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(From Bruk Sel, marsh-castle; Flemish Brussel, German Brussel, French Bruxelles).

Capital of the Kingdom of Belgium. Its population at the end of 1905 (including the eight distinct communes that make up its faubourgs or suburbs) was 612,041. The city grew up on the banks of the little River Senne, one of the affluents of the Scheldt, whose course through the old town is now arched over and covered by the inner boulevards. The medieval city gained steadily in importance, owing to its position on the main inland commercial highway between the chief commercial centres of the Low Countries and Cologne. It is now connected with the Sambre by the Charleroi Canal, and with the Scheldt by the Willebroek Canal which has been considerably enlarged since 1901 and is destined to justify the title of "seaport" that Brussels has borne since 1895.


The earliest settlement of Brussels is attributed by tradition to S. Géry (Gaugericus), Bishop of Cambrai at the end of the sixth century; he is said to have built a village on an island in the Senne (Place Saint-Géry), also a small chapel ("Analecta Bollandiana" 1888, VII, 387-398; L. Van der Essen, "Les 'Vitae' des saints mérovingiens", Louvain, 1907; R. Flahault, "Notes et documents relatifs au culte de S. Géry", Dunkerque, 1890). From the eighth century it was one of the villas or temporary residences of the Frankish kings, but is first mentioned in history towards the end of the ninth century as Brosella (dwelling on the marsh). It was later a part of the dower of Gerberga, sister of Emperor Otto the Great (936-973) on her marriage to Giselbert of Lorraine. Duke Charles of Lorraine, the last but one of the direct descendants of Charlemagne, is said to have been born at Brussels. He certainly made it his chief place of abode, and brought thither from the Abbey of Mortzelle, which had fallen into the hands of a robber chief, the bones of his kinswoman, St. Gudule (979), who has ever since been regarded as the patron saint of the town.

Upon the death of Charles' only son Otto (1004), without direct heirs, the castles of Brussels, Vilvord, Louvain, and all the adjoining estates, the nucleus of the territory which later on formed the Duchy of Brabant, fell to his brother-in-law Lambert Balderic, who sometimes in his charters styles himself Count of Brussels and sometimes Count of Louvain, the man to whom the Dukes of Brabant traced their descent. There remain of the Brussels of this period the nave and aisles of the old parish church of St. Nicholas, the chapel of the Holy Cross in the church of Notre-Dame de La Chapelle, some fragments of the fortifications with which Lambert Balderic surrounded the city in 1040 and, most important of all, the subterranean church of St. Guy at Anderlecht which remains today as the builder planned it.

From the twelfth century the Dukes of Lower Lorraine and Brabant, and later the Counts of Louvain, made Brussels their residence and though it suffered, like most medieval cities, from pestilence, fire, and pillage, it grew to be a populous centre of life and commerce and followed all the vicissitudes of medieval Brabant, with which it fell to the Dukes of Burgundy, and on the death of Charles the Bold (1477), to his heirs, the Austrian Hapsburgs. In the fifteenth century the Dukes of Burgundy, heirs of both Brabant and Flanders, held court at Brussels, and being French in speech and habits and surrounded by French knights, courtiers, and civil servants, gradually introduced at Brussels and elsewhere the French language until it became the speech of the local nobility and the upper classes, much to the detriment of the native Flemish. The latter, however, held its own among the common people and the burghers, and remains yet the speech of the majority of the citizens. Charles V made Brussels the capital of the Low Countries, but under Philip II, it was always a centre of patriotic opposition to Spanish rule. In 1577 was signed the peace known as the "Brussels Union" between the Spanish authority and the rebellious Belgians; in 1585 the city was beseiged and captured by the Spanish general Alessandro Farnese.

