Belgium – Origins Of Brussels

BRUSSELS was in a certain sense the ancient capital of Brabant, as Bruges and Ghent were the ancient capitals of West and East Flanders. It grew up (as early as the eighth century) on the banks of the little river Senne, whose course through its midst is now masked by the modern Inner Boulevards, built on arches above the unseen stream. The Senne is one of the numerous rivers which flow into the Schelde, and the original town clustered close round its banks, its centre being marked by the Grand’ Place and the church of St. Nicolas. Unlike Bruges and Ghent, however, Brussels has always been rather an administrative than a commercial centre. It is true, it had considerable trade in the Middle Ages, as its fine Hôtel-de-Ville and Guild Houses still attest; but it seems to have sprung up round a villa of the Frankish kings, and it owed at least as much to its later feudal lords, the Counts of Louvain, afterward Dukes of Brabant, and to their Burgundian successors, as to its mercantile position.

The Senne was never a very important river for navigation, though, like most of the Belgian waterways, it was ascended by light craft, while a canal connected the town with the Schelde and Antwerp : but the situation of Brussels on the great inland trade route between Bruges or Ghent and Cologne gave it a certain mercantile value. Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Louvain, Maastricht, and Aix-la-Chapelle all formed stations on this important route, and all owed to it a portion of their commercial prestige.

The burgher town which was thus engaged in trade and manufactures was Flemish in speech and feeling, and lay in the hollow by the river and the Grand’ Place. But a lordly suburb began to arise at an early date on the hill to eastward, where the Counts of Louvain built themselves a mansion, surrounded by those of the lesser nobility. After 1380, the counts migrated here from too democratic Louvain. Later on, in the fifteenth century, the Dukes of Burgundy (who united the sovereignty of Brabant with that of Flanders) often held their court here, as the population was less turbulent and less set upon freedom than that of purely commercial and industrial Bruges and Ghent. Thus the distinctive position of Brussels as the aristocratic centre and the seat of the court grew fixed. Again, the Dukes of Burgundy were French in speech, and surrounded themselves with French knights and courtiers; to suit the sovereigns, the local nobility also acquired the habit of speaking French, which has gradually become the language of one-half of Belgium.- But the people of the Old Town in the valley were, and are still, largely Flemish in tongue, in customs, in sympathies, and in aspect; while the inhabitants of the Montagne de la Cour and the court quarter generally are French in speech, in taste, and in manners. We will trace in the sequel the gradual growth of Brussels from its nucleus by the river (the Lower Town), up the side of the eastern hill to tie Palace district (the Upper Town), and thence through the new Quartier Léopold and the surrounding region to its modern extension far beyond the limits of the mediæval ramparts.

Choose an hotel in the airy and wholesome Upper Town, as near as possible to the Park or the Place Royale.

S. Michael the Archangel is the patron saint of Brussels : he will meet you everywhere, even on the lamp-posts. For the patroness, St. Gudula, see under the Cathedral.