 12th century, at which time we also see the Berthout family appearing as the Lords of Grimbergen entering history. They led a range of wars (1139 – 1159) with their overlord Godfrey III of Leuven. From here on its history is linked with Brabant, however, the Lords remained a powerful noble family within the Duchy, as is evidence from the palace that still remains in Brussels as well as the various marriage arrangements.

All these families, intermarried and produced a range of senior people who held important positions under the various dukes.

Ename and Velzeke

Some historians trace the core of the pagus Bracbantensis back to the area around the old fortress of Ename on the western border of was what at time Lower Lotharingia.

Interestingly already in Roman times this region was of enough importance to host a Roman Military Camp under Quintus Tullius Cicero, brother of the famous orator, known as Velt-Ciceronis (modern day Velzeke). The winter camp was attacked by the Germanic tribe the Nervii in 54 during the Eburones revolt. Archaeological research has traced the camp back to Empire Augustus. The camp was situated on the above mentioned highway to Bavay. An important vicus established itself around this camp.

Re-enactment of the battle at Velt-Ciceronis

Velzeke and Ename are situated approx 30 kms apart.

Godfrey I of Verdun first margrave Ename

The German emperor Otto established the margrave Ename, with the exception of the territory around Brussels, in order to stop the expansion of the Count of Flanders. The Scheldt marked, since 925, the border between them. The emperor handed the management of the margrave to the noble family Ardennen or Verdun. Godfrey I of Verdun became the first margrave and also received in fief the St Martin church of Velzeke (possibly a crown domain) as well as the St Bavo domain in Wormene, just north of Velzeke. Velzeke itself might have be the main town of the late Carolingian gau Biest (later on this became known as the Land of Aalst).

Godfrey was married to Averada the daughter of Erverhard Saxo Meginharden of the County  Hamaland ( now Gelderland). After her death around 961 he married Mathildis of Saxon, daughter of Herman Billung and widow of Count Baldwin III of Flanders. Godfrey also had the nick name the Prisoner because of his imprisonment in west Francia between 985 and 987.

The Ename fortress was built around 975. We visited the site in 2007, however, the remnants of a typical hillfort (ringburgwal) are buried under the train bridge that crosses the Scheldt at this spot. During archaeological research just before the bridge was built they concluded that the site contained a square donjon, a surrounding rampart, a palace compound, and one or more wooden buildings. The donjon had walls of 3 meters thick and 25 to 30 meters high, one of the most imposing buildings of Lower Lotharingia.

Ename flourished during those years and soon there were two churches St Laurentius and St Salvator. It also had a portus, or trading harbour. At the museum in Ename coins minted in Tiel were on display indicating that the portus was visited by Frisian trades people who among other products sold herring and wine.

In 1005 Ename was described in the ‘Auctarium Affigemense’ as the most important seat of the duchy of Lower Lotharingia. Until that time all activities in Lotharingia had been taken place around the towns in its heartland around Aachen. Ename was the first major ‘town’ outside that area.

Herman of Ename

St Laurentius Church Ename

The Lord of Ename between 1005 and 1024 was Herman of Verdun, a son of Godfrey. Before he moved to live in Ename he might have lived in Velzeke, because it is here that two of his children, Herman and Mathilde,  died and were buried in the local church. Around the year 1000, he built the St Laurentius church in Ename. In this church I also saw the remnants of the original frescos in the Byzantium style and some graffiti dating back to that time. These frescos are the oldest in the Benelux. As loyal vassal to the emperor, Herman built the church with a double choir along the lines of the Ottonian imperial churches, such as the one in Ravenna. We also saw a similar church, built roughly in the same year,  in Echternach (St Peter and Paul). The double blind arches are similar to the ones in the basilica in Aachen.

Herman and his brother Godfrey II of Lower Lotharingia also owned property in Asse (in modern day Flemish Brabant). Asse is also seen as the possible centre of the pagus Bracbantensis. This place was already known by the Nervi and most probably had a military camp in Roman times; it was situated on the important Roman road between Bavay and Tongeren. Perhaps the two brothers also had a fortress here. Between 1012 and 1015 they swapped this, strategic property, with Lambert of Leuven against 30 farms and a church in Buvrinnes, Hainault. This became the western boarder of Ename.

This is an important link between the Counts of Leuven and the future development of Brabant.

It could well be that this was as a result of a war between Herman and Lambert I in 1013 (see Lotharingia).  Lambert was not happy with the fact that he was bypassed  in receiving the title of Duke of Lower Lotharingia and this led to war between him and the imperial forces of Henry II, in this case led by his second cousin Bishop Balderk II of Liege, supported by Herman of Ename. It was Lambert who did win this battle.

