The Castles and Chateaux of the Low Countries


CHATEAU: the word itself conveys a certain amount of mystery. The English word ‘castle’, as we shall see, reinforces the romantic part of the message. For if the word "palace" tends to call to mind an image of power and overabundant wealth, of the sort we might associate with Roman emperors and Indian maharajahs, the word “castle” is more subtle and more severe. The palace is the home of luxury and splendor. The castle stands surrounded in mist, guarding its sleeping princess. And while all epochs and all civilizations have given palaces to the world, castles are almost exclusively the products of Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Certainly one can find castles in northern India or Japan but they do not have much physical resemblance to those of Europe nor do they emerge from a political or social system similar enough to signify the same thing.

To start at the very beginning, we have to go back to the Roman Empire, for both "chateau" and “castle" have their roots in the Latin word "CASTELLA" (diminutive of "castrum", a fortified camp), which was a military term, a fort, and not a residence of any sort. Rome's European frontier was a thickly fortified line, a sort of Maginot line of defenses, which protected the natural frontier of the Rhine against the Germanic peoples. When the defenses, the "limes", cracked in the 3rd century under the first Alemannic invasions, it took all the energy of the emperors, Aurelian and Probus, to redress the situation and, even then, the "Pax Romana” was broken for ever. Aurelian even surrounded his capital, Rome, with walls, and other towns throughout the Western Empire did the same. Minor gems of military engineering were produced (like the Porta Nigra at Trier in Germany). But even the walls were not consi-dered wholly safe. People began to pull down their temples to reinforce the old "duns”, the fortified hillocks of Celtic times, it is from the word “dun" that the Dutch ending "duin” and the French "dune" comes (French place-names with dun. include Loudun and Chateaudun).

With the final physical collapse of the empire in the 5th century, it was the Franks who imposed Christianity and some sort of order on the territories of Gaul and Germany. In the eyes both of the people and of the Church, the Franks were seen as factors of law and order and indeed as Roman "feoderati", or allied troops. Until the advent of the Carolinians, and despite bloody dynastic struggles (which really only affected life at Court), the Low Countries, among others, enjoyed a relative prosperity which some historians have gone so far as to term a second Golden Age. The only real troublemakers were the Friesians and, in about 638, king Dagobert built a castle at Utrecht to slow down their progress. The audacious Friesian pirates, forerunners of the Norsemen were the real cause of the radical over-throw of the western half of the old empire and the death of a classical Antiquity that had somehow managed to linger on under the Merovingians and the Carolinians, to whom the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople was still the symbol of Rome's universal sovereignty, and hence a figure of awe and majesty. The tactics of these armed gangs were simple boats toe them up the rivers where they disembarked and sacked defenseless towns or rich abbeys, and so effective that proved beyond the powers of any great ruler to protect his people to any extent.

Without permanent control of the sea, the forests and the vast tracts of uninhabited heath, there was no power that could resist the incursions of these mobile and well organized groups; the democracies of today face very similar problems with the menace of terrorism. In the 5t century, the rulers of both halves of the Roman Empire were already bemused and inert in the face of the Vandal Mediterranean pirate fleets under king Genseric.

It was the century of the Norman invasions, which prove to be the midwife of the feudal system, a century of pillage, massacre and horror in a world, which was falling apart. The ruler, and thus his counts and lords, was force to give up lands (or to come to whatever terms he could with his dispossessors) in exchange for a personal oath of loyalty. The origin of the word "count" is, once again, Latin one: "comes" (companion) was a late Roman administrative and military job, normally denoting the military governor of an endangered frontier region. (In Britain, the count of the Saxon Shore was the second most important military post after the "Dux Britanniae", the commander-in-chief.) The counts, at the time of the Norman invasions, appeared to the local people as the only real defense against the raiders in the longships and it was to them, and not to the distant and ineffective monarch that their loyalty was drawn. At the same time, the count; aware that territorial defense was in their hands alone made their loyalty to the crown dependent on the dismemberment of central authority. The prestige of the crown was a heavy burden: the Capetian dynasty, which supplanted the last Carolinians by its power, was enfeebled within the next two centuries.

This dismembering of central power was pursued to it logical conclusion. If the modern village correspond roughly to the structure of the "villas" of late classical time the feudal system progressively split up the countryside Since the fortress is the symbol of power, the "height” which the protecting walls are raised, castles appeared almost everywhere.

