Early settlement to the sixteenth century
Brussels takes its name from Broekzele, or "village of the marsh", the community which grew up beside the wide and shallow River Senne in the sixth century, reputedly around a chapel built here by St Géry, a French bishop sent here to convert the pagans. A tiny and insignificant part of Charlemagne's empire at the end of the eighth century, it was subsequently inherited by the dukes of Lower Lorraine (or Lotharingia - roughly Wallonia and northeast France), who constructed a fortress in 979; the first city walls were added a few decades later. Its inhabitants protected, the village began to benefit from its position on the trade route between Cologne and the burgeoning towns of Bruges and Ghent, and soon became a significant trading centre in its own right. The surrounding marshes were drained to allow for further expansion, and by the end of the twelfth century Brussels had a population of around 30,000.
In 1229 the city was granted its first charter by the dukes of Brabant , the new feudal overlords who controlled things here, on and off, for around two hundred years, governing through seven échevins , or aldermen , each of whom represented one of the patrician families who monopolised the administration. This self-regarding oligarchy was deeply unpopular with the skilled workers who made up the guilds , the only real counterweight to the aristocrats. The guildsmen rose in rebellion in 1302 and again in 1356, when the Count of Flanders, Louis de Maele, occupied Brussels during his dispute with Jeanne, the Duchess of Brabant. The guildsmen rallied to the Brabantine cause under the leadership of Everard 't Serclaes and, after ejecting the count's garrison, exacted terms from the returning duchess. Jeanne was obliged to swear an oath - the Joyeuse Entrée - which stipulated the rights and responsibilities of the ruler and the ruled, effectively a charter of liberties that also recognised the guilds and gave them more political power. This deal between the duchess and her craftsmen led to a period of rapid expansion and it was at this time that a second town wall was constructed, an eight-kilometre pentagon whose lines are followed by the boulevards of today's petit ring .
The early decades of the fifteenth century proved difficult: the cloth industry began its long decline and there was more trouble between the guildsmen and the patricians. Temporary solutions were, however, found to both these problems. The craftsmen started making luxury goods for the royal courts of Europe, while the city's governing council was modified to contain seven aristocrats, six guildsmen and two aldermen - a municipal compromise that was to last until the late eighteenth century. There was a change of overlord too, when, in 1430, marriage merged the territories of the duchy of Brabant with those of Burgundy . Initially, this worked against the interests of the city as the first Burgundian rulers - Philip the Good and his son Charles the Bold - paid little regard to Brussels, and indeed Charles' ceaseless warmongering resulted in a steep increase in taxation. But when Charles' daughter, Mary of Burgundy , established her court in Brussels, the city gained political stature and its guildsmen found a ready market for the luxury goods they were already making - everything from gold jewellery and silverware through to tapestries and illuminated books. Painters were drawn to Mary's court, too, and Rogier van der Weyden was appointed the city's first official artist.
Mary married Maximilian , a Habsburg prince and future Holy Roman Emperor in 1477. She died in a riding accident five years later and her territories passed to her husband, who ruled until 1519. Thus Brussels - as well as the whole of present-day Belgium and Holland - was incorporated into the Habsburg Empire. A sharp operator, Maximilian whittled away at the power of the Brabantine and Flemish cities and despite the odd miscalculation - he was imprisoned by the burghers of Bruges in 1488 - had to all intents and purposes brought them to heel by the end of the century. Maximilian was succeeded by his grandson Charles V , whose vast kingdom included Spain, the Low Countries and large parts of Germany and Italy. By necessity, Charles was something of a peripatetic monarch, but he favoured Brussels, his home town, more than any other residence, running his empire from here for a little over twelve years, which made the city wealthy and politically important in equal measure. Just like his grandfather, Charles kept the city's guilds firmly under control.
The Reformation and the Revolt against Spain
The Reformation was a religious revolt that stood sixteenth-century Europe on its head. The first stirrings were in the welter of debate that spread across much of western Europe under the auspices of theologians like Erasmus , who wished to cleanse the Catholic church of its corruptions and extravagant ceremony; only later did some of these same thinkers - principally Martin Luther - decide to support a breakaway church. The seeds of this Protestantism fell on fertile ground among the merchants of Brussels, whose wealth and independence had never been easy to accommodate within a rigid caste society. Similarly, their employees, the guildsmen and their apprentices, who had a long history of opposing arbitrary authority, were easily convinced of the need for reform. In 1555, Charles V abdicated , transferring his German lands to his brother Ferdinand, and his Italian, Spanish and Low Countries territories to his son, the fanatically Catholic Philip II . In the short term, the scene was set for a bitter confrontation between Catholics and Protestants, while the dynastic ramifications of the division of the Habsburg empire were to complicate European affairs for centuries.
