Pedestrians crossing the Place Royale in Brussels may stop and admire the neoclassical façade of the Church of St Jacob-on-the-Coudenberg, which dates from 1776, or gaze at the statue of Godfrey de Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade.
Many don’t know that beneath their feet are the remains of another chapter in the story of Brussels, hidden from the eyes of the world for nearly three hundred years and only revealed again in the 1980s. The Palace of Brussels, dating from the 12th century, was the palace of the Dukes of Brabant and the main residence of Charles V. It was a vast complex of luxurious State buildings, chapels and galleries. No expense was spared and it was filled with beautiful works of art.
On 3rd February the palace was destroyed by fire and it lay in ruins for forty years. It was replaced in the 1770s by new royal residences and government buildings and the old foundations were all but forgotten.
Excavations began on the foundations of the palace chapel in 1986. The massive cellars and kitchens of the Aula Magna, an enormous banqueting hall, were revealed as well as the remains of Hoogstraeten House, the private mansion of the Lalaing family.
The rooms and passages are dimly lit, and it’s easy to imagine what these workspaces would have looked like, filled with people, so many centuries ago.
Rue Isabelle ran from the palace to the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Gudula. It is now protected from the elements by overhead concrete slabs, but the buildings which opened on to the cobbled road were originally at ground level. The roadway, sometimes narrow and uneven and in other places broad and more level, follows the slope of the Coudenberg hill. It was redeveloped by the Archduchess Isabel in the early 1770s and was named after her.
Wandering along the passages and walking through stone doorways onto the street, it feels like the people who were here long ago might simply come walking round the corner again. The echoes of the thousands of visitors who come here every year could easily be mistaken for the voices of those who lived and toiled here in the past.
The history of the palace on Coudenberg may be covered over but it’s alive and well under the bustling streets of Brussels.