The Story of Brussels

The Story of Brussels

Ernest Gilliat-Smith
Ernest Gilliat-Smith

Author: Gilliat-Smith, Ernest
Brussels (Belgium)
The Story of Brussels
The transcribers’ notes follow the text. [To Notes]

The Story of Brussels

The Mediæval Town Series

  • ASSISI.* By Lina Duff Gordon. [4th Edition.
  • BRUGES.† By Ernest Gilliat-Smith. [3rd Edition.
  • BRUSSELS.† By Ernest Gilliat-Smith.
  • CAIRO.† By Stanley Lane-Poole.
  • CAMBRIDGE.† By Charles W. Stubbs, D.D.
  • CHARTRES.† By Cecil Headlam.
  • CONSTANTINOPLE.* By William H. Hutton. [2nd Edition.
  • EDINBURGH.† By Oliphant Smeaton.
  • FERRARA.† By Ella Noyes.
  • FLORENCE.† By Edmund G. Gardner. [8th Edition.
  • LONDON.† By Henry B. Wheatley. [2nd Edition.
  • MOSCOW.* By Wirt Gerrare. [2nd Edition.
  • NUREMBERG.* By Cecil Headlam. [4th Edition.
  • PERUGIA.* By Margaret Symonds and Lina Duff Gordon. [5th Edition.
  • PRAGUE.* By Count Lutzow.
  • ROME.† By Norwood Young. [4th Edition.
  • ROUEN.† By Theodore A. Cook. [2nd Edition.
  • SEVILLE.† By Walter M. Gallichan.
  • SIENA.† By Edmund G. Gardner. [2nd Edition.
  • TOLEDO.* By Hannah Lynch. [2nd Edition.
  • VERONA.† By Alethea Wiel. [2nd Edition.
  • VENICE.† By Thomas Okey.

The prices of these (*) are 3s. 6d. net in cloth, 4s. 6d. net in leather; these (†) 4s. 6d. net in cloth, 5s. 6d. net in leather.

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[Pg iv]

Painted by Bernard van Orley, Brussels, 1519.
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The Story of Brussels
by Ernest Gilliat-Smith
Illustrated by Katharine Kimball and Guy Gilliat-Smith

London: J. M. Dent & Co.
Aldine House, 29 and 30 Bedford Street
Covent Garden, W.C. * * 1906

All Rights Reserved


Probably there is no quarter of Europe more thickly studded with mediæval towns than that embraced by the Flemish provinces of Belgium—the old Duchy of Brabant and the old County of Flanders. Curious places they are, some of them, little changed from what they were at the close of the fourteen hundreds; and some of them, so modernised that hardly anything is left to prove their identity but their geographical position and their names.
All of these cities, however, have this in common, and this it is which makes them so interesting: we know something of their general history, and something too of the intimate lives of the men and the women who inhabited them, five hundred years ago—how they were lodged and clothed, what they drank and ate, the way in which their food was dressed and their tables served, something of their distractions and their business pursuits, how they loved and hated, what they thought of this world, and what of the next.
These things are set forth by three distinct classes of contemporary witnesses:—Pictures, a host of them, minutely detailed, with almost photographic accuracy; furniture of every description—ecclesiastical, domestic, personal; written documents of various kinds—chronicles, private letters, books of devotion, guild registers, town accounts. Many of these have been carefully examined, and a very considerable number of them printed; also, especially in recent years, some of the most accredited Belgian historians have busied themselves by writing monographs of their native towns, or treatises on their ancient municipal institutions: notably Pirenne, Vander Linden, Wauters, Henne, Piot, Van Even. From their works and from other sources, ancient and modern, I have gathered the material for my Story of Mediæval Brussels, in the following pages, and which necessarily includes, for the two cities were intimately connected, a considerable portion of the Story of Mediæval Louvain. To this I have added some notes on Brabant painters and pictures, and also on Brabant architecture, with descriptions of the chief mediæval monuments in Brussels and in the neighbouring towns, and such information as I have been able to obtain concerning the great masons who built them.
Constrained by the narrow limits of this volume to curtail and compress, I have been content to set down facts, clearly I hope and coherently, but for the most part without comment or criticism.
Intended as it is for the general reader, I have done my utmost, and my first care has been, to make this pocket-book readable. I cannot venture to hope that I have escaped all error; but I think that upon the whole I have been able to outline a sufficiently faithful sketch, which I trust may be of some service to those into whose hands it may fall.
E. G.-S.
Bruges, February 1906.


