400 years of foreign sovereigns From the 16th to 19th centuries, Luxembourg was an important pawn on the European chessboard.

Luxembourg was integrated into the Netherlands and often changed sovereignties from the 16th to 19th centuries. From the 15th to the 17th century, the Duchy belonged to the Habsburgs. In the early 18th century, Luxembourg was given to the Austrian branch of the Habsburgs before it was taken over by revolutionary France in the early 19th century. It finally gained its independence after the King of the Netherlands took control of the territory. Through the centuries, the Duchy lost some of its territories and started to appear in its current form.

Under Spanish hegemony

Luxembourg had a strategic position on the European chessboard. From the 16th century onwards, the country was drawn into the numerous wars fought for the hegemony in Europe by the Spanish Habsburgs and the Valois, and finally the Bourbons of France.

Indeed, Luxembourg represented an important part of the net that the Spain of the Habsburgs wanted to cast over France. Boasting one of the most formidable fortresses of its time, France saw Luxembourg as a spur in its flank.

A disputed fortress

The 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees marked the end of the war between France and Spain. The treaty was not without implications for the Duchy, as it lost its southern territories that included the now French cities of Thionville and Longwy.

But peace was short-lived: in 1684, the French troops of Louis XIV besieged the city and captured it. After capturing the city, the French engineer Vauban, who led the siege operations, carried out extensive fortification works. For a short period of time, from 1684 to 1697, the Duchy of Luxembourg remained under the French regime before it was returned to the Habsburgs.

During the 13 years under the French regime, Vauban redesigned the fortifications of Luxembourg, which became a formidable fortress reputed to be impregnable.

Siege of the city of Luxembourg in 1684. Painting by Jean-Baptiste Martin, on display at the National Museum of History and Art.
© Lëtzebuerg City Museum - Artist: Jean-Baptiste Martin (1659-1735)

Austria holds the reins

In 1715, following the War of the Spanish Succession, the southern Netherlands passed to the Austrian branch of the Habsburgs.

The 18th century was a period of peace and prosperity. Luxembourg benefits from the ideals of enlightened despotism advocated by the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa and her son, Emperor Joseph II. The reforms, such as the Theresian land register introducing fiscal equality and the edict of toleration granting non-Catholics the freedom of religion, already signalled the innovations of the French Revolution.

War and insurgency

In 1795, French revolutionary troops besieged the fortress and Luxembourg was annexed to France as the Département des Forêts (Forests Department). The reforms that were brought about by the new regime were not popular and the introduction of conscription, a system of compulsory military recruitment, set off the powder keg. Indeed, it triggered a peasant uprising known as the Klëppelkrich (Cudgel War) in 1798, during which hundreds of poorly equipped peasants fought against French troops. Within two days, the uprising was eventually suppressed. 200 Luxembourgers died in the battles and 35 were put to death.

Under Napoleon, the more moderate French regime was more widely accepted by the population, in particular because the Civil Code that was introduced under him, known as the Napoleon Code, granted greater freedoms to the bourgeoisie. Consequently, a class of entrepreneurs began to emerge, which, at the end of the Napoleonic Empire, opposed the takeover of authority by the nobility and the clergy.

Following the Napoleonic wars, the fortress was liberated in 1814. In a difficult political climate, the question arose again: what to do with the Duchy of Luxembourg?

View of the fortifications of the City of Luxembourg
MECO, LFF, CC et al. / Géry Oth

Finally – but not quite – independent

At the 1815 Vienna Congress, the great powers prepared a post-Napoleonic Europe. The Duchy of Luxembourg was formally declared independent, but was placed under the control of the Netherlands, another newly established entity. Now elevated to the rank of Grand Duchy, the country lost some of its eastern land, such as Bitburg, to Prussia. Luxembourg became a member of the German Confederation, while the capital became a federal fortress and home to a Prussian garrison.

Thus, even as a formally independent and neutral country, Luxembourg still remained dominated by foreign powers. Nonetheless, a national sentiment began to grow amongst the population, though not without consequences.