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The Coudenberg or Koudenberg (listen (help·info); Dutch for cold hill) is a small hill in central Brussels (Belgium) where the Palace of Coudenberg was built. For nearly 700 years, the Castle and then Palace of Coudenberg was the seat of government of the counts, dukes, archdukes, kings, emperors and governors, who from the 11th century until its destruction in 1731, exerted their sovereignty over the area of the Duchy of Brabant, now in the southern Netherlands and northern Belgium. After several years of recent excavations, the archaeological vestiges of the palace and its foundations are open to the public.
Around 1100, the counts of Leuven and Brussels left the bottom of the valley of the Senne and built their castle on the heights of the Coudenberg from where they could dominate Brussels. With the creation of the Duchy of Brabant in 1183 by the German Emperor Frederik Barbarossa, the Coudenberg gained in importance and was included within the first great wall built around the city. The hunting park of the dukes led down the hill to the north, a remnant of which is now Brussels' Park.
With the second enclosure of the city, following the 1356 occupation by Louis II of Flanders, the castle was no longer necessary as a primary defence, and it was gradually converted from a military strong point into a residential palace. After 1430, when Brabant was annexed by inheritance to Burgundy, Philip the Good ordered the building of new wings for the palace, embellishments to the park, and the building of the Aula Magna, a gigantic room for royal receptions and other pageantry. The first regular meetings of the States-General, composed of delegates from the middle class, clergy and nobility of the Burgundian Netherlands, were held there in 1465.
It was in this room that in 1515 Margaret of Austria formally relinquished her regency over the Low Countries to Charles von Habsburg, and the future emperor Charles V became the Duke of Burgundy. It was in this same room that, 40 years later, Charles V abdicated in favour of his son, King Philip II of Spain. During his reign, Charles V ordered the creation of Bailles Square (French: Place des Bailles, Dutch: Baliënplein) in front of the palace, the building of galleries and rooms in Renaissance style and the construction of the Grand Chapel in late Gothic style, in memory of his parents, Philip the Handsome and Joanna of Castile.
In the 17th century, under their reign as the sovereigns of the Spanish Netherlands, the Archdukes Albert VII and Isabella established their court on the Coudenberg. The archdukes restored the facade of the palace, transformed the buildings and refitted the apartments and gardens. For the protection of the Archduchess, as she made her way to her devotions in the cathedral (this being the height of the Wars of Religion), the street which skirts the Aula Magna and the chapel was extended almost as far as the Cathedral of Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, and renamed Rue Isabelle/Isabellastraat ("Isabella Street"). As art lovers, the archdukes brought to their court the best artists of the time, Jan Brueghel and Rubens among them, to decorate the palace with their works.
On the night of 3 February 1731, a fire broke out in the kitchens and quickly engulfed the entire palace. The freezing conditions made it difficult to deliver any water and the means of firefighting were very insufficient. In the morning, the palace was in ruins with many of the works of art destroyed along with the governmental archives. Only the chapel was saved. The court moved elsewhere. Funds were not available for rebuilding, so for more than 40 years, the ruins of the palace remained. It was only in 1774 that Charles Alexander of Lorraine proposed replacing the ruins with a Royal Square. Because of the architectural clash between the Gothic chapel and the surrounding neoclassical buildings, the chapel was pulled down.
Just off the southwest corner of Brussels' Park, lies the Royal Square (French: Place Royale, Dutch: Koningsplein) which was built atop the ruins of the old Palace. Originally, a statue of Prince Charles Alexander of Lorraine, then-governor of the Austrian Netherlands, by Peter Anton von Verschaffelt, was placed on the square. The statue showed Charles-Alexander standing and attending to the affairs of government. Following the French Revolution and during the French rule over Brussels, it was melted down for the value of the metal. The current equestrian statue is of a young Godfrey of Bouillon. A new statue of Charles-Alexander of Lorraine was eventually placed nearby on Museum Square.
The Royal Square on the Coudenberg is faced by the Church of St. James on Coudenberg. It was built by two French architects, Montoyer and Guimard, from 1776 to 1780, in the neoclassical style. In the 19th century, a dome and two side wings were added to the church.
There are a number of other notable buildings on the Coudenberg including Belgium’s General Accounting/Auditing Office (French: Cour des Comptes, Dutch: Rekenhof); the Royal Chapel, built in 1761 with a Louis XVI style interior; the Palace of Charles of Lorraine; and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.
Archaeological remains and partial restoration
The remains of the ancient palace and adjacent building have been extensively excavated below present ground level, and preserved with a partial concrete cover. The remains can be visited via the BELvue Museum, and provide an excellent presentation of this historical site. The main buildings of the palace stood on roughly the same location as the present-day museum and Rue Royale/Koningstraat which faces it. The adjacent Chapel and Aula Magna buildings stood on sites which are now respectively part of the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR/PSK centre) and the north corner of the Royal Square beside the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM). The former Rue Isabelle/Isabellastraat ran beside these buildings; it had a significant slope, but the present surface of Rue Royale which parallels it is flat, as the whole area was levelled in the 18th century. The lower rooms of these buildings partially survived the fire, and are exposed in the archaeological site.
The preserved remains presently visitable comprise:
- the cellars of the main palace
- the rooms underlying the main banqueting hall in the Aula Magna
- the warehouse space that underlay the chapel
On the other side of Rue Isabelle, all along its length lay the house of the influential Counts of Hoogstraeten, currently (2008) at an advanced stage of excavation, with a view to later opening to visitors, alongside the existing remains.
- This article is based in part on material from the French Wikipedia.
- Under the Royal District An Other Palace..., undated catalogue to accompany the exposition.