  • CHAPTER I In the Days before Brussels was Built
  • CHAPTER II The Norsemen and Louvain
  • CHAPTER III The House of Long Col
  • CHAPTER IV The Making of the Duchy of Brabant
  • CHAPTER V The Rise of Brussels and Louvain
  • CHAPTER VI The Serfs of St. Peter
  • CHAPTER VII The Greater and the Lesser Folk
  • CHAPTER VIII The Coelveren and the Blankarden
  • CHAPTER IX Peter Coutherele
  • CHAPTER X The Peace of 1383
  • CHAPTER XI Reform versus Revolution
  • CHAPTER XII Everard T’Serclaes
  • CHAPTER XIII Liberty at Last
  • CHAPTER XIV The Trials of Jacqueline
  • CHAPTER XV Buildings and Builders
  • CHAPTER XVI Buildings and Builders (continued)
  • CHAPTER XVII Pictures and Painters
  • CHAPTER XVIII Conclusion
  • Index


  • I. Table of the House of Long Col
  • II. Table of the Counts of Louvain
  • III. Table of the Dukes of Brabant from Godfrey I. to John III.
  • IV. Table of the Dukes of Brabant from John III. to Philip II.
  • V. Table of the Dukes of Brabant from Philip II. to Philip III.
  • VI. Table of the Dukes of Brabant from Philip III. to Francis follows 375


  • Portrait of George Zelle, Physician, by Bernard van Orley (photogravure)Frontispiece
  • Heading*
  • The Abbey Church, Forest†
  • By the Dyle, at Mechlin†
  • The Subterranean Church of St. Guy at Anderlecht*
  • At Mechlin*
  • Saint Peter’s, Louvain*
  • Cloth Hall, Louvain*
  • Tailpiece†
  • The Old Castle of Everard T’Serclaes at Ternath†
  • Notre-Dame de Hal from Chapel behind North Transept*
  • The Town Hall, Brussels†
  • Old Houses near Saint Gudule’s†
  • Tailpiece†
  • The Old Church of Saint Nicholas, Rue au Beurre†
  • Le Tour Noire†
  • Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral*
  • Notre-Dame au-delà de la Dyle†
  • La Maison du Roi†
  • Eglise Sainte-Gudule Pilastre Sculpté*
  • The Steen of Antwerp*
  • Quai de l’Avoine, Malines†
  • From the Béguinage, Louvain*
  • Saint Catherine’s, Brussels†
  • Rouge Cloître*
  • Guild Houses in the Grand’ Place, Brussels†
  • Notre-Dame du Sablon†
  • Notre-Dame de la Chapelle†
  • Notre-Dame au-delà de la Dyle†
  • Saint Michel et Sainte Gudule†
  • Sainte Gudule—The Lady Chapel†
  • St. Peter’s, Louvain, Chapel of St. Charles*
  • Interior of Mechlin Cathedral†
  • Mechlin Cathedral†
  • De Dijle te Mechelen*
  • Notre-Dame de Hal Baptistery Gates*
  • Hôtel de Ville, Louvain†
  • Tête de Femme en Pleurs, attributed to Roger Van Der Weyden, Brussels Gallery
  • PietaPièta‘, attributed to Roger Van Der Weyden, Brussels Gallery
  • ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus’ by Dierick Boudts, at Saint Peter’s, Louvain
  • The Wings of the Saint Anne Triptych by Quentin Metsys, in the Brussels Gallery (shut)
  • The Wings of the Saint Anne Triptych by Quentin Metsys, in the Brussels Gallery (open)
  • The Central Panel of the Saint Anne Triptych by Quentin Metsys, in the Brussels Gallery
  • From S. Rombold’s, Malines*
  • At Mechlin†
  • By the Dyle at Mechlin†
  • Guild Halls in the Market-Place at Brussels†
  • Notre-Dame d’Hanswyck, Malines†
  • Saints Pierre et Paul, Malines†
  • La Porte de Hal, Brussels†
  • Tailpiece†
  • Plan of Brussels follows 375

Those illustrations marked * are by G. Gilliat-Smith.
Those illustrations marked † are by Katharine Kimball.

