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This region is often referred to as Flanders, but strictly speaking that is only one of the provinces covered by the area above. This map also covers the provinces of Artois, Hainaut and the small provinces of Cambrai and Tournai, as well as Picardy in France. These provinces were once among the 17 'Netherlands' that were controlled by Spain from the end of the Middle Ages. Many of the towns in this region became prosperous and powerful, but they were still unable to stand up to the Spanish during the Dutch Revolt'of the late 16th century, when the northern Netherlands became independant.

Unlike the northern provinces, where Protestantism flourished, the Spanish rooted out heretics in the southern states, so that many fled to the north. In turn, many Catholics fled to the south from oppression in the north, so that the southern Netherlands became staunchly Catholic. During the 17th century the Spanish Netherlands were threatened by a new enemy: France. Cardinal Richelieu'captured Arras in 1640, and a Spanish attempt to retake it soon afterwards failed. Spanish power was crumbling, but it was by no means ready to be broken at this stage. Throughout the first part of the 17th century, the Spain spent vast sums in fortifying the frontier towns to form a barrier against French attacks.

In 1667 Louis XIV'began a series of wars that would eventually see France take possession of a large part of the Spanish Netherlands. The frontier places were taken one by one with the aid of the skilled French military engineer Vauban, who then used his skill to strengthen their defences. Vauban formulated a plan known as the Pré Carré, whereby the Spanish barrier of fortified places was to be used in the opposite direction to defend France against attacks from the north. The value of the Pré Carré was shown in the War of the Spanish Succession, during which an Allied army that would have been in a position to invade France was bogged down in siege warfare on the frontiers. The war was ended by the Treaty of Utrecht'in 1713, which changed the frontier, forcing France to give up some important fortresses (the modern frontier is largely the same as that imposed by the Treaty of Utrecht).

The Pré Carré was to see action again in the mid-18th century and during the Revolutionary Wars, but Vauban's fortifications were becoming outdated by the 19th century. Some were modified to keep up with developments in artillery, but most declined. A large number of fortified places demolished their ramparts, which were strangling their commerce, at the end of the 19th century. Today there are only a few 'complete' places (such as Gravelines or Le Quesnoy), but many towns boast remnants of varying sizes as reminders of their stormy past.