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Our traditional Year End reception, which took place on Saturday, December 12 in the prestigious Egmont Palace  (Kleine Zavel - Petit Sablon, Brussels), offered a unique opportunity to discover the interiors of the historical 'hôtel'.

Acting chairman, baron Servotte, welcomed a large audience of members and supporters. We were also honoured by the presence of the British Ambassador to Belgium, H.E. Ms Alison Rose.

Committee member Jan Grauls then gave a much-appreciated talk on the turbulent past of the Egmont-Arenberg Palace, followed by a guided tour of the main rooms and galleries and of the international Arenberg conference centre. This was followed by a reception.

Through his career as a high-ranking diplomat, baron Grauls is quite familiar with the Egmont Palace, now the official reception venue of the Belgian Government, and of the Minister of Foreign Affairs in particular. His talk gave a clear historical overview, that included interesting details on more recent events. Many attendees regretted not having paper and pencil available to make notes and afterwards requested a copy of the text of the presentation. We are happy to comply. Read on!


Madame Ambassador, Mr. Chairman, dear friends,

I was asked to do this presentation of the Egmont-Arenberg Palace, and I gladly accepted this request although I am not an historian. My intention is to tell you something about this beautiful building from a user’s point of view: indeed, in my previous life, I have spent many long hours and days in this Palace, often at the side of my then bosses-Foreign Ministers, attending meetings and conferences, negotiating, talking to foreign delegations, but also - let me be honest- ‘wining and dining’, as this is also part of diplomatic activity and the Palace is perfectly suited to this kind of activity too.

Today, this Palace is both an international conference centre and the official reception venue of the Belgian Government, and of the Minister of Foreign Affairs in particular. In a sense, the Palace is today perpetuating its historic role. As we will learn later, over the centuries, this very Palace has witnessed various, and sometimes ferocious, political power struggles, intrigue and betrayal, as it has been the venue for peace talks and important negotiations. From their early beginnings, the European institutions have used this place for major events. The UK accession treaty to the European Community was signed here on January, 22nd, 1972. This event witnessed a dramatic incident when Prime Minister Edward Heath entered the Palace. More about that during the tour. And finally, as we Belgians know all too well, more than one ‘Belgian’ compromise has been concocted here. 

So let us dive into the history of this remarkable place and make a voyage through its rooms and get a sense of the ‘spirit’ of Egmont-Arenberg

Where and when did it all start ? Let us close our eyes for a moment and go back in history 500 years. What did this part of Brussels look like in the early 16th century ?

In the early part of the 16th century this area of Brussels was quite different from what we see today. It was little more than a wide plain divided into several parcels of land, with only a few houses and vegetable gardens between which narrow roads wound towards the second city walls which followed the present Boulevard de Waterloo. It is in 1532 that Françoise of Luxembourg, the widow of count Jean of Egmont, acquired land here, which was situated to the right of the present Palace, close to what is today the Rue du Grand Cerf. One year later, she started building a mansion there. Her property was called ‘Petit Hôtel d’Egmont’ or ‘Hôtel de Luxembourg’. A second mansion was built fifteen years later on neighbouring land, closer to the present Egmont Palace.

But who were the Egmonts ? Originally from Holland - today Egmont-aan-Zee is still a small town along the Dutch coastline – the counts of Egmont played a very important role in the Spanish Netherlands in the 16th and 17th century.  Françoise of Luxembourg’s son, Lamoral of Egmont, became a confident of Emperor Charles V and of King Philip II of Spain. Lamoral was Charles V’s chamberlain (or treasurer) and carried out many important assignments, one of them being an assignment to negotiate a possible wedding between Philip of Spain and Mary Tudor, the English queen… (I would say, in hindsight, an assignment doomed to fail since its inception). Lamoral was a also member of the Golden Fleece Guild. Under his command, the Spanish troops defeated the French at Gravelines. As a reward, Lamoral was promoted Governor of Flanders and Artois. He became embroiled in the religious wars of the age. Although a staunch catholic, he opposed the Spanish Inquisition vehemently. His plotting against the Spaniards began next door, at the residence of a friend, the count of Culembourg, whose residence was where the Prince Albert Barracks are now. There the nobility of the day signed the ‘Compromise of the Nobles’ to proclaim their disapproval of Spanish politics in the Low Countries. A year later, they organised the ‘Banquet of the Beggars’ (which stood for Protestants). The Duke of Alva arrested Lamoral and his friend, the count of Hoorn, under a false pretext. They were decapitated on the Grand’Place in Brussels in 1568. Their statue can be seen in the park of the Sablon, just in front of the Palace. Soon afterwards, the Culembourg house was pulled down and a Carmel monastery replaced it (hence the street name ‘Karmelietenstraat/rue des Petits Carmes’, today also the postal address of the Foreign Ministry)

