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The Archdukes in Brussels

Pauline Croft on an art exhibition in Belgium on Albert and Isabella of Austria.

Opening in Brussels on  September 17th, a major exhibition profiles the rule of the Archduke Albert of Austria and his wife the Infanta Isabella of Spain, daughter of Philip II. In 1598, before his death, the king ceded to the couple the ten provinces of the southern Habsburg Netherlands. In effect, Philip created a revived Burgundy which at least on paper was to be autonomous. This radical new strategy signalled Spain’s retreat from direct rule of the Low Countries, challenged since the 1560s by the revolt led initially by William of Orange, which successfully detached the seven northern provinces. 

The Archdukes ruled jointly until Albert’s death in 1621, whereupon Isabella remained as governess-general until her own death in 1633. After forty years of war, they not only consolidated  Habsburg authority in the south, but also gradually brought peace to the area and revived the ravaged economy.

Albert proved himself a notable diplomat, assisting in the making of peace between France and Spain in 1598 at Vervins. He initiated the contacts between England, the southern Netherlands and Spain which led in 1604 to the Treaty of London, which brought the long Armada war to an end. With the ending of these major European hostilities, he could turn to the northern Netherlands where the Dutch already enjoyed effective independence.

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