The Habsburgs in the Low Countries

Maximilian – change over to the Habsburg dynasty

Maximilian was the first Burgundian Duke who had the full force and full power of the Holy  Roman Empire behind him.Despite the Great Privilege of 1477, Maximilian ignored the spirit of the document and blatantly violated it; only by shear force was he able to keep his subjects under control. On the positive side he had repulsed the French for which the Estates were grateful. But the great costs of this war had to be born by the cities, so within a few years the region was again in the grip of super high taxes and alleged breaches of the city privileges.

Coat of Arms Maximillian.St Johns Cathedral Den Bosch
Coat of Arms Maximilian. St Johns Cathedral Den Bosch

On May 8th 1481 The Order of the Golden Fleece met in Den Bosch. The three year old Philip the Fair was ceremonially included in the Order. The occasion was also used for the Blijde Inkomst of Maria of Burgundy.

After the death of his wife Maria van Brabant, Maximilian  became the regent of their 4 year old son Philip. Under pressure of the Flemish cities he signed a peace treaty with the Habsburg arch enemy France. However, this gave the  Duke an opportunity to invade, in 1483,  the Bishopric Utrecht and after a siege he was able to conquer it and incorporated it into the Burgundian lands.

Maximilian  was one of the first persons who combined the new autodynamic model – whereby the individual starts to take control over his environment in contrast to the medieval heterodynamic model that puts that control outside the individual (environment, tribe, group, church) – with individualism – which emphasises the own significance, wishes and desires. Maximilian often led himself depict as a fierce warrior, a spectacular fencer and dancer, an efficient organiser, planner, negotiator, administrator and a learned scholar and lover of the arts [1. Understanding the Middle Ages, Harald Kleinschmidt, 200, p84-88]

Maximilian’s authoritarian regime, with little or no attention to importance of the role of the city in the wealth creation of his empire saw a further collapse in the already ravaged economy under the reign of Charles. During the siege of Brugge in 1488  Maximilian was made a prisoner for 4 month for undermining the city’s privileges. After he was finally set free by Duke Albert of Saxon, he forced the merchants of Brugge out of the city and moved them by force to Antwerp. After this event Brugge was never able to regain its position as one of the richest European metropolises of those times. Gent finally surrendered to Duke Albert in 1492.

His staunch ally, Albert the Duke of Saxony was rewarded for his services and received Friesland as his fief.

However, this brutal suppression only widened the revolt against the Habsburgs. In Holland the Hoek opposition conquered Rotterdam, Woerden and Geertruidenberg. However, all this fizzled out and by 1492 the Habsburgs were firmly in control again, partly because of a lack of the promised support from the French. Equally non existing was any form of coordination between the revolting cities in the South, nor was their any support from the regional nobility and perhaps most importantly there was no  a religious conflict interwoven in these revolts.

While the revolt and political crisis between 1477 and 1492 didn’t deliver any results for the freedom of the Low Countries, its provinces or cities,  it could be seen as a prelude of what was set to happen some 50 years later.

Population of the Burgundian Netherlands – 1477

Flanders 660,000
Brabant 413,000
Holland 275,000
Artois 140,000
Hainault 130,000
Liege 120,000
Gelre   98,000
Walloon Flanders   73,000
Friesland   71,000
Luxemburg   68,000
Overijssel   53,000
Total 2,101,000

Source: Blockmans and Provenier, Bourgondische Nederlanden

After Maximilian was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, he left the Low Countries in 1494 and his son Philip (the Fair) became the new duke of Burgundy. Maximilian had always remained a foreigner in the Low Countries. During his reign both Brugge and Ghent had  lost their economic leadership in northern Europe. His father Frederick III had left him a bankrupt imperial inheritance, which he over coming years was able to turn around, he laid the foundation for an empire that would last for another 400 years. His organisation skills and visionary approach made him one of the first modern monarchs in a land that in many aspects was even more medieval in its structure than Burgundy. Under a good administration he brought peace to the German lands based on a modernised legal system under a standing court of justice (Reichskammergericht).

Regents and Governors of Burgundian Netherlands

Regent Married to Regency
Maximilian of Austria 1459 – 1519 Maria of Burgundy +1482 1482 – 1493
Governors of the Burgundian Netherlands
Margaretha of Austria, Daughter Maria of Burgundy 1480 – 1530 Juan of Castile +1497, Philip of Savoy + 1504 1507 – 1530
Maria of Hungary, Sister of Charles V1505 -1558 Louis II Hungary +1526 1531 – 1555
Emanuel Filibert of Savoy, Son of Charles V sister in law 1528 -1580 Margaretha of France +1574 1555 – 1559
Margaretha of Parma, Partner Charles V 1522 – 1586 Alexander de Medici + 1537, Ottavio Farnese, duke of Parma +1586 1559 – 1567
Fernando Alvarez de Toledo (Alva), No heredity link 1507 -1583 1567 – 1573
Luis de Zuniga y RequesensNo heredity link1528 -1576 1573 – 1576
Don Juan of Austria, Illegitimate child Charles V 1547 -1578 1576 – 1578
Matthias of Austria 1557 – 1619 Anna of Austria +1590, Grand-daughter Philip II 1578 – Appointed by Estates General
Alexander Farnese, Son Margaretha of Parma1545 -1592 Maria of Portugal +1577 1578 – 1592. From here onwards only regents in the Southern Netherlands

Philip the Fair

However, Maximilian as the overall ruler continue to put his stamp on the Low Countries. He kept on asking for contributions for the wars, which sometimes also benefited the Low Countries.   After Philip came of age in 1494 he took over the control of The Burgundian lands.

Philip made the Joyeuse Entrée in Leuven on September 9th 1496. His arrival  as the new duke was widely celebrated throughout the Low Countries. Unlike Maximilian he and later also his sister were seen as ‘natural rulers’. They both were clearly not considering themselves as Hapsburg rulers and had the good of their subjects directly at heart.

In November 1495 Maximilian reached an agreement – not with England or France at had been expected – but with Spain, to a double marriage between his children and two of the royal children of Aragon. It became one of the most remarkable marriages in the history of modern Europe, its consequences are still reverberating in modern times.

Double marriage arrangements of 1495

Philip of Burgundy 1478 – 1506 Mother: Maria of Burgundy.Father: Maximilian of Austria Juana of Castile 1479 – 1555 Mother: Isabelle van Castile Father: Ferdinand of Aragon
Margaretha of Burgundy/Austria 1480 – 1530 Mother: Maria of Burgundy Father: Maximilian of Austria Juan Prince of Asturias 1478 – 1497 Mother: Isabelle van Castile Father: Ferdinand of Aragon


Church of El Savador in Toledo where Juana de Castilla was baptised
Church of El Savador in Toledo where Juana de Castilla was baptised


Alcazar Seville, the room where Juan was born.
Alcazar Seville, the room where Juan  of Asturias was born.

Margaretha and Juan married in Lier in Brabant on the 20th October 1496. While Lier wasn’t one of the most important cities in the Netherlands, it was chosen because it  is situated in Brabant and not in Flanders – where Maximilian had to fight the cities of Brugge and Ghent and where he was made a prisoner. He had transfer trade from Brugge to Antwerp, Brussels was used a year earlier for the proxy marriage has taken place and the newly wed couple spend their wedding night in Mechelen. So all cities were treated equally.