In 1695 it was almost entirely consumed by fire on occasion of the siege by Ambrose Maréchal Villeroi. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was under Austrian rule, with brief exceptions. From 1794 to 1814 it was incorporated with France by Napoleon, as head of the department of the Dyle. In the latter year it became with The Hague a capital of the new Kingdom of the Netherlands. In 1830 it was the seat of the Belgian Revolution against Dutch misrule, and in the same year was made the capital of the new Kingdom of Belgium. (See BELGIUM.)


The municipal organization of Brussels was at first of a very simple character. It consisted of an unpaid magistracy, a College of Aldermen appointed by the sovereign for life from among the chief freeholders of the city, of which they were held to be representatives. It was presided over by a paid officer who bore the title of Amman, was the direct delegate of the sovereign and in all things the representative of his authority. Alongside the College of Aldermen was the Merchants' Guild. Probably this corporation had legal existence before the institution of the magistracy; it is certain that by the end of the twelfth century it was firmly established. It exercised from the first much influence on public affairs, and contributed in great measure to the full expansion of municipal self-rule. With the increase of the population, the old machinery no longer sufficed for the maintenance of public peace and the regulation of trade, and the burghers, united as they were in the powerful organization of their guild, were strong enough to take the matter into their own hands. Hence was formed the Council of Jurors, a subsidiary body annually elected by the people for policing the city and managing municipal affairs. The members also participated with the College of Aldermen in the administration of justice. Though there is no record of the Council of Jurors before 1229, it is almost certain that it dates from a much earlier period. Its existence, however, as a body distinct from the higher magistracy, was not of long duration. It disappeared at a very early period. From the first the relations between the two corporations had been strained, as they were the embodiment of hostile ideals, oligarchy, and popular rule.

For a long period after the municipal organization of Brussels had been definitely determined, all administration and legislative power was in the hands of a narrow oligarchy of capitalists, headed by the patrician families which from time immemorial had furnished the members of the magistracy. The source of their title to distinction was the ownership of land. Together they formed a class apart, distinct alike from the feudal nobility and from the general body of townsmen. They were divided into seven groups, or Lignages, but it is certain that many patricians were not the direct lineal descendants of the houses whose names and arms they bore. Admission to the aristocracy and to different lignages was to be obtained in various ways. Indeed, the lignages of Brussels were to a certain extent voluntary associations of aristocratic families banded together for the sake of mutual protection, and with a view to securing the election of their own nominees to the magistracy. What the trade companies were to the plebeians, the lignages were to the patricians.

The patricians were not all rich men, but the wealth of the patrician body was being constantly augmented by the new members who gained admission into its ranks, and with the increasing prosperity of the town land was becoming daily more valuable for building purposes. Many were thus able to live in luxury on the rents produced by their property; others increased their revenues by farming the state taxes; others were engaged in banking operations; others again in commerce, in which case they became members of the Merchants' Guild, the members of which were constantly being enrolled in the lignages. Thus the Guild was growing daily more aristocratic, until at last nearly all its members were patricians by birth or by adoption. Embracing as it did at first traders of every kind, it now became an exceedingly close corporation and admitted to its membership only the sellers of cloth and the sellers of wool, the cream of the commercial world. Such were the men who owned the soil of Brussels, who had endowed the city, often at their own cost, with magnificent public buildings, who had won for themselves free institutions, and who for the best part of 200 years tyrannized over everyone else. They wrested from religious houses their right of appointment to city livings; they withdrew the management of schools from the clergy and placed them under municipal control. By a special privilege of the Holy See no new monastery could be founded in Brussels without the authorization of the municipality. The tyranny aroused discontent.

