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The Belgian Revolution and the Dissolution of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1830–1839)

By: Randall Lesaffer

In late August 1830, a rebellion against Dutch authorities broke out in the streets of Brussels, just four weeks after the July Revolution had led to the collapse of the Bourbon dynasty in France and its replacement by a more liberal government under the House of Orléans, a cadet branch of the House of Bourbon. The Brussels revolt caused the collapse of government control over the city and spread to other major towns of the Belgian provinces of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, especially albeit not exclusively in the French-speaking south. Whatever the exact causes of the violent outbreak of late August, and whoever were its instigators, the revolt was quickly and efficiently appropriated by the opposition union that had formed in Belgium in 1827–1828. The opposition union was a joined platform of Catholics and liberals who were agitating for more parliamentary control, a more extended form of suffrage, and effective freedom of the press, religion, and education. The latter two points had now been embraced by conservative Catholics, with the support of the Church, as a means to oppose the interventionism of William I (1772–1843) in matters of Church, religion, and education.

The intervention of the Dutch army against Brussels, and its failure, caused the Brussels revolt to spiral into a Belgian demand for independence. On 4 October 1830, the independence of the Belgian provinces of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was declared. A provisional government had been formed and the decision was taken to call for a National Congress in order to establish a constitution for the new country.

Although Belgian independence threatened to undo one of the major strands in the geopolitical fabric of the Vienna settlement, the reaction of the great powers was lukewarm. The new French government, which had thus far obtained recognition only from London, was sympathetic to the revolution. It was posited that France could benefit from the independence of Belgium, which it might hope to dominate. But it was careful not to be seen to be involved too much, as the appearance of such involvement would raise the threat of renewed revolutionary and military expansion from France. The Prussian king Frederick William III (1770–1840) had refused the call of the Dutch king, who was his brother-in-law, for military intervention out of fear of war with France, as Paris has indicated that it would not accept a Prussian invasion of Belgium. The Austrian government was opposed to Belgian independence, but was focused on containing the danger of revolution in its Italian dependencies. The British conservative government, which now had to contend with a Whig majority in the Commons and would be replaced by a Whig cabinet before the year was out, was most concerned with keeping the southern provinces of the Netherlands, with Antwerp and its coastal harbours, out of French hands, and did not of necessity see any strategic threat from Belgian independence. Only the Russian tsar Nicholas I (1796–1855) was poised to intervene, but he would soon be distracted by a revolt in his Polish kingdom.

The failure of William’s mixture of diplomacy and repression to contain the initial revolt cost him much good will in London and the other capitals of the great powers. The British government decided to call a conference of the five great powers at London to deal with the Belgian issue. It convened in early November. 

In its initial phase, between late August and October 1830, the Belgian Revolution had been led by some young radical liberal lawyers and journalists, many of whom dreamt of establishing a republic and a more democratic regime. The gradual moderation of their programme and the usurpation of the revolution by conservative Catholic and doctrinal liberals, who won the elections for the National Congress, smoothed the path towards the great powers’ acceptance of Belgian independence. The decision by the National Congress of November 1830 that Belgium would become a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic was crucial to the great powers’ acquiescence. Division within the Dutch leading class and the royal house, where Crown Prince William (1792–1849) was vying to secure the Belgian throne for himself, severely weakened the Dutch position. 

On 20 December 1830, the Conference of London accepted the principle of Belgian independence. It stipulated, however, that the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg, which had joined the Belgian state-to-be, would remain a separate state under William I. Over the next year, the London Conference would remain the scene of intense diplomacy and discussion between the Dutch, the Belgians, and the main powers. The major issues were the borders of Belgium and the division of the national debt, which included the huge Dutch debt from before 1815. The Belgian government aimed high by demanding the whole of Luxemburg and the whole of the province of Limburg, including the fortress-city of Maastricht, which had belonged to the Dutch Republic before 1795. It also laid claim to Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, the Dutch territory on the left bank of the Scheldt, in order to secure against a blockade of the harbour of Antwerp. The continued Dutch military occupation of the citadel of Antwerp and some fortresses along the Scheldt on Belgian territory as well as its effective blockade of Antwerp weakened the hand dealt to the Belgian diplomats. 

