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View of Brussels circa 1655-1660 by Jan Baptist Bonnecroy
View of Brussels circa 1655-1660 by Jan Baptist Bonnecroy

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Medieval Infancy

Brussels was officially founded in 979, when a small castle was built near the Senne River. Lambert II of Leuven built a new castle and a city wall in the mid-11th century.

From the 12th century onwards, Brussels developed as an important stop on the commercial road from Bruges to Cologne.

Brussels was part of the Duchy of Brabant, which passed by marriage to the Dukes of Burgundy in 1406. Duchess Mary of Burgundy, who was born in Brussels. married Archduke Maximilian of Austria (afterwards the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I) in 1477, and Brussels passed to the Habsburgs.

When Emperor Charles V of Habsburg (1500-1558) abdicated, he left the Habsburgian Netherlands and Spain to his son Philip II. Brussels would from then on be ruled by the Habsburgs of Spain, then, from 1713, by the Habsburgs of Austria.

Capital of the Habsburgian Netherlands

King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) ordered the Inquisition and thousands of Protestants were executed on the Grand Place, including nobles like the Counts of Egmont and Hoorn. It is for this very Count of Egmont that J.W. von Goethe wrote his tale of the same name, and for which Ludwig van Beethoven later composed his famous overture.

In 1695, Louis XIV' s army commanded by Marshal De Villeroy bombarded the city for two days and destroyed 4000 houses and most of the Grand Place in retaliation after failing to take Namur. Everything was however rebuilt within five years.

The Austrians built Brussels neo-classical buildings such the Royal Palace, the Palace of Egmont and others buildings near Place Royale.

Town Hall, Brussels
Stained glass windows in Our Lady of Sablon's Church, Brussels
Statues outside the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels

Brussels, haven for artists & intellectuals

The fate of Brussels changed dramatically in 1830, when its citizens revolted against the Dutch "occupation" and proclaimed the Southern provinces the new independent Kingdom of Belgium, of which Brussels was to become the centralized capital. From that time on, Brussels was to grow tremendously, expanding about 20 times in size over a century.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was forced out of France in 1845 and sought refuge in the young kingdom of Belgium, which he considered the most liberal country in Europe at the time. He stayed until 1848, during which time his two sons were born and he wrote his famous Communist Manifesto with Engels. A commemorative plaque can be seen on the Maison du Cygne ("Swan House") on the Grand-Place, where Marx used to drink and write.

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) came into exile in Brussels in the winter 1851-52. In 1861, he completes his masterpiece Les MisÚrables on a trip to Waterloo, on the outskirt of the Belgian capital. Hugo also resided in Brussels between 1866 and 1870, where he lived Rue de l'Astronomie, then Place des Barricades, both in the Quartier des LibertÚs (between the Parliament and the Botanic Garden). This is where his second son, Charles, was born, and where his wife died, soon after childbirth.

Brussels also served as temporary home to other famous French exiles, such as Jacques-Louis David (1815 to 1825), Alexandre Dumas (1851), Charles Baudelaire (1864 to 1867), Auguste Rodin (1870 to 1886) and Paul Verlaine (1872 to 1873). Many famous Brits also stayed in Brussels at some point in their lives, such as Mary I Tudor (1555), the Duke of Marlborough (1706), the Duke of Wellington (1815), Lord Byron (1816), Sir Walter Scott (1816), or the Br÷nte sisters (1842 to 1844).

Brussels in the 20th century

It is in Brussels that the Belgian comic strip was born. HergÚ (1907-1983), author of the Adventures of Tintin, became the key figure of the Brussels school of comics in the 1930's. There are now hundreds of active comics writers and artists, generally based in Brussels or Charleroi, as well as a museum dedicated to the "ninth art", the Belgian Centre for Comic Strips.

Brussels has been the capital of the European Community (then the European Union) since 1958, and the political seat of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) since 1967.

Nowadays, thanks to its international status, Brussels enjoys the highest GDP per capita of any European administrative region after Luxembourg and central London.



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