Maximilian I Takes Control of the Low Countries Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Using heavy taxation and brutal military force to subdue the Netherlands, Habsburg Dynasty ruler Maximilian I recovered his family’s earlier territorial losses and built a dynasty that dominated much of Europe for more than four centuries.

Summary of Event

Comprising present-day Belgium, the Netherlands (or Holland), and Luxembourg, the Low Countries have been known collectively throughout history as the Netherlands. Though a focus of conflict between France, England, and the Holy Roman Empire, this region prospered as one of medieval Europe’s few urban, manufacturing centers. For centuries, French kings tried in vain to annex the wealthy southern provinces of Flanders. Similarly, Holy Roman Emperors tried to dominate neighboring Brabant and Luxembourg. Fending off both the French and the emperors, the dukes of Burgundy ruled the area by the mid-1300’. The often rebellious cities of the Netherlands, particularly Bruges, Ghent, and Ypres in Flanders, retained a measure of independence that would end amid intense dynastic rivalries in the late fifteenth century. Netherlands;Habsburg control of Maximilian I Frederick III (1415-1493) Charles V (1500-1558) Frederick III (Holy Roman Emperor) Mary of Burgundy Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy Louis XI (king of France) Matthias I Corvinus Anne of Brittany Philip I (king of Spain) Joan the Mad Louis XII (king of France) Vladislav II (king of Hungary) Sigismund I, the Old Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Philip II (king of Spain) Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor)

To the east, the Habsburg Habsburg Dynasty family, who ruled Austria, eliminated the custom of dividing territories among sons, thereby consolidating their power. In 1440, the electors, seven high aristocrats and archbishops who appointed Holy Roman Emperors, chose a Habsburg, Frederick V of Styria, to reign as Frederick III. The last emperor to be crowned by a pope in Rome, he did much to extend Habsburg possessions. He arranged the betrothal of his eldest son, Maximilian I, to Mary of Burgundy, the only child of Duke Charles the Bold. This highly political tie was intended to counter pressure on the Burgundians to bring together in marriage Mary and the heir to the French throne. The couple wed after Charles the Bold died battling the French at Nancy Nancy, Battle of (1477) in 1477. Two years later Louis XI of France unsuccessfully attacked the Burgundian holdings.

Following Mary’s tragic death in a hunting accident in 1482, the twenty-three-year-old Maximilian became the target of much hostility directed at his wife’s family, who had tripled taxes to pursue their military campaigns and artistic tastes. Taxation;Netherlands Unaccustomed to the deeply rooted civic traditions strengthened under his father-in-law’s often neglectful rule, Maximilian ignored the wishes of city councils and the states-general, the parliament of the Netherlands. Despite a prenuptial agreement preventing him from inheriting his wife’s holdings, Maximilian assumed the regency of their son Philip and the right to rule over Burgundian territories. The cities of Flanders rebelled and were soon joined by Holland’s independent-minded nobles. Hoping for the support of disaffected urban areas, the French king offered to restore Ypres’s age-old cloth monopoly. In a counter move, Maximilian offered inducements to foreigners settling in Antwerp and other communities along the rivers Scheldt and Dender in Brabant, which in turn strongly supported the young ruler.

On his father’s initiative, Maximilian was elected and crowned king of the Romans (emperor-elect) at Aachen in 1486. With their overlord’s departure from the Netherlands, Ghent rebelled. Returning to reassert his authority, Maximilian was captured by rebels in Bruges on January 31, 1488, and forced to turn over the regency to local administrators. His supporters from the Scheldt and Dender marched west. Sacking as they went, they were joined by Maximilian’s father, Frederick III, whose army arrived at Bruges in May, 1488. Maximilian was freed and then immediately set out to harshly avenge his humiliation. First, the coast was subdued. Holland’s rebel fleet was annihilated and its leaders were executed. French involvement ended with a 1489 treaty confirming Maximilian’s possession of the Free County of Burgundy (Franche-Comté) and the Netherlands. Without foreign assistance, Bruges capitulated the next year. Ghent and Sluis held until 1492.

Events in the Netherlands spurred Maximilian to maximize his power elsewhere. In 1490, he recovered Austria, which had been occupied by Hungarian king Matthias I Corvinus. Through the 1491 Treaty of Pressburg, Pressburg, Treaty of (1491) he secured the right of succession to the Hungarian and Bohemian thrones. He married Anne of Brittany, daughter of Duke François II, by proxy in 1490 and tried to prevent a French invasion of Brittany. French king Charles VIII, however, occupied the province and forced Anne to marry him in 1491. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, he abrogated the agreements he had made under duress and subjected its cities to central control with the Peace of Kadzand Kadzand, Peace of (1492) of July, 1492.

