Brussels History Facts and Timeline

(Brussels, Brussels-Capital Region, Belgium)

Brussels, the capital of Belgium, has steadily risen from its origins as a fortified town in the 10th century, growing into a world-class metropolis of more than a million urbanites.

This vibrant city is essentially the capital of the European Union as well. It has been at the centre of European affairs since WWII, serving as the base for agencies like NATO and other international institutions.

An Heir of Charlemagne

Like most European cities, Brussels began its history as a riverside town, being founded alongside the Senne River towards the end of the 6th century AD. Saint Gaugericus (Saint Gery) built a chapel on an island in the river at this time and this important site is today called the Place Saint Gery.

The official history of Brussels really started in 979 AD, when a relative of Charlemagne, Charles the Duke of Low Lotharingia, established the city's first charter. Brussels quickly grew from a small town to a sizeable city, thanks to its role as a pivotal hub of river commerce between Cologne, Ghent and also Bruges.

The Middle Ages

The first city walls were built in the 11th century, increasing the city's security and greatly boosting its population. Such was the pace of growth that a second city wall was built soon after to further enclose the residents and businesses spreading outwards from the city centre.

When the Duke of Brabant took over the administration of the city in the 12th century, he made it the capital of his Duchy of Brabant. For the next three centuries, Brussels boomed economically by exporting luxury goods like tapestries and textiles to leading European cities of wealth and nobility, such as Paris and Venice. Many of these Middle Age tapestries are now on display in the Louvre Gallery in Paris.

A Period of Rebellion

In the 1400s, Brussels was at its peak. Magnificent buildings such as the King's House and the Town Hall were commissioned, and still stand facing each other at the Grand Place (Grote Markt) in the heart of the city. However, by the end of the 15th century, an uprising against the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I resulted in a loss of European favour. It wasn't until Charles V took control of Brussels between the years of 1519 and 1556 that the city enjoyed its privileged status again.

The Calvinists, led by Archduke Albert VII, marked the history of Brussels with a new direction in the 16th and 17th centuries. When France's King Louis XIV bombed the city in 1695, the Grand Place was left in ruins and much of the historic core of the city was destroyed. The current face of this historic city is largely the work of the many craftsmen and their guilds, who together rebuilt numerous streets and enclosed the Grand Place with their guildhalls.

The 1700s continued the rebellious ways with a running series of revolts and foreign occupations. Yet at the same time, Brussels remained a European economic powerhouse. Control of the city swung between the French and the locals for decades, marked by major events like the Brabant Revolution from early 1789 until the end of 1790.

Belgium's Capital

The last revolt in Brussels happened in 1830, with residents protesting the policies of Dutch King William and agitating for independence. The locals won that fight, and King Leopold I (a relative of England's Queen Victoria) became Belgium's first king in July 1831. As the capital of Belgium, the city underwent a major transformation. Its fortified walls were torn down and replaced by a network of boulevards shaped like a pentagon, with Old Town Brussels remaining at the city's heart.

The 20th century was a time of development and war. Germany occupied the city during WWI and WWII. After the end of WWII, the city was included in the Treaty of Brussels (March 1948), which led to its eventual role as the capital of the European Union.

Post-war, the city began to modernise itself by replacing historic buildings with new structures in a rather unpopular strategy, now known as Brusselisation. As a result, the city's aesthetics often seem to clash, as the modern buildings were not integrated well into the historic background of Brussels.