After his father's abdication, Philip II decided to teach his heretical subjects a lesson. He garrisoned Brussels and the other towns of the Low Countries with Spanish mercenaries, imported the Inquisition and passed a series of anti-Protestant edicts. However, other pressures on the Habsburg Empire forced him into a tactical withdrawal and he transferred control to his sister Margaret of Parma in 1559. Based in Brussels, the equally resolute Margaret implemented the policies of her brother with gusto. Initially, the repression worked, but in 1565 the Protestant workers struck back. In Brussels and most of the other big cities hereabouts they ran amok, sacking the churches and destroying their rich decoration in the Iconoclastic Fury .
Protestantism had infiltrated the nobility, but the ferocity of the rioting shocked the upper classes into renewed support for Spain. Philip was keen to capitalize on the increase in support and, in 1567, he dispatched the Duke of Albe , with an army of 10,000 men, to the Low Countries to suppress his religious opponents absolutely. Margaret was not at all pleased by Philip's decision and, when Albe arrived in Brussels, she resigned in a huff, initiating a long period of what was, in effect, military rule. One of Albe's first acts in the capital was to set up the Commission of Civil Unrest, which was soon nicknamed the " Council of Blood " after its habit of executing those it examined. No fewer than 12,000 citizens went to the block, most famously the counts of Egmont and Hoorn , who were beheaded on the Grand-Place in June 1568.
Once again, the repression soon backfired. The region's greatest landowner, Prince William of Orange-Nassau, known as William the Silent (1533-84), raised the Low Countries against the Habsburgs and swept all before him, making a triumphant entrance into Brussels, where he installed a Calvinist administration. Momentarily, it seemed possible for the whole of the Low Countries to unite behind William and all signed the Union of Brussels , which demanded the departure of foreign troops as a condition for accepting a diluted Habsburg sovereignty. But Philip was not inclined to compromise. In 1578, he gathered together another army which he dispatched to the Low Countries under the command of Alessandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma . Parma was successful, recapturing most of modern Belgium including Brussels and finally Antwerp in 1585. He was, however, unable to advance any further north and the Low Countries were divided into two - the Spanish Netherlands and the United Provinces - beginning a separation that would lead, after many changes, to the creation of Belgium and the Netherlands.
The Spanish Netherlands
Parma was surprisingly generous in victory, but the city's weavers, apprentices and skilled workers - the bedrock of Calvinism - still fled north to escape the new Catholic regime, fuelling an economic boom in the province of Holland. The migration badly dented the economy of the Spanish Netherlands as a whole, but Brussels - the capital - was relatively immune, its economy buoyed up by the Habsburg elite, whose conspicuous consumption fostered luxury industries like silk weaving, diamond processing and lace making. The city's industries also benefited from the digging of the Willebroek canal, which linked Brussels to the sea for the first time. This commercial restructuring underpinned a brief flourishing of artistic life both here and, in comparable circumstances, in Antwerp, where it was centred on Rubens and his circle, including Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens.
Meanwhile, months before his death in 1598, Philip II had granted control of the Spanish Netherlands to his daughter and her husband, appointing them the Archdukes Isabella and Albert . Failing to learn from experience, the ducal couple continued to prosecute the war against the Protestant north, but with so little success that they were obliged to make peace - the Twelve Year Truce - in 1609. When the truce ended, the new Spanish king Philip IV stubbornly resumed the campaign against the Protestants, this time as part of a general and even more devastating conflict, the Thirty Years' War (1618-48), a largely religious-based conflict between Catholic and Protestant countries that involved most of western Europe. Finally, the Habsburgs were compelled to accept the humiliating terms of the Peace of Westphalia , a general treaty whose terms formally recognized the independence of the United Provinces and closed the Scheldt estuary, thereby crippling Antwerp. By these means, the commercial pre-eminence of Amsterdam was assured and its Golden Age began.
The Thirty Years' War had devastated the Spanish Netherlands, but the peace was perhaps as bad. Politically dependent on a decaying Spain, economically ruined and deprived of most of its more independent-minded citizens, the country turned in on itself, sustained by the fanatical Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation . Literature disappeared, the sciences vegetated and religious orders multiplied to an extraordinary degree. In painting , artists - such as Rubens - were used to confirm the ecclesiastical orthodoxies, their canvases full of muscular saints and angels, reflecting a religious faith of mystery and hierarchy; others, such as David Teniers, retreated into minutely observed realism.
