The Archdukes in Brussels

By Croft, Pauline | History Today, September 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Archdukes in Brussels


Croft, Pauline, History Today


Opening in Brussels on September 17th, a major exhibition profiles the rule of the Archduke Albert of Austria and his wife the Infanta Isabella of Spain, daughter of Philip II. In 1598, before his death, the king ceded to the couple the ten provinces of the southern Habsburg Netherlands. In effect, Philip created a revived Burgundy which at least on paper was to be autonomous. This radical new strategy signalled Spain's retreat from direct rule of the Low Countries, challenged since the 1560s by the revolt led initially by William of Orange, which successfully detached the seven northern provinces.

The Archdukes ruled jointly until Albert's death in 1621, whereupon Isabella remained as governess-general until her own death in 1633. After forty years of war, they not only consolidated Habsburg authority in the south, but also gradually brought peace to the area and revived the ravaged economy.

Albert proved himself a notable diplomat, assisting in the making of peace between France and Spain in 1598 at Vervins. He initiated the contacts between England, the southern Netherlands and Spain which led in 1604 to the Treaty of London, which brought the long Armada war to an end. With the ending of these major European hostilities, he could turn to the northern Netherlands where the Dutch already enjoyed effective independence.

Even Albert could not re-integrate the northern and southern Low Countries, but the Twelve Years' Truce of 1609 temporarily brought the expensive and damaging conflict to an end. The economic and political recovery of both sides was strikingly swift. An extensive section of the exhibition develops the themes of war and peace, depicted in maps, tapestries and allegorical paintings.

To encourage support for their rule from every section of the Flemish population, Albert and Isabella proved remarkably effective in communicating through the visual arts. Both were highly cultivated; their patronage stimulated the movement which grew into `Flemish Baroque' and included the work of artists such as Rubens and Breughel. The Archdukes' employment of architects, musicians and the creators of luxury items such as carpets, jewels, books and prints made their court in Brussels one of the most distinguished and dazzling in Europe. They assiduously built their image as princes, depicting in portraits, coins and engravings their efforts to promote peace, harmony and cultural revival in their adopted country. Gradually they succeeded in dispelling antiSpanish feeling, and created the beginnings of a separate southern Netherlands identity.

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