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A short history of the Egmont Palace
"Egmont Palace, Arenberg Palace,Petit hôtel d'Egmont, Grand Hôtel d'Egmont", all these parts of the architectural puzzle which confer its prestige and letters of nobility on the present Egmont Conference Centre their roots into the heart of Brussels and the Southern Netherlands, from which were to emerge Belgium and the European ideal. This complex of palaces has been the witness of almost five hundred years of history and its successive owners and occupants have been at all times - with a few exceptions - genuine heralds of peace!
From the point of view of its occupants, the history of the site can be subdivided into four periods.
The Egmont family era: from the 16th to the 18th century
The first building was erected in 1532 on the order of Françoise of Luxembourg, the widow of Jean, Count of Egmont and the mother of the famous Count Lamoral of Egmont, a military commander, a diplomat, a signatory of the "Compromis des Nobles" and the scapegoat for the Duke of Alba’s wrath. This residence was sometimes called "Hôtel de Luxembourg", sometimes "Petit Hôtel d'Egmont" (Small Egmont Mansion). Apart from some pillars, that can be seen at the back of the Egmont Gardens - near an old ice-house, nothing remains of this building, which was torn down in 1892. Today the expression "Petit Hôtel d'Egmont" designates the right wing of the palace flanking the angle made by the “Petit Sablon” and the “Rue aux Laines”.
The current palace occupies the site of an important Gothic building of the end of the 15th century, which was bought in 1547 by Françoise of Luxembourg and remained intact until 1752. It was called "Grand Hôtel d'Egmont" (Great Egmont Mansion) to distinguish it from the former.
These two mansions were separated by a street leading from the Sablon to the ramparts of the city (the present-day “Boulevard de Waterloo”). Desirous to unite her properties, the owner obtained permission to join together the patches of land on the condition that a right of way be preserved; she then had a "connecting house" built for this purpose, provided with a large gate that gave access to the right of way street. The whole formed then, on the side of Rue aux Laines, a succession of poorly aligned Renaissance façades in white stone on a brick background.
The residence was located close to Margaret of Parma's palace and was contiguous to the "Hôtel de Culembourg", a nearness that was symbolic of the impossible coexistence of monarchist feelings towards Philip II, of separatist aspirations, of Catholicism and Calvinism… This impossible challenge cost Count Lamoral of Egmont his life, and caused the "Hôtel de Culembourg" to be torn down; it was on its very ruins that the convent of "Carmes déchaussés” (an order of barefoot monks) was built in the beginning of the 16th century", and it took Lamoral’s heirs many sacrifices to keep the property safe from the revenge of the occupier.
This is why, throughout the 17th century, the Egmont family was obliged to rent the palace to various families: to the Croÿ first, to the Württemberg and to the Marquis of Prié, Ambassador Plenipotentiary in the Netherlands, and finally, in 1729, to close relatives: the Arenberg family.
The presence of the Dukes of Arenberg
It was in 1752, after many years of renting and financial transactions that Leopold of Arenberg became the owner of the "Petit Hôtel d'Egmont" first, and finally of the "Grand Hôtel" … This acquisition ended, for the Arenberg family, almost 60 years of wandering from the first "Hôtel d'Arenberg" (in the rue d'Arenberg), which was heavily damaged when Brussels was bombarded by the troops of Maréchal de Villeroy (August 1695), to the Enghien Castle and - back in Brussels – to the "Hôtel d'Orange".
This family's role was beneficial for the property, as they united both Egmont mansions definitively and financed numerous improvements.
The large Gothic tower dominating the Sablon neighbourhood was torn down and replaced by a broad entrance - a half-circle then - leading into the main courtyard. With the main building on the side of the street thus dismantled, one could rebuild larger, more beautiful premises at the back, spreading into other directions. The classicism that characterises the current ensemble would first appear with the wing looking onto the gardens - the apartments of the Highnesses - and would gradually be extended to the various wings. Servandoni, the most famous of the architects consulted by the Dukes of Arenberg, was also involved in the remodelling of the gardens: the "Wild Boar Lawn", i.e. the garden ranging between the Library - the "central" wing - and the Riding Hall - the current Large Conference Room in the Palace -, was located below the park and could be reached over a flight of stairs. It was, and still remains in the eyes of some people, the most enchanting point of view of the site.
The Palace had been put under sequestration under the Spanish regime, at the time of the Counter-Reform, and was again impounded under the French regime. In 1794, the day after the Fleurus battle, the French troops invaded Brussels and forced the Arenberg family, who had been very active in the Brabant Revolution, to emigrate; their assets were to be despoiled and it was only in 1800, under the Consulate, that it could return to Brussels and obtain a release from sequestration… Duke Louis-Englebert, struck off the list of emigrants, supported the Empire and left for Paris to open a new "Mansion of Arenberg", while extending his property in Brussels to the detriment of the Carmes' church, on the courtyard of which the left wing of the palace would be built later ("Petit Hôtel d'Arenberg" or "Hôtel du Prince Paul"). The central part was rearranged into a library. On the first floor, a large ballroom was created, in white and gold - the current Hall of Mirrors.
Public ownership – City of Brussels (1918 – 1964)
At the end of World War I, in October 1918, the Egmont Palace was sold to the City of Brussels for an sum of approximately 9 million Belgian francs (223,104.00 €). For a long period, the City kept looking desperately for some purpose for this cumbersome acquisition: a restaurant for officials? A huge gathering place for boy-scouts? A cultural centre? … None of these projects were implemented and the buildings, hardly recovering from the 1892 fire, were again damaged by fire in 1927 and 1959. Most, they fell victim to neglect and lack of interest. The Egmont Palace was eventually awoken from its slumbers when the Belgian government decided to move in – literally and figuratively.
Property of the Belgian State - International Conference Centre (1964 to present day)
In 1964 Paul Henri Spaak, who was then Minister for Foreign Affairs and was looking for a prestigious site worthy of Belgium’s foreign policy, persuaded the Belgian government to acquire the Egmont Palace, in the vicinity of the “Quatre Bras” building, where the Headquarters of the Ministry were at the time
The property was bought from the City of Brussels for an amount of 99 million Belgian francs (2,231,000.00 €) and for seven years, the Palace underwent extensive restoration and redecoration work.
The Egmont Palace, as it is commonly designated today, constitutes, with “Val Duchesse” and some remarkable embassy buildings around the world, one of the most beautiful jewels in Belgium's diplomatic heritage. Distinguished hosts of the State are received here, international conferences are held and some of its wings house the administrative services of the Protocol Division of Belgian Foreign Affairs.
* A statue commemorating death by decapitation in 1568 of Count of Egmont and Count of Hornes embellishes the sculptural composition of the "Petit Sablon", facing the main courtyard of the Egmont Palace.