In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below....
Nowadays, the place name “Flanders” typically evokes the World War I poem by John McCrae and the sadness and loss that war brings. But in the Middle Ages, Flanders evoked a far different image—a bustling county renowned for its clothiers and its commercial ties with England.
Medieval Flanders, when juxtaposed with a modern map, overlaps the top right corner of France and a portion of Belgium and the Netherlands. The territory was part of the Carolingian domain under Charlemagne, but interestingly enough, its foundation as a County in its own right came about because of an English princess—or rather, a Carolingian princess who had been sent to England and then returned to her homeland.
When Alfred the Great was seven years old, his father Æthelwulf formed an alliance with the French king Charles the Bald by marrying his daughter Judith, a girl of no more than fourteen years old. In his History of Flanders, Charles Vanderhaegen describes Judith's unfortunate situation:
...Judith…was married off to the Anglo-Saxon king Ethelwolf, who was over 50 years old. 18 months later she became a widow and was married off again, this time to Ethelbald, a son to Ethelwolf from a previous marriage. He also died a few years later and Judith was promptly accused of incestuous relations to her stepson and expelled from England. Just like all kings from that time, Karel de Kale [Charles the Bald] sacrificed everything, including his daughter, for his political plans. So he locked her up in the castle only to free her for a future beneficial marriage.At this point, while still imprisoned in a castle, Judith attracted the attention of a visiting nobleman named Baldwin. Although she had already had two husbands, Judith was not more than twenty years old and was reputed to be a beauty. Baldwin and Judith fell in love. Vanderhaegen writes:
Boudewijn [Baldwin] did not really count on getting Karel De Kale's [Charles the Bald’s] approval to marry his daughter as he was a mere subordinate. He therefore decided to free Judith from her prison by abducting her. He was aided by her younger brother prince Lodewijk, later to become Louis II of France, nicknamed the Stutterer. For some unknown reason he favoured a marriage between his sister with Boudewijn. Louis informed Judith of Boudewijn's marriage plans and in a specific night, sometime in 860, Judith disguised herself and escaped her guards. She left the castle and met Boudewijn outside the gates. Together they returned to Boudewijn's home.But the star-cross’d lovers were not to have their happily ever after quite so easily. Charles the Bald was enraged by his daughter’s disobedience, and they were forced to flee to the neighboring kingdom of Lorraine.
Judith’s father demanded that the king of Lorraine (a cousin from the Carolingian line) return his daughter and her “husband”. To apply pressure on the couple, Charles confiscated all of Baldwin’s property and convinced the Carolingian clergy to excommunicate him.
But according to Vanderhaegen, Baldwin was not so easily intimidated: “He communicated to Karel [Charles] that if he was not reinstated and if Karel did not acknowledge his marriage, he would make a treaty with the Norsemen who had invaded the Frankish empire around 800 and who pillaged northwards and took power over that area.”
Although Charles chose to ignore this threat, the local clergy did not. The Archbishop of Reims alerted the pope about this very serious matter. The lovers went to Rome to present their case and won the pope over to their side.
However much it might have galled him, Charles was not powerful enough to go against the pope. A settlement was reached. Charles acknowledged the marriage and even presented Baldwin with a dowry of land.
|Institution of Baldwin I, the first count of Flanders by Charles the Bald, the Frankish king.|
Baldwin proved himself to be, if not the son-in-law that Charles wanted, then at least the son-in-law that Charles needed. Instead of going over to the “dark side” as he had threatened, he earned the nickname Ferreus (“Iron Arm”) by protecting the Carolingian kingdom against Viking incursions. Through Charles' begrudging generosity and his own prowess, he became the first Count of Flanders, ruling a County that would last for hundreds of years and become an important power on the continent.
Not much is known about the couple in the succeeding years, but Judith, who had been childless in her previous two marriages, gave birth to at least three sons and one daughter. And as if Judith’s connections with the royal line in England had not been tangled enough, her son Baldwin II ended up marrying Ælfthryth, the daughter of Alfred the Great (who had been Judith’s stepson/brother-in-law).
A century and a half later, there came another English connection. William soon-to-be-the-Conqueror married Matilda of Flanders (although one story of their courtship—of William dragging Matilda by the hair after she refused to marry him—is not quite as romantic as the story of Baldwin and Judith…).
As the centuries went by, the County of Flanders became an increasingly important player in French affairs. In the latter part of the twelfth century, the Flemish Count held as much territory as the French king held directly, and Flanders enjoyed a period of great prosperity.
The bulk of this prosperity was due to the thriving commerce between Flanders and England. And the bulk of the commerce was due to English sheep and Flemish looms. Historian Elizabeth Hallam writes that beginning in the eleventh century, “wool accounted for half the wealth in England.” Some of this wool was exported to Italian weavers, but most of it went to Flanders. Hallam says:
The stimulus for the wool trade came from Flanders, whose powerful counts had in the 11th century imposed a long period of peace on the region. With peace came prosperity and a rise in population: food shortages resulted and many Flemings emigrated. Others moved to the burgeoning Flemish cities, where they worked in the region’s rising industry, cloth manufacture…. English wool production expanded to meet [this demand]. As early as 1194 England grazed around six million sheep, and produced up to 50,000 sacks of wool a year.This mutually beneficial relationship between Flanders and England lasted for several hundred years—until the English Edwards killed the goose that laid the golden eggs by putting too high a tariff on wool export.
As the English began to make their own cloth (and as the Black Death spread across Europe), the County of Flanders went into a decline. In 1369, the Duke of Burgundy took possession of Flanders as part of his wife’s dowry, and from that point onward the County of Flanders was no longer independent.
In terms of size, the County of Flanders was not a large piece of medieval Europe, but the part it played in England’s economy was a pivotal one. And while the symbiotic relationship that English shepherds and Flemish weavers shared across four centuries is not quite as dramatic a love story as that of Judith and Baldwin, it is still a romance worth reading about—a romance that contributed to the success of a country that had half of its money wrapped up in wool.
You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.
Hallam, Elizabeth, ed. Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry. London: Salamander Books, Ltd., 2002.
Vanderhaegen, Charles. The History of Flanders. Trans. Herman Boel. http://www.hermanboel.eu/en-dossiers-hist03.htm (Accessed June 4, 2014).