A brief history of Brussels

Brussels’ past can be found within the city.  Find here a brief overview of the rich past of the capital of the Kingdom of Belgium.

7th – 15th century

Brussels arms with St Michel striking the Dragon

The foundation of the city dates back to the 7th century. There is no agreement on the origin of the name Brussels. According to some, the place is named Bruocsela (in the Germanic language bruoc meaning ‘marshes’ and sela meaning ‘a room’ or ‘a house’). According to others, the name derives from brug, which means ‘the bridge’ in the Germanic language, and Zenne, the Germanic name for the Seine, the river that flows through Brussels.
A third school argues that Brussels has the same etymology as the city of Cisalpine Gaul Brixellum, the current Brecello, found in the north of Italy, which derives from briga (height) and cella (temple), that is to say "the temple on the hill". The present Cathedral of Saint Michael and Gudula are situated in this location….

In the early 12th century, trade became a major player in Western Europe. Thanks to its artisians and to its port on the Seine, Brussels became an important trading crossroad. This prosperity was reflected in the works commenced at the College of Saint Gudula to replace the roman sanctuary with a gothic building.

In 1430, the Duke of Burgundy Philippe le Bon inherited Brabant. It is under this Duke that Brussels emerged as an administrative and cultural centre, becoming famous for its architecture and its churches, its palaces and its trade in luxurious crafts.

16th – 18th century

16th century map of Brussels

In 1515, the Archduke Charles of Austria became the king of Burgundy and inherited the throne of Spain – thus marking the beginning of Spanish rule over the entire region, including Brussels.

The Archduke integrated this set with Austria and Spain into a vast empire which also included the American colonies. Spread over both hemispheres, this was a territory on which ‘"the sun never set". Brussels became home to one of the most brilliant courts in which affluent nobles hailed from all parts of the empire and also became a city of artists and scientists (Vesalius, Mercator, Erasmum who wrote a treatise on the education of a prince).

In 1695, the army of King Louis XIV of France invaded the country and bombed Brussels. Aiming at the spire of the Town Hall, the French guns missed the prestigious building but razed the houses in the Grand Place and most of the city. The European courts resented these terrific bombardments to a civil population foreign to conflict.

For every bad thing there is a good thing: the reconstruction of the Grand Place made this place one of the most beautiful squares in Europe.

In 1713, the Habsburg dynasty in Spain gave up the Netherlands to the Habsburgs of Austria and so the Austrian occupation so began.

The Brabant Revolution of 1789 was triggered with the suppression of the charter concerning the privileges ripped throughout the centuries by the city.
The Austrians were driven out and after their departure, the States-General reunited in Brussels on 7th January 1790 and proclaimed the independence of the Unified States of Belgium. However this was short lived …

On 10th December 1790, the Austrian regime was restored by a revival of the Austrian army.

18th – 19th century

Napoleon the 1st, Emperor of the French

In the 1800s, under the French Emperor Napoleon I, Brussels witnessed a remarkable economic growth, particularly in the textile and chemical industries.  The continental blockade, imposed by Napoleon I on England, boosted the production in Brussels by eliminating English competition from Europe. The opulence of the city and its textile firms were then wrecked after the French defeat at Waterloo.

After 1815, following the Congress of Vienna, Belgium became subject to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, despite a vote against it from the nobles, which was ignored.

Brussels counted 100,000 habitants when, on the night of the 24th and 25th August 1830, the Belgians lead their revolution which began during a performance of La Muette de Portici at La Monnaie, and quickly won the provinces.

The Dutch army was defeated by these volunteers and the London Conference recognised the independence of Belgium. However, the King of Holland tried a comeback. And consequently the Belgians had to retreat the offensive with the support of numerous artilleries as Brussels was under threat. But, in the meantime, a provisional government declared the country’s independence and the national congress elected a king. On 21st July 1831, the king of the newly independent nation, Leopold I of Saxe-Coburg, gave his oath of allegiance to the constitution - at that time the most liberal one in the world - with the title of the Kind of the Belgians. The new king asked the French intervention against the Netherlands, and neutrality was guaranteed by France and England.  In front of the French army, with a threat from volunteers from Limbourg lead by Brouckère at their back, the Dutch army retreated to avoid confrontation.