Godfrey II was also ordered by the Emperor to attack the emerging Count of Holland, Dirk III who had founded a castle at Vlaardingen from where he levied tolls. The Emperor supported the Bishop of Utrecht who claimed the rights for such privileges. However, the army was defeated by Dirk in the boggy environment of Maasland; Godfrey was made hostage. This significantly raised the profile of the Frisian Count within the Empire. He was allowed to keep his lands and levy tolls, after which Godfrey was released.

These local allegiances make it possible to map the changing relationships between the various emerging war lords of this turbulent period of transition between the period of the Carolingians and the making of the countries of Europe which started to emerge as a result of these power struggles..

In 1024 Herman retired as a monk in the abbey of Verdun.

Through his daughter Mathilde, Eename came into the hands of her husband Reginar V Count of Hainault; one of the most powerful rulers of Lotharingia.

Ename sacked by Flanders

Site of the old castle of Ename

The already small territory was around 1025 further split and the southern part went to the counts of Bergen and later (1071)  merged into the new county of Hainault.

The fortress was sacked by the Baldwin IV Count of Flanders in 1033. Reginar V of Bergen (Mons) took procession of Ename and his son Herman I of Bergen rebuilt the fortress in 1040. However, he swapped the northern part of the pagus with Count Baldwin IV of Flanders in 1047, together with that of the Brabantine territories as far as the river Dender. In exchange he received Valenciennes, which was of a greater strategic importance to him.

From approx 1056 Ename and the northern part was now under control of Flanders (as well as Bergen and Valenciennes).

During this period the power in the region started to shift to Leuven. The son of Henry I of Leuven became Count Palatine Herman II  of Lotharingia and was in control of the mark between 1061 and 1085.

The Flemish demilitarised Ename in 1063 and replaced the castle with a monastery, this survived until the French revolution and recently the  foundations have been recovered and the whole are has been turned into an archaeological museum. We visited these impressive ruins as well as the local museum in Ename during our trip in 2007.

Archaeological site Ename

See: Flanders and Hainault

The end of pre-historic Brabant

While in the year 1000 there were still hardly any churches, castles or communities with more than a few farms. By 1200 this situation had dramatically changed, with farming communities grown into small villages, many witch churches and at the same time a large number of castles had emerged. From the very early motte and bailey castles is not much left. The 9th century motte (hill) of the castle at Altena (near Almkerk) is still visible in the landscape.

We now start seeing the emergence of towns such as Breda, Eindhoven, Helmond, Den Bosch. During this period we also see the arrival of the Duchy of Brabant, growing out of some of the territories mentioned above.

Agriculture now finally started to take of thanks to new agriculture practices mouldboard plough and the use of horses, rather than oxen. Until the 1960s such farming practices were still on display in some parts of Brabant.

See also: The House of Leuven shaping Brabant and Duchy of Brabant and Brabant under Burgundian rule

The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)

Brabant and the Great Interregnum and the Disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire
By Sieg Monten
July 16, 2024
Translated from Dutch

Electors in the Codex Balduineus (ca. 1340)

In the recently published Historical Atlas of the Low Countries 1257-1439 (Onmiboek), Sieg Monten describes the history of Belgium and the Netherlands through twenty historical maps. He begins with the death of King of the Romans, William II, in 1256, and ends in 1439, when the first phase of the Burgundian unification is completed. The maps illustrate the political and military history of the region that is now Belgium and the Netherlands. On Historiek, we present an excerpt from the beginning of the book about the disintegration of Europe following the murder of William II of Holland.

The Great Interregnum
The winter of 1255/1256 was a pivotal moment in the history of the Low Countries. During that winter, King of the Romans William II of Holland was fatally struck by Frisian farmers. It wasn’t the fact that a king of the Holy Roman Empire was murdered—that had happened before—nor the fact that he, as the Count of Holland, came from the Low Countries, that made 1255/1256 so special; rather, it was his death that reshaped the relationships between the principalities in the Low Countries and the central authority of the Holy Roman Empire. Therefore, the winter of 1255/1256 marked not the emergence, but the breakthrough, of semi-independent principalities in the Low Countries.

The Murder of William II
This had a long prehistory. Since the ninth century, administrative counties, headed by counts who were originally Frankish officials, had evolved into sovereign principalities. The implosion of the German central authority after the winter of 1255/1256 was no surprise. Since the Danish invasions of the ninth century, counts had unlawfully appropriated central royal powers, territories, and revenues. Yet, initially, the German kings and emperors managed to establish a strong central policy in response.