In countries with large populations, like Belgium, there were sometimes several castles in a village (still the case in the village of Ecaussinnes). The abundance of local stone made possible the great castles of the Ardennes, while Flanders and the Netherlands saw construction on a men modest scale, using local brick and an advantage with which nature had been particularly prodigal - water. THE sort of building called "Wasserburg" - water castle – In Westphalia is universal on the damp plains of the codstal provinces: the walls and towers of the castle are safe in 1 middle of a grey-green pond.

However, in the beginning, and in contrast to the Gallo Roman aristocracy they supplanted, the great men of the Merovingian and Carolinian eras built their palaces and chateaux out of wood, since it was abundant and Gaelic carpenters were highly skilled. French, Belgian and Dutch surnames like Carpentier, Decarpentrie and Timmerman are very common and a witness to a longstanding and glorious tradition, even if they only appeared at a time when architecture was in rapid evolution.

Nobody knows with any certainty when the transition from wood to stone and brick took place. A description of the castle of Baudouin, count of Guines, in 1168, shows that construction was still almost entirely of wood. In an area known for its harsh winters it is doubtless true that wood is more comfortable than stone for living in, as Russia and the Scandinavian countries up to the end of the 19th century demonstrate. When Catherine the Great and her son, Paul I, felt that their imperial grandeur required Italian-designed palaces of stone, marble and stucco, they made life horribly uncomfortable for their families and the Court, who preferred the "wooden Versailles" of the Tsarina Elisabeth. But, alas, wood is inflammable and if private citizens continued to prefer it (at the cost of some awful conflagrations, like the Great Fire of London in 1666), the great nobles opted for security. The keep of Loches, built of stone at the end of the 10th century by Fulk Nerra, count of Anjou, made an impression on all his con-temporaries. If the monk Raoul Glaber, writing around the year 1000, saw Western Europe "clothed in a white mantle of churches”, the llth and 12th centuries saw castles spring up in every corner, of which many examples have come down to us.

The Treaty of Verdun in 843, at which Charlemagne's empire was divided between his three grandsons, marked a decisive point in the history of Europe which no-one at the time could have foretold. The territories, which are the subject of this book, went to Lothar and since his line was unable to retain its hold on them, they passed largely into the orbit of the German emperors. Only Flanders depended on the king of France. Although the origins of the Merovingian, Carolingian and Capetian dynasties all lay in these rich and much-coveted territories, the history of the 9th century, with the disintegration of central authority in the face of Norman and Magyar incursions, proved profit-able largely to the lords of what are now the Benelux countries. Turbulent counts (like the Renier.s in Hainault and Brabant and the Baldwins in Flanders), proud of their Carolinian descent in a world which denied them their legacy while not forgetting them, took the opportunity to set themselves up as independent dynasties. They resisted all attempts to bring them to heel, whether by Arnold of Carinthia, king of Germany, or, later, the dukes of Lower Lorraine and the bishops of Liege and Utrecht, who were given the job by the German emperor. In the north, it was only in the llth century that the counts of Holland and Guelderland managed to carve out important holdings for themselves at the expense of the bishops of Utrecht.

These new principalities had a direct influence on the rate of castle building, since the lesser lords imposed their own law in inverse proportion to the power of the local count. In Flanders, the rule of certain counts (like Baldwin VII "of the Axe", about 1119) and the rise of large industrial towns speedily restricted the rise of a lesser nobility (though families like the Gavres, the Wavrins, the Homes and the Ghistelles show that they existed). In Luxembourg, houses of the caliber of Eiter, Chiny, Rochefort, Bourscheidt, Pels, Brandenbourg, Rodemachern, Rollingen or Vianden acquired an importance which was underpinned by im-pressive fortresses. From the 14th century on, the La Marcks held a network of strongpoints, which made them the true masters of the region. During the same period, Jacques de Hemricourt, in his "Mirror of the Nobles of the Hesbaye", described the fratricidal warfare in which the petty nobility of Liege and Namur engaged. The War of the Awans and the Waroux and the War of the Cow were epi-sodes which contributed not a little to the collapse of a social class which had become closed in on itself and whose values reflected a fast-vanishing era.