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The Story of Brussels

In the Days before Brussels was Built

The beginning of the story of Brussels, like the beginning of the stories of most of the mediæval towns of Northern Europe, is shrouded in mystery. Set at the time of its origin in a land of marsh and wood, it probably takes its name, like so many German cities, from the natural configuration of its site and the nature of the settlement from which it was gradually evolved—Bruk Sel, the manor in the marsh. So, too, the neighbouring towns:—Antwerp, at wharf; Tervueren, by the river Vuer; Schaerbeek, by the heath stream; Aerschot, the home by the water; and the sister city, the city whose history is so intricately woven with the history of the capital of Belgium that it is impossible to disentangle them, Looven, the wooded hill alongside the fen; and the province in which all these places are situated: Brabant, from Brac, uncultivated, barren, wild, and Bant, the frontier land.
The fierce tribes whom Cæsar found in this part of Gaul gloried in the tradition of their German origin, but it is not to them that the towns and villages and hamlets of Brabant owe their German names. The Nervii and the Treveri, like the despised and hated Celts who surrounded them, were compelled at last to submit to Rome’s legions and to learn the Roman tongue; they learnt it so well that when later on a whirlwind of barbarism swept Latin civilisation from Northern Europe they had altogether forgotten their own. Driven for the most part south into those provinces which we now call Liége and Hainault and Namur, to this day their descendants speak the time-honoured language of Rome, and to this day German is the tongue of the offspring of the men who ousted them. It was the Salic Franks, then, who, for the most part, were the builders of the cities of Brabant, and they it was who gave them their rough German names.
In the dark, troublous times which witnessed the birth of the new civilisation and the making of the new towns, two figures stand out pre-eminent—the figure of the hero, of whom later on, and the figure of the saint. The bishop in his embroidered cope, who never failed to throw the mantle of his protection about the down-trodden and thedowntrodden and the oppressed, nor to vindicate the sacredness of the marriage vow and the sacredness of human life: at his menace of retribution the half-tamed German chief quailed as at the threat of a sorcerer, if he dared violate this man’s domain maybe he would stumble on the threshold and break his neck, or perchance a worse thing might happen to him; the monk in his tattered cowl, who going forth day by day from his hovel in the wilderness gradually brought the land once more under tillage, or patiently sitting at home in his cell, little by little gathered up what fragments remained of human knowledge, and so saved what could be saved of human culture; the consecrated virgin whose whole life proclaimed to a people, who knew nothing of these things, the beauty of chastity and the beauty of humility and the sweetness of self-denial; the layman whose heart had been touched by the fire of Divine love, sometimes a son of the people, sometimes the scion of a noble house, and who, attaching himself, often in a menial capacity, to some church or religious establishment, had one object in life—to serve God and His poor. Such were the women and such were the men who in those dark and violent days poured some drops of sweetness into the bitter chalice of existence; they were the chief agents and the choicest and most perfect flowers of that great institution which we call Christianity. Incalculable were the benefits which they conferred on the human race, and the greatest of them all, even from a human point of view, was this—to a people sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death they brought back hope. In an age when, for the vast majority of mankind, the sum of human happiness was so slender, they reinspired men with the wish to live, or at all events with the courage to endure existence, conjuring up before their despairing eyes, ‘a glorious pavilion of gold at the end of life’s muddy lane,’ a vision of eternal beatitude which the weakest and the vilest of them might one day enjoy. Thus Taine, epitomised, speaking of Europe generally.1
Profane and fierce were the men of Brabant, ‘infinitos prædones, vulgo dictus Brabantiones, qui nec Deum diligunt nec viam veritatis cognoscere volunt,’ as Aimoin has it, at the close of the ten hundreds; but for all that they had their heroes, and amongst them, too, were saints. Men like that mighty hunter, Hubert, Bishop of Liége (706-727), the apostle to whose untiring zeal Brabant in great measure owed her conversion to the Christian faith, and who, in the days of his stormy youth, before he met the stag with the cross between its horns, and turned devout, dwelt in a castle at a place called Tervueren, on the fringe of that mysterious forest of Soignes, which still overshadows Brussels, and which still, the peasant folk will tell you, he loves and protects: here he received holy orders, here he sang his first Mass, here, worn out with travail and fever, he died, with the fall of the leaf, in the year 727: no trace of his villa remains, but St. Hubert’s Chapel, in the royal park of Tervueren, is said to mark its site, and on one of the walls of the parish church hard by, there still hangs an old ivory hunting horn, which once belonged, tradition says, to the huntsman’s patron saint. Men like ‘that impious robber Adhilck,’ lord of Hesbaye, surnamed the Fierce, one of Charlemagne’s ancestors, who, touched by the preaching of Saint-Amand, shaved off his beard, took a new name, Bavo, which means the mild, and changed, too, his manner of life, distributed all his goods to the poor, went and hid himself in the woods of Beyla, there did penance for seven years in the trunk of a hollow tree, which all that time was covered with leaves and flowers, and at last withdrew to the monastery which Amand had founded at Ghent, where he died in the odour of sanctity, tended in his last moments by his friend Domlinus, a hermit from the distant forest of Thor, whom, because Bavo desired to bid him farewell,

