Flanders (Vlaanderen in Flemish, Flandre in French), originally the name of the district around Bruges, became the name applied to the territory between the rivers Scheldt and Somme, ruled by its own series of counts, nominally subservient to their masters in Paris but often the rulers of a de facto independent state. Most of historic Flanders now lies within the modern state of Belgium, although parts are in the Netherlands and southern Flanders is now part of France and forms the region known as the Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
The Origins of Flanders
The medieval county of Flanders originates from the tangled love life of one Judith Martel, daughter of Charles the Bald, and therefore a granddaughter of Charlemagne. This Judith was married off to Aethelwulf, king of Wessex in about the year 856. This was Aethelwulf's second marriage (he was about 51 and she probably 13) and there were no offspring and so on Aethelwulf's death in 858, she then married his eldest son, Aethelbald, but this Aethelbald himself died in 860. Judith then returned to France where the Franks, who viewed her second marriage to Aethalbald as verging on the incestuous and so deposited her in a convent at Senlis. There she might have remained but for one Baldwin Iron Arm, a warrior of obscure origins, who took a shine to Judith and abducted her from the convent and fled to Lorraine where the two were married in 862.
Charles the Bald eventually decided to accept his new son-in-law and made him Margrave of Flanders in 864. The title of Margrave signifying that this was a border command, an appointment that may well have been inspired by the problems that Charles was having with Viking raiders along his northern coastline. (One particular group of Vikings were busily establishing themselves in the Seine valley at the time). Baldwin was therefore preoccupied with the defence of his new territory from these Scandinavian raiders and built castles at both Bruges and Ghent.
The House of Flanders
Baldwin Iron Arm was succeeded by his son Baldwin II known as Baldwin the Bald, who was notable for marrying Aelfthryth, daughter of Alfred the Great. Baldwin II was succeeded in turn by his son Arnulf the Elder in 958 who later retired and placed his authority in the hands of his son Baldwin, who unfortunately died in 962 forcing Arnulf to resume his old position until his own death in 965. It was around this time that Arnulf dropped the title of Margrave in favour of that of Count, a title which has since been retrospectively applied to his predecessors. Arnulf was succeeded by his grandson Arnulf II who is not unnaturally known as Arnulf the Younger who on his death in 989, and he was followed by his son Baldwin IV known as Baldwin the Bearded.
Baldwin the Bearded and his son Baldwin V who presided over the expansion of Flanders eastwards, gaining control over territory between the Scheldt and the Dender together with town of Antwerp, that technically lay within the Holy Roman Empire, thus giving rise to the distinction between Crown Flanders (Kroon Vlaanderen), and Imperial Flanders (Rijks Vlaanderen). (The latter being within the Empire, the former subject to France.) Baldwin V was sufficiently influential to be appointed Regent of France in 1060 (during the minority of Philip I) and for his daughter Matilda of Flanders to be married to William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy and future king of England.
After the death of Baldwin V in 1067 matters become a little confusing.
Baldwin V had two sons; the eldest son Baldwin of Mons married Richilde the heiress of Regnier V and thus came into possession of Hainault, and the youngest Robert the Frisian who married Gertrude of Saxony, widow of Floris I Count of Holland and thus became regent of that county. On the death of Baldwin V in 1067, Crown Flanders passed to Baldwin of Mons who became recognised as Count, but Imperial Flanders, granted earlier by Baldwin V to Robert on the occasion of his marriage, remained outside the direct control of Baldwin VI.
Baldwin was dissatisfied with this and a civil war ensued. Baldwin was killed in 1070 and nominally succeeded by his son Arnulf. Both sides in the civil war then looked for outside help; Robert to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV whilst Richilde, Baldwin's widow prevailed on both Philip I of France and her aunt Matilda of Flanders. Matilda sent William Fitz Osbern at the head of a Franco-Norman army to challenge Robert and his allies but at the battle of Ravenshoven, near Cassel, on the 22nd of February 1071 it was Robert who was victorious. Both Arnulf and William were killed, Richilde was taken prisoner and Robert was consequently recognised by both Philip I and Henry IV as Count.
