The Burgundian territories

The Burgundian territories

The German Empire had disintegrated into a few hundred small states. A number of these formed clusters. The best-known example is the cluster of the Dukes of Burgundy, who, by a combination of clever marriages, cunning land purchases, dogged perseverance, open aggression and simple good luck succeeded in uniting almost all the regions of the present Benelux into a personal union. The key to their success lay, of course, in skimming off the finances of the towns, especially those of Brabant, Holland and Flanders.

The Dukes tried to transform the regions of their personal union, which included Holland, into a proper unified state with a common civil service, a unit of currency and a collective administrative apparatus. A State Auditor’s office and a court of law were set up and, after 1464, the assembled Estates of all the regions of Burgundy, the States-General, met twice annually. By medieval standards this consultation body came together quite frequently: sometimes the meeting was called for an announcement by the Duke or for questioning, and sometimes for serious negotiations. Setting up collective institutions was a matter of sound administration: the urbanized regions of Flanders, Brabant, and Holland were economically interwoven and commerce enjoyed many advantages from, among other things, the monetary union which came into existence in 1434.

Reactions to the Dukes’ rigorous unification politics were varied. In Flanders, the towns of Ghent and Bruges opposed the transfer of sovereignty as they lost all their privileges to Antwerp, which would go on to dominate world trade. The aristocracy was also divided in a comparable way. Those who had the ear of the ruler were in favor of the unification of Burgundy while those who had no influence were against it, which was logical. Many merchants were advocates of unification, as trade profited from a common unit of currency. On the other hand, craftsmen were against it because they would have to face competition from outside their own regions.

Besides economic reasons, there were also administrative grounds for protesting against unification. As the Dukes of Burgundy ruled as many as twenty regions, they had to delegate authority for government to stadtholders or stewards, whom, as a rule, they chose from nobles living outside the region in question. This often meant that the stadtholder did not understand either the language of the region or the local relationships and was therefore apt to make mistakes. In the fifteenth century for instance the population of Holland complained about the inferior quality of the bailiffs who had been appointed by the stadtholder. Another reason for the resistance of some of the population was that central institutions collected extra taxes, reducing the people of the Netherlands to poverty.

Thus, the unification of the regions of Burgundy was not as obvious as one would think. Furthermore, the support of those who favored it was not unconditional: they agreed to the measures which promoted trade but were not happy with political unification. This was not only expensive but it made deep inroads into the regional and urban autonomy which had been laid down in hard-won privileges. Unification put a great strain on the principle of self-government of the towns, which people in Holland were very attached to.

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