The people first attempted to obtain a share in the government during the troublous times which followed the death of Duke Henry III (1260), and it seems to have been for the moment successful, for the Council of Jurors was re-established, only however to be suppressed again a few years later, and that was doubtless the cause of the rising which took place in 1302. It was not a very serious affair, and the ruling class with the aid of the sovereign had little difficulty in suppressing it. The riot which occurred on the eve of Candlemas, 1306, during the absence of Duke John II, though it rose out of a small matter, became a revolution. The party which triumphed showed singular moderation; it was decided that the magistracy should consist as heretofore of seven members, but that henceforth the people should name them; that two financial assessors should be added to the city council, and that the Council of Jurors should be re-established; the new aldermen were all members of the old ruling class chosen from among the little band of patricians whose sympathies were sure to be with the popular cause. The new constitution did not, however, last six months. Duke John II on his return to Brussels refused to ratify it, and in spite of the energetic resistance of the craftsmen, the old order of things was re-established. The duke, however, gave discretionary powers to the College of Aldermen to admit individual craftsmen to the freedom of the city, no doubt to purchase the good will of leading plebeians. Fifty years later Duke Wenceslaus, to reward the plebeians for driving the Flemings out of Brussels, and to mark his displeasure at the conduct of the patricians who had welcomed them with open arms, granted to the trade companies by charter an equal share with the lignages in the government of the city. But the ink of the new charter was hardly dry when he revoked it. It is not known why, but as Duke Wenceslaus throughout his reign was always in financial straits and considering his shifty conduct in his dealings with the opposing factions at Louvain, it is not unlikely that he had been purchased by the patricians. The riot which followed was suppressed without much difficulty.

Though the College of Aldermen was annually renewed for more than 100 years, there had been no election, the outgoing aldermen having obtained a prescriptive right to name their successors; the magistracy was notoriously corrupt and the city was honeycombed with debt, the outcome of so many years of extravagance and thieving. In addition to this, the plebeian triumph at Louvain had inflamed the people with an unquenchable thirst for liberty, and they were only awaiting a favourable moment to try their luck again. It was not, however, till 1368, when Brussels was on the verge of revolution, that the patricians made up their minds to set their house in order. They were not yet prepared to give the people any voice in the magistracy, but they were determined that when their work was done, no man should be able to say that Brussels was ill governed. By the advice of a committee composed of four patricians and four plebeians stringent measures were taken to ensure the even administration of justice; a permanent board was appointed for the administration of finance, on which several seats were allotted to the representatives of the trade companies. This measure proved so successful that the following year revenue covered expenditure and the interest on the debt; the year after that payments were made on the principal, and by 1386, the whole debt was wiped out. In 1368 the Guild was thoroughly reorganized on popular lines, and about the same time it became customary to bestow a certain number of government appointments on burghers of the middle class; lastly, in 1375, the old system of electing the magistracy was revived. The franchise was restricted to patricians of twenty-seven years and upwards, and if any man failed to take part in the election, he thereby lost all civil rights and privileges. The method of election was exceedingly long and complicated. Thanks to this important measure and to the other reforms which had preceded it, Brussels was now honestly and capably governed and for something like fifty years patricians and plebeians lived, if not on terms of affection, at all events without quarrelling.

No doubt the greater material prosperity which the city at this time enjoyed, was conducive in no small measure to the maintenance of peace. Brussels was not dependent on cloth to anything like the same extent as most of the other great towns of the Netherlands, and the loss which she had sustained on this head from English competition was probably made good by the profit arising from trade which formerly went to Louvain, but which was now, owing to the disturbed state of that city, directed to the markets of Brussels. For the same reason Brussels had now become the seat of the court, and she devoted her attention to the manufacture of articles of luxury. Thanks to these new industries the diminution, if any, of her cloth trade was a matter of little concern to the people.