Margaretha’s husband  Juan only died 5 months after their marriage, apparently because of too much partying after the wedding celebrations. This premature death of Juan (as well as his other sister Isabella and her child Don Miguel) made Philip’s wife Joanna the heir of both Castile and Aragon.

Juana and Philip repeated their wedding ceremony in Spain 1497, after that they moved to Brussels in the Netherlands the following year the Court moved to the Prinsenhof in Ghent, clearly stamping Burgundian hegemony on this once proud independent city.

Relicts with portraits of Philip and Juana in Capilla Real Granada
Relicts with portraits of Philip and Juana in Capilla Real Granada

Children from Philip and Joanna

Name born
Eleonora 15-11-1498 Brussels
Charles 24-2-1500 Ghent
Isabella 1501 Ghent
Ferdinand 10-3-1503, Alcala, Spain
Maria Brussels
Katherina 14-1-1507, Torquemada, Spain

After their first trip back to Spain, separated from her husband Joanna suffered severe emotional problems. When she finally was allowed to go to her husband in the Netherlands she was ravaged by jealousy. After Philip’s early death in 1506, she went back to Spain where she spend the rest of her life in seclusion and madness.

During the reign of Philip some of the most beautiful and famous tapestries were produced. The  Unicorn Tapestries are stunning, the seven tapestries hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which I visited in 2012.

Unicorn Tapestries
Unicorn Tapestries


Mausoleum of Philip and Juana in Capilla Real Granada
Mausoleum of Philip and Juana in Capilla Real Granada

Dutch Nobility

During Philip’s reign the Court in the Low Countries was in the hands of a group of astute statesmen they included the Croÿs, Berghes and Lalaings. Government was fully controlled by these influential families.

During the reign of John the Fearless, thanks to his relation with his mistress Agnes van Croÿ, this family would become one of the most influential ones during the following century. Perhaps the most influential member of the family was the administrative governor of the Low Countries, Willem van Croÿ  Lord of Chièvres (appointed in 1501, he died in Worms in 1521) , his position was also very influential under Charles V as they  were often travelling together.

During Margareta’s reign, interesting names are now also entering the history here such as the various counts of Nassau and Egmond. Jan van Egmond was the Stadholder (as the provincial governor the  permanent representative  and army commander of the Emperor) of Holland, Zeeland and Friesland.

The Egmond family originated in North Holland but through intermarriage with several of the Walloon families became very much a much southern as northern.

The importance of the van Nassau’s for the Netherlands started with a rather modest German prince, Count Engelbert I of Nassau (c. 1370-1380, Dillenburg – 3 May 1442, Breda). He was a student in Cologne, Germany in 1389 and a dean in Münster from 1399-1404. He became counselor to the Duke of Brabant, first to Anton of Burgundy, and later for his son Jan IV of Brabant. He would later serve Philip the Good. His brothers were childless and he left the deanery so he could marry Johanna van Polanen in 1404, one of the richest heiress of the Netherlands.

We now skip a century, after the death Charles V first Chamberlain the Lord of Chièvres, Hendrik (Henry) van Nassau took over this position. He was the son of  a rather modest German prince, Count John V of Nassau-Dillenburg and Elisabeth of Hesse. His younger brother was William I, Count of Nassau-Dillenburg (the father of William the Silent).

In 1499 Henry’s uncle, count Engelbert II of Nassau-Breda, invited Henry to the Burgundian Netherlands as his heir. Upon the death of his uncle in 1504 Henry inherited the Nassau possessions in the Netherlands, including the wealthy Lordship of Breda in the duchy of Brabant. The next year – at the age of 12 – he was chosen a knight of the Golden Fleece. Henry  became one of the closest advisor to Margaretha. In the year Charles came of age (1515) he negotiated the Peace of Paris, this was very favourable to Dutch trade, so he received a hero’s welcome when he returned.

After Jan van Egmond died later that year, Henry received the title of Stadholder-General. He was also able to negotiate a marriage between himself and Claudine de Châlon, who later became the heiress of the County of Orange and this of course became the start of the House of Orange-Nassau. With Claudia  he had a son, René of Châlon (5 February 1519), who became Prince of Orange in 1530 on the death of Claudia’s brave brother Filibert, commander-in-chief of all the imperial troops of Charles V. Filibert had died during the siege of Florence where he led the imperial troops in the sacking of this proud city. This was the most honourable dead a soldier could wish for and his death and funeral became a national celebration and he rapidly became a legend of many stories. During his 2 months funeral procession from Florence back to his home on Franche Compté ceremonies were organised at every stop. It was a full display of the Burgundian theatre state.

Under Maria’s reign the new Administration started to kick in and all key nobles had permanent positions in in one or more of the three formal Councils. During this period Antoine van Lalaing was by far the most influential advisor, he was also the head of the Finance Council.

Upon the death of Henry in 1538 he was succeeded by his only son, but René was himself slain in battle only a few years later in 1544. Henry lies buried beneath the grave monument he had erected for his uncle Engelbert in the Grote Kerk at Breda.

During the war with France in 1537, Floris and his son Maximilian van Egmond, counts of Buren gained prominence and played a key political role in the Low Countries. Maximilian’s only daughter Anna – who was born in Grave – married William of Orange. Anna was the heiress of the sovereign Lordships of Buren, Leerdam, IJselstein and Cuyk.From their base in what is now Germany William (the Silent) was send to the court of Charles and became an adviser to Charles V. After the death of  his cousin René, William became his heir.

But under the reign of King Philips II, William led the revolt again the Spanish rule in the Low Countries and became the founder of the Dutch House of Orange Nassau, which still rule the country, now of course under a parliamentary monarchy. In October 2006 Louise and I had the honour to meet and talk to both the Dutch Crown Prince Willem Alexander and his wife Maxima during their visit to Sydney.

Dutch Nobility

Province/Region Nobility Important functions
Holland WassenaerEgmont Jan – Stadtholdervarious see Holland
Zealand Borsele (Veere)
Northern Brabant Berghes (Walhain and Zevenbergen) Nassau (Breda) Jean – First Chamberlain Prince Philip and Governor of Namur. Closest advisor Margaretha Maximilian – personal secretary Margaretha Englebert II – Senechal 1504 Henry – closest friend of Charles V and William of Orange councillor Margaretha and  Charles V
Southern Brabant Lalaing (Montigny later also Culemborg, Hoogstraten and Borsele) Antoine – finance councillor Margaretha
Ravenstein Philip – councillor Margaretha
Limburg Horn
Flanders Gruythuys and Steenhuys (Brugge)
Hainault, Artois, Picardy LuxemburgBoutonCroÿLannoy x x Charles- councillor MargarethaWillem- Governor and Grand Chamberlain of CharlesPhilip – Council of State


Margaretha of Austria

After the death of her husband, Juan of Asturias 1n 1497 , Margaretha remarried with Philip of Savoy – a period that she called was the happiest in her life – only to get widowed again in 1505. From that date she vowed never to marry again and she turned her full attention to the Low Country.

Emperor Maximilian appointed  Margaretha as the governor-general over the Low Countries. She also became the foster mother of her brother Philip’s children born in the Netherlands: Eleonora, Charles, Isabelle and Maria. For this purpose they acquired the Court of Kamerijk – the former bishop palace of the seat of Kamerijk, this was (and still is) just on the other side of the road of Margaretha’s Court in Mechelen, which she had built in 1507.