By contrast, the aristocracy of Hainault always seemed the most international, the most glorious and the wealthiest in the Low Countries: names like Avesnes, Enghien, Antoing, Ligne, Barbancon, Berlaymont, Ath, Chievres, Trazegnies, Lalaing and Conde are testimony to that. The Avesnes became counts of Blois in the 13th century and then counts of Hainault, Holland, Zealand and Frisia, while the Enghiens bore the titles of dukes of Athens, counts of Brienne, Lecce and Conversano (in Apulia) and, in the person of Marie d'Enghien, later provided a queen of Naples and of Hungary. The luster of this aristocracy is shown by the number of crusaders which it furnished, as well as by its brilliant life-style, in which French influence was preponderant.

The authority of the dukes of Brabant, which from the 13th century on stretched to Guelderland and to the Rhine, was sufficient to restrain lordly houses like the Berthouts of Malines, but the development of Court life in Brussels (a Court which foreshadowed that of the dukes of Burgundy) made the capital of Brabant a new pole of attraction. Only the distant baronies, like Breda and Bergen-op-Zoom, found room to increase their independence. The northern provinces, less developed at the beginning of this epoch, were subject to a strongly feudal system, which was brutally overthrown when the Dutch Revolt broke out against Spain.

The great Dutch families, like the Egmonts, the Wassenaars, the Arkels, the Brederodes, the Renesses, the Zuylens, the Borsselens, the Monforts and the Voornes dotted their meadows with a number of "slots" and destroyed themselves in endless internecine strife. Very like that which had ravaged the principality of Liege: Hoeks (fishhooks) against Kabeljauwen (codfish) in Holland, Heeckerens against Bronkhorsts in Guelderland, Lokhorsts against Lichtenhergs in Utrecht and Schieringers against Vetkopers in Frisia. This permanent state of insecurity between related families, with its origins in the intrigues of some Court or a squabble between farmers, was the reason for the survival in these provinces of an outdated social system. At a time when all the conditions were ripe for a leap into the modern world: a collective struggle against the sea, but also the call of the ocean, a class of small peasant pro-prietors, and good communications. When the elite of the southern provinces moved in the l6th century to join the intelligentsia of the north, the Netherlands picked up the torch that Flanders had carried in the Middle Ages and became the spearhead of economic, scientific and political progress. Just before that happened, there was the extraordinary expansion of the dukes of Burgundy, those collectors of territory and high exemplars of a chivalric order, which was on the point of disappearing for ever. The luster of the Court of the grand duke of the West in the middle of a region devastated by the Hundred Years War was all an illusion; it concealed deep-seated and sometimes ruinous economic changes. And, indeed, even in France itself, during the ‘century of troubles', the duke de Berry, Gaston de Foix and the duke of Orleans rivaled the young king Charles VI in putting on dazzling displays of luxury and fantasy. Despite what one might have been led to think, the resources of the dukes of Burgundy were only about a quarter of those of the kings of France. But Philip the Good did not have to bear the expense of a war and he preferred to invest the taxes paid by his cities in banquets and jewels. Few great castles remain from this period, but the brilliance of the Burgundian Court at this time attracted foreign families to the Low Countries whose names reappear in the following centuries: the Croys, Lannoys, Meluns, Nassaus and Montmorency-Hornes, while, with great patience, one Rhineland family, the Merodes, acquired lordship after lordship in all the corners of today's Belgium by means of a series of skilful dynastic marriages.

During the time of the emperor Charles V, impressive chateaux were built which reflected the amassing of wealth and the favor of the Court: the Croys, Lalaings, Egmonts, Henin-Lietards, Nassaus and Lignes gradually took the places held by the territorial magnates of the past. The outcome was that, in the case of the Ligne-Arenbergs from the 17th century, and the Mercy-Argenteaus at the begin-ning of the 19th, these great families became states within a state. By contrast, in the north, the centers of power had shifted very rapidly with the start of the great economic and colonizing ventures of the Golden Age. Under the enlightened, though not strictly constitutional, government of the Orange-Nassaus, the triumphant middle classes seized hold of all of the levers of power. The wealth which so swiftly changed the face of a city like Amsterdam was largely put back into the towns which grew larger in consequence, while the upper classes, imbued with a certain Calvinist sense of reserve, concentrated on ‘Hoven van plaisantie’ or country retreats. These were generally set in modest grounds and represented a total break with the concept of a fortified castle and territorial power. The hanks of the Vecht, between Amsterdam and Utrecht, are to this day dotted with luxurious "second homes" and tea pavilions, which date from this period. Luxury took on forms other than simply prestige building: the search for Chinese porcelain or exotic animals like parrots unleashed floods of capital as large as were consumed during the period of tulip mania, when fortunes were wiped out to pay for a handful of rare bulbs. In 1667, the Dutch legis-lature was obliged to pass laws forbidding the trade in these ruinous blossoms. This contrast between the middle-class, forward looking United Provinces and the Spanish, then Austrian, Nether-lands with their still strongly feudal stamp, led to a marked difference in styles of castle-building. Thus, up to the end of the 17th century, especially in the Ardennes, certain en-trance courtyards were still flanked by high walls, some-times pierced with loopholes, while the patrician resi-dences of the wealthy Dutch spread into a peaceful country-side. The decoration of these northern chateaux is characteristic: the facades were austere, a reflection of the current mental-ity, such as will be found at Amerongen or Middachten, but the interiors were lavishly adorned with stucco and foliated scroll work in which the influence of the Frenchman, Daniel Marot, a Huguenot in the service of the Nassaus, can be seen to hold sway.