This changed during the Investiture Controversy, which ended in 1122 with the Concordat of Worms, and further eroded during the civil wars between the Hohenstaufen and the Welfs. The Battle of Bouvines on July 27, 1214, was the proverbial point of no return. After 1214, the disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire could no longer be stopped. The sale of German imperial properties during the reign of King of the Romans William II of Holland between 1247 and 1256, including the 1247 sale of the German crown jewel Nijmegen to Gelre, was the proverbial deathblow to the central royal authority in the Low Countries, or more concretely, in the Lower Germanic Lands. These were the Low Countries within the boundaries of the German Empire, excluding Crown Flanders and Artois, which lay in France.

Battle of Bouvines (1214), painted by Horace Vernet in 1827
Since 1256, lords, counts, dukes, and (prince-)bishops governed their principalities as quasi-sovereign princes. In the Low Countries, these included, among the most notable, the lord of Valkenburg, the countess of Flanders-Hainaut (whose county lay partly in the German Empire and partly in France), the counts of Holland, Gelre, and Loon, the dukes of Brabant and Limburg, and finally the bishops of Utrecht and Liège.

“There arose a power vacuum that was mainly filled by the local spiritual and secular princes and the imperial cities.”
More precisely, Groningen became a semi-independent city-state, and with the recognition of Frisian Freedom, King of the Romans William II, just before his death, gave formal status to the lordless existence of the Frisian Lands. In 1258, the first cooperation treaty was signed between the city of Groningen and Fivelgo, one of the surrounding Frisian Lands. It marked the beginning of the formation of the later Ommelanden. This initiative did not come from the townspeople of Groningen but, strangely enough, from the surrounding Frisian farmers, who had occupied the city of Groningen since 1251. They wanted to keep the city, which had an important market function and belonged to the Sticht—the territory over which the bishop of Utrecht exercised secular power—under control.

The royal seal of Richard of Cornwall
However, the German central authority did not completely disappear. In 1257, two foreigners were elected as King of the Romans in the Holy Roman Empire. In January 1257, the archbishops of Cologne and Mainz and the Count Palatine of the Rhine—three of the six prince-electors—elected the Englishman Richard of Cornwall as King of the Romans. He was the brother of the English king and a nephew of the former emperor Otto IV. But less than three months later, on April 1, 1257, the archbishop of Trier, the margrave of Brandenburg, the duke of Saxony, and again the archbishop of Mainz—thanks to the dazzling silver and gold colors of bribes—elected another foreigner as King of the Romans. This was King Alfonso X of Castile. On his mother’s side, he was a grandson of the Hohenstaufen Philip of Swabia.

At first glance, this seemed like a reissue of the conflict between the Welfs and the Hohenstaufen, but in practice, the two elected foreigners rarely appeared in the Holy Roman Empire, leaving no one to exercise actual central authority. A power vacuum arose that was mainly filled by the local spiritual and secular princes and the imperial cities. The period that now began, with two foreign kings who rarely appeared, became known in the history of the Holy Roman Empire as the so-called Great Interregnum.

An Ambitious Duke of Brabant
During the Great Interregnum, the princes in the Lower Germanic Lands definitively established looser feudal ties with the German kingship. In the Lower Germanic Lands, Duke Henry III of Brabant primarily benefited from the physical absence of the two Kings of the Romans. Through shrewd diplomatic maneuvering between the Welfs and the Hohenstaufen, the duchy of Brabant had become a powerful principality in the thirteenth century. In 1257, Duke Henry III supported the election of Alfonso of Castile. He was rewarded with the task of defending and protecting the peace in the Lower Germanic Lands, whose boundaries coincidentally corresponded with those of the former duchy of Lower Lotharingia, in Alfonso’s name as governor. This fully matched the territorial ambitions of the Brabant dukes, for the Duke of Brabant proudly and arrogantly bore the title of Duke of Lower Lotharingia, even though this title had been declared powerless in 1190.