At all accounts the children had a very happy time with ‘good mother’ Margaretha as they called her, they enjoyed a carefree youth in the pleasant, small town of Mechelen. She appointed the best teachers for the children among them Erasmus and Professor Adriaan Boeyens (the later pope).

This was not the only time Margareta had to look after her nephews and nieces. After the death of her sister Isabelle in 1526 she took in her children, Hans, Christina and Dorothea.



 The Danish and Lorraine connections

Charles’ sister Isabelle was married to King Christian of Denmark this had been an unhappy marriage (1515) from the start as Christian prefered his  Norwegian mistress (a common girl of Dutch descend) over his wife, after her death in 1517 he took fancy of her mother (also a commoner and a brilliant business woman).He later on had to flee with his family to the Netherlands when he, in 1523,  became in conflict with the Danish Parliament. It was during that period that Isabelle died.We came across  her daughter Christina in 2009 when we visited the splendid palace of the Dukes of Lorraine in Nancy. In 1541 she had married Francis, Duke of Bar. He succeeded his father as Duke of Lorraine in 1544. She was politically influential on him. When he died in 1545, Christina became the Regent of Lorraine as the guardian of their minor son.When Charles V  in 1546 visited his niece Christina and her regent Count Vaudemont, he received the support of the Duchy. This would later on backfire on her and in 1552, France invaded Lorraine and she was forced to resign as regent and accept that her son would be raised at the French court as hostage.

The picture above shows the palace of the Duke of Lorraine, the last one being the ‘unemployed Polish monarch’ Stanislas (his statue is on the square), who was married to a daughter of the French King. After his death in 1766 the Duchy lost its independence and became a part of the kingdom.


Margaretha’s palace Mechelen

Back to Margaretha’s Court, this was the earliest renaissance building in the Netherlands and was richly decorated with arts. Here she surrounded herself with distinguished men as well as with  a large library. In 2005 we visited her impressive Court for the first time and have been back several times since.

Under Margaretha and Charles  a radical new style of government was put in place, not aimed at regional politics but aimed at strengthening and protecting the family’s dynasty and assets. Governance became more authoritarian with foreign advisers and officials taking over the roles of many of the local nobility. In particular in the northern provinces most of the appointed stadholders and other high level positions came from the southern provinces and beyond.

Willem de Chièvres (van Croÿ) continued to be Margaretha’s  key advisor – however the relationship between the two was rather tense, From Savoy she brought her trusted legal advisor Mercurino Gattinara and he became her chief advisor after Willem died. Another key person at her court was Nicholas Perrenot, the father of the future Cardinal Granvelle. The only high nobility person of the Netherlands was Antoine de Lalaing, count of Hoogstraten.

Gattinara was also the key adviser to Charles V. Between 1494 and 1530 these two advisers had an enormous influence on how the political situation of the Netherlands would evolve, they certainly deserve their place among the  founding fathers of what eventually would become the Netherlands. After her nephew Charles took the Spanish throne, she was, in 1518, promoted to governor-general on behalf of the new king of Spain.

At the same time that Charles had left for Spain, his ‘Spanish’ brother Ferdinand was send to Margaretha’s Court , in order to avoid a conflict in Spain regarding the succession after the death of his father-in-law. In Spain Charles was seen as a ‘foreigner’ while Ferdinand was ‘Spanish.’

Under the regency of Margaretha, the Low Countries saw a second flowering, after on-and-off being ravaged by war for more than 30 years. She maintained very strong relationships with the English Court, they key trading partners of the Flemish and upcoming Dutch cities, this often brought her  in conflict with the politics of her brothers, however Margaretha staunchly supported the interests of her Dutch subjects. The 2nd flowering also saw Antwerp rapidly grow in importance, which in turn saw the revival of Brabant at the cost of Flanders, namely Brugge. The port of Antwerp was also far more accessible to the larger seagoing ships than the inland port of Brugge.

Margaretha was a powerful and a modern political figure in Europe. In 1513, she acted decisively when she saw her positioned undermined by an alliance between Castille and France. She issued the Ordonnance of Lille which basically provided her with the political direction over Charles V. It was signed by her father Maximilian, Ferdinand of Aragon and Henry VII of England.

In that same year Charles made his first overseas trip the England and left, already at this young age, an impression behind at the English Court. At the time his aunt Catherine of Aragon married who became at that time the first wife of King Henry VIII.

Margaretha remained influential in the formative  years of Charles V. However, at times she was undermined by her own family, the nobles of the Golden Fleece where unhappy with some of her activities and a delegation of nobles who was received by  Charles in Spain was used to try and intimidate her. Later she found out that she was double crossed by her father Maximillian, he first let her belief that Charles should marry a daughter of Henry VIII, while secretly negotiating a marriage between Charles and either a French or an Hungarian princess. However, she did survive all of this. The broken marriage problems however, led to a declaration of war from  France (arch enemy #1, in all Charles fought 6 wars against them) supported by King  Henry VIII of England against the Emperor .

While this did not lead to a direct war; through French funding the Duke of Gelre could increase its raids not just along the border of the Empire but now also but deep into Holland and Flanders (see below). She felt deeply uneasy over this declaration of war as this totally undermined the commercial and economic interests of the Low Countries; England was by far the most important trading partner and she held very strong and good relationships with both the English Court and the English Government. In Cambrai, in 1529 Margaretha negotiated peace (The Ladies Peace) with France who was represented by Louise of Savoy, the mother of the French king Francois I (and Margaretha’s sister in law from her 2nd marriage) .

Court life continued to live up to its reputation, with all of the nobility involved in elaborate banquets, joustings and hunting parties. Like her Burgundian predecessors also Margretha continued her support for the arts. Among others she commissioned works of Hieronymus Bosch, one of my most favoured painters. I am fascinated by his imaginations and the stories behind his paintings. The Dutch language does lend itself for this type of paintings as it has an unusual large range of proverbs. During our 2006 trip we also visited an exhibition in Provincial Museum of North Brabant in‘s-Hertogenbosch of ‘proverbs in paintings’, many dating back to his period, including those from the most famous ‘proverb painter’ Pieter Brueghel. Netherlandisch art was quite different from the Italy Renaissance art. In the north oil paintings were the norm, not the murals as was the case in the south. The Flemish altar retables and triptychs became famous throughout Europe and still can be found around the continent.

The much loved Dutch Governess Margareta of Australia died in 1530.

Charles V

Early years in Ghent and Mechelen

Charles was named after his great-grandfather, born in 1500 at the Princenhof in Ghent he was baptised here in the St Bavo Cathedral, here we saw the baptismal font where, Charles was baptised. In Mechelen, under the guidance of  Margaretha Charles was raised by Anna Van Ravenstein.

Anna of Ravenstein

An important member of the Burgundian  Court was Anna of Burgundy, she was a natural daughter of Philip the Good andhis mistress Jacqueline van Steenberghe. She first married Adriaan van Borsele an influential nobleman from Zeeland. This family had also played a key role in events that followed the murderon Count Floris V from Holland (1297) and the expulsion of the van Amstel family (see: Holland). Anne played a key role in the reclamation works in this province and the establishing of new villages (incl. Sint Annaland). Adriaan dies in 1468. In 1470 Anna remarried with Adolf van Kleve, Lord of Ravenstein and Wijnendale (the latter is near Brugge), he was the Stadtholder-General of the Netherlands from 1475-1477. She took on the name Lady of Ravenstein (near Oss). Adolf dies in 1492 and Anna remained childless. In 1500 she is put in charge of the raising of Maria’s children Charles and Eleonora. Anna died in 1508.

