Historical stroll: in the footsteps of Charles V in Brussels

28 April 2022
Reproduction of the painting Allegory on the abdication of Emperor Charles V by Frans Francken  (II)


For Brussels, the period corresponding to the reign and presence of Charles V – roughly the first half of the 16th century – is undoubtedly one of the most glorious moments in the history of our region. At that time, Brussels was a major political centre in Europe. Charles V was first and foremost Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, but he also held a series of titles and territories in Europe and elsewhere, particularly in America. Although he remained an itinerant prince due to the multitude of his functions and territorial possessions, he nevertheless chose Brussels as his main residence! This context favoured the development of Brussels, a development that has left many traces in the contemporary city. 


If there is one place that is emblematic of Charles V's personality, it is the former Coudenberg Palace, located on one of the city's hills. From the 11th century onwards, the site was home to a princely residence, which grew in importance at the same time as Brussels. It became a genuine palace during the time of the Dukes of Burgundy, and was magnified by Emperor Charles V, who had the adjoining chapel built. It was in this luxurious residence, and more precisely in the ceremonial hall, or Aula Magna, that Charles V assumed his role in Brussels in 1515; he also abdicated there in 1555. If you enter the underground site, which has been uncovered by recent archaeological research, you can see the remains of this huge palace. Among other things, you will notice the foundations of the old palace chapel or the remains of the Aula Magna.

In short, this is a must-see if you want to immerse yourself in the splendour of 16th century Brussels!

Sablon and Ommegang

Nowadays, the Sablon district is known as a fancy part of the city, full of famous shops and establishments, but also for its antique market, which is held there every Saturday and Sunday. The construction of the Notre-Dame du Sablon church, which began in the early 15th century, was a real driving force for the area.

Charles V is closely associated with the history of the Sablon, through a major event that still exists today: the Ommegang. Indeed, the show that can be seen every year in June or July is a re-enactment of an ancient event that took place in 1549. That year, Charles V chose the Ommegang procession - originally a religious procession, it gradually became a social parade over the years - to introduce his son and future successor, Philip, to the people of Brussels. The Ommegang was more brilliant than ever in 1549! Charles V was present in the Grand Place, together with his son Philip and his two sisters: they were seated in the room overlooking the entrance porch of the town hall.

Grand Place and Town Hall

The Grand Place is the capital’s most emblematic site and has been its beating heart since the Middle Ages. Its splendid town hall, built in several phases in the 15th century, is a clear reflection of the power of the local authority in the face of the superior power, that of the duke, who sits at Coudenberg.

As ruler of the Netherlands, Charles V was the  representative of the supreme authority in our regions. In this position, he frequented the Grand Place, such as during the Ommegang in 1549, which was mentioned earlier. When the town hall was decorated with a series of sculptures in the 19th century, it was decided to dedicate the façade overlooking the Grand Place to the sovereigns who had reigned in Brussels; therefore, Charles V is amongst them.

The façade of the “Maison des Ducs de Brabant", the building at the top of the square which brings together seven private houses under one façade, also features a bust of Charles V, recognisable by the inscription "Carolus V, Emperor of Austria"

The Maison du Roi, which faces the town hall, is also named after the emperor. In fact, if we limit ourselves to the former use of the place, it should be called "Bread Hall" - Broodhuis is still its current name in Dutch. But in the 16th century, Charles V, who had become king (of Spain), used this hall as Duke of Brabant... it then became the Maison du Roi! His statue welcomes you in the central arcade on the ground floor.

Facade of the King's House on Grand-Place

The cathedral and its stained glass windows

The cathedral is the main religious building in Brussels. In 1962, it was combined with the cathedral of St. Rombaut in Malines to become the seat of the Archdiocese of Brussels-Malines, the highest authority in the Belgian ecclesiastical hierarchy.

The cathedral is one of the richest buildings in Belgium in terms of old stained glass windows. The preserved stained glass windows bear witness to the influence of their donors, the stained glass windows provided by less prestigious figures having disappeared over the centuries. The magnificent stained glass windows in the apse and transept are mostly from the 16th century. The figure of Charles V can be seen twice. You will notice that the donors of the works - in other words, those who finance them - are twice as big as other church figures, and even God himself!

Facade of the Cathedrale Saints Michel and Gudule


Andreas Vesalius is best known for having been Charles V's physician - hired to treat his gout. As a specialist in anatomy, he developed a rational and independent method, making him a Renaissance man, a man of his time, or simply a humanist! It is said that he used to collect corpses from the "Mont des Potences" - the site of the present-day courthouse - to dissect the bodies and study the consequences of various diseases inside the body.

It is traditionally considered that Vesalius lived in a house in the Rue des Minimes, right next to the church of the same name. You will notice the commemorative plaque on the façade of the city school, the Athénée Robert Catteau, to the right of the church. A statue dedicated to the anatomist was erected in the centre of Place des Barricades.

Statue of Andreas Vesalius on Place des Barricades

The Tour and Taxis family: funeral chapel, aristocratic hotel, industrial site

At the very beginning of the 16th century, the Tassis family, originally from Italy, became "postmasters" following the decision of Philip the Handsome, who governed our regions and was the father of Charles V. The Italian family, which has branches all over Europe, saw the opportunity to develop a large-scale postal network. They had an aristocratic hotel built next to the church of Notre-Dame du Sablon, on what is now Rue de la Régence. The building no longer exists today. However, inside the church you can see the family burial chapel, which dates from the 17th century and is beautifully baroque!

One cannot help but be reminded of the well-known Brussels site of the same name, which is built along the canal in an art nouveau-inspired style. Built at the very beginning of the 20th century, on land that belonged to the Tour and Taxis family, it was, for almost a century, the central hub of goods traffic at the gates of the capital. Since its reopening in 2003, the site has become a major part of the Brussels landscape, hosting numerous events of all kinds - concerts, exhibitions, fairs, etc.

Sonian Forest

Everyone in Brussels knows the majestic Sonian Forest, which surrounds the south of the Brussels region, a genuine green lung where you can catch some fresh air without having to travel far from the capital. In the past, the forest was much larger - in the 18th century, it covered more than 10,000 ha, compared to its current 4,400 ha - and had a much greater influence on the urban area!

These vast woodlands were once used as hunting grounds by the princes ruling over our regions, and Charles V was no exception. In the 16th century, the main species hunted in the Sonain Forest were falcon, deer and wild boar.

Charles V's hunting activities are fairly well known thanks to a prodigious work of art, the series of tapestries entitled “Les Chasses de Maximilien" - a misnomer since they date from the time of Charles V. The art of tapestry is a Brussels speciality. This is a set of 12 tapestries made of wool, silk, gold and silver threads that illustrate the Brussels Court's passion for hunting throughout the entire year. This work can be seen at the Louvre Museum.

Tapestry representing the court hunt in Brussels