In more general terms, the city of Brussels found itself in the centre of the construction of the Belgian identity. Colossal works conferred Brussels its statute of a capital: in 1846, the building of the Galaries Royales Saint-Hubert; in 1867, the vaulting of the Seine; in 1866, the construction of the Palace of Justice and of the Cinquantenaire Park with its triumphal arch.

New districts were designed as part of a revolutionary development plan which included wide avenues and parks and which extended over all the municipalities, contributing to the unification of the Belgian spirit which acquired a collective consciousness.

20th century

August 23, 1918: the German army on the Brussels Grand Place 

Spurred on by the architect Victor Horta, superb Art Nouveau homes were erected in the early 20th century. After that, Brussels experienced an important cultural impact. Literature became independent from Paris, theatre life became important and the major museums were erected.

Real mass francization of the urban population only started in the second half of the 19th century. From 1880, one could experience a true explosion of bilingualism at the expense of the unilingual Dutch-speaking. Dutch was not passed over to the next generation, which resulted in an increase in the number of unilingual French-speaking after 1910. From the 1960s, following the setting of a language border and the rise of socio-economic development of the Flemish region, the francization of Dutch stopped growing.

During the two world wars, Brussels was occupied by German military authorities who intervened in the political system of the nineteen municipalities of the capital by imposing Nazi collaborators in favour of adopting the Flemish language in the city.

Like in the period 1914-1918, a network of resistance and an illegal press - mainly francophone - was developed in Brussels in the period 1940-1944. The history of Belgium in the last half of the 20th century was dominated by the continuous linguistic debate between the Dutch-speaking and the French-speaking. Between 1970 and 1994, the Constitution was altered, creating a federal state with three regions: the Flemish region – Dutch-speaking; the Walloon region – French- and German-speaking; and the bilingual Brussels-Capital region. This change also gave rise to three cultural communities: the Flemish community, the French community and the German-speaking community

In 1989, Brussels received the different institutions appropriate to its status as a region. Beyond being a single town, Brussels has been empowered with orders and with its own parliament and government, as well as with various institutions which deal with specific community competences in the region.

21st century

The European flag deployed on the front onf the Cinquantenaire

Finally, restored after two world wars, the city found its former status which is made up of nineteen municipalities governed by the ‘conference of mayors’.  This statute later evolved to rediscover a unique regime under an umbrella scheme of nineteen municipalities.

Its language regime is integral bilingualism which leaves the citizens the choice to deal with the government in the language which they prefer. Linguistic freedom of the father’s family is guaranteed by the Belgian Constitution in the choice of the language of instruction. Two complete networks of schools and universities, in French and in Dutch, are found in the nineteen municipalities. In six communes on the outskirts there are also French-speaking primary schools.

A complicated administrative construction, based on the famous ‘Belgian compromise’, has permitted the preservation of the unity of the country. Until when?

Capital of the European Union and the seat of the European Parliament, NATO and of more than 1,200 international organisations, Brussels shares with Washington the title of the city with the most accredited journalists.

But, with 8,000 hectares of green space – half the area of the region, it is also one of the greenest capitals in Europe.

Having become in a few years one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, Brussels, owing to its income per capita, is considered one of the richest cities in Europe.

The walls of Brussels

In the early 13th century, a 4km wall was put up to protect the main living nucleus.

As a measure where the city experienced a significant growth, largely due to the wealth generated by the textile industry, a new wall approximately 8km long was built during the second half of the 14th century, thereby protecting the new neighbourhoods and to integrate land reserves which where progressively urbanising.

In 1830, the medieval walls, of which the dismantling was ordered at the end of the 18th century, gave space for the large boulevards (today known as the "inner circle", shaped as a pentagon).