Brussels is officially recognized as being founded in 979 AD when Lothar, a grandson of Charlemagne, set up a fortress where the city stands today, though there is evidence the origins date back to the late 5th-century when a chapel was built on an island on the river Senne. Initially, a fortress town, Brussels’ prominence increased because of its location on the Senne as it became part of a vital trade route between Bruges, Ghent and Cologne. It rapidly became a center of commerce and the surrounding marshes were drained to allow for human habitation. In fact, the name Brussels is supposedly derived from the old Flemish word Broekzele, which means marshland.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Brussels continued to grow and had an often tumultuous history. The city walls had to be increased to allow for expansion of the city and some remnants of those walls can still be seen today, though the “little ring” runs over most of where they once stood. The town was renowned for its fabrics and had many skilled craftsmen who traded significantly with Britain. The conflict between the rulers and merchants caused Flemish rebellions in the 14th century resulting in trade being affected and leading to an economic downturn. Eventually, Jeanne, the Duchess of Louvain, took control of Brussels in 1356, initiating changes that allowed merchants some power in the politics of the town.
In the 1430s, with the invasion of the Count of Flanders, and subsequent marriage of Philip the Bold to an heiress of Duchess Jeanne, the town became a part of Burgundy, and shortly after, its capital. In 1477, with the marriage of Mary of Burgundy to Maximilian of Austria, Brussels became a part of the Hapsburg dynasty. With the death of Mary, the Flemish revolted again, and though the Hapsburgs held onto power, the capital was moved away from Brussels. In 1515, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V became ruler of Burgundy and inherited the Spanish throne a few years later. Raised in Flanders, he reinstated Brussels as the capital of Burgundy and moved the government there. This resulted in increased migration to the town and it became known as a center for business and tolerance and the most powerful town in Flanders. However, during the Reformation, Charles’s Catholic heirs would persecute the protestants, and before the Spanish rule was ended by their defeat to the English, as many as 8000 Protestants had been killed.
In 1695 King Louis XIV of France bombarded Brussels with artillery causing fires and destroying the Grand Place as well as a third of the houses in what was the most destructive event in the town’s history. The city was rebuilt though traces of this destruction are still visible today. After the Utrecht peace treaty ending the war between France and Austria of the Spanish succession, Brussels was under Austrian rule, and during the War of Austrian Succession, many of the city’s resources were drained resulting in a period of recession and poverty. Under the Enlightenment in the 18th century, however, intellectuals and artists were drawn to the Brussels court and the town’s glamour returned, with the Parc du Bruxelles and Royal Place bearing testament to the period.
Following the French Revolution, working class people in Brussles revolted rsulting in the war of independence. Independence was attained on 21 July 1831, with the formation of the independent Kingdom of Belgium with Brussels as the capital city. Leopold I was king and it was a period of growth for the city with the city. The River Senne had become a major health hazard and was covered over allowing the construction of buildings and boulevards that characterize the city today.
Today, Brussels is a very cosmopolitan city, characteristic of many European capitals. It has fantastic infrastructure and as a result of the European institutions, such as NATO, it is very easy for an ex-pat to quickly become acclimatized. The main languages, French and Flemish, do provide a challenge in many respects and there is no denying that knowledge of one is a great advantage when moving here. However, for the most part, it is fairly easy to get on in English, in particular in the European District in the city where English and French dominate.