The Counts of Flanders

Gravensteen castle in Ghent was the seat of the Counts of Flanders who became serious players on the European stage from the 10th century. The first count was Baldwin who was appointed in 862, allegedly after eloping with emperor Charles the Bald’s daughter.

The counts were an ambitious lot and grew their territory step by step. A key breakthrough came in the middle of the 11th century. In 1044 emperor Henry III awarded Baldwin V, the count of Flanders a fief in the empire, largely to irritate his rebellious archenemy, Godfrey the Bearded, Duke of Upper (and Lower) Lothringia. Baldwin repaid imperial generosity by joining Godfrey and Count Dietrich of Holland in a major uprising in 1046 that set the whole of the Western border of the empire on fire. Initially things went well and the rebels burnt the mighty imperial residence at Nijmegen.

But in 1049 the three allies suffered severe losses in an imperial counteroffensive led by the bishops of Utrecht, Liege and Metz. The final blow came when emperor Henry III took advantage of having a pet pope in the form of Leo IX. The pope excommunicated both Baldwin of Flanders and duke Godfrey the Bearded. Godfrey succumbed and surrendered to the imperial mercy in Aachen in 1049. Baldwin of Flanders held out a bit longer but finally had to give up and sign a peace agreement.

This may all look like a great outcome for Henry III. But by breaking the ducal authority in Lothringia he also created a political vacuum along the western frontier of the empire. As it happened the empire was either unwilling or unable to step into this vacuum which ultimately led to a fragmentation of power in the realm’s western frontier.

It did not take long for the problem to materialise, not even 12 months to be precise. The ink on the agreement between Baldwin of Flanders and the empire was barely dry when the cunning count concocted his next move. He married his son and heir to the heiress of the county of Hainault, or Hennegau in German. This brought Flanders a major dominion inside the Empire. Under feudal law the marriage would have required Henry III’s consent. Marrying without it was a breach of the law. So, war returns. In 1053 Baldwin and his son mount an aggressive attack into imperial territory, burning down the lands of the bishop of Liege. Henry III retaliated in 1054 with a large army but failed to dislodge the enemy from Hainault.

After Henry III died in 1056 and his wife became regent, the empire accepted Baldwin V’s control of Hainault, which brings most of what is now Belgium under his control. From this point onwards the counts of Flanders play a major role in French, English and Imperial politics. Their great castle, the Gravensteen in Ghent became their seat of power until the burghers of Ghent make them leave in 1353. The County of Flanders ended up in the hands of the Habsburg Emperors when Maximilian I married Marie, heiress to the dukes of Burgundy in 1477(see previous post). Today the title of Count of Flanders is occasionally used by the Belgian royal family.

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