History of the Low Countries

By J. C. H. Blom; E. Lamberts et al. | Go to book overview

5 The Spanish and Austrian Netherlands, 1585-1780

C. Bruneel

The Habsburgs continued their efforts at centralizing their administration and tightening dynastic control over the Southern Netherlands. Attempts to make its administration more Spanish were part of their policy. The high nobility of the region, dismayed by their declining influence and the disastrous war against the North, unsuccessfully hatched a plot against the Spanish authorities. The South suffered greatly due to the effects of the war and an economic decline which was deepened by protectionism and mass migration from the South to the Dutch Republic. In the last half of the seventeenth century, the Southern Netherlands suffered again under the wars launched by the great powers, in particular those instigated by the ambitions of the French king Louis XIV.

The Austrian Habsburgs assumed control of the Southern Netherlands in 1713. After the end of the War of Austrian Succession (1748), peace and prosperity returned under Empress Maria Theresa as a result of the so-called Theresian Compromise: a large degree of self-rule in exchange for higher taxes and increased opportunities for Vienna to direct central policy in the region. The economy expanded as a result of government stimuli. Rising production in agriculture and rural population increases led to a decrease of land per capita and a labor surplus, making protoindustrialization possible.

Under the Spanish Habsburgs, the Southern Netherlands became the bulwark of the Catholic Counter Reformation. Religious life was especially influenced by the Jansenist controversy in the late seventeenth century. Beginning with Maria Theresa, relations between church and state became more adversarial. The empress resisted the Ultramontanists (who desired more papal influence in state and society) and strengthened her control over the clergy, policies which would be pursued even more forcefully by her son and successor, Joseph II.

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