Anna of Ravenstein

From 1506 he was known under his title of Charles of Luxemburg.

In 1507 Anna’s position was taken over by Adriaan Boeyens – who in 1522 became Pope Adrianus VI. He became Chales’ teacher. At the time Adriaan was deacon at St Pieter in Leuven and a representative of the rector of the first university in the Low Country, that was founded in this city. He was a true devote Christian and he no doubt had an enormous influence in the piety that Charles adhered to, throughout his life. Philip the Fair was officially the last Burgundian Duke. However, Charles V strong relationship with at least the northern part of the old Burgundian empire warrants his place in this part of the history. Throughout his life he relentlessly  pursued the concept of a united Burgundy and this has been the main reason for his life long war with France. At his birth there were no signs that Charles would be destined to play such a key role in de formation of Europe. His power-base was rather small in comparison to neighbouring countries, but as a result of very unexpected  developments in Spain, the marriage contracts as they had been set up by his grandfather Maximilian proved to be a master-stroke.

King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor

He only briefly took direct leadership over the Low Countries. Shortly after his majority at the age of 15 in 1515, he started a tour of the Low Countries, visiting 5 of the 6 great cities. Upon the death of his grandfather-in-law Don Ferdinand of Aragon, in 1516,  he was proclaimed king of Spain. A year later he departed for Barcelona andhis aunt Margaretha took over the governance again of the Low Countries, until her death in 1530. After the death of his grandfather Maximilian, 1n 1519, Charles also became the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire – the filth in line with the name of Karl (Karel/Charles). In Spain the political situation started to drift towards rebellion – also here led by the towns.  Leaving a rather weak Adrian behind as his representative,  Charles left the country in a hurry to travel to Innsbruck to take pocession of his Habsburg inheritance. Innsbruck was the seat of Habsburg administration. He was crowned in Aachen in 1520. His Joyous Entry (Blijde Inkomst) – with military pomp – into the Empire took place here on October 22nd.  In 2005 we had seen the leadlight window in the church of Our Lady in Antwerp, depicting the crowning of the emperor. The window dates from 1537. His native country now became politically a rather insignificant part of this new Empire. However, because of its wealth it maintained its importance throughout Charles’ reign.

Field of Cloth of Gold

With Charles’ election the rest of Europe had to reconsider their political alliances. Despite the deep rooted animosity between England and France, the French King Francois I accepted a consolation.

With this peace in place Charles felt is safe to travel to England for a meeting with King Henry VIII. Here they met in splendid surroundings in Canterbury on May 27th. Margaret had played a key role in all of this as the trade between the Low Countries and England was very important for her subject as well as for her income (taxes).

The powerful Lord Chancellor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey now arranged a follow up meeting between the three powerful but  young European rulers – Emperor Charles V (20), King Francois (25) and King Henry ( 28).

The meeting would take place halfway Calais (which was English territory) and the French village of Gravelines. Charles travelled to Flushing and travelled Bruges and Ghent to Brussels. Henry crossed the Channel to Calais.

The site where the met became known as the Field of Cloth of Gold. All parties had spend enormous amounts of money to show off towards each other. As the site was in the country the three royal parties stayed in tents – each in their own camp –  and these tents were made of stuff worked through and through with gold thread. Outside the three royal camps another 2800 tents were put up for the rest of the entourage. Henry alone had brought 5,000 people with him The meeting lasted for three weeks and was full of entertainment aimed at impressing each other through banquettes, tournaments and hunting parties. It was said that the costs of this extravaganza nearly bankrupted France and England.

There was an enormous amount of flattering, pretence and most likely deception. In the end there were no diplomatic treaties signed. In the background the court politician continued to play the various parties off against one and another.

The shallowness of the affair became clear when a month after the event Henry aligned with Charles and declared war on France.


Last medieval monarch

Apart from Adriaan his key advisers were the above mentioned the Burgundian Willem van Croÿ his Governor and Grand Chamberlain and his Chancellor the Walloon, Jean de Sauvage. After Sauvage  died in 1518  the Italian (Piemonte) Mercurino Gattinara- Margaretha’s former advisor in Savoy –  became chancellor and after Croÿ died in 1521, he also became Charles’ Governor and Grand Chamberlain. But also some of the Dutch nobility did play key roles both in Spain and in the German lands. Charles V can be called the last monarch of the Middle Ages. Throughout his life, his catholic faith was paramount and influenced his beliefs and actions.

On the other hand he also showed great interest in new developments such as the Renaissance, he was multilingual perhaps speaking 4 or 5 languages and was a patron of many (Flemish and German) artists.

While Spain was already moving into the direction of a modern state, with a reasonably well developed bureaucracy, Burgundy was still steeped in knightly traditions.  While he was standing on the brink on a new era, in his heart Charles remained a medieval ruler. He was a devout catholic and truly believed that his role in life was to protect the faith. His other overruling occupation was to secure the inheritance of his family in the Low Countries, Burgundy (unsuccessfully) , Spain and Germany. His Empire covered such a large area that these family affairs and in particular the negotiations around the marriage of his family members took up a large part of his activities. He also put a lot of effort in preserving the old laws and privileges. All of these elements; his lands, inheritance and these laws and privileges where forever under threat and he was therefore in a constant mode of negotiations,; without ever reaching a firm solution on any of them.

It is also appropriate here to mention the overseas territories in the New World (Americas). While it were Charles’ maternal grandparents who instigated the exploration of the ‘Indies’ and financed the expedition of Christopher Columbus (Colon in Spanish) it was under  Charles that  untold riches started to flow  to Spain. It was at the Admiralty in the Alcazar in Sevilla that the expedition from Columbus was planned. This painting shows the very first image of the New World with the ships of Columbus and his fleet depicted at the bottom. Within 20 years of Columbus discovery, the old ancient and medieval  maps started to disappear, no longer was Jerusalem the centre of the world and the continents were now shown with the oceans in between. Also the ‘Paradise’ disappeared from the maps. All reflecting the significant divide between the old medieval times that lay behind and the new emerging world views that lay ahead.

Sevilla was also the home of the trading monopoly on the Americas (Casa de Contratación) and – since 1526 –  the  the base of the annual Spanish treasure fleet (La Flota in Spanish and Zilvervloot in Dutch).

Admiralty, Alcazar Sevilla with the very first image of the Americas.
Admiralty, Alcazar Sevilla with the very first image of the Americas.

However, the Conquest of South America  also brought untold misery to the people in these conquered lands (as early as 1515 were these this misconducts reported back to Charles al little avail. In 1517 the earliest known privileges to import negro slaves were issued by Charles V to the Flemming Laurent Gorrevod . In a letter to Margaretha in 1522 Charles marvels to her about his ships that had girdled the earth and in particular about the treasure (cloves, pepper, ginger, cinnamon, muscat and sandalwood) that Magellan had brought back from the Moluccas. A year later Charles asked the merchants of Lübeck (Hanse) to support his overseas enterprise.

Plus Ultra

Is Latin for “further beyond” was adopted from the personal motto of Charles V ‘ Plus Oultre’ as it was used in his native Old French language. Most likely linked to the large territories over which he ruled.