The Peace of Westphalia had also freed the king of France from fear of Germany, and the political and military history of the Spanish Netherlands after 1648 was dominated by the efforts of Louis XIV to add the country to his territories. Fearful of an over-powerful France, the United Provinces and England, among others, determinedly resisted French designs and, to preserve the balance of power, fought a long series of campaigns beginning in the 1660s. It was during one of these wars, the War of the Grand Alliance , that Louis XIV's artillery destroyed much of medieval Brussels, a disaster that led to the construction of the lavish Grand-Place that survives today.
The War of the Spanish Succession - the final conflict of the series - was sparked by the death in 1700 of Charles II , the last of the Spanish Habsburgs, who had willed his territories to the grandson of Louis XIV. An anti-French coalition refused to accept the settlement and there ensued a haphazard series of campaigns that dragged on for eleven years. Eventually, with the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, the French abandoned their attempt to conquer the Spanish Netherlands, which now passed under the control of the Austrian Habsburgs in the figure of the Emperor Charles VI.
The transfer of the country from Spanish to Austrian control made little appreciable difference: a remote imperial authority continued to operate through an appointed governor in Brussels and the country as a whole remained poor and backward. This sorry state of affairs began to change in the middle of the eighteenth century when the Austrian oligarchy came under the influence of the Enlightenment , that belief in reason and progress - as against authority and tradition - that had first been proselytised by French philosophers. In 1753, the arrival of a progressive governor, the Count of Cobenzl , signified a transformation of Habsburg policy. Cobenzl initiated an ambitious programme of public works and set about changing the face of Brussels - which had become an urbanised eyesore - by pushing through the grand Neoclassical boulevards and avenues which still characterise the Upper Town.
In 1780, the Emperor Joseph II came to the throne, determined to "root out silly old prejudices", as he put it - but his reforms were opposed by both left and right. The liberal-minded Vonckists demanded a radical, republican constitution, while their enemies, the conservative Statists , insisted on the Catholic status quo. There was pandemonium and, in 1789, the Habsburgs dispatched an army to restore order. Against all expectations, the two political groups combined and defeated the Austrians near Antwerp in what became known as the Brabant Revolution . In January 1790, the rebels announced the formation of the United States of Belgium, but the country remained in turmoil and when Emperor Joseph died in 1790, his successor, Léopold , quickly withdrew the reforming acts and sent in his troops to restore imperial authority.
French occupation and the Kingdom of the Netherlands
The new and repressive Habsburg regime was short-lived. French Republican armies brushed the imperial forces aside in 1794, and the Austrian Netherlands were annexed the following year, an annexation that was to last until 1814. The French imposed radical reforms: the Catholic church was stripped of much of its worldly wealth, feudal privileges were abolished, and, most unpopular of all, conscription was introduced. The invaders were deeply resented and French authority had largely evaporated long before Napoleon 's final defeat just outside Brussels at the battle of Waterloo in 1815.
At the Congress of Vienna , called to settle Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the main concern of the great powers was to bolster the Low Countries against France. With scant regard to the feelings of those affected, they therefore decided to establish the Kingdom of the Netherlands , which incorporated both the old United Provinces and the Austrian Netherlands, and on the throne they placed Frederick William of Orange, appointed King William I . From the very beginning, the union proved problematic - there were even two capital cities, Brussels and The Hague - and William simply wasn't wily enough to hold things together. Nonetheless, the union struggled on until August 25, 1830, when the singing of a duet, Amour sacré de la Patrie , in the Brussels opera house hit a nationalist nerve. The audience poured out onto the streets to raise the flag of Brabant in defiance of King William, thereby initiating a countrywide revolution . William sent in his troops, but Great Britain and France quickly intervened to stop hostilities. In January of the following year, at the Conference of London , the great powers recognized Belgium's independence, with the caveat that the country be classified a "neutral" state - that is one outside any other's sphere of influence. To bolster this new nation, they dug out the uncle of Queen Victoria, Prince Léopold of Saxe-Coburg, to present with the crown.
Léopold I (1830-65) was careful to maintain his country's neutrality and encouraged an industrial boom that saw coal mines developed, iron-making factories established and the rapid expansion of the railway system. His successor, Léopold II (1865-1909), further boosted industry and supervised the emergence of Belgium as a major industrial power. The king and the reforming Brussels burgomaster Anspach also set about modernizing the capital. New boulevards were built; the free university was founded; the Senne - which by then had become an open sewer - was covered over in the city centre; many slum areas were cleared; and a series of grandiose buildings was erected, the most unpopular of which was the Palais de Justice, whose construction involved the forced eviction of hundreds of workers. To round the whole thing off - and turn Brussels into a city deserving of its king - Léopold held the golden jubilee exhibition celebrating the founding of the Belgian state in the newly inaugurated Le Cinquantenaire, a mammoth edifice he had built just to the east of the old city centre.
