Archaeology Cultural Heritage Museums

Brussels underground: The former Coudenberg Palace

When you think of Brussels, the word ‘underground’ usually is not the first thing that comes to mind. Indeed, chocolate, the Atomium, beer, The Grand Place, or Manneken Pis would all be appropriate things to associate Brussels with. What many people have yet to discover is that, apart from the subway, the city also has an underground palace …

!Disclaimer! Let me be honest with you from the beginning, the former Coudenberg Palace no longer looks like a palace. In order to recreate it, a bit of imagination is needed. So if you expect golden chandeliers, tapestries and parquet floors, this might not be your cup of tea. But, if you love all things old and have a healthy dollop of imagination, you will not be disappointed. Let’s begin at the beginning, what is Coudenberg? Coudenberg is a hill, a “Cold Mountain” to be precise. It was named Coudenberg because of the strong northern wind and it was a very strategic location as it gave the site the advantage to dominate over Brussels.

From the Dukes of Brabant and the Dukes of Burgundy to Charles V.
The history of the palace traces back to the 12th century, when there is just a castle on the Coudenberg. In the 13th century the Dukes of Brabant gave Brussels a central political role and the defensive castle became an important place for diplomats to come together. From then on the residents of the castle will transform the castle into a real palace. The first famous person to have lived here whose name might sound familiar is Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. It is in this era that the esteemed banqueting hall, the Aula Magna, was built. However, the most prominent resident of the palace was, without a doubt, Charles V whom is known as the ruler of a lot of European territories in the 16th century. During his time in the palace, he carried out many changes and the palace became one with imperial proportions under his rule.

The Aula Magna how you can visit it now. Source: Flickr/Coudenberg M. Vanhulst

The Aula Magna how you can visit it today. Source: Flickr/Coudenberg M. Vanhulst

Fire destroys everything…
More thrilling than this history is, of course, knowing why we can’t visit the palace anymore from the streets of Brussels, but rather need to go underground to visit its remains. As I said before, the palace is no more. On the night between 3 and 4 February 1731 a fire destroyed almost the entire complex. The official statement was that the fire originated in the kitchen, but this is not what actually happened…Thanks to witness statements, we now know that the fire originated in one of the apartments of governess Maria Elisabeth of Austria, who forgot to blow out her candles. Of course, a governess could not be held responsible. Only the chapel and some cellars survived, but this has also since disappeared, because of the construction of the Koningsplein in the 18th century.

Fire in the palace of the Coudenberg, painted by M. Van Auwenkerken (17the century)

Fire in the palace of the Coudenberg, painted by G. Van Auwerkerken (17th century)

What’s underneath? – Archaeological excavations
After the 18th century and the construction of the Koningsplein, people eventually forgot about the palace at the Coudenberg. Then, from 1986 onwards and covering a period of 25 years, many different excavations were done and the remains of the former palace, Hoogstraeten House and the Rue Isabelle were found. Besides the remains a lot of archaeological objects were found such as ceramics, clay pipes, armoury pieces, metals, … It was a challenging work for the archaeologists present, who had to make decisions regarding what to preserve and how to present it to the public. It was decided to maintain the original remains wherever possible to the original and to only make restorations where necessary to ensure visitor safety. In 2000, the Archeaological site of the Coudenberg Palace was finally opened to the public.

The archaeological excavations at the Koningsplein. Source: Flickr/Coudenberg

The archaeological excavations at the Koningsplein. Source: Flickr/Coudenberg P. Anagnostopoulos

Resting my case
Earlier, I had a disclaimer warning that the palace doesn’t look like a palace anymore. Of course, I want you to go to this unique location in Brussels, but apart from the photos in the article, I didn’t tell you much about what exactly you can see of the former palace today. This was my intention, it is for you – with the background I just gave you – to discover this hidden treasure in Brussels, and while you are at it, please eat some BELGIAN chocolate! 🙂

Source & more information:
Feature image source: Flickr/Coudenberg M. Vanhulst

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting story

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