The motto is closely associated with the Pillars of Hercules, which according to Greek mythology were built by Hercules, near the Straits of Gibraltar, marking the edge of the then known world.


The Pillars of Hercules featured on the Charles V addition to the Alcazar palace in Sevilla.
The Pillars of Hercules featured on the Charles V addition to the Alcazar palace in Sevilla. Plus Ultra is written in the banner linking the pillars.

It subsequently became the motto of Habsburg Spain and featured on the Spanish dollar. Today the inscription, along with the Pillars of Hercules, is featured on both the national flag and emblem of modern Spain. Source Wikepedia.

Gold from the Americas was also used to finance the battle of Tunis in 1534, which was won by Charles V and which features in six large tapestries which hang in the Alcazar in Sevilla. While he didn’t shy away from ordering a massacre following the victory, killing 30,000 citizens, a few years later he ordered Cortez to come back from Mexico and instructed him not to kill the local inhabitants.

Charles V on the victory tapestries in the Alcazar in Sevilla.
Charles V on the victory tapestries in the Alcazar in Sevilla.

Charles certainly also did have some  ‘Renaissance characteristics’, he was a pragmatic ruler and certainly had humanitarian manners, he was interested in the Roman Classics. He was surrounded by historians, poets, painters and cosmologists. However, he never became a true man of the Renaissance. [2. The Emperor Charles V, Karl Brandi, 1939, p589]

He married on 10 March 1526,  his first cousin Isabel of Portugal, sister of John III of Portugal. Her mother, Maria of Aragon,  was  the sister of  Charles’ mother, Joanna. The wedding took place in the Alcazar – the Moorish palace of Pedro I  in Sevilla. In 2013 we visited the rooms were the wedding had taken place. Isabel and Charles were very fond of each other – something that was rather rare  in those days. Isabel also proofed to be an excellent regent during the many times that Charles was away. However, Isabel died young in 1539, after the birth of their filth child – who also died. Charles never remarried and ever since her death dressed himself in black.

After her death he also remodelled several rooms  in the Alcazar in  the  Renaissance style. The wedding room was re tiled with rather frivolous motives with in the middles the portraits of the couple. Also the Royal Chapel was modernised according the latest fashions of the Spanish Renaissance.  The Alcazar in Seville is Europe’s oldest royal castle that is still in use as such.

Portraits of Charles V and Isabel of Portugal in the wedding room at the Alcazar in Sevilla
Portraits of Charles V and Isabel of Portugal in the wedding room at the Alcazar in Sevilla
The Royal Wedding Chapel from Charles and Isabel in the Alcazar in Sevilla
The Royal Wedding Chapel from Charles and Isabel in the Alcazar in Sevilla

European power struggles move to the Low Countries

The linkage between the House of Habsburg and the two most important dynasties of Spain saw the initially focus of Charles V moving away from the Low Countries. However, he often expressed his love for the country where he was born (Prinsenhof Gent). Here he was still seen as the natural ruler. During his reign he visited the Netherlands eight times and extensively on three occassions. In between he maintained an extensive level of communications with his appointed Governers, first his aunt Margaretha and later his sister Maria. A key reason that draw him back to the Low Countries was an accusation by the Paris Parlement,  in 1537, that Charles had broken  the Ladies Peace of 1529 and France consequently  resumed possession of Flanders, Artois and Charolais. The Estates General of the Netherlands granted Governess Maria 200,000 gulden a month to recover the territories. Hendrik van Nassau led the imperial armies, his last major job for the Emperor within the Low Countries. Charles had started to become agitated about his arrogant behaviour.

During his return in 1537-39, a deputation from Holland went to Ghent to ask the Emperor to visit them. He accepted the invitation and started a four month tour, starting in Vlissingen (Flushing) he travelled to Middelburg, Veere, Goes, Zierikzee, Brouwershaven, Klundert and Dordrecht. Here his sister Maria joined him and together they continued to Rotterdam, Delft, The Hague (Binnenhof), Haarlem, Amsterdam, Utrecht (House of the Teutonic Order), Vianen, Gorinchem, Heuden, ‘s Hertogenbosch, Loon op Zand, Geertruidenberg, Breda, Bergen op Zoom (Markiezenhof), Antwerp, Mechelen and back to Brussels.

In 1545 Charles was again in the Low Countries where he travelled with his sister Maria to Utrecht for the Council meeting of the Golden Fleece. However,Charles had a severe attack of gout in ‘s Hertogenbosch and had to stay here from the 4th till the 28th of December.  Maria travelled on and Charles arrived in Utrecht on December 30th .

Ongoing war with France

Throughout his reign France was the major enemy of Charles V. The key reason for this lay in the fact that France didn’t accept Habsburg rule over the Burgundian lands. However, for the first part of his reign the conflicts were mainly played out in Italy. The city states always in war with each other invited the great powers of the day to support their cause and this brought France and the Habsburg Empire in constant conflict with each other. The wars are known as the Italian Wars or the Habsburg-Valois Wars. As so often is the case with these ‘invitees’, in the end it are the initiators – in this case  the Italian City states – who are he major losers, it led to the end of the independence of the Italian city states.

For a short while also England became involved in the broader European conflict. This happened soon after Charles’ reign started when he broken marriage promises made to King Henry VIII  into the arms of Francois I. In 1526 they forced closer relationships and started to position themselves against the Emperor. After the sacking of Rome by imperial forces in 1527,  the pope (who was captured during this siege) wanted to distance himself from the Emperor but he remained worried about future attacks on Rome and on his position and didn’t dare to stand up against the Emperor any more.  This made it for example impossible for him to offend the Emperor by granting King Henry VIII the annulment that he sought of his marriage to the Emperor’s aunt Catherine of Aragon, so Henry eventually broke with Rome, thus leading to the English Reformation.

During the 2nd Italian War, France influence in Italy had significantly weakened and it was no longer a threat to the Charles V. France, now started to concentrate its war effort with the Habsburgs to the Low Countries.  They started to built a range of ultra modern fortresses on the border , which at that time was relatively close to Paris. From now we see Charles war efforts moving towards the north. The Low Countries were the richest part of his empire and it had excellent communication facilities with its sea and river ports. Within the  17 provinces of the Low Countries, three of them: Holland, Brabant and Flanders provided 75%  of total revenue, with the other 14 providing the remaining 25%. Another strategic advantage was that most towns were well fortified and gave him a strong position for both commercial and war efforts.

Charles saw Ghent together with Cambrai as the most important defence citadels in his border region with France.

The conquest of Gent

At the same time Charles also started to extend its control over the cities. Through his administration he forced the cities to elect their rulers only with his permission and at the same time limited their influence. Gent was the city that was able to resit this the longest but eventually Charles took direct control. After a very bloody and messy war an armistice was signed in June 1537. A defiant Gent refused to pay the extra taxes needed for his war against France and as a consequence of that Charles rather heavy handedly, used the opportunity to finally address the ongoing revolts of the cities during a campaign that ended two years later in 1539. He severely punished the city, all the leaders were executed and the citizens were ordered to march barefoot with nooses around their necks.