Becoming Holy Roman Emperor on his father’s death in 1493, Maximilian drove the Turks from the empire’s southeastern borders and accelerated efforts to make his family Europe’s dominant royal house. In 1494, he joined the Holy League Holy League and invaded Italy to counter French ambitions there. Applying his father’s marriage strategies to good effect, he married Bianca, daughter of Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan. In 1495, he arranged for his son, Philip, to marry Joan the Mad, heiress to the thrones of Castile and Aragón, which resulted in two centuries of Habsburg rule in Spain Spain;Habsburg control of . Following an attempt by the electors to take the imperial administration from the emperor, Maximilian created an imperial council and court of justice in 1500. However, he and later Habsburgs had no intention of uniting the empire around a German identity, in conflict with their own dynastic visions of seizing all of Europe as the heirs of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (r. 800-814). These differences would become more pronounced over the next four centuries.

Maximilian made peace with Louis XII of France in 1504, and four years later, he joined the French against Venice in the League of Cambrai Cambrai, League of . However, in 1511, he fought the French again in alliance with England, Spain, and the pope. This conflict ended with a victory over the French in the Battle of the Spurs Spurs, Battle of the (1513) near the Flemish village of Guinegate in 1513. Now firmly under Habsburg control, the Netherlands brought the empire enormous wealth and strategic advantages. Displacing older Flemish ports, Antwerp rose to prominence as Europe’s most important trading center. To reduce growing pressures on the empire brought about by treaties between the rulers of France, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, and Russia, Maximilian met with King Vladislav II of Hungary and Bohemia and King Sigismund I, the Old, of Poland in Vienna in 1515. Marriages arranged as a result brought four centuries of Habsburg rule to Hungary and Bohemia.

Because his only son, Philip, had died in 1506, Maximilian campaigned throughout 1518 to have his Ghent-born grandson Charles elected to succeed him as Holy Roman Emperor. Shortly thereafter, Maximilian died at Wels in Upper Austria. His heir, Charles V, inherited the imperial crown; the wealthy duchies of Milan, Burgundy, and Brabant; the kingdoms of Spain, Naples, and Sicily; and vast tracts of the New World. Remembering his grandfather’s difficulties in Flanders, he humiliated Ghent’s city fathers, forcing them to parade through the streets wearing nooses, an event still commemorated annually.

During Charles’s reign, Martin Luther would emerge to challenge the unity of the Catholic Church, a bastion of Habsburg power. Unable to effectively rule one of history’s largest empires, Charles abdicated the Spanish crown, Italian possessions, and Burgundian inheritance to his only son, Philip II, in 1556. He then resigned the imperial crown to ensure its inheritance by his brother Ferdinand, the first Habsburg to combine the crowns of the Holy Roman Empire Holy Roman Empire;Netherlands and , Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia.


Despite centuries of ineffective rule, the Holy Roman Empire emerged as a major power by the end of the Middle Ages. However, it failed to secure either political unity for its many tiny German-speaking principalities or strong central government as had developed in England, France, and Spain. These successes and failures were both the work largely of the Habsburg family, who dominated early modern Europe and held the imperial crown continuously between 1438 and 1740. Almost completely encircling his French arch-rivals, Emperor Maximilian I added vast lands to his family’s traditional Austrian holdings, including the Netherlands and Burgundy by his own marriage; Hungary, Bohemia, and parts of Italy by military pressure and treaty; and Spain and its empire by his son’s marriage.

The last Holy Roman Emperor of the Middle Ages, Maximilian set a precedent of coercive rule in the Low Countries that would culminate in the Dutch Wars of Independence and the separation of the Netherlands and Belgium within a half century of his death. A source of both great conflict and high culture, Habsburg rule in the Low Countries ended with the French Revolution, and the dynasty’s power in Austria collapsed with its defeat in World War I.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blom, J. C. H., and E. Lamberts, eds. History of the Low Countries. Translated by James C. Kennedy. New York: Berghahn Books, 1999. An excellent history of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, with much material on Habsburg rule.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carson, Patricia. The Fair Face of Flanders. Ghent, Belgium: E. Story-Scientia, 1969. An older, well-written survey of Flemish history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coxe, William. History of the House of Austria. North Stratford, N.H.: Ayer, 1970. A reprint of an insightful early nineteenth century history of the Habsburgs from 1218 to 1792.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fichtner, Paula Sutter. The Habsburg Monarchy, 1490-1848: Attributes of Empire. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. A work that questions past assumptions about the Habsburgs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Milton, Joyce, and Caroline Davidson. The House of Hapsburg. Boston: Boston Publishing, 1987. A good, short work on Habsburg dynastic politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicholas, David. Medieval Flanders. London: Longman, 1992. Covering Flemish history from late antiquity to the reign of Charles V, Nicholas’s work is particularly good on dynastic, governmental, economic, and urban affairs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Okey, Robin. The Habsburg Monarchy: From Enlightenment to Eclipse. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A good look at the Habsburgs at the height of their prominence.

Aug. 17, 1477: Foundation of the Habsburg Dynasty

Aug. 19, 1493-Jan. 12, 1519: Reign of Maximilian I

Nov. 26, 1504: Joan the Mad Becomes Queen of Castile

1508: Formation of the League of Cambrai

1531-1585: Antwerp Becomes the Commercial Capital of Europe

1555-1556: Charles V Abdicates

1568-1648: Dutch Wars of Independence

July 26, 1581: The United Provinces Declare Independence from Spain

Categories: History