The French Occupation of Belgium 1794-1815

Revised Oct 31st, 1999. Your comments and suggestions would be appreciated.

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1,2 Many of the changes imposed by the French between 1796 and 1815 left lasting consequences that continue to influence Belgian politics, institutions and everyday life right up to the present.

   From the Middle Ages until the French invasion at the end of the 1700s there was a long period called the "Ancien Régime" during which much of western Europe was ruled by various states, ending with the Habsburg (Hapsburg) dynasty based in Austria under Maria Theresia and her son Josef II. The future Belgium, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands province of Limburg were then known as the 'Austrian Netherlands' and at the time included the counties of Flanders, Hainaut, Limburg, Namur, the duchies of Brabant, Luxemburg and the seigneurie of Mechelen. As benevolent despots Maria Theresia and Josef II instituted many changes that resulted in prosperity in the southern Netherlands ('Zuidelijke Nederlanden'). Josef also decreed that torture was not to be used as a tool to extract 'information' during legal examinations of accused persons. However, some of his other innovations, which reflected his empathy with the 'Enlightenment' still current in France and his hatred of the clergy, caused unrest in all social classes.
   This was particularly so in the rising middle class of lawyers, judges and rich merchants who were still denied the possibility of gaining political power and influence by the continuing semi-feudal model of the Habsburgian rule. The whole structure of society, not just in the 'Austrian Netherlands', but in most of Continental Europe was radically changed when the 'Ancien Régime' was swept away after the French Revolution in 1789 that followed the American Revolution which inaugurated the 'Age of Revolution'
3. The shock was especially great for the 'Southern Netherlands' (Belgium nowadays), but was apparent in most of Continental Europe. The effects of changes in Belgium started by the French reverberated right into the late 1800s and early 1900s when the ancestors of most North Americans of Belgian descent emigrated.
   What was swept away?
3a The Austrian rulers and their armies were defeated and finally were driven out in June 1794 by the French. From then until October 1795 they treated the Southern Netherlands as an occupied territory and plundered whatever they could to help pay their national debt. By October 1795 the French had annexed the Southern Netherlands as part of France replacing all the old divisions such as the County of Flanders, the Duchy of Brabant, etc. with French départements. But the freedom, equality and brotherhood promised in return for the changes failed to materialize.
   This was followed by the disappearance of the privileges of the nobility and the guilds. Even more radical was the confiscation of the 25% of the land in the 'Southern Netherlands' owned by the Church which was made available for purchase. The purchasers proved not to be 'small' peasant farmers, who mostly remained loyal to the Church, but a growing middle-class of notaries, industrialists, nobility (acting through agents) and 'large' farmers. Centuries-old loyalties were to be discarded by the people who found they were no longer residents of 'Southern Netherlands', ruled by the Austrian Habsburg dynasty, but now were citizens of the Republic of France to whom they were supposed to give their allegiance.
   The attack on the Church and clergy included the closure of churches, abbeys and monasteries, priests were harassed and forbidden to wear clerical dress and to perform their
sacerdotal duties. Church bells were silenced and church schools were closed.

   Soon after they invaded both North and South Netherlands in 1794 the French began paying with paper money, "assignats" instead of with "real" money. But it was the conscription of 200,000 men between 20 and 25 years-old from the Netherlands into the French Army in 1798 that brought things to a head in the form of the "Peasants' War" ('Boerenkrijg'). It broke out in Flanders and spread to Limburg. It was crushed in 3 months but was preceded by many other local insurrections in both France and Belgium, some of which were harder to put down than the perhaps more widely discussed6 "Peasants' War". Napoleon, who came to power in 1799, probably wished to win the loyalty of the Church and the nobility. This may have led to him sign a 'Concordaat' with the Pope in 1802 which resulted in the reopening of churches and easing of restrictions on the clergy. One of its stipulations was that priests, to compensate for the loss of their income from the tithes received from the population, started to receive wages from the government but had to swear obedience to the Emperor (Napoleon). Although the Church never again regained its old position of economic power, its moral and political influence continued into the 1960s and stipends to priests remain to this day.
   What remained of the French innovations after their departure in 1815? The nine départements remained as the new provinces of East and West
Flanders, Antwerp, Brabant Hainaut, Liège, Limburg, Luxembourg, and Namur. Other imposed changes that continue to affect life include the French replacement of Church-ruled schools by government-funded schools aimed at producing pro-French middle and upper classes. After their departure, public funding of such schools continued but Catholic schools were again permitted. The feuding between proponents of government lay schools and church-controlled Catholic schools peaked in occasional political "school wars" from the late 1800s until the mid 1950s. The "school pact" eventually put an end to the feud when both types of schools became government-funded and the clergy, formally trained in modern pedagogic methods, gained equal status with lay teachers. As a result some of the present extensively secularized population still tend to favor Church-run schools because of family tradition and the feeling that the education they offer is superior.

