Historic Brussels

27 April 2022
Tapestry of the Coudenberg

Brussels has always occupied a strategic location. On one side there was marshland and hills and lowlands on the other. The capital of Europe gradually grew in between these two areas.  

It all began quite modestly. It was only in the first half of the 11th century that Brussels gradually emerged from the shadows.  A small hamlet before that, it grew in importance with the construction of a castle at the Coudenberg, a chapel on an island in the Senne at Saint-Géry and then finally a collegiate church, the ancestor of the present-day cathedral.  

Over the years, craftsmen and traders settled in the area. The area then fell into the hands of the Counts of Leuven. Brussels progressively transformed itself into a city, encircled by a first fortified wall that could only be entered through one of seven gates. It was in the hands of the Dukes of Brabant and the bourgeoisie. Between 1360 and 1400, a second city wall was built around Brussels. It followed the route along which the lanes of the Small Ring currently run. 

At the beginning of the 15th century, the ambitious House of Burgundy took power in the Brabant. Under Philip the Good, Brussels even became the capital of the ‘Grand Duke of the West’. Renowned artists and craftsmen flocked there. At the beginning of the 16th century, Charles V, as the future Holy Roman Emperor and better known as Charles Quint, adopted the title of Duke of Burgundy and became the successor of the Burgundians. He took up residence in the palace on Coudenberg. Meanwhile, Brussels became increasingly important politically. The city took full advantage of centralisation within the vast Habsburg Empire. 

Painting about the bombing of the Grand-Place

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Brussels struggled under the Spanish Habsburgs. Nevertheless, it remained the proud capital of the Spanish Netherlands. After Louis XIV's army bombarded Brussels in 1695, not much remained of the Grand Place. But its reconstruction made the square the most beautiful in the world. More than a century later, after the Battle of Waterloo, Brussels - like The Hague - became one of the two capitals of the new Kingdom of the Netherlands. 

When Belgium achieved independence, Brussels took a decisive, irrevocable step towards its status as a world city. It acquired wide avenues, railway stations, ambitious buildings, a university, etc. This dynamic will never stop. More recently, it also welcomed the headquarters of the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and many other international organisations, both public and private.