France funding the Gelre war

The French King  had already for a long time, used the Duke of Gelre as his ally to create havoc in the Burgundian Netherlands, simply to undermine the Habsburgs and provided Gelre with ongoing funds to wage war on the Empire. This finally brought several of the Dutch Provinces to negotiate with Charles V for military assistance and for the first time the Provinces voluntarily agreed to pay Charles money for these military operations. This led in 1527 to the Treaty of Schoonhoven, whereby the Bishop of Utrecht puts his territory under the sovereignty of the Emperor in exchange for financial assistance in his fight with Gelre. This also brought ‘Oversticht’ under the control of Charles (Groningen, Drente and Overijssel). The following year the Emperor’s rights over Holland, Gelderland, Overijssel and Brabant were again confirmed at the Treaty of Gorinchem, thus lessening the independence of the local nobility and the local cities.

More progress followed in 1536 when at the Treaty of Grave Charles of Gelre also ceded control over Drenthe, Groningen and the Ommelanden.

The conquest of Gelre in 1543 was of particular importance. Ever since Charles the Reckless tried to subdue this county back in 1473 – as well as in the century before –  there had been continuous military actions of the duke of Gelre into Holland and Brabant. During more recent years France had financed Gelre to create havoc in the Netherlands and enormous damage was done by Maarten van Rossum. This had a devastating effect on the Netherlands and brought Governess Queen Maria in desperation. Finally she could convince her brother to take personal control of  the situation. After the conquest of Gelre Charles moved on towards France. The French had captured Luxemburg and parts of Hainault. On November 2nd he marched his troops to meet the enemy, only to find the French had fled. Charles undertook a pursuit with mixed success, they stopped at the Scheldt. From this time onwards political pressure was put on the French supporters. In Cambrai he was able to enter the citadel and set up a garrison. The campaign had  turned out to be a victorious  military action that led to the unification of the semi-autonomous Netherlands under one central Administration.

The following year he continued his campaign and regained Luxembourg, the Rene of Chalon the young Prince of Orange played a key role but was wounded and died at St Dizier. The capture the region between the rivers Maas and Marne and the road to Paris lay open. However, in the end in Charles’ typical way of handling such situations he arranged a peace conference in St Armand a final treaty was signed in Crépy (Picardy) in September that year. By signing this treaty Charles also finally accepted that he would not be able to regain his hereditary rights over Burgundy. (However, peace didn’t last for long in 1551 under the new French King Henry II, hostitlities started again this time Charles had to face a devastating defeat at Metz – an event reverberated to well into modern times).

But back to 1544, one of the most joyful people appreciating the peace treaty of Crépy was Charles’s sister Eleonora, who finally could visit her native town Brussels again,which she did a month after the treaty was signed. This was turned into a large party with tournaments, games and balls. A large part of Charles’ family was gathered on this occasion.

After the Diet in Augsburg in 1548 he travelled via the Rhine and stayed with his sister in Leuven from where he proceeded to Brussels where he stayed from September 1548 till May 1550.

Transaction of Augsburg the formation of the Burgundian Kreits

At the Reichstag (Diet) in Augsburg, on the 26th June 1548, Charles united the 17 provinces in a semi-autonomous region, exempted from the jurisdiction of the Imperial Reichskammergericht – the Burgundian Circle (Kreits) built on the consolidation work of those earlier dukes of Burgundy. In exchange these privileges the  Netherlands would have to fund some of the government themselves.

In what is known as the Pragmatic Sanction (Pragmatieke Sanctie) of 1549 all the provinces came together at the States General where they ratified the edict of Augsburg. Charles was now able to centralise the administrative units of the Seventeen Provinces and thus transformed this 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 seventeen provinces would be inherited by one heir, Charles effectively united the Netherlands as one entity

Queen Maria of Hungary became the Governess of the first formation of what would eventually become The Netherlands. She had quite a task ahead of herself in getting all the provinces behind this new concept as not all were convinced that this would be the best way forward for them.

As a result we also see an increase of the Dutch nobility entering the court with family names such as: Croÿ, Egmond, Glymes, Horn, Kleef, Lalaing, Ligne, Luxemburg, Nassau, Buren,Poitiers and Trazegenies.

Despite the unification there remained some 30 ‘foreign’ enclaves within the Netherlands. Near Oss they included Megen, Ravenstein, Gennep and Batenburg.

While the unification under Burgundy finally ended the wars and lawlessness in the northern Netherlands (Schieringers and Vetkopers and Kabeljouwen and Hoeken and similar fraction disputes elsewhere), this Burgundian ‘state’ never was the unity that it name stood for.  The Habsburg regime never got a good hold on NE Netherlands. Furthermore, there was a strong north-south divide.  There was great apathy towards a united Netherlands in the south and very few paid any attention to it. The south  never wanted to see their taxes paid for activities in the north  at the same time the north resented the large number of southerners who were given prominent positions in their provinces. The Stadholders (provincial governors) were nearly always southerners.  It started to fall apart during the war of independence of the Netherlands which started in 1568. Five years later the Burgundian Circle was nothing more than a piece of paper, it had lasted for less than 30 years. It was revived after the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, but only survived for another 30 years when after the war of independence Belgium was split off 1830.

The core of the Kreits remained: Flanders, Artois, Brabant, Hainault. Holland and Zeeland. The fact that these 17 provinces were brought together did not mean that there was any unity. The territory was divided by a language barrier, also the official imperial border cut through the area and various ecclesiastic borders crossed the region (and even beyond) as well numerous borders of duchies, counties and manor houses. It would take several centuries before the various provinces – be it by than in different countries: the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg – started to form unities.


In February the following year Maria travelled back to Brussels while Charles travelled to the Reichstag (Diet) in Regensburg.  It was here that he gave in to the temptations of one of the city’s respectable daughters Barbara Blomberg, who gave him a (bastard) son who later on as Don John of Austria played a key role in European history.

Of the 17 Diets that Charles organised during his reign seven were held in Augsburg, It was here that the important banking house of Fuggers and Welsers. Money was the most serious ongoing problem of most ruling noble families and these banks therefore played a key role in the economy of the Empire – as a matter of fact Augsburg was seen at the financial centre of the world at that time. Most kings didn’t live on the income of their lands but on the perpetual mortgaging of future income. Charles often stayed at the these families and no doubt that will have saved him some accommodation expenses.

The exuberance of Regensburg didn’t last long. The internal situation in Germany had become so polarised that the first religious war between the Catholic Emperor and the Protestants Estates finally erupted in July 1546. Also the Netherlands were mobilised and the Count of Buren was ordered to recruit an army of 10,000 in order to prevent the Protestants to enter these countries.

At that same time he allowed the bitterly humiliated Duke William of Cleves to marry his 15 year old niece Mary of Austria, thus further strengthening his border region of Germany. As mentioned above Charles did win this battle but at the same time time lost his war against Protestantism. In the battle  Count Maximilian van Buren played a decisive role for the Emperor. Another Dutch Commander, Josse van Cruningen, played a key role in the capturing of Tecklenburg, Osnabrück, Lippe, Hoya, Schaumburg and Minden.


Under Charles watch the Reformation started and the consequences of that would haunt him through life and at the end of his life he regretted that had not been able to protect his faith throughout his Empire. At the same time he had to keep his family’s Habsburg possession together and the German lands – where the Reformation started – was a key element of this. This forced the Emperor to make concessions to the Protestant Princes within his Empire as he needed their help for example to fight the Turks who were in front of the gates of Vienna.