But Lamoral was not only a political figure, he was also a builder. Lamoral had inherited the land and two mansions from his mother, Françoise of Luxembourg. In fact, he also erected a larger, new mansion, next to his mother’s and replaced part of it, on the spot where we find nowadays the entrance gate and little walls. It was called the ‘Grand Hôtel d’Egmont’. Most of it in the same style as his mother’s, Flemish Renaissance. Part of that building though was in pure Italian Renaissance style, particularly one end of the courtyard, and that is where we are now, here in the library.

Originally the two buildings –the ‘Petit Hôtel d’Egmont’ of Françoise and ‘Grand Hôtel d’Egmont’ of her son Lamoral– were separated by a road leading from the Sablon to the outer city walls. When Françoise applied to the Brussels’ Bench with a view to acquire the passage which prevented the joining of the two buildings, consent was only given provided that a right of way was granted to the peasants going to the Sablon market and … for the street cleaners who had to carry the refuse to the city ramparts. This explains why the ‘connecting house’ which was built had a large carriage archway to fulfil the conditions imposed by the Bench. One can imagine the ‘couleur and … odeur locale’ in these days!

But, let’s go back to the beheading of Lamoral. After his death, his widow Sabine of Bavaria had the coat of arms at the main entrance of the Petit Hôtel removed, a decision which irked the Duke of Alva so much that he had the two mansions confiscated in the name of the King of Spain and all the furniture and china sold. The unfortunate countess, with her eleven children, took refuge in the Abbey of La Cambre and had to live off charity. It was only about ten years later that Lamoral’s son, count Philip, made a triumphant entry into Brussels after the Pacification of Ghent and again took possession of his mansions.

It is under count Philip that the grounds and the Hôtel expanded considerably. Later in the 17th century, the two mansions were abandoned by the Egmont family - they preferred to live in Northern France and Paris - and were leased to other noble families. Queen Christine of Sweden stayed here too, after her abdication in 1654.

It was at the beginning of the 18th century that the name of the Arenberg family appears for the first time in connection with this Palace. The Arenbergs were at first tenants. In 1729 Leopold of Arenberg moved in as tenant. He was the brother-in-law of the last owner and felt very much at home in the Palace. In an effort to renew and ’modernize’ the Palace, he had a bath installed (very impressive, we will see it later during the tour), as well as a reservoir and steam boiler. A water supply line was also installed. The acquisition of the property by the Arenbergs though was a difficult process, but after different vain attempts the negotiation was successfully concluded in 1752. As a matter of fact, the Arenberg’s former residence in Brussels had been totally destroyed by French troops under Louis XIV during the siege of Brussels in 1695 (the French troops bombarded the city from the heights of … Molenbeek, a neighbourhood still very much in the spotlights these days!

Under the Arenbergs, the Palace became a meeting place where all the ‘stars’ of the moment met. Voltaire was very much in evidence in these years. We can imagine him enlivening the dinners given here with his pungent table-talk and gossip. By the way, Voltaire was close to the Duke of Arenberg and arranged for his fine wines sent to him by the King of Prussia, to be addressed to the Duke in order to make customs formalities ‘easier’ … It is said that the young Mozart and his sister have given a concert here.

By the mid-18th century, the building must have been in a very bad state as it was not used any more to host illustrious visitors. It was the beginning of an era of building and rebuilding, and of embellishment of the property. The second Egmont mansion was pulled down and replaced by the Main Central Gate, a new central wing was commissioned on the garden side and the right wing was built. ‘French Quarters’ – also called ‘Their Highnesses’ Apartments’ - were added for family life. Most of the building work done by the Arenbergs can still be seen today, including the ‘manège’, the riding school, which has been integrated in the International Conference Centre.