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an angel conducted to his bedside. Presently they built a church in his honour, and St. Bavo became the patron of Ghent. Men like Rombold, the son of an Irish chief, who left his father’s court and his native land to become an evangelist, and wandering about Brabant, preaching and teaching wherever he went, at last founded, on the banks of the Dyle, a monastery, where he presently fell a victim to his zeal and won the crown of martyrdom, and around which gradually grew up the city we now call Mechlin; or women, like Pepin of Landen’s daughter Gertrude, who founded the Abbey of Nivelles and the town which clusters round it; or her niece and disciple Gudila, who led the life of a recluse in the castle of Ham by Alost, and whose bones three hundred years after her death were translated to Brussels, and presently laid up in the church which now bears her name; or poor little Halene, slain by her own father, a Pagan chief, because she became a Christian, and whose tomb you may still see in the old church of Forest, hard by Brussels.
Of these heroic men and women we know hardly anything for certain save their names. They lived in that age of legend and mystery during which Paganism was making its last stand against the victorious onslaught of the new faith. If their actions were recorded by contemporary writers, the manuscripts were destroyed by the barbarian hordes who scourged the land in the course of the nine hundreds—and the biographies of later writers, compiled as they must have been from hearsay evidence, and after ample time had elapsed for the legends to grow, are little more than a fascinating texture of folklore and myth—naïve and beautiful fairy tales, of which the most that can be said of them is that, perhaps, they are founded on fact.

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But if there are no authentic chronicles of the lives of the early saints of Brabant, we know that their lives were not lived in vain; the bountiful harvest which was reaped by after generations bears witness to the excellence of the seed which these men had sown, and to the care and the diligence with which they and their successors had tended it; and after all the ecclesiastical seal of canonisation has been in most cases, especially in these early days, the outcome rather than the cause of popular devotion. As Taine shrewdly notes, man is too envious and too egoistical to lavish gratitude where none is due, and the estimation in which they were held by the people is sufficient proof of their sterling worth. We see them pale, shadowy, vague, like the white cloud which hovered over the battlefield of Louvain, but the victors saw in that white cloud, ‘la benoite vierge Marie et Saint Lambert avec Monsieur Saint Pierre semblant de vouloir secourir le peuple Chrétien,’ and so heartened were they by the vision that they put to flight the Pagan host, and no less fruitful in results are the forgotten lives and the forgotten labours of those great pioneers of civilisation who to-day are for us but as beautiful phantoms.

The Norsemen and Louvain

The victory of Louvain (Sept. 10, 891) marks an epoch in the history of Brabant. The Danes under Rolf the Ganger, who later on became first Duke of Normandy, were utterly routed, and though they succee

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