Headed by Count Philip of St. Pol, brother of the duke, the best members of the three estates of Brabant had joined hands against Duke John IV, who had been led astray by evil counsellors. When all seemed lost, when Brussels was filled with foreign mercenaries, the craftsmen had saved the situation, and received as guerdon an equal share with the patricians in the government and administration of their city. The articles of the new charter were agreed upon in a great assembly of barons and of deputies of the towns of Brussels, Antwerp, and Louvain, 6 February, 1421. The charter itself was signed and sealed by Count Philip who had been appointed regent and its provisions were immediately put into execution. The constitution of 1421 continued to be the legal constitution of the city of Brussels until the close of the eighteenth century. The great struggle between the patricians and the craftsmen was never again to be renewed. The former disassociated themselves more and more from trade and from municipal affairs, and were gradually absorbed in the ranks of the old feudal aristocracy. The dissensions in the centuries which followed were not the outcome of class hatred, but of difference of opinion in religious matters, and of the impolitic measures taken to restore religious unity by alien rulers, who had no sympathy with the customs and traditions of the Netherlands.

Chief buildings

There is probably no city in Europe which contains grander medieval municipal buildings than those of Brussels, and the greatest of them were built after the craftsmen obtained emancipation. The foundation stone of the town hall was laid at the beginning of the fifteenth century, but very little progress was made till after 1421, and it was not completed till 1486; the beautiful Hall of the Bakers opposite, now called La Maison du Roi, dated from the following century; the grand old church of Notre-Dame du Sablon, where most of the trade companies had their chapels, was built in the course of the fourteenth century, the greater portion of it probably after 1421. The church of St. Gudule, dedicated to St. Michael, the grandest church in Brussels, is rather a monument of the Dukes of Brabant, than of the burghers. The foundation stone was probably laid toward the close of the twelfth century, but it was not completed till 1653. Its stained glass (sixteenth to nineteenth century) is famous, especially that in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, donated (1540-47) by several Catholic kings and queens in honour of the Miraculous Hosts preserved in St. Gudule since 1370 when (on Good Friday) several Jews stole from the tabernacle of the church of St. Catherine a number of consecrated Hosts and sacrilegiously transfixed them in their synagogue. The Hosts, it is said, bled miraculously; eventually some of them were deposited in the church of St. Gudule, while others were kept at Notre-Dame de La Chapelle, whence they disappeared in 1579. But the guilty parties were discovered, some were burned alive, and others were banished from Brabant forever. An annual procession on the Sunday after 15 July, perpetuates the memory of this event, and on this occasion the identical Hosts are exposed in St. Gudule for the veneration of the faithful (Corblet, "Hist. de l'Eucharistie", Paris, 1885, II, 485-486; Balleydie, "Hist. de Ste-Gudule et du St-Sacrementde Miracle", Brussels, 1859; Matagne, "Précis historiques", Paris, 1870). Other noteworthy churches are: the Chapelle de l'Expiation built in 1436 on the site of the above-mentioned synagogue, in expiation of the sacrilege; Notre-Dame de La Chapelle (1216-1485), a Gothic and Romanesque building, after St. Gudule the finest of the medieval churches of Brussels; Notre-Dame-des-Victoires or du Sablon, Flemish Gothic, founded in 1304 by the Guild of Crossbowmen; the barocco church of the Beguines (1657-76). The other churches of the city proper are: St. Catherine, Sts. Jean et Etienne, Notre-Dame du Finistère, St. Jacques sur Caudenberg, St. Nicholas, Riches-Claires, Notre-Dame de Bon Secours, St. Josse-ten-Noode (Bruyn, Trésor artistique des églises de Bruxelles, Louvain, 1882). The famous guild houses in the market place, of which there are no less than seventeen, were not erected until after the bombardment of 1695, when the old guild houses were all destroyed, which proves, that at the close of the seventeenth century the masons of Brussels were still cunning workers.

Brussels is noted for its magnificent system of boulevards. The Place Royale is one of the noblest squares in modern Europe, while the Grand Place in the heart of the old town is equally remarkable as a medieval square. Around it are gathered the Hotel de Ville, said to be the noblest piece of civil architecture in Europe, the Maison du Roi, or former government-house, and the seventeen famous guild houses or halls of the industrial corporations (butchers, brewers, tailors, carpenters, painters, etc.). These guild houses were erected after the bombardment of 1695, when the old buildings were destroyed. The modern Palais de Justice is the largest architectural work of the nineteenth century; it rises on a massive basis that measures 590 by 560 feet, and recalls by its imposing bulk some vast Egyptian or Assyrian structure.