Robert died in 1093 and was followed by his son Robert II known as 'The Lance and Sword of Christendom' as a result of his exploits during the First Crusade. His son and successor, Baldwin VII known as Baldwin with the Axe, was killed in battle in 1119 and died leaving no heirs, and proved to be the last direct male descendant of the original Baldwin Iron Arm.
The Danish and Norman Counts
Prior to his death Baldwin VII had drawn up a will and nominated his successor as his cousin Charles the Good, son of Knut IV of Denmark and Adele (daughter of Robert I). Despite proving to be a capable ruler Charles annoyed a number of vested interests in the county and was assassinated on the 2nd March 1127 in a coup promoted by the chancellor Berthulf with a view to placing his own candidate, William of Ypres in charge.
The French king Louis VI, who was eager to exert a greater degree of control over Flanders, however intervened and insisted on his choice of William Clito (son of Robert Curthose) becoming count. This did not meet with the approval of the citizens of Bruges and Ghent who put forward their own candidate, Thierry of Alsace, whose mother was Gertrude, daughter of Robert I and Dietrich II, the Duke of Lorraine. A short civil war resulted, which William Clito appeared to be winning up until the moment he was killed at the battle of Axspoele in 1128.
House of Alsace
With the death of William Clito, Thierry also variously known as Diederik, Dietrich, Dirk or Didrik, became count without any further opposition and even married the widow of Charles the Good, Marguerite of Clermont for good measure. Thierry proved to be a capable and prudent ruler who also distinguished himself during the Second Crusade. In 1157 he resigned in favour of his son Philip of Alsace and disappeared off on crusade once more before finally retiring to a monastery shortly before his death.
Philip of Alsace was as competent as his father, stood as godfather to Philip Augustus and married him off to his niece Isabella of Hainault (1180). Like his father, Philip became a crusader and took part in the Third Crusade, where he died at Acre in 1191.
The House of Hainault
Philip left no sons and so Flanders passed into the hands of his sister Margareta and her husband Baldwin of Hainault. (Who was Baldwin VIII of Flanders and Baldwin V of neighbouring Hainault). Baldwin however faced opposition from the French, and was forced to surrender large portions of southern Flanders to France in order to win their acceptance to his assumption of authority in Flanders.
This Baldwin died in 1195 and was succeeded by his son Baldwin IX, who left to participate in the Fourth Crusade and had the distinction of being installed as Emperor in Constantinople. This did not prove to be an entirely happy experience for Baldwin as he was soon captured in battle with the Bulgarians and died whilst still their a prisoner in 1206.
Whilst he was absent on crusade Baldwin had appointed Philip, Marquess of Namur as regent, but this Philip proved incapable of preventing the two daughters (Baldwin's only children and now heiresses to Flanders) from falling into the hands of the French king Philip Augustus. The king married the elder sister Johanna of Constantinople to his nephew Ferrand of Portugal and the younger sister Margaret to Burchard of Avesnes; both of whom were believed by Philip Augustus to be sufficiently compliant to follow his direction.
This did not prove to be the case as Ferrand (son of king Sancho I of Portugal) joined an alliance with England and the Holy Roman Emperor to resist the French. Ferrand was, however taken prisoner after the battle of Bouvines in 1214 and was imprisoned in the Louvre. Ferrand, also known as Ferrante or Ferdinand was subsequently released in 1226 but died in 1233. A few years after his death Johanna married again this time Thomas of Savoy, but died childless in 1244.
Thus on Johanna's death Flanders passed to her sister Margaret. Margaret's marriage to Burchard of Avesnes had been annulled in 1221 and in 1225 she married William of Dampierre. Both marriages produced sons and whilst Margaret favoured her son William of Dampierre (the eldest son of her second marriage) John of Avesnes, the eldest son by her first marriage, believed he should be given priority in the succession. A civil war ensued once more, as the two sided fought over who should succeed their mother, which eventually ended in a compromise imposed by the French in 1246, whereby Flanders was granted to William of Dampierre, and Hainault to John of Avesnes thus severing the link between the two counties that had been established in 1191.