   The vast upheaval during the French régime produced widespread suffering due to the high cost, funded by high taxes needed to maintain the occupation army. Conscription of men into that army prevented them from working to provide badly needed support for their families. However, as long as the French won wars, the Belgians began to accept their new rulers. After about 1800 things started to improve somewhat until turmoil reappeared when the French were defeated in 1815. During the preceding 'quiet' 10 years a large French market had opened for Belgian goods which compensated for the loss of 'external' markets due to the English naval blockage of continental ports. However, this blockade did not prevent <== Lieven Bauwens from smuggling newly invented spinning and weaving machines out of England.8 With these he introduced the industrial revolution into Gent, his native city.
   After the departure of the French an attempt to revive the 'Ancien Régime' failed and the'powers' that had defeated
Napoleon at Waterloo decided to add the 'Southern Netherlands' to the newly-formed 'Kingdom of the Netherlands'. Its king, Willem I of Orange, supported the Flemish-speakers in their quest for equality with the French-based middle and upper classes in cultural, linguistic, educational and economic matters. However he antagonized the Church by not favoring its quest for restoration of its power and prestige. As a result the Church rallied the peasants against him. Because Willem was not very diplomatic in his dealings with his southern subjects this led to a separation of the 'Southern Netherlands': Flanders and also French-speaking regions of Liege and Hainaut into a new country "Belgium' in 1830.

   The above large-scale changes introduced by the French do not show what happened at the level of the community, family and individual. Before the new French civil registration laws, called the "Code Napoleon", births, marriages and deaths had been registered by the priest in the Church's records. Such registrations now were made the responsibility of the government, and so the communities had to set up and maintain 'Civil Registers' that recorded those life events on forms that were more detailed than the former church records of these events. Although priests secretly continued to perform and record christenings, marriages and burials these of course had no legal status. A change that met with traces resistance was that dates of birth began to be used to make lists of conscripts to be called up for service in the 'Revolutionary Army' (see below).
  However the innovations that disturbed the people most were those resulting from the imposition of some of the ideas of 'The Enlightenment" that guided the early days of the revolution in France, before Napoleon took power. Thus, for a population of the 'Southern Netherlands,accustomed for centuries to working every day except on Sunday and on the numerous Saints' days, the introduction of a new calendar that eliminated all these and imposed a new set of months with special holidays was confusing. Another change that was the French expected their 'new citizens' to abandon Church doctrine, venerate "Reason" and adopt Napoleon's ideas as their guiding principles. Other changes that disturbed daily life included the introduction of the metric system of measurement. Pounds, barrels, els, etc. became kilograms, hectolitres, metres, etc.. 

The hardships resulting from drafting of young men into the Revolutionary Army are shown by this letter

"To Mr. Pierre Geevaerts, farmer, in
Zwevezele, arrondissement Brugge, Department of the Leie (West Flanders)
                           Cherbourg the 3rd of the month of May (probably 1806)
My Very Beloved Parents,
I haste myself to request information on the state of your health and of the whole family. We arrived in Cherbourg yesterday in good health. The situation I am in, even though saddened because I am separated from everything I love, does not pain me. I am hopeful of soon to have the luck to be able to return home. The long marches that we have to endure have forced me to spend all of my money [likely on food]. I beseech you my dear parents to have the goodness to send me some money, because we are in great need since we are not being fed enough. I pray to God to keep you and the whole family in good health and to grant all of you a long life. I hope that you will answer me so

In waiting, I am your humble and obedient son Ludovicus Geeveart (Gevaert)
We are here in a seaport where we are quite happy because there are many Flemish people here. All the Companies are full of young men from our country which gives me much pleasure. Adieu, good luck. Write to me if you received my letter which I am sending through Paris. N. B. My address is: To Louis Geeveart (Gevaert), Fusilier, Fourth Company, Second Battalion, 86th Regiment of Ligne in Cherbourg, Dept. of Manche"

   In his next letter dated June 14, 1806 Ludovicus thanks his parents for sending him 3 French 'Crowns'. Letters from other soldiers from Zwevezele at the time make it clear that health was a major concern, life was short and money essential.

