History of Brussels

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City Hall at the Grand-Place © Jean Loup Vandewiele

Brussels was born around 979. The development of the city is marked by 3 big periods. The first one is situated between the 11th and the first half of the 12th century, the second one between the 13th and the 14th century and the last one between the 17th and the 18th century.

At the end of the 10th century, the current territory of Belgium belonged, partially to the emperor of the Germanic Saint Empire (roughly, south half of the country) and to the king of France (roughly, north half of the country). The emperor Otton III wished to watch the count of Flanders, vassal of the king of France, and to prevent him from entering his Empire. He thus handed over lands to his vassal, the duke of Basse-Lotharingie, asking him to build a fort there.

A fort

The natural site of the islands of Senne, defended by the river and the swamps, appeared to agree perfectly. Charles of France, duke of Basse-Lotharingie, installed a fort here around 979.

Next to this fort the city of Brussels originated. The site attracted lots of traders. In the North, the river became indeed navigable. They installed a little port there, a modest hamlet where inhabitants settled for their agricultural and commercial activities.

In the military and state-owned fort a port emerged, which attracted the inhabitants. A square was converted into a market. It took the name of Nedermerct, the origin of the future Grand-Place. This stage of pre-urban development is situated between 1000 and 1150.

Around the same time, on one of the hills around the Senne, the church Saint Michel was built, in the place of a former Carolingian church and near a village. On another hill, in the Coudenberg, the count of Louvain, heir of the rights of the duke of Basse-Lotharingie, built a castle. The fort of the 10th century was abandoned.

For what motive? Did the count wish, for strategic reasons, to move his housing environment on a hill? Or did he look for a more pleasant place, away from the urban community? Historians and archaeologists wonder.

The urban nucleus grows between these three zones: the port, the church Saint Michel and the castle of the Coudenberg. A population absorbed in commercial, craft and rural activities, settled down at first on the right bank, in front of the islands, then extended also eastwards of the hill of the Coudenberg, to avoid the floods.

First wall

A first wall was built around the village in the 12th century. Certain historians place it at the beginning of the century, the others toward the end. The wall had a length of 4 kilometres with 50 towers and 7 doors. Some of these can still be seen in the city today.

In the 13th and 14th century, this wall became too narrow to contain all the population. Worker districts had even been established outside. The increase of the population was explained by a demand of manpower, justified by the prosperity of the local industries. So, one second wall was built in the 4th quarter of the 14th century. It would contain the population of the city till the end of the 18th century.

In the 17th and 18th century, the increase of the urban populating entailed the reproduction and the diversification of markets, the creation of specialized markets and market halls. Most of the markets occupied spaces around the Grand-Place. The most cumbersome markets were held near the first wall. The first halls must have been built in the 13th century. They became vaster or more numerous from the 14th century onwards.

The first public buildings appeared later. The construction of a belfry and a modest municipal hall took place only in the course of the 14th century, on the Grand-Place. In the bend of the 14th and 15th century, this first municipal hall was replaced by what constitutes the left wing of the current Gothic building today. The right wing was built in the middle of the 15th century.

The bombardment of Brussels

At the end of the 17th century, a drama happened in the city of Brussels: the bombardment of the city by the French people during the campaigns of Louis XIV against Spain. The evaluations of the scale of the disaster diverge a little, but it seems that some 3.800 houses, 11 churches and numerous convents were destroyed. Hundreds of houses were badly damaged. Approximately a quarter of the city was in ruin. The disaster especially struck the centre. The Grand-Place was ravaged. On the other hand, the cathedral Saint Michel was saved, as well as the district of the palace.

Less than 40 years later, in 1731, a violent fire destroyed the palace of the Coudenberg. We did not reconstruct it immediately. The architecture of the palace did not correspond to the tastes of the time anymore. This destruction prepared the start for the development of the district of the current Place royale. The whole took got a neo-classic style.

According to: SMOLAR-MEYNART and J. STENGERS (s dir. of), La Région de Bruxelles. Des villages d’autrefois à la ville d’aujourd’hui, (Brussels), municipal Credit of Belgium, 1989, p. 45-79 (synthesis of the Unit of didactics in history of the UCL)




  • First World War centenary in Brussels

    First World War centenary in Brussels

    The City of Brussels organizes a number of initiatives to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War (1914-1918): the website '14-18 Brussels at war', an exhibition and a publication mainly focus on daily life in Brussels during the war.




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