House of Dampierre
William died in 1251 and so it was followed by his younger brother Guy of Dampierre. Feeling threatened by the Avesnes dynasty in Hainault which acquired control over both Holland and Zeeland, in 1297 he entered into alliance with Edward I of England directed against Philip the Fair of France; Philip however overran Flanders and imprisoned Guy in 1300. Thereafter the citizens of Bruges rebelled against the French in 1302, slaughtering the garrison during the Matins of Bruges on the 19th May 1302 and subsequently defeated the French at the battle of Courtrai in the same year. However French victory at the battle of Mons-en-Pevele in 1304 restored something approaching the status quo and although Flanders retained its independence as a result of Peace of Athis in 1305 this was at the price of the surrender of Lille, Douai and Bethune.
Guy died in 1305 and was succeeded by his son Robert of Bethune; both his sons had predeceased him and he was followed by his grandson Louis of Nevers in 1322. It was at this time that the Anglo-French conflict known as the Hundred Years War began and English policy often looked to an alliance with Flanders to open up northern front against France. Since the Anglo-Flemish wool trade was of significant economic benefit to both, the Flemish towns were pro English in outlook. Louis of Nevers was however pro-French and faced with rebellion of the Anglophile towns he called on French military assistance which duly arrived and defeated the rebels at the battle of Cassel in 1328.
However opposition to Louis of Nevers continued and one Jacob van Artvelde emerged as their leader and formed the League of Flemish Towns in 1336. They allied themselves with England, and took part in Edward's great naval victory at the battle of Sluis in 1340. Jacob was however assassinated in 1345, whilst Louis of Nevers was killed fighting for the French at the battle of Crecy in 1346.
Louise of Male succeeded his father as count in 1346, and inherited the same pro-French outlook. Faced with another rebellion, this time under the leadership of Philip van Artevelde, Louise called on the assistance of the French once more who defeated the rebels at the battle of Rozebeke in 1382. An English attempt to intervene in Flanders in 1383, known as the Crusade of the Bishop of Norwich proved an ignominious failure.
The last Counts of Flanders
But when Louis of Male died in the following year, leaving behind only a daughter Margaret of Male. Margaret had been married to Philip of Rouvre, Duke of Burgundy but he had died of the plague in 1361. Margaret then married Philip the Bold, who himself became Duke of Burgundy in 1364. Flanders therefore came under the control of Burgundy, with the title of count being assumed by both Philip the Good and his son Charles the Bold, and on Charles's death in 1477 passing to his daughter Mary of Burgundy. Mary married Maximilian Archduke of Austria and later Holy Roman Emperor and thus on her death in 1482 all her possessions passed into the hands of the Habsburg family.
Flanders was subject to Austria until 1556 when it passed to Philip II of Spain as part of the Spanish Netherlands, where it remained until 1714 when under the Peace of Utrecht was returned to Austria. (Minus some parts of western Flanders annexed by France.) Austria lost control of Flanders as a result of the post French Revolutionary Wars and in 1815 the Congress of Vienna decided that Flanders should form part of the new United Kingdom of the Netherlands. There it remained until 1830 when Belgium gained its independence.
Modern Counts of Flanders
The title of count of Flanders was revived by Leopold I, king of the Belgians in 1840 in favour of his second son, Philippe Eugene Ferdinand. Philippe died in 1905 and his eldest son Albert was know under that title until he succeeded as king in 1909. Albert I subsequently granted the title to his second son, Karel Théodore Henri or Charles who died without issue in 1983. The current king of Belgium does not appear to have followed the precedent set by his predecessors and there is currently no Count of Flanders.
Note that as far as this list of the Counts of Flanders is concerned, the division of the successive counts into various 'houses' is entirely the invention of this author.
THE COUNTS OF FLANDERS
HOUSE OF FLANDERS
HOUSE OF DENMARK
HOUSE OF NORMANDY
- William Clito] (1127-1128)
HOUSE OF ALSACE
HOUSE OF HAINAULT
Listed as counts of Flanders by virtue of marriage with Joanna
HOUSE OF DAMPIERRE
Thereafter see Duke of Burgundy until 1477, following which Monarchs of Austria until 1556, then Monarchs of Spain until 1714, then Monarchs of Austria again until 1815.
Modern counts of Flanders
- Margraves and Counts of Flanders, 862-1405 AD
- The entries for Flanders in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica and the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia.
- Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
- Federal Kingdom Belgium: Genealogy of the Royal Family