Bombardement op Brussel.

An anonymous painter shows the Grand-Place in Brussels during an intense bombardment by the French army in the night of 13 and 14 August 1695 | Brussels City Museum

Power & Resistance
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The Bombardment of Brussels

Wars in the Spanish-Habsburg Netherlands

From 13 to 15 August 1695 the French army bombarded the city of Brussels with a constant barrage of cannon and mortar fire. The military use of the action was secondary, sowing terror was the real aim. Because the bombardment had been announced in advance, the number of casualties was limited. But the lower town went up in flames, thousands of houses were destroyed and many artistic treasures were lost.

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Since 1688 France had been in conflict with an alliance consisting of the German Empire, England and the Spanish kingdom. Wedged in between these great powers, the Spanish Netherlands were the stage on which the war, which dragged on, was largely fought out. With the attack on Brussels in 1695 the French army was trying to lure its adversaries away from the citadel of Namur, which was on the point of falling. However, the attempt was unsuccessful. The destruction of Brussels, a civilian target, turned out to be completely senseless. The international indignation was great. However, from the ashes of Brussels, which had been shot to pieces, there arose the monumental Grand-Place, which has meanwhile become a UNESCO world heritage site.

Maximiliaen Pauwels, De afkondiging van de Vrede van Münster op de Grote Markt van Antwerpen in 1648.

Antwerp, KMSKA Royal Museum of Fine Arts,, photo Rik Klein Gotink

Maximiliaen Pauwels, The Proclamation of the Peace of Münster in the Market-Place in Antwerp in 1648, 1649


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Wars in the Spanish-Habsburg Netherlands

Since 1506 the Low Countries had belonged to the realm of the Spanish Habsburgs. When Holland and other northern territories broke away and at the end of the 16th century formed a separate Republicthis is the name for the Northern Netherlands until 1795. , Spain did not take it lying down. The result was a military conflict, and that was felt in the southern part of the Low Countries. In 1635, for example, the troops of the Republic and the French army invaded the Spanish Netherlands. They wanted to exclude Spain and divide up the area among themselves. In 1648 the Dutch Republic and Spain finally made peace, thus bringing an end to the so-called Eighty Years’ War. The border that was established in the Treaty of Münster, still accords more or less with the present Belgian-Dutch border.

Still a lasting period of peace was not achieved in the Low Countries. After 1648 there were constant tensions between Spain and France. In 1661 Louis XIV became king of France and managed in succeeding wars to seize large parts of the territory of the Spanish Netherlands. A tragic low point was the devastation of Brussels by the French. The new border that was created by these wars with France, largely coincides with the present Belgo-French border.

Focal points

Adam-Frans Van der Meulen.

Versailles, Château de Versailles, Gérard Blot

In 1667, during the war between Spain and France, Kortrijk was taken by Louis XIV. The French subsequently broke through via Oudenaarde and Aalst as far as Dendermonde. Louis XIV rides a light-grey horse, in the distance lies the town of Kortrijk. Adam-Frans van der Meulen, Siege of Kortrijk by Louis XIV.

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France Realigns its Northern Border

Not until 1713 did the conflicting parties come to an agreement in the Peace of Utrecht. This stated that Spain would hand over the southern Low Countries to the Austrian Habsburgs. The treaty also established the border between those Austrian Netherlands and France. France was allowed to keep the county of Artois and the bishopric of Cambrai. These were areas that had previously belonged to the Low Countries, but had been as early as the middle of the 17th century annexed by France. The southern part of the county of Flanders, with towns like Dunkirk, Kassel and Lille was also incorporated into France. From then on the French border ran approximately parallel with the present border between France and Belgium.

