Basquing in the glow
Maybe they were fishermen looking for fresh fishing grounds or explorers broadening their horizons. But the first Spaniards to arrive in Flanders were, in any case, probably the Basques. Noted for their expert seamanship, they could easily have made a voyage through the Bay of Biscay, up the coast of France and into Bruges.
For over 400 years, Spain has had a huge impact on life in Flanders
But stepping onto the quay in early mediaeval Bruges, their eyes would have alighted on a precious commodity: high quality Flemish cloth. Quickly calculating the profits, they suddenly decided to become cloth merchants. The export of Flemish cloth into Spain soon became big business.
By the end of the 14th century, Spain had the opportunity to play an even more significant role in Flanders. To protect its own cloth industry, England had slapped a hefty tax on the export of English wool. Flemish merchants looked for a cheaper alternative, and found it in Spain. Spanish wool – from the country’s Merino sheep – began to be massively exported by carrack and later caravel from Basque harbours.
Spanish wool may have been cheaper than English wool, but, contrary to common belief, it was not inferior. Quite the opposite, asserted Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations (1776), for “fine cloth is made altogether of Spanish wool”.
It was therefore no surprise to find that Spanish merchants were treated like royalty in Bruges, and later Antwerp. “Their money was extremely important to the economic prosperity and development of Flemish cities like Bruges, Ghent and Ypres,” says Professor René Vermeir from the University of Ghent. “There was an important Spanish Nation in Bruges, consisting of official Castilian and Aragonese merchants working in Bruges and other Flemish cities.”
Charles in Spain (and vice versa)
The influence of Spain in Flanders grew further during the reign of the Habsburg dynasty in the 16th and 17th centuries. Interestingly, Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire (also known as Charles I of Spain), was born in Ghent. When he first went to Spain from Flanders he couldn’t speak a word of Spanish.
During his reign, Spain attained huge global influence and, for well over a century, was the world’s greatest power. On the eve of Charles’ death in 1558, his realm spanned almost four million square kilometres.
Because Spain had conquered the Inca and Aztec empires, its treasure chests were being enriched by silver and gold, as well as new foods like turkey, potato, coffee and chocolate, brought back across the Atlantic. This allowed the Spanish to have a huge influence with Charles.
Charles, meanwhile, was levying heavy taxes on the towns and cloth industry of the Low Countries. Much of this money went towards the construction of forts to protect the southern border against France. “Still, during the reign of Charles V the Low Countries took full advantage of belonging to a world empire,” says Vermeir. “For example, Flemish merchants were able to trade not only directly with Spain but indirectly with Spanish America. The spectacular growth of Antwerp in the first half of the 16th century was one of the positive consequences.”
Charles was succeeded by his son, Philip II. By this time, many Protestants were living in the Low Countries, but Philip believed it was his duty to fight for the Catholic Church. Backed by the zeal of the Jesuits and the Spanish Inquisition, his savage repression of Protestants soon led to a rebellion that disrupted the Spanish empire in the region.
By 1577, Dutch Protestants, led by William of Orange, governed virtually all the Netherlands and demanded freedom of worship. This was too much for Philip, who raised money to send his nephew, the Duke of Parma, with a powerful army to regain control.
The Duke’s “Army of Flanders” started to capture the rebel towns one-by-one. Parma captured the key Port of Antwerp, driving the Dutch rebels back to their northern strongholds. The end result was the formation of the Spanish Netherlands in 1581, which included modern-day Belgium, Luxembourg and part of Northern France. The northern provinces separated from Spanish rule and became the United Provinces.
The creation of the Spanish Netherlands led to a period of relative peace and prosperity. There was a flourishing court at Brussels, and money was poured into commissions for religious art, which supported Flemish masters like Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Denis van Alsloot and Frans Pourbus the Younger. Many churches were also built, such as the famous basilica at Scherpenheuvel.
“The Spanish Netherlands never quite regained the wealth and splendour of the 16th century,” notes Vermeir. “But until about 1650, it remained an important economic centre.”
And then along came Louis
Peace was never going to last long. Spain was increasingly unable to defend itself against the French army of Louis XIV. Bit by bit, the French nibbled away at the territory of the Spanish Netherlands. They annexed Artois and Cambrai in 1659, while Dunkirk was ceded to the English. Through the Treaties of Aix-la-Chapelle and Nijmegen further territory along the border was ceded, including Lille and Valenciennes.
“During this period, the Spanish Netherlands were repeatedly invaded by France,” says Vermeir. “These devastating wars made further economic development impossible.”
The situation became so threatening that the Dutch Republic, which had always been an ally of France and an enemy of Spain, came to Spain's aid. In 1688, France faced an alliance of the Netherlands, England and Spain, in a war that lasted until 1697. For the Spanish Netherlands it was disastrous, with Brussels largely destroyed by French artillery in 1695.
In 1700, Charles II, the last Spanish King of the Habsburg Dynasty, died childless and the War of Spanish Succession broke out. The Spanish crown was taken by Philip V, a Bourbon and the great grandson of Louis XIV (who was still ruling France). Both England and the Dutch Republic were unwilling to see the Spanish Netherlands in the hands of a French satellite. Many of the battles of the war were fought in Belgium, with the British general Lord Marlborough coming out on top.
Eventually, in the Peace of Utrecht of 1713, Spain ceded what was left of the Spanish Netherlands to Austria. It marked the end of the long period of Spain’s direct and significant influence on Flanders.
But the Spanish have kept coming to set up restaurants and work in institutions. The love affair with Spain is far from over.
The Spanish influence is everywhere in Flanders, if you just know where to look
Amigo. The stylish hotel near Grote Markt in Brussels takes its name from a Spanish jail, the Amigo, where lawless citizens were held in the 16th century.
Spaanse Loskaai. The quay in Bruges where Spanish ships unloaded their cargo is still called Spaanse Loskaai, the Spanish Unloading Quay
De Koning van Spanje. This grand café on Grote Markt in Brussels is named after King Charles II of Spain.
Spanjeplein. The small Spanish Square near Central Station in Brussels has a statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza presented to the city by the Spanish government (photo)
Discover the culture and cooking of northern Spain at Les Asturiennes, Sint Laurensstraat 36, Brussels