4Sacerdotal duties: These are the priestly duties including performing baptisms, marriages and burials and keeping records of these, as well as saying Mass, hearing confessions, etc..
   Some priests swore the oath of loyalty to the French Republic in 1797 so they could continue toperform their priestly duties publicly. But some like the priests in Zerkegem, Bredene, Klemskerke, Blankenberge and Meetkerke refused. Those priests elsewhere who swore allegiance were hated by their parishioners. After the "Peasants' War" had been crushed in 1798 many of the priests who had not sworn allegiance were exiled to the islands Re and Oleron off the French Atlantic coast. As a consequence in some parishes the baptism was performed outside the church.
   Before the anticlerical restrictions were eased by the Concordat (Flemish = 'Concordaat') the bodies of the deceased were temporarily buried in hidden places. For example, the priest of Zuienkerke noted in his carefully hidden church registers for the years 1798-1802: 'Omnes baptizati sunt extra eccelesiam' (all were baptized outside of the church). The first public burial after the
'Concordat' was on August 13, 1802 and he noted 'Primum cadaver quod publice sepelitur in cemeterio post persecutionem sacerdotum, quorum aliqui missi sunt in aliam mundi partem, alii incarcerati, alii in aliquo latibulo absconditi fuerunt.' (7The first body has been buried publicly in the cemetery now that the persecution of the clergy has eased; some of whom were deported (by the French government to a French penal colony7a ), some imprisoned, others have been in hidden locally.)

The Peasants' War5


This uprising was precipitated by a number of French decrees:

July 21	  Paper money was introduced, the 'assignats' were to be 
                accepted as 'real' money.
August 9       The rich and the nobility were assessed a tax of 6 million Francs. August 11      Art was moved out of Antwerp's museums and sent to the Louvre in Paris.
September 21   171 manuscripts and 200 valuable books were moved from the National Library in Brussels to France.
October 14     It was decreed that all church possessions now belonged to the Nation.
November 10   The church on the Kings Square in Brussels was changed into the 'Temple of Reason'.
November 16   Municipal weddings replaced church weddings.
November      Control of all food supplies
      September 1   All religious establishments were confiscated. Their 
                    contents were seized and those living in cloisters were
driven out. 1797 January 5     All priests had to give up their residences and find new ones.
August 31   All religious symbols were to be removed from public places, including crucifixes in churches and chapels.Sacred pictures were to be destroyed.
September 5    Priests were to take an oath against the insitution of monarchy.
November 24   The University of Leuven was closed and the rector expelled. 1798 April 3  Sundays and Christian holy days were canceled and churches closed. September 3     A new law for drafting conscripts was implemented. Every unmarried man between 20 and 25 was to become a soldier.
1From "The Fair Face of Flanders" by Patricia Carson, 1969, Ghent. 

Frits Stevens contributed invaluable improvements in the syntax, grammar
and the contents this page.
Henrietta Diehl helped in further editing of this page.
Rik Palmans clarified the sequence of some events and their significance.
Jose Schoovaets provided further details and insights.

2From "De Gemeente Zwevezele tot 1940" Part II by André Vandewiele, 1984 provided by Jules Vanhaelemeesch who also gave excellent advice and translated the letter from Ludovicus Geevaerts above and other text.

3Summarized in "The Age of Revolution 1789-1848" by E.J.Hobshawn, 1962, Henry N. Abrams Inc.,New York.
3a Andre van De Sompel kindly help with the interpretation of the events of the French occupation. Arthur Hagen helped clarify some geographic names.
"Zuienkerke, de geschiedenis van een polderdorp" provided by Ivan Beernaerts.
" Wat was er van de Boerenkrijg ?" by Josef Tilley of the History Club (Heem Kring) 'Ter Palen' of Buggenhout. Provided by Ludo Cosijns.
6From "
Two hundred years ago the Peasants' War took place" (Pictures at this Website are interesting even if you can't read Nederlands/Dutch/Flemish.
7Jozef Smits translated the Latin record and interpreted7a it.
8This introduced Gent to the industrial revolution and increased local employment. However, it also deprived rural folk of a secondary income from their traditional cottage industries of spinning and weaving which were necesary to survive on what had become largely subsistence farming. It was just the technology which Bauwens brought to Gent but not the 'drive' to further development which usually is based on inventiveness and improvisation. There are many other examples of the failure of imported industries to stimulate further development. See "Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life" by Jane Jacobs, Vintage Books, Random House Inc., 1985, New york. ISBN 0-394-72911-0.


See subsequent events in rural Flanders in the 19th century

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