Did you know this?
- Does the site include catacombs?
- Why is the archaeological site underground?
- Was rue Isabelle always covered?
- Why was the site not rediscovered earlier?
- Do vestiges of the palace remain to be discovered?
- Why is the site sometimes referred to as the "Palace of Charles V”?
- Did the palace really burn down in 1731 because of a jam making accident?
Does the site include catacombs?
No, there are no catacombs. Catacombs are underground burial chambers; a sort of underground cemetery, like the Catacombs of Rome. The spaces making up the Coudenberg archaeological site have never been home to tombs.
The archaeological site is composed of the cellars of old buildings that once formed the Palace of Brussels. Parts of the site continued to be used as cellars for new buildings and other parts were filled in over the years and were then rediscovered by archaeologists quite recently.
Why is the archaeological site underground?
The former Palace of Brussels was built on a hill, taking up both the east side of the valley of the River Senne and the south side of the Coperbeek Valley. To make up for topographical variation and also to fix the building firmly into the hill, the buildings that housed the chapel and the great ceremonial hall were given cellars with one or two levels. At the end of the 18th century, the entire district was levelled so that place Royale and the buildings surrounding it could be laid out. The cellars located on the slopes of the hill were preserved, primarily to be used as foundations for the new buildings. It is these cellars that now form the Coudenberg archaeological site.
Was rue Isabelle always covered?
No. Up until the end of the 18th century, rue Isabelle was open to the sky just like all the other streets in Brussels. When place Royale was laid out at the end of the 18th century, part of rue Isabelle was given to Grimbergen Abbey, which was to build a new building on the site. In order to do this, the abbey built solid foundation walls in the old street and covered the spaces thus created. The street therefore ceased to exist as it made way for the cellars of l’hôtel de Grimbergen (the current BIP – Brussels Info Place).
Why was the site not rediscovered earlier?
After Coudenberg Palace disappeared underneath the current place Royale at the end of the 18th century, only a few historians in Brussels continued to display any interest in it. A few examples of this interest are: visits and studies by the Old Brussels Committee; a monograph by Paul Saintenoy on the arts of the court; and a partial reconstruction of the palace during the Brussels World Fair of 1935.
It was not until the 1980s that the first archaeological searches and identifications were made. These were followed by 25 years of excavations and work, leading to the creation of the archaeological site that you can visit today.
Do vestiges of the palace remain to be discovered?
Yes, there is still a potential for discovery in the district. It is very probable that the buildings forming Coudenberg Palace were not completely destroyed. Parts of its walls and other vestiges probably still exist, buried in the material filling in place Royale and place des Palais, in the gardens of the Royal Palace of Brussels or integrated into the foundations of the buildings around these areas.
However, as there are no plans for destruction work in these areas (for car parks or to pull down/rebuild buildings), there are no plans for any new archaeological excavations at present.
Why is the site sometimes referred to as the "Palace of Charles V”?
The first things to be rediscovered in the 1980s were the cellars of the palace chapel. The chapel was built during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V during the first half of the 16th century. When an administrative body was created to manage the new archaeological site, it was natural that the site took the name the "Palace of Charles V".
Did the palace really burn down in 1731 because of a jam making accident?
No. This was the official reason given for the fire but the reality was somewhat different.
On 3 February 1731, after a trying day, the Governor General of the Netherlands and sister of Emperor Charles VI - Archduchess Maria-Elisabeth of Austria - retired to her apartments in the Palace of Brussels. She was overcome by fatigue and therefore neglected to snuff out her candles. Fire broke out in the middle of the night, spread to the wooden panels and then spread to the adjoining rooms.
Several explanations were given by witnesses to try to account for the blaze: the fire was said to have started in the wine steward’s room, in the confectioner's room, in the kitchens and even in the Archduchess’s bed chamber. Several witness reports stated that a fire had indeed started in the confectioner’s room, but that this had happened several days earlier and had been quickly extinguished.
There was an enquiry but it concluded that the fire had started in the kitchens (as was very often the case with fires). It would appear from the enquiry’s report that the witnesses did not dare directly accuse Signora Capellini – the Archduchess’s maid who enjoyed her grace and favour – but that they believed her nonetheless to be guilty. In the end, the enquiry protected the Archduchess and her maid by establishing that the fire broke out in the kitchens situated underneath her apartment during jam making for the great ball that was to be held in the palace two days hence.