Charles also was well aware of the many abuses within the Catholic Church and he tirelessly tried to get to Pope to reform the Church, he believed that by reforming the Church he would be able to find compromises with the German Protestant Princes. However both Pope and the other authorities at the Vatican were mostly interested to maintain their own power and that of their family members and the reformation of the Church did not eventuate. It was in these issues that he often took a more humanistic approach which was more aligned with the new era that of the Renaissance.

What started as a defensive league of German princes aimed at protection the freedom of religion, became a political league against the Holy Roman Empire. The so called Schmalkaldic League was officially established in 1531, by Philip I, Landgrave of Hesse, and John Frederick I, Elector of Saxon, Anhalt, Württemberg, Pomerania, as well as the free imperial cities of Augsburg, Hanover, Frankfurt am Main (video clip), and Kempten all joined the alliance.

For obvious reasons Francis I of France was only too happy to join  the League, however he  later retracted due to religious conflicts from within his country. In 1538 it allied with newly reformed Denmark, this brought the King of Denmark Christian III in direct conflict with Charles V, whose sister Isabelle (see above) was married with the King. However, in 1544 Denmark and the Holy Roman Empire signed the Treaty of Speyer, which stated that during the reign of Christian III of Denmark his country  would maintain a peaceful foreign policy towards the Holy Roman Empire. In 1539 the League had also acquired Brandenburg and in 1545 it gained the allegiance of the Electoral Palatinate. The Duke of Cleve also joined the League in an effort to get control over Gelre. It was not until 1546/47 that Charles V finally took action and defeated the protestant forces. However, at the Peace of Augsburg,  in the year of his death (1555), Lutheranism was granted official status within the Holy Roman Empire. The Peace established the principle ‘Cuius regio, eius religio’ which allowed for the princes to choose the official religion within the domains they controlled.

The Reformation in the Low Countries took a rather different turn. There was an equal repulsion against the deplorable state of affairs within the Catholic Church. With a highly urbanised and literate population information about the Reformation was widely available and widely read. But here there were no princes who took up the call, it became very much a grassroots developments and from the 1520’s onwards spread rapidly throughout both the northern and the southern provinces. This lead to violent persecutions by the Habsburg rulers  with hundreds of people beheaded, burned at the stake or in the case of women, drowned in rivers.This behaviour only strengthened the movement and eventually became a key cause of the Dutch Revolt.  In the beginning however, many people inwardly supported the reformation, while outwardly they paid lip service to the ‘official’ church.

However, the rather unstructured nature of the developments of protestantism allowed for an influx of competing ideas in how the Reformation should be developed, some wanted to do this from within the Church (eg Erasmus), others came up with ideas and suggestions on how to formalise Luther’s ideas and institutionalise them.  After lots of internal conflicts and infighting, this eventually led to the move towards Calvinism.

Because of the persecution, thousands of Dutchmen fled to Germany and England, they developed so called refugees churches and in Germany some towns developed total Dutch suburbs. These refugee churches became influential in developing the Reformation in the Low Countries. It were these churches that started to adopt the far more structured approach that Calvinism had to offer and from here this spread throughout the Netherlands.

Governess Maria of Hungary

Charles five year younger sister, was born in Brussels in 1505, she was named after her grandmother Maria of Burgundy. Her godmothers where the ladies Ravenstein and Nassau. After the death of her father she lived with her brother and sisters Eleonora and Isabella in Mechelen, as we have seen before they were raised by their aunt Margareta of Australia. In 1506, again a double marriage (Wiener Doppelhochzeit) was arranged by Maximilian I this time for his grandchildren Catharina and Ferdinand. with the two children of King Vladilav II of Hungary and Anna van Foix. Louis and Anna. It was arranged that Maria would be the reserve in case Catherina would die early. It was Maria who in 1514 moved to Vienna and it is unsure why Catharina was bypassed. Here she lived with her sister-in-law to be Anna of Hungary at the Cilli Court opposite the Hofburg, until 1516.

After the death of her father the twelve year old Anna was married by proxy to Ferdinand – who as a 13 year old at that time resided in Spain. However, there were bitter succession wars in Hungary where several contenders tried to use this situation to claim the position of rulers of Hungary and Bohemia and because of these circumstances it was decided that it would be safer to bring both Maria and Anna to Innsbruck where the situation was less volatile, furthermore Maximilian did send his troops to Hungary to fight the rebels in order to safeguard the inheritances of his grandchildren. Nevertheless Maria always maintained that these years in Buda had been the best years of her life. [3. Maria van Hongarije en haar hof 1505 – 1558, Jacqueline Kerkhof, 2008]

In 1520 Anna and Ferdinand got married in Innsbruck and a year later Maria could travel to Buda, she was crowned Queen of Hungary in December that year and in January 1522, she finally was married to King Louis II of Hungary. Because of the war situation these ceremonies did not receive the usual splendour. In February that year she was in Prague also crowned as Queen of Bohemia. From 1523 onwards they lived at the castle in Buda, still an impressive complex that we visited in 2003. However, at the Court she wasn’t made welcome as many of the rivalries were still very much alive.

In 1526 after her young and beloved husband had died in that battle of Mohács against the Turks she became a widow.  She also lost most of her personal processions during her flight. A love stricken and a depressed Maria refused to marry again, despite the pressure put on her by her brothers Charles and Ferdinand. She was supported in this by her aunt Margaretha who had raised her as her own child. After Louis’s death, Maria did put all of her effort behind the next succession war to promote her brother Ferdinand Ultimately Ferdinand was forced to launch a military attack on his opponents and could claim the crowns of Hungary and Bohemia in 1527. As Maria’s income and possessions where linked to her position as the ex queen of Hungary she was now depending on Ferdinand for a settlement, this situation would drag on until 1548.

After the much loved Dutch Governess Margareta of Australia had passed away the role of governor-general of the Low Countries was in 1531 passed on to a young and totally unprepared Maria of Hungary.

In 1531, still under the governance of Margareta, Charles reformed the political situation in the Low Countries. The Court  became permanently split in an administrative government and the royal court. This is an important development in history as this would become the base for modern government which would basically remain in place till the Napoleonic time.  Charles understood the importance of keeping the local nobility on his side and the local (southern) nobilities were given more prominent roles in the new Government.The government moved to Brussels and when Maria became the new governess she also moved her court to Brussels. Margaretha’s court had been in Mechelen.

Maria’s influence within the Low Countries was – at the start of her reign – very low and was basically in the hands of her advisers.

The  Government was  formalised in three Councils:

  • Council of State (Raad van State) one of the oldest, still operating, government bodies in the world. It is the official advisory body of the Dutch Government. At its start it was the main political body and decided over war and peace.
  • Council of Finance, also included clerical experts (not just nobles).
  • Secret Council, the law making body.

The Grote Raad stayed in Mechelen.

Council of State 1531

  • Filips van Croÿ – Margrave of Aarschot
  • Floris van Egmond – Count of Buren
  • Jacob van Luxemburg – Lord of Fiennes and Count of Gavre
  • Adolf van Bourgondië – Lord of Beveren
  • Anton van Lalaing – Count of Hoogstraten
  • Anton van Croÿ – Lord of Sempy
  • Jan van Bergen – Margrave – Bergen op Zoom and his son  Anton Lord of Walhain
  • Filips van Lannoy – Lord of Molembais

The chief representatives of the Habsburg rulers in the provinces were the Stadholders –  who functioned as provincial governor. At the start Hendrik van Nassau was made Stadholder-general.