Religious life

There are three episcopal educational institutes, among them the Institut Saint-Louis (about 100 teachers), with departments of philosophy, letters, natural sciences, and a commercial school. The city is divided into four deaneries, St. Gudule and three in the faubourgs. There are 37 parishes in the city and faubourgs, and in the city proper 72 priests, 11 parishes, and 16 churches. The religious orders are numerous, among them Dominicans, Capuchins, Minor Conventuals, Jesuits, Redemptorists, Carmelites, Servites, Barnabites, Alexians, etc. There are also several communities of teaching brothers, principally Christian Brothers. The religious houses of women in 1906 numbered about 80, divided among many orders and congregations, and devoted to various educational and charitable works. The Hospital Saint-Jean (1900) has 600 beds, that of Saint-Pierre 635. There are 11 hospices and refuges for the aged, poor, and insane, and 27 other institutions for the care of the sick and needy.

The University of Brussels

The University of Brussels, known as the Université libre (Free University), was founded in 1834 by the Belgian Liberals as a rival of the Catholic University of Louvain. It occupies the former palaces of Cardinal Granvelle. In 1904 it numbered 1054 students. It has faculties of philosophy, the exact sciences, jurisprudence, and medicine. The last faculty, located in the picturesque Parc Léopold, possesses there a Physiological Institute founded in 1895, an Institute of Hygiene, Bacteriology, and Therapeutics, an Institute of Anatomy founded 1896-97, and a Commercial Institute (1904). Close by is the valuable Musée d'Histoire Naturelle; connected with it is the Ecole Polytechnique (1873) or school of applied sciences, with six departments: mining, metallurgy, practical chemistry, civil and mechanical engineering, and architecture. Similarly related to the university are the School of Political and Social Sciences and the School of Commerce founded by Ernest Solvay; also the Instituts Solvay (Physiology, 1894; Sociology, 1901). Since 1901 several universities for the people have been founded in the faubourgs. There are in addition the important museums of Brussels, military, ethnographic, commercial, pedagogic, natural history, decorative arts, communal, Wiertz (at Ixelles), etc. The Palais des Beaux Arts houses a unique and valuable collection of Old Flemish Masters. The Bibliothèque Royale contains a collection of some 500,000 volumes, and has also inherited the famous Bibliothèque de Bourgogne, (27,000 manuscripts) founded by Philippe le Bon, Duke of Burgundy (1419-67) and one of the largest and most important collections of its kind in Europe (De la Serna, Mém. hist. sur la bibliothèque dite de Bourgogne, Brussels, 1809; Namur, His. des bibliothèques publiques de Bruxelles, ibid., 1840).

Among the learned bodies of Brussels are the Académie Royale des Sciences (1772), Académie de Medecine (1772), Académie des Beaux Arts, with a school, the Société Scientifique (1876), an important and unique International Institute of Bibliography (1895). In 1905 the Conservatory of Music (1899) numbered 1229 pupils. The Jesuit College of Saint-Michel at Brussels is the actual seat of the famous publication known as the "Acta Sanctorum" (see BOLLANDISTS), and here are now kept the library and the archives of this enterprise, originally begun and long conducted at Antwerp.


Henne and Wauters, Histoire de Bruxelles (Brussels, 1845); Wauters, Bruxelles et ses environs (ibid., 1852-56); Pirienne, Histoire de la Belgique (Brussels, 1907); Gilliat-Smith, The Story of Brussels.

About this page

APA citation. Gilliat-Smith, E. (1908). Brussels. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Gilliat-Smith, Ernest. "Brussels." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Katherine M. Wrightson. In gratitude to Sts. Jude and Rita.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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