The first “belgian” coins: lions d’or and lions d’argent of the United Belgian States  Share

 Belgium got its independence in 1830. The history of the Belgian franc – replaced by the euro in 1999 – dates back to 1832 when its characteristics were defined by law. The first “belgian” coins were struck a few years earlier, in 1790. Four copies of these coins can be found in room 4, showcases nr. 17.

Coin with a lionBy the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) the territory comprising present-day Belgium and Luxembourg (except for the independent principality of Liège) passed under the sovereignty of the Holy Roman emperor Charles VI, head of the Austrian branche of the House of Habsburg. Although there was one emperor, the territory was split up in a dozen different counties, duchies and seigniories, each with its own representative body, the Etats or States.

The States were a relict from the Late Middle Ages. It united the three estates within the lord’s territory. The nobility (or first estate) and the clergy (second estate) were the most powerful ones within the States. The third party, the burghers or rich merchants and artisans from large cities, was initially less powerful than the other estates but proved to be very keen on having a say in various political and economic matters. Within the States assembly those three estates had to agree on the internal balance of power and to negotiate with their lord. Thus, it’s not hard to believe that conflicts were not uncommon. Even less surprising is that every brutal or cunning attempt by the lord to reduce the power of the States (or the local elite) encountered resistance. In this respect, the Southern Netherlands of the second half of the 18th century, had still very much in common with these medieval practices.

Joseph IIUpon the death of his father in 1765, Joseph had become emperor and co-regent, but his mother, Maria Theresia kept most of the authority in her hands, a condition that led to frequent clashes between the strong-willed mother and strong-willed son. When Joseph became sole ruler, in 1780, he was determined to implement his own policies. His high-handed manner of imposing liberal reforms, was not well received by all of his subjects. According to historians his reforms are an example of a top-down revolution.

Joseph II’s passion to modernize caused great dissatisfaction among the upper classes. The Austrian government was no longer inclined to maintain the remnants of feudal privilege. The emperor’s aim was a modern centralized state that had the final word in almost all fields. Freedom of religion e.g., one element of the church reform he advocated, was really important to him and the Roman Catholic Southern Netherlands were particularly reluctant in this matter. He also imposed educational and social reforms without taking local customs into consideration.

The first wave of reforms of 1781 was soon followed by a second one in 1784. This continual process of changes and reforms kindled the Southern Netherlands’ protest. One after the other, the States of Hainaut, Brabant and Flanders entered an official protest against their emperor. This feeling of dissatisfaction resulted in riots and public disorder and militia were set up to fight the imperial army. Amongst local dignitaries two centres of resistance began to take shape. The Brussels’ lawyer Hendrik Van der Noot who was particularly popular in catholic and conservative circles was the centre of the first hotbed. More progressive dignitaries who initially acclaimed the Habsburgs reforms closed their ranks around another lawyer, F.J. Vonck. Increasing Viennese repression however made them change their minds. The rebellious movement was also stirred up by the Church itself. As soon as local bishops called Joseph II, a truly Roman Catholic, a heretic because of his proclamation of freedom of religion, a breakthrough was at hand. Conservatives and progressives united in opposition to the emperor. A committee of national liberation was formed in Breda and October 24, 1789 an army of 2.800 soldiers engaged the ennemy. Three days later they defeated an Austrian force at Turnhout. November 16, the troops captured Ghent and December 12, the capital Brussels was seized by the patriots. Ten days later, all provinces of the Southern Netherlands, except for Luxembourg, were liberated.

This uproar, also known as the Brabant Revolution, led to the creation of a new republic, the Etats Belgiques Unis. After their common victory, conservatives and progressives came into conflict. The conservative Statists in the end gained the upper hand an made a triumphant entry into Brussels. Since the sovereignty was vested in the (provincial) States the republic was confederal and fundamentally in hands of the old elites. The supporters of F.J. Vonck advocated a parliamentary system, similar to the one installed in France after the French Revolution. They tasted defeat however and had to flee the country. The revolution had widespread support in the towns. The peasants, on the other hand, had little in common with the middle-class revolutionaries and generally supported the Austrians. They rather preferred a foreign and authoritarian emperor who showed concern for their problems instead of a local elite that was not the least interested. Their uprising was suppressed drastically because those in power dreaded the rebels would get further infected by radical French ideas and goings-on.

lionIn the meantime the new republic started to strike its own coins. Several coins were planned, but not all of them were really struck. Lions d’or and lions d’argent, 1/2 lion d’or and 1/2 lion d’argent, coins of 1 florin and 1/2 florin, coins of 5 sols, 10, 2 and 1 liards. The coins in the showcases nr 17 are a lion d’or, a lion d’argent and two coins of 1 florin. The lion sways the sword, to protect the revolution, and reclines on a shield bearing the word LIBERTAS. The reverse of this coin bears the coats of arms of the 11 provinces.

The coins were designed by Theodore Van Berckel, engraver at the Brussels Mint. As already mentioned before, not all of the coins were struck because the Austrians reclaimed the Austrian Netherlands by the end of November 1790. Frictions between conservatives and progressives and the lack of international support for the young republic proved insurmountable. Although the Austrians came back to the Southern Netherlands, the result of the Brabant Revolution was not completely wiped out. The internal discord between the supporters of Van der Noot and Vonck continued and was the basis of the two political movements that dominated the Belgian history during the 19th century: the catholics and the liberals. In 1830, when Belgium finally got its independence, freedom fighters learned their lesson well and they then implicated the European dynasties in the setting up of a new state, of a new monarchy to be precise.

Natan Hertogen
Museum guide


  • Blom J.H.C. & Lamberts E. (red.), Geschiedenis van de Nederlanden, Hb Uitgevers, Baarn, p. 235-242.