The north-west of France is still known as French Flanders. The part north of the Lys was traditionally Dutch-speaking. That remained so until the French Revolution of 1789. From then on the use of local languages was discouraged. A century later it was actually banned in school. Dutch lost its functions as a written and cultural language, as a result of which it was used less and less and finally virtually died out. A number of cultural manifestations, such as kermesses (fairs) and giants’ processions were, though, preserved and in the region on the menu of many restaurants you still find ‘potjevleesch’ (stew). In 2021 the French government recognised le flamand as a local language.

Grote Markt van Brussel na bombardement.

Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-OB-77.243

The Grand-Place in Brussels after the bombardment. On the left the gable of the town hall still standing, at the back burnt-out guild houses, on the right at the back the tower of the church of Sint-Niklaas and in front of it the burnt-out Broodhuis. Engraving by Richard van Orley from the series Perspectives des ruines de la ville de Bruxelles (1695), based on drawings by Augustin Coppens.

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The Grand-Place of Brussels

After the bombardment of Brussels there was widespread discussion on rebuilding. The city council and most citizens wanted to restore the area of the Grand-Place to its original state, with winding streets, narrow shopfronts and gables with which the owners – often craft guilds – expressed their identity. On the other hand the regent of the Spanish Netherlands preferred a drastic modernisation: he wanted a city with regal airs which would project order and regularity. Dead-straight streets, large properties and uniform, classical fronts would create this effect.

At present the Grand-Place looks like a harmonious whole. Still, it is a compromise between those two contradictory visions. Buildings whose external walls were left standing after the bombardment, such as the 15th-century city hall and the Broodhuis, were rebuilt on their original foundations. On the west side of the Grand-Place there are guild houses with abundant decorations symbolising their trade. But on the east side is the House of the Dukes of Brabant: a single monumental gable covering seven properties. A few houses next to the Broodhuis, commissioned by traders and industrialists, are more sober and closer to the ideas of the regent.

Maurits Sabbe, Brabant in ‘t verweer: bijdrage tot de studie der Zuid-Nederlandsche strijdliteratuur in de eerste helft der 17de eeuw, p. 235, consulted via DBNL

In 1635 Tienen was occupied by troops from the Dutch Republic and France. After the plundering of houses and the rape and torture of the inhabitants virtually the whole town went up in flames. First page of the pamphlet The Dutch Lion and the French Cockerel, 1635, by an anonymous pamphleteer.

Slag bij Kassel.
Wikimedia Commons, fotograaf G. Garitan

At the Battle on the Pene (1677), near Kassel, the Dutch stadholder William III of Orange (1650-1702) and Philippe d’Orléans (1640-1701), the brother of Louis XIV, clashed. After the Dutch defeat Veurne, Wervik, Menen and Poperinge came under French control. Illustration in Le Pippre de Noeufville, S.L., Abrégé chronologique et historique de l’origine, du progrès et de l’état actuel de la Maison du roi et de toutes les troupes de France, tant d’infanterie que de cavalerie et de dragons, vol. 2, Liège, E. Kints, 1734.

Huis van de Hertogen van Brabant.

The House of the Dukes of Brabant in the Grand-Place in Brussels.

Grote Markt Brussel gildenhuizen.
Tijl Vereenooghe

Guild houses on the west side of the Grand-Place, decorated with symbols of the respective trade.

Douai, Collection Musée de la Chartreuse, Wikimedia Commons

In Douai the giant couple Gayant and Marie have been a symbol of the town since the 16th century. Painting by Louis Joseph Watteau, 1780.

Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-1909-3344

The French-Fleming Edmond de Coussemaker (1805-1876) was a jurist, historian and musicologist. He studied and preserved the language and culture of French Flanders. In the 20th century the anthology he compiled, Chants populaires des Flamands de France, was a source of inspiration for folksingers like Wannes van de Velde. Portrait by Louis-Joseph Isnard Desjardins, around 1860.

Marguerite Yourcenar.
Bernhard De Grendel

Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987), born in Brussels, was the daughter of a Belgian mother and a father from French-Flanders. In Archives du Nord (1977), a retrospective view of her childhood, she described the history of her family with its roots in French Flanders.

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