The first fly in the royal ointment came in the 1860s and 1870s with the first significant stirrings of a type of Flemish nationalism which felt little enthusiasm for the unitary status of Belgium, divided as it was between a French-speaking majority in the south of the country - the Walloons - and the minority Dutch-speakers of the north. The Catholic party ensured that, under the Equality Law of 1898, Dutch was ratified as an official language, equal in status to French - the forerunner of many long and difficult debates.
The twentieth century
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Brussels was a thriving metropolis which took a progressive lead in a country that was determined to keep on good terms with all the great powers. Nonetheless, Belgium could not prevent getting caught up in World War I . Indifferent to Belgium's proclaimed neutrality, the Germans had decided as early as 1908 that the best way to attack France was via Belgium, and this is precisely what they did in 1914. They captured almost all of the country, the exception being a narrow strip of territory around De Panne. Undaunted, the new king Albert I (1909-34) and the Belgian army bravely manned the northern part of the Allied line. It made Albert a national hero.
The Germans returned in May 1940, launching a blitzkrieg that overwhelmed both Belgium and the Netherlands. This time there was no heroic resistance by the Belgian king, now Léopold III (1934-51), who ignored the advice of his government and surrendered unconditionally and in great haste. It is true that the Belgian army had been badly mauled and that a German victory seemed inevitable, but the manner of the surrender infuriated many Belgians, as did the king's refusal to form a government in exile. It took time for the Belgians to adjust to the new situation, but by 1941 a Resistance movement was mounting acts of sabotage against the occupying forces - and liberation by the Allies came three years later.
After the war, the Belgians set about the task of economic reconstruction , helped by aid from the United States, but hindered by a divisive controversy over the wartime activities of King Léopold. Many felt his surrender to the Germans was cowardly and his subsequent willingness to work with them treacherous; others pointed out his efforts to increase the country's food rations and his negotiations to secure the release of Belgian prisoners. Inevitably, the complex shadings of collaboration and forced co-operation were hard to disentangle, and the debate continued until 1950 when a referendum narrowly recommended his return from exile. Léopold's return was, however, marked by rioting in Brussels and across Wallonia, where the king's opponents were concentrated, and Léopold abdicated in favour of his son, Baudouin (1951-1993).
The development of the postwar Belgian economy follows the pattern of most of western Europe - reconstruction in the 1950s; boom in the 1960s; recession in the 1970s; and retrenchment in the 1980s and 1990s. In the meantime, Brussels, which had been one of the lesser European capitals, was turned into a major player when it became the home of the EU and NATO - the latter organization was ejected from France on the orders of de Gaulle in 1967. But, above all, the postwar period has been dominated by the increasing tension between the Walloon and Flemish communities . Every national institution is now dogged by the prerequisites of bilingualism - speeches in parliament have to be delivered in both languages - and in Brussels, the country's one and only bilingual region , every instance of the written word, from road signs to the yellow pages, has to be bilingual as well. Brussels has also been subtly affected by the Linguistic Divide (or Language Frontier), which was formally delineated in 1962. Bilingual Brussels is now encircled by Flemish-speaking regions and, partly as a result, many Francophones living in the city have developed something of a siege mentality; the Flemish, on the other hand, can't help but notice the prevalence of French in what is supposed to be their capital city.
Bogged down by these linguistic preoccupations - the current Prime Minister (Guy Verhofstadt) and his cabinet squeeze in four hours of language classes every week - the federal government often appears extraordinarily cumbersome. In addition, much of the political class is at least partly reliant on the linguistic divide for their jobs and, institutionally speaking, has little incentive to see the antagonisms resolved. A rare moment of national unity came in 1996 when communities from both sides of the linguistic divide rose up in protest at the Belgian police, which proved itself at best hopelessly inefficient, at worst complicit in, the gruesome activities of the child murderer and pornographer Marc Dutroux . Over 350,000 people took to the streets, demanding the police and justice system be overhauled. This outburst of public protest peaked again two years later when, amazingly enough, Dutroux escaped his police guards, stole a car and headed out of the city. Although he was subsequently recaptured, most Belgians were simply appalled.
The Dutroux affair dented the national psyche, and few Belgians believe that the reforms imposed on the police have made much difference. Into this psychological breach rode the royal family , one of the few institutions to bind the country together. In 1999, the heir to the throne, Prince Philippe, broke with tradition and married Mathilde d'Udekem d'Acoz - a Belgian of non-royal descent, with family on both sides of the linguistic divide. The marriage may well have healed a few wounds, but its effects should not be over-estimated. Over 400,000 people snapped up the free travel tickets offered by the Belgian railways, but only around twenty percent were used to come to Brussels, and out of them one can only speculate as to how many loyal subjects chose to wave the flag on a cold December day rather than head for the nearest bar.
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