Legend has it that St Géry, Bishop of Cambrai and Arras, built a chapel on one of the islands in the swampy Senne (Zenne) River in AD 695, although the name Bruocsella (from bruoc, marsh or swamp, and sella, dwelling) wasn’t recorded until 966. In 979 Charles, Duke of Lorraine, built a fort on the St Géry island and moved from Cambrai to Bruocsella. A settlement developed and, protected by several defensive ramparts and gates, it evolved into an administrative and commercial hub. By 1100 Brussels had its first fortified wall.
In 1229 Henri I, Duke of Brabant, published the first Brussels charter, which guaranteed protection for citizens and private property, and established punishments for crimes. The dukes of Brabant controlled the region on and off for the next two centuries and their fortunes were aligned through marriage to the dukes of Burgundy. In 1482, upon the death of Mary of Burgundy, the Hapsburgs came to power. Emperor Charles V used Brussels as the capital of his vast kingdom and the city flourished under his patronage.
Charles V’s successor, Philip II, ruled from Spain. Philip’s fanatical Catholicism lead to the Protestant’s Iconoclastic Fury, which Philip quashed through the Spanish Inquisition. Among the thousands given death sentences at this time were Counts Egmont and Hoorn, vocal protesters against Spanish rule. They were executed on Brussels’ Grand Place in front of the Maison du Roi.
In 1695 Louis XIV’s French army under Marshal De Villeroy bombarded Brussels for two days in retaliation for Dutch and English attacks on French Channel ports. They destroyed 4000 houses and much of the Grand Place, although this was restored to its full glory within five years.
Austrian rule in the 18th century fostered urban development, with the construction of squares such as Place Royale and completion of the royal palace at Laeken (1784). Many of the Upper Town’s architectural gems were built during this time.
The French Revolution inspired similar sentiments in Brussels and the Austrians were eventually forced out by the French. They held power until 1815 when Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo and Belgium and Luxembourg were incorporated into the newly formed United Kingdom of the Netherlands. This setup didn’t last long; Brussels residents revolted in 1830 and Belgium became an independent state with Brussels, at that time home to 100, 000, as its capital.
The city grew enormously in both population and stature during the next century due largely to the expansionist policy of King Léopold II.
After WWII, Brussels developed un-checked, first becoming the headquarters of NATO and later the EU. But it was its stint as Cultural Capital of Europe in 2000 that gave the city the push it needed. Neglected buildings and neighbourhoods were spruced up and a shift of consciousness gave birth to new spirit. This spirit was radically expressed in the 2001 local elections when the Bruxellois ousted the long-standing Liberals for a red-green coalition. While things have since mellowed politically, with the Socialists alone taking poll position in the 2006 election, culturally Brussels is still riding a high.