However, he did not gain much practical benefit from it. The double election marked the end of the good understanding between the Duke of Brabant and the prince-bishop of Liège, which had been in place since 1133. While the Duke of Brabant bowed his knee to King of the Romans Alfonso of Castile, the prince-bishop of Liège, Henry III of Gelre, along with Count Arnold IV of Loon, attended the coronation ceremony of Richard of Cornwall. As a result, Henry III of Brabant failed to secure the guardianship over the imperial city of Aachen. The position of the Count of Jülich—also a supporter of Richard of Cornwall—in the imperial city was too strong. Moreover, Richard of Cornwall soon tasked the archbishop of Cologne, Conrad of Hochstaden, with similar overlapping powers in the Lower Germanic Lands. In his name, the archbishop of Cologne was to maintain peace there.

In other words, both the Duke of Brabant and the archbishop of Cologne were to represent the interests of the German crown in the Lower Germanic Lands. This was the seed of a conflict between the archbishop of Cologne and the Duke of Brabant that began to smolder from then on.

The Low Countries (1257-1272) from: Historical Atlas of the Low Countries
The Duke of Brabant, although he had competition from the archbishop as royal peacekeeper, did not (yet) face a crisis. During the harsh winter of 1261, the thirty-year-old Duke Henry III died. He left behind four young children. Pending the majority of his eldest son, Henry IV, his widow, Adelaide of Burgundy, governed the duchy. She was not alone. She was assisted by a ducal council, in which the Count of Gelre and the prince-bishop of Liège—both related to the deceased duke—were temporarily included. As a counterbalance to this foreign influence, several Brabant cities concluded bilateral treaties among themselves, promising to defend the integrity of the territory in the name of the young duke.

Duke Henry III of Brabant and Adelaide of Burgundy
Adelaide of Burgundy meticulously executed her late husband’s will. She developed a fair judiciary and abolished all extraordinary direct taxes. The will also stipulated that she should expel all Jews from the duchy unless they traded without usury or interest. Uncertain how to approach this, she sought advice from none other than Thomas Aquinas. His response, or rather his booklet De regimine Judeorum, cast a shadow over European history. He advised the duchess not to expel the Jews, to tax them (extra) moderately, and to require them to wear a distinguishing mark. But the duchess had more concerns. As the young Duke Henry IV grew older, it became clearer that he was intellectually disabled. She waited until 1267, when her second son, John, turned fifteen, and persuaded King of the Romans Richard of Cornwall to agree to the transfer of ducal authority to John I and forced Henry IV to abdicate. However, the city of Leuven and several noble families opposed this course of action. According to them, the succession of a father by his eldest son was a sacred principle. This sounded noble, but in fact, it was about sheer power politics. Thanks to the intellectual disability of the duke, they had the upper hand in the ducal council, and they wanted to maintain this dominance. A civil war broke out in Brabant, which only ended on May 14, 1267, with the Battle of Tildonk, where Walter Berthout, lord of Mechelen, won the victory on behalf of John I.

“He wanted to punish the prince-bishop for his support of the city of Leuven.”
Duke John I, disgusted by the resistance of Leuven, never set foot in Leuven during his entire reign. Brussels became his main residence. Henry IV was confined to a monastery and subsequently forgotten. We do not know when he died. The engagement of Henry IV with the daughter of Louis IX of France, Margaret, was annulled. Since the dowry had already been paid, John I took his brother’s place. In 1371, they married. One year later, Margaret died in childbirth, a few days after giving birth to a stillborn twin. Another year later, John I remarried Margaret of Dampierre, the daughter of Guy of Dampierre, the future Count of Flanders.

Immediately after the Battle of Tildonk, John I also settled scores with the prince-bishop of Liège, Henry III of Gelre. John I decided not to return the Liège lordship of Mechelen, which had been pledged to Brabant in 1255 for 1500 silver marks and had expired since 1267, to Liège. He wanted to punish the prince-bishop for his support of the city of Leuven. At the same time, he wanted to reward Walter Berthout, the governor of the Liège lordship of Mechelen, his confidant, and the victor of the Battle of Tildonk.

Henry III of Gelre, thinking he needed to teach a young upstart a lesson, immediately crossed the border into the duchy with his knights, ravaged the Brabant cities of Hannuit, Landen, and Vilvoorde, plundered the southwest of Brabant, and advanced to the city wall of Mechelen. There he realized that a siege was a lost cause from the outset. The Liège supply lines were too long. He laid his hand on the city wall of Mechelen as a gesture of satisfaction and then withdrew. To save his honor, he destroyed the stone Maas bridge and the Brabant tower Wyck in the Brabant-Liège condominium Maastricht, which was vainly defended by Dirk II of Valkenburg with three hundred men. With the rubble, the prince-bishop fortified the Liège castle of Montfort, located south of Roermond. The prince-bishop seemed to resign himself to the loss of Mechelen.