Charles of Lorraine founded what would become Brussels c. 979. The most common theory for the toponymy of Brussels is that it derives from the Old Dutch Broeksel or other spelling variants, which means marsh (broek) and home (sel) or “home in the marsh”. The origin of the settlement that was to become Brussels lies in Saint Gaugericus’ construction of a chapel on an island in the river Senne around 580. Saint Vindicianus, the bishop of Cambrai made the first recorded reference to the place “Brosella” in 695 when it was still a hamlet. The official founding of Brussels is usually situated around 979, when Duke Charles of Lower Lotharingia transferred the relics of Saint Gudula from Moorsel to the Saint Gaugericus chapel. Charles would construct the first permanent fortification in the city, doing so on that same island.
Lambert I of Leuven, Count of Leuven gained the County of Brussels around 1000 by marrying Charles’ daughter. Because of its location on the shores of the Senne on an important trade route between Bruges and Ghent, and Cologne, Brussels grew quite quickly; it became a commercial centre that rapidly extended towards the upper town (St. Michael and Gudula Cathedral, Coudenberg, Sablon/Zavel area), where there was a smaller risk of floods. As it grew to a population of around 30,000, the surrounding marshes were drained to allow for further expansion. The Counts of Leuven became Dukes of Brabant at about this time (1183/1184). In the 13th century, the city got its first walls.
Grand Place after the 1695 bombardment by the French army
After the construction of the city walls in the early 13th century, Brussels grew significantly. To let the city expand, a second set of walls was erected between 1356 and 1383. Today, traces of it can still be seen, mostly because the “small ring”, a series of roadways in downtown Brussels bounding the historic city centre, follows its former course.
In the 15th century, by means of the wedding of heiress Margaret III of Flanders with Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, a new Duke of Brabant emerged from the House of Valois (namely Antoine, their son), with another line of descent from the Habsburgs (Maximilian of Austria, later Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, married Mary of Burgundy, who was born in Brussels). Brabant had lost its independence, but Brussels became the Princely Capital of the prosperous Low Countries, and flourished.
In 1516 Charles V, who had been heir of the Low Countries since 1506, was declared King of Spain in St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral in Brussels. Upon the death of his grandfather, Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, Charles became the new archduke of the Habsburg Empire and thus the Holy Roman Emperor of the Empire “on which the sun does not set”. It was in the Palace complex at Coudenberg that Charles V abdicated in 1555. This impressive palace, famous all over Europe, had greatly expanded since it had first become the seat of the Dukes of Brabant, but it was destroyed by fire in 1731.
In 1695, King Louis XIV of France sent troops to bombard Brussels with artillery. Together with the resulting fire, it was the most destructive event in the entire history of Brussels. The Grand Place was destroyed, along with 4000 buildings, a third of those in the city. The reconstruction of the city centre, effected during subsequent years, profoundly changed the appearance of the city and left numerous traces still visible today. The city was captured by France in 1746 during the War of the Austrian Succession but was handed back to Austria three years later.
Brussels remained with Austria until 1795, when the Southern Netherlands was captured and annexed by France. Brussels became the capital of the department of the Dyle. It remained a part of France until 1815, when it joined the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. The former Dyle department became the province of South Brabant, with Brussels as its capital.
Episode of the Belgian Revolution of 1830, Wappers (1834)
In 1830, the Belgian revolution took place in Brussels after a performance of Auber’s opera La Muette de Portici at the La Monnaie theatre. Brussels became the capital and seat of government of the new nation. South Brabant was renamed simply Brabant, with Brussels as its capital. On 21 July 1831, Leopold I, the first King of the Belgians, ascended the throne, undertaking the destruction of the city walls and the construction of many buildings. Following independence, the city underwent many more changes. The Senne had become a serious health hazard, and from 1867 to 1871 its entire course through the urban area was completely covered over. This allowed urban renewal and the construction of modern buildings and boulevards characteristic of downtown Brussels today.
The 1927 Solvay Conference in Brussels was the fifth world physics conference.
Throughout this time, Brussels remained mostly a Dutch-speaking city, though until 1921 French was the sole language of administration. However, in 1921, Belgium was formally split into three language regions—Dutch-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia and bilingual Brussels. During the 20th century the city has hosted various fairs and conferences, including the fifth Solvay Conference in 1927 and two world fairs: the Brussels International Exposition of 1935 and the Expo ’58. During World War I, Brussels was an occupied city, but German troops did not incur much damage. In World War II the city was again occupied, and was spared major damage during its occupation by German forces before it was liberated by the British Guards Armoured Division. The Brussels Airport dates to the occupation.
After the war, Brussels was modernized for better and for worse. The construction of the North–South connection linking the main railway stations in the city was completed in 1952, while the first Brussels premetro was finished in 1969, and the first line of the Brussels Metro was opened in 1976. Starting from the early 1960s, Brussels became the de facto capital of what would become the European Union, and many modern buildings were built. Unfortunately, development was allowed to proceed with little regard to the aesthetics of newer buildings, and many architectural gems were demolished to make way for newer buildings that often clashed with their surroundings, a process known as Brusselization.
The Brussels-Capital Region was formed on 18 June 1989 after a constitutional reform in 1988. It has bilingual status and it is one of the three federal regions of Belgium, along with Flanders and Wallonia.
- European Union
Brussels serves as capital of the European Union, hosting the major political institutions of the Union. The EU has not declared a capital formally, though the Treaty of Amsterdam formally gives Brussels the seat of the European Commission (the executive/government branch) and the Council of the European Union (a legislative institution made up from executives of member states). It locates the formal seat of European Parliament in the French city of Strasbourg, where votes take place with the Council on the proposals made by the Commission. However meetings of political groups and committee groups are formally given to Brussels along with a set number of plenary sessions. Three quarters of Parliament now takes place at its Brussels hemicycle. Between 2002 and 2004, the European Council also fixed its seat in the city.
Brussels, along with Luxembourg and Strasbourg, began to host institutions in 1957, soon becoming the centre of activities as the Commission and Council based their activities in what has become the “European Quarter”. Early building in Brussels was sporadic and uncontrolled with little planning, the current major buildings are the Berlaymont building of the Commission, symbolic of the quarter as a whole, the Justus Lipsius building of the Council and the Espace Léopold of Parliament. Today the presence has increased considerably with the Commission alone occupying 865,000 m2 within the “European Quarter” in the east of the city (a quarter of the total office space in Brussels). The concentration and density has caused concern that the presence of the institutions has caused a “ghetto effect” in that part of the city. However the presence has contributed significantly to the importance of Brussels as an international centre.
See photos of Brussels (including Vatican & Rome panoramic views, Grand Place and Brussels Town Hall panoramic views, Manneken Pis, St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral and more) in this travel photo gallery from Verde Wanderer. Pictures taken in 14 of April, 2013.