On 20 and 27 January 1831, the Conference of London agreed to two protocols that stipulated the conditions for Belgian independence. The Kingdom of the Netherlands would retain all territories it held in 1790, with the result that Maastricht, a large part of Limburg, and the left bank of the Scheldt eluded Belgium. Luxemburg would remain separate as a member of the German Confederation. Permanent neutrality was imposed upon the new state. This meant it could neither enter into alliance treaties nor accept foreign troops on its soil. In return, the five great powers would guarantee its independence and territorial integrity. This was the solution to the problem of securing the northern border of France against renewed French expansion or aggression, while preventing another great power from gaining control over Antwerp and the Flemish coast. The Belgian state would have to assume the Austrian debt from before 1795, plus the debt incurred by the Dutch state for expenses incurred for its Belgian provinces since 1815. These conditions proved unacceptable to both sides in the conflict.

The London Conference’s activities occurred in the shadow of the selection of a Belgian king. The two main contenders were both French princes. Louis, Duke of Nemours (1814–1896) was a younger son of the new French king Louis-Philippe (1773–1850) and thus unacceptable to the other great powers. The other, Duke August of Leuchtenberg (1810–1835), was the son of Napoleon’s stepson Eugène de Beauharnais (1781–1824) and thus unacceptable to the French king. After these and other candidatures foundered, the spotlight was trained on Leopold of Saxe-Coburg (1790–1865). This scion of a petty German princely house had been a successful cavalry general in the Russian army in the wars against Napoleon. In 1816 he married Princess Charlotte of Wales (1796–1817), heir presumptive to the British throne. After her death a year later, Leopold, now a British citizen and Field Marshal, remained in Britain. In February 1830, he accepted the Greek throne which had been offered to him, but after negotiations over the Greek borders turned out badly, he decided to refuse it. At this point, in the spring of 1831, he emerged as the leading candidate to become the first king of the Belgians.

Leopold, drawing lessons from his Greek adventure, played hardball with the Belgian authorities. He did not want to accept the throne before they had formally accepted the borders of the new country as imposed by the great powers. At the same time, he used his influence in London to sweeten the deal for Belgium and to try to make some territorial gains. The London Conference aided him in May 1831 by demanding that the Belgian Congress accept the January 1831 Protocols by 1 June. If it did not, the great powers would mount a blockade of the Belgian coast. The Belgian authorities reacted by agreeing to continue negotiations and by offering Leopold the crown under the condition that the whole of Limburg and Luxemburg would remain part of the new state.

It was enough to break the deadlock and allow a final settlement between the London Conference and Brussels. On 26 June 1831 a draft treaty, the so-called Treaty of the XVIII Articles, was accepted by the great powers. It provided for three-party negotiations between the Netherlands, Belgium, and the German Confederation on the future of Luxemburg, which created an opening for Belgium to retain the whole or part of the province. Zeeuws-Vlaanderen remained lost but the draft treaty also allowed the Belgians new hopes with regards to Maastricht and Limburg. The freedom of navigation on the Meuse and the Scheldt, which was crucial to Antwerp, was guaranteed.

Some weeks later, after fierce debates, the National Congress approved the draft Treaty of the XVIII Articles. Leopold then accepted the Belgian crown and took the oath at Brussels on 21 July, under the clouds of Dutch warmongering. In early August, the Dutch invaded and swept the Belgian army away. A French military intervention had to save the new country’s independence.

These events led to a new round of negotiations at London. The ease with which the Dutch had overrun the Belgian defences had caused some panic among the great powers. It had proven that an independent Belgium meant little as a buffer against France. The negotiation resulted in a new agreement, the Treaty of the XXIV Articles of 15 November 1831 (82 CTS 255), between the five great powers and Belgium. Although the Netherlands was the main beneficiary of the changes with the prior settlement, the Dutch king refused to accept it.

The treaty confirmed the loss of Maastricht and the part of Limburg east of the Meuse for Belgium. Its king and government, however, secured the right to build a connection—by road, rail, or waterway—through the Dutch part of Limburg to connect Antwerp to the Rhine. Luxemburg was split, with the great Western part going to Belgium and the smaller eastern part, including the capital city with its citadel, remaining an independent grand duchy within the German Confederation with William I as its grand duke. Belgium still had to accept permanent neutrality, but the great powers no longer expressly guaranteed its independence and territorial integrity (Article 7). As parties to the treaties, they were, however, obliged to uphold its clauses.

The Dutch acceptance and ratification of the treaty would have to wait until 1839. It would take a British-French military action to dislodge the Dutch from the citadel at Antwerp. The Dutch ratification in 1839 was far from welcomed as good news by part of the Belgian political class, as it meant the final cession of the eastern parts of Limburg and Luxemburg. But with the Dutch acquiescence, the efforts of the Congress of Europe powers to manage the Belgian crisis and preserve peace among themselves had succeeded.


The protocols of January 1831 and the Treaty of the XVIII Articles are published in British and Foreign State Papers 18 (1830/1831) (London: James Ridgway 1831).


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