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Originally the term Netherlands referred to a much larger entity than the current Kingdom of the Netherlands. Charles V of Habsburg was the lord of seventeen provinces roughly covering the current Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and a good part of the North of France (Artois). Most of these were fiefs under the Holy Roman Empire, of which Charles became Emperor himself. Two, Flanders and Artois, were French fiefs. The French king and the Holy Roman Emperor agreed to release all seventeen from the largely nominal and by then anachronistic ties to both realms. This was called the Pragmatic Sanction of 1549.
The 17 Provinces
- the duchy of Brabant
- the duchy of Guelders
- the duchy of Limburg
- the duchy of Luxemburg
- the county of Artois
- the county of Hainaut
- the county of Holland
- the county of Namur
- the county of Flanders
- the county of Zeeland
- the county of Zutphen
- the bordercounty of Antwerp
- the manor of Friesland
- the manor of Groningen
- the manor of Mechelen
- the manor of Overijssel
- the bishopric of Utrecht
- Overijssel (with Drenthe and Lingen)
- Guelders (with Zutphen) (after 1543)
Three others were divided between north and south (which later became Belgium):
- Flanders remained mostly part of the south, but later lost half its territory to France in the wars with Louis XIV
Of the remaining territories:
- Luxembourg, Hainaut, Namur and Mechelen remained part of the south
- Artois, Tournai and Douai later became French.
In addition, there were a number of fiefdoms in this region that were not part of the Netherlands, the largest one is Liege. In the north, there were also a few smaller entities like the island of Ameland, that would retain their own lords until the French revolution.
In the days of Charles V, there is no doubt that the economic, political and cultural center of the Netherlands was the city of Antwerp, which had succeeded Bruges as the economic powerhouse of northern Europe, although Holland was gradually gaining importance in the 15th and 16th centuries.
However after the independence of the seven northern provinces and the resulting closure of the Scheldt river to navigation, a large number of people from the southern provinces emigrated north to the new republic. The center of prosperity moved from cities in the south such as Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent, and Brussels to cities in the north including Amsterdam, the Hague, and Rotterdam.
To distinguish between the older, larger Netherlands from the current country, Dutch speakers usually drop the plural for the latter. They speak of Nederland for the current country and de Nederlanden for the domains of Charles V. In other languages, this has not been adopted, though the larger area is sometimes known as the Low Countries in English.
The fact that the same term Netherlands has such different historical meanings can sometimes lead to difficulties in expressing oneself correctly. For example, composers from the 16th century are often said to belong to the Nederlandse School. Although they themselves would not have objected to that term, today it may wrongly create the impression that they were from the north. In fact, they were almost exclusively from the south.
Following the rebellion of the Netherlands in the 1570s and 80s, the northern provinces established their independence as the United Provinces, but the southern provinces were restored to Spanish rule thanks to the military and political talent of the Duke of Parma. Hence, they became known as the Spanish Netherlands. In the early seventeenth century there was a flourishing court at Brussels, which was under the government of King Philip III's sister Archduchess Isabella and her husband, Archduke Albert. Among the artists who emerged from the court of the "Archdukes," as they were known, was Peter Paul Rubens. Under the Archdukes, the Spanish Netherlands actually had formal independence from Spain, but with Albert's death in 1621 they returned to formal Spanish control, although the childless Isabella remained on as Governor until her death in 1633.
In the wars between the French and the Spanish in the Seventeenth Century, the territory of the Spanish Netherlands was repeatedly nipped at. The French annexed Artois and Cambrai by the Treaty of the Pyrenees of 1659, and Dunkirk was ceded to the English. By the Treaties of Aix-la-Chapelle (1668) and Nijmegen (1678), further territory up to the current Franco-Belgian border was ceded, including most of Walloon Flanders (around the city of Lille), as well as much of Hainaut (including Valenciennes).
Under the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), following the War of the Spanish Succession, the Spanish Netherlands were ceded to Austria and thus became known as the Austrian Netherlands. However, the Austrians themselves generally had little interest in the region (aside from a short-lived attempt by Emperor Charles VI to compete with British and Dutch trade through the Ostend Company ), and the fortresses along the border (the Barrier Fortresses ) were, by treaty, garrisoned with Dutch troops. The area had, in fact, been given to Austria largely at British and Dutch insistence, as these powers feared potential French domination of the region.
Throughout the latter part of the eighteenth century, the principal foreign policy goal of the Habsburg rulers was to exchange the Austrian Netherlands for Bavaria, which would round out Habsburg possessions in southern Germany. The Netherlands rebelled against Austria in 1788 as a result of Joseph II's centralizing policies, but order was restored by Joseph's brother and successor, Leopold II in 1790.
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