King Louis XIV was the Sun King to his French subjects and the man who built and lived in the magnificent palace of Versailles to the millions of tourists who visit Paris and its environs. But he was the original Despicable Me to Belgians, especially the citizens of Brussels.
Louis was upset at the Dutch and English sea raiders for their bombing of towns along the coast of France. So he told his general, the duc de Villeroi, to bomb either Bruges or Ghent in retaliation. But Villeroi suggested that he bomb Brussels instead because that might help out the French in the garrison of nearby Namur who were being besieged (the French themselves besieged the place two years earlier). Perhaps some of the besiegers would fall back to protect Brussels and Namur would then be spared.
Well, that didn’t happen (Namur fell a month later) but Louis thought it was a good idea. So he ordered his general and 70,000 men and a dozen cannons to proceed to Brussels. On August 13, 1695 the French took over two of the city’s gates, lined up their cannons and mortars and started to fire. They decided to aim at the tallest building in Brussels, the Gothic tower of the town hall in the city’s Grand Place (Grote Markt). Two days, 3000 shells and 1200 incendiary bombs later they packed up and left, leaving the city in ruins and completely on fire. About one-third of the houses in Brussels burned down. The total cost of the damage to Brussels in today’s terms was somewhere between 3 and 5 billion euros. And the Grand Place was destroyed. Except for the city hall tower. Somehow it still stood even though the rest of the building was in shambles.
Maximilian II Emanuel of Bavaria, then governor of the Spanish Netherlands, rushed back from the siege at Namur to start the rebuilding of the city. He wanted to make his mark on history by doing things his way but was outvoted by the guilds who wanted to restore their buildings to look exactly like they did before the bombardment. Max gave in (he got his wish for the buildings on one side of the Grand Place) and rushed back to Namur. The city fathers meanwhile got to work. They asked their neighbors for help. They changed their rules to allow immigrant workers in to help in the rebuilding. They established a central board to approve all building designs. And they set a deadline to finish everything in 5 years. And they pretty much stuck to their schedule. The buildings today on Grand Place proudly display their completion dates of 1697, 1698, 1699 and 1700. The latest date I saw on any building on the square was 1702.
Louis started many wars during his 72-year rule of France. The one that began in 1688 concluded in 1697 and so is called the Nine Years War. He didn’t bother Brussels anymore after the bombardment of 1695. Early in the 18th century he started another war, though. But by this time Max Emanuel of Bavaria had resigned as governor of the Spanish Netherlands and became an ally of the French. Then in 1714 Austria took control of the Spanish Netherlands and Belgium was again used as a battleground by the super powers of Europe against France. Brussels was besieged by France in 1746 during the war of the Austrian Succession and also received some damage during both world wars in the 20th century (towards the end of Word War II American warplanes targeted some German barracks outside the city but missed and hit a Brussels neighborhood instead). But the worst damage in the history of the city was that done by the French bombardment of 1695. A hundred years later Napoleon commented on the actions of Louis XIV, describing his bombardment of Brussels “as barbarous as it was useless.”
We visited the Grand Place of Brussels on May 28, 2012. What we saw was a hodgepodge of architectural splendor — a blend of mostly 17th century Baroque with 15th century Gothic and a spattering of Renaissance here and there with a touch of classicism (ironically, this French Baroque style is sometimes called Louis XIV style after his palace in Versailles). And then there was the Gothic tower of the Town Hall that was completed in 1455 and is still there. The tower and the entire Grand Place are a lasting tribute to the people of Brussels who like the Londoners of 1666 and the San Franciscans of 1906 rebuilt their city out of ashes. London and San Francisco were rebuilt from natural disasters. But the whim of one man brought about the disaster of Brussels.
In 1998 La Grand-Place de Bruxelles was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. And in a 2010 survey conducted by the Dutch website stedentripper.com it was voted the most beautiful square in Europe. Most of the votes must have come from visitors to the Grand Place during August of even-numbered years when the entire square is carpeted with a million begonias.