At a district and rural level, the Hapsburg directly appointed the baljuws or drosten, they were the link between the provincial High Courts and the countryside, towns and villages. They also presided over the hoogheemraadschappen (the regional water management authorities in charge of the dikes and the drainage works). Increasingly these functions were filled by non-nobles.

One level below this were the schouts representing the ruler at a regional district and town level (places that fell outside the jurisdiction of the baljuw), also here over time nobles were replaced by non-nobles.

The administration of the town was in the hands of a council (raad, vroedschap). Also here increasingly the central government increased their supervision and this in particular effected cities such as Brugge and Gent, who basically lost the independence they has enjoyed for over 300 years.

Without direct control by the Lord of the Land, the nobility of the southern provinces had been able to individually become powerful Lords of their own lands, more interested in their vested interests and busy with infightings. After a rather difficult start – where the inexperienced Maria  had to win the respect of these very independently minded nobility – she became a true leader, eventually respected by all of the nobility.

Maria stayed close to two of her advisers (Antoine van Croÿ and Fillip van Lannoy) and was also on good terms with the members  of the Secret Councils.  She  became this strong and popular ruler despite the fact that she was often undermined by her two brothers because of either a lack of decision taking or through decisions that bypassed her. Money remained an ongoing problem and as before most courts were continuously on the brink of bankruptcy and where forever financing themselves through income that would be generated in the future, most of their possession where for that reasons leased off.

She made several inspection tours through the Low Countries andvisited all provinces (some were covered in her trip with her brother). The closest towns in our regions she visited were ‘s Hertogenbosch and Nijmegen in Brabant and Gelre and Oldenzaal and Almelo in Twente. During her trip to the northern provinces she was also accompanied by the young prince William of Orange After the death of his father Rene van Chalon in 1544 during the battle of St Dizier, Willem became the heir of his father’s titles and properties. He stayed at Maria’s court until his marriage in 1551 with Anna van Buren, daughter of the celebrated  Count Maximilian, who had played such a key role in the Emperor’s war of 1547/48 in Germany.

In 1547, she finally again received the long longed company of family when her sister Eleonora moved in with her after the death of her 2nd husband the French King Francois I. She had been asking her brother, ever since she had been appointed, to be allowed to visit her sister in Paris, the refusal – for political reasons – was possibly the reason for  the severe depression she suffered in 1534.

As we saw above, under her governance the Low Countries became a semi-autonomous legal entity under the Burgundian Kreits. She also had to face the religious problems that were caused by the Reformation (see: Popular Uprisings). While she had to execute the so called posters (plakkaten) from her brother and prosecute the ‘heretics’, she herself was a rather moderate and was often pictured by the Catholics as a supporter of the Reformation. As part of the formation of the Burgundian Kreits certain protestant practises were tolerated as long as they submitted themselves to the authority of the emperor.

Charles gave his sister the castle of Binche south of Brussels, as a reward for her devoted service. One of her favourite pastimes was hunting, she already enjoyed this with her husband in Hungary and at Binche she organised many hunting parties. She rebuilt it in conscious emulation of Fontainebleau; it was destroyed by the French in 1554 as a reprisal for her support to Charles during the battle of Metz. When Charles abdicated as Emperor in 1555, Maria abdicated as Governess. The abdication stared with his resignation as the sovereignty of the Order of the Golden Fleece in Brussels on October 22nd. Three day later he Charles’ son became the new ruler as King Philips II in the presence of his sister Mary and all of the nobility of the Netherlands. He entered the great room in the castle of Koudenberg, leaning on the shoulders of Prince William of Orange – an irony not lost in history as it was William who a decade later would become the leader the Dutch Protestant Revolt against Philip II. At all accounts the ceremony in Brussels was very moving and emotional, the Emperor was visibly tired and spoke emotionally about his reign and about the task that he expected from his son. Also Mary spoke and abdicated and Charles emotionally expressed his gratitude to her.

Mary was succeeded as Governor by Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy, she supported him – under the new emperor Philips II – for another year. However, she was very reluctant about this and had never been able to establish a good contact with her nephew. Emmanuel family relationship is also interesting. He was a grandson of the father of  Margaretha of Burgundy’s second marriage (Philip of Savoy x Claudine de Bosse of Brittany – son Carlos II x Beatrice of Portugal).

Emmanuel was married to Margaret of Valois, the daughter of the French King Francois I, whose mother was Louise of Savoy and an aunt of Emmanuel. Beatrice of Portugal was the sister of Isabella who was married to Charles V whose son Philips II became King of Spain and as such also related to Margaretha and Maria. When she abdicated she indicated that she had learned during her 25 years as a governess that whatever qualities a woman might have she is not well suited to govern neither in peacetime nor during wars, as she is neither respected not feared as a man.

In late 1556 she left, together with Charles and Eleonora, for Spain. The party travelled in eight hulks with 2250 sailors, 652 passengers, 104 horses, 950 suitcases and food stores for 2 months. In the end the trip took 2 weeks to complete.

From Spain Charles followed with great interests the various victories of the Dutch against the French. Count Egmont won in 1557 the celebrated victory at St.Quentin on the Flemish border and his other victory the following year stopping the French to break through from Dunkirk to Calais.

Within on year of each other all three died in 1558, Eleonora in February, Charles in September and Mary in October. She died at a temporary villa she occupied at that time in Cigales, she had three heart attacks within one month. In her last will she requested that her heart-shaped gold medallion, once worn by her husband, be melted down and distributed among the poor.

Maria was a keen collector art, and owned several important masterpieces of Early Netherlandish painting as well as more contemporary works. These included the Deposition of Christ by Rogier van der Weyden, now Prado, andthe Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, now National Gallery, London. Most of the collection passed to the Spanish Royal Collection after her death. Her other favourite pastime was music she established and extended her chapel choir and at many occasions they were used to perform. With her the last ‘natural ruler’ of the country died.

The Burgundian/Habsburg aftermath

One could argue that 1540 marked the end of the first ‘democratic’ movement that had started somewhere around the 13thcentury. During those 250 years cities such as Gent, Brugge, Mechelen and Antwerp played a key role in politics and most of the time enjoyed a very large proportion of self governance, where at least the burghers and merchants also had a say in how their cities were ruled. It was not until the French revolution another 250 years later that such forms of democracy started to come back again. Of course during those intervening 250 years some of the cities in Holland were able to wrestle some sort of independence, but at a much lesser scale than had been the case in the preceding Burgundian period. After Charles death his son Philip became King Philip II of Spain and he also inherited the Netherlands. He grew up at the Spanish court and when he took over the reign in and could neither speak Dutch or French. He no longer was seen as the ‘natural’ ruler of the Low Countries. His authoritarian background only further exacerbated that situation. Add to this the uncompromising stand of Philip in relation to the Religious Reformation which started in 1517 and the writing was on the wall for some dramatic changes.

In the Netherlands he was represented by his half sister Margaretha the Duchess of Parma, the illegitimate daughter of Charles V and Johanna Maria van der Gheynst.  Like her aunts, who trained her, Margaret had many abilities. In ordinary times she could probably have proved as successful a ruler as her two predecessors in that post, but her task was very different from theirs. She had to face the rising storm of discontent against the Inquisition and Spanish despotism, and Philip left her but nominal authority. In 1567 Margaret resigned her post into the hands of the Duke of Alba and retired to L’Aquila in Italy.

See also: The Burgundian Court System

The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)