If you had to name a “golden age” for Belgium, before the independence of the modern kingdom, a definite answer would be the period when Belgium, or as it was called then, the Spanish Netherlands, was under the guidance of Infanta Isabella of Spain and Archduke Albert of Austria. It started in 1598 when, before his death later that year, King Philip II of Spain put the Netherlands, or all the Low Countries as they were at the time, in the hands of his daughter Isabella and her husband Albert of Austria, who had previously been a Cardinal in the Church. They were very good rulers and the southern provinces of the Spanish Netherlands, which is Belgium today, went through a period of great peace, prosperity, a rebirth of great learning and a spiritual rejuvenation and also a great artistic renaissance. Spain was still contesting the rule of the northern provinces with the Dutch independence faction, most of whom were Protestants, and so the restoration of Belgium became part of what is called the Counter- or Catholic Reformation. Isabella and Albert were partly responsible for the beginnings of a distinct Belgian identity at this time as they emphasized the unique nature of the solidly Catholic southern provinces in contrast to the rebellious Protestant provinces in the north.
They championed some of the greatest Flemish artists and architects in history to help with this, creating magnificent buildings and beautiful artworks to inspire pride and patriotic devotion as well as a stronger faith in the Belgian people. Their court in Brussels became one of the greatest centers of art, learning, diplomacy and statecraft in all of Europe. They greatly increased the positive image of the House of Hapsburg in Belgium and ensured that the anti-Spanish hostility of the north never took root in the south, with Brussels becoming a very cosmopolitan city with experts from various fields of endeavor from all over the continent. The couple were a great success but unfortunately had much pain in their private life as all three of their children died when they were still very small. No one can say why this happened but Princess Isabella was 33-years-old when she married the Archduke which at that time was considered a little bit older than the ideal age for a woman to marry and have children. Everyone admired them and even the enemies of Spain in other countries respected them and that is partly why the Treaty of London and the Twelve Years Truce were achieved, because of the close involvement of Archduke Albert in negotiating them.
Archduke Albert was also adept as a military commander. When he first arrived in Belgium the Spanish forces were being pressed by all the Protestant powers of northern Europe, fighting French troops, English troops, Dutch troops and German troops. He turned this around though and secured Belgium for the Hapsburgs and put the Protestant armies on the defensive, even taking some of their most crucial strongholds. This security made the later embellishments of the country possible because what fighting did continue was periodic and kept at or beyond the borders of the country. He made peace after Maurice of Nassau began leading the Dutch to new victories, but because of what Albert had already gained he had some room to bargain and negotiate so that he was still able to secure Belgium for his side. He also did try to make peace with the United Provinces and the Queen of England first and only went to war when they refused his offers. He was not harsh and realized that the United Provinces would never be re-taken by Spain so he decided to concentrate on defending Belgium and ensuring the rebellion did not spread. Later he was able to make peace with almost everyone and make Belgium the cultural center of Europe. He secured the country for the Catholic Church and he did it by promoting a positive image of Catholicism instead of having Protestants executed. Albert and Isabella also enacted many positive changes, making the legal system more just, improving the economy and helped establish many new convents and monasteries. We really owe a great deal to this Hapsburg ‘power couple’. They were some of the best.