But again, a period of plunder and sequestration would begin. Duke Louis-Englebert of Arenberg, although blind, took an active part in the Brabant Revolution, a local uprising against the Austrians. In 1794 the battle of Fleurus opened the gates of Brussels to the French troops and the Duke was put on the list of exiles and his goods were sequestered. For this house, it was a dramatic experience : innumerable thefts – ‘borrowings’ – took place for the benefit of the officials of the French Republic and several representatives of the people made the Palace their home, as one document puts it ‘in the embroidered sheets of the absent owners’.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Duke was rehabilitated and rallied to the cause of the French Empire and became a French senator and even an officer of the Légion d’Honneur. During the French Revolution, the monks of the Carmel were expelled and their monastery destroyed. It allowed Louis-Englebert to buy the adjacent land and build the left wing of the Palace as we see it today. This wing held the considerable art collection of the Arenberg family. The building on the left wing was an old dream of the duke fulfilled.

Belgian independence opened up a new chapter in the history of the house. The Arenbergs, until then Orangists, supporters of King Willem of Holland, rallied to the cause of Leopold I. This is a setting the first Belgian kings knew all too well: Leopold I attended several evening parties here and Leopold II came here each year to pay his respects to the dowager countess. The ball on May, 12th, 1902, in addition to the king, was attended by the count of Flanders, princess Clementine, prince Napoleon and the future king Albert I. It was at this ball that an automobile, driven by the duke’s chauffeur, at midnight, made an appearance in the Great Ballroom, just above us here.

But the dukes went to live in Paris. The Palace was abandoned once more by its owners … And a fire in 1892 destroyed the first mansion of Françoise and part of the right wing of the Palace, which then was rebuilt in the same Italian Renaissance style, with the grandiose multi-coloured marble staircase which you will all be able to admire later during the tour.

It is a copy of the ‘Staircase of the Ambassadors’ in Versailles, built by Le Vau for Louis XIV. The work started in 1906 and was finished in 1910. The staircase was inaugurated by the German Emperor Wilhelm II. It is under duke Louis-Englebert that this part of the building was rearranged into a library and that the impressive ball room – the ‘Hall of Mirrors’ - just above us, was created.

With the end of the First World War came an end to the presence of the Arenbergs in Brussels. The family had taken sided with Germany, a wrong bet. Probably informed that the Palace would be put under sequestration, the Arenbergs sold their property to the City of Brussels in October 1918.

And again, a period of neglect began. The City of Brussels desperately tried to find a purpose for this rather cumbersome acquisition : a restaurant for officials, a cultural centre, a gathering place for boy scouts, police headquarters, even the idea of offering the Palace to the Archbishop of Mechelen was envisaged! In 1920 the gardens hosted the fencing competition during the Summer Olympics. The building was damaged again by two fires : in 1959, a thief, vexed at finding nothing to take, set fire to old papers. Then the Belgian State moved in, literally and financially.

In the sixties, Paul-Henri Spaak, our then Foreign Minister, was looking for a prestigious site worthy of Belgium’s foreign policy. He persuaded the Belgian Government to acquire the Palace from the City of Brussels. The proximity of the ‘Quatre Bras’, then the headquarters of the Foreign Ministry, helped a lot. The sale was concluded in 1964 after long negotiations marked by the same courtesy and patience which had characterised the acquisition of the property from the Egmonts by the Arenbergs two centuries earlier. Extensive and expensive restauration and redecoration work started in 1966 and took more than five years to complete.

Today, the Egmont Palace is one of the most remarkable buildings of Brussels, even if it is less well-known because it is not open to the public and it is hidden behind the Petit Sablon.

But for diplomats it is a remarkable place to work, very inspiring also, a wonderful mix of tradition and modernity. Many a foreign visitor is impressed by its splendour and warmth. A pearl in the ‘toolbox’ of Belgian diplomacy, no doubt about that. And a great contribution to the idea of ‘Brussels - capital of Europe’.


Jan baron Grauls (12.2015)