In the south, the chateaux were of a much more impressive size. This was because, firstly, there was abundant building stone and, secondly, because of the social system. A cheap labor force served great territorial magnates not yet distracted from their traditional fields of endeavor by modern economic systems. By contrast, the United Provinces exported their surplus handicrafts to make a vast commercial empire spreading right across the world. Interior decoration tended to be sober and even sparse, though certain landowners, influenced by the French fashion, made it their especial pride to overload their walls with stucco, silks and woodwork. The Liege region is somewhat original in this respect. There, French refine-ments harmonized smoothly with a typical Dutch love of porcelain and with the old tradition of high skill in carving, especially in oak. The result is more than just a synthesis and represents in a very personal manner the way of life of a peaceful and well-to-do principality, ruled by a bon-vivant churchman, sometimes even an enlightened one, like the count of Velbrück (1772-1784).

For the rest, the number of properties held by the great families meant that there was no urge to build one sym-bolic family seat. It was said, for example, that the duke of Arenberg could travel to Rome or Berlin and stop each night at one of his chateaux. Perhaps an exaggeration, but it is nonetheless a pertinent reminder of his life style. Certainly his park at Enghien astounded the Grande Mademoiselle, but at the close of the Ancient Regime, the duke had but one badly run-down house where he stayed for hunting. Another of his properties, the chateau of Heverlee, the former palace of Guillaume de Croy, lord of Chievres and preceptor to emperor Charles V, crumbled into dust and spiders' webs. The innumerable properties of the Merodes were no less neglected. At the reception fol-lowing his second marriage, field marshal and count of Merode-Westerloo barely escaped with his life as his chateau of Petershem collapsed around his ears.

There are exceptions nonetheless and Beloeil, the home of the princes de Ligne, is one, which has earned it the somewhat excessive title of "Belgium's Versailles...”. On the other hand, the lesser aristocracy, which had only one estate and no regiments to maintain (either of courtiers or soldiers), tended to follow the lead of the Dutch patricians and built some delightful chateaux where the art of living took precedence over the need to maintain great state.

This art of living is perhaps the main feature of the archi-tecture of the classical period in Belgium and the Nether-lands (the chateaux of Belgian Luxembourg and of the Grand Duchy itself reflect the poverty of the region at that time, but they have nonetheless a sort of outmoded charm). There is no attempt to recreate the rural palaces of English dukes, French bishops or central European princes, but the chateaux are the reflection of a gentle civilization where the proprietors lived like gentlemen on their estates and still kept abreast - or nearly so - of the dictates of Fashion, and the social tensions that led to the outbreak of the French Revolution were largely absent in those prosperous territories which wars had not touched for a long time, and where the Church, for example, was much less guilty of the abuses that mitred lordlings in the rest of Catholic Europe seemed all too prone to commit.

Thus the destruction of chateaux during the course of the Revolution and the years that followed was due much more to the passage of foreign armies than to the rage of rebellious peasants. Only Liege, keen to imitate the revolutionary zeal of Paris, pulled down the splendid cathedral of Saint-Lambert. And, despite the social up-heavals at the end of the 18th century, the building of pleasing little chateaux continued, whether for old but unimportant gentry or the proud possessors of new for-tunes.

The union of Belgium and the Netherlands in a single kingdom (1815-1830), the direct ancestor of today's Benelux, coincided with a remarkable economic upsurge and the arrival on the scene of "new men" who were to make the 19th century. But national characteristics per-sisted. While the Dutch remained their sober selves, and resisted the vogue for neo-Gothic, the Belgians were seized by building mania and dotted the new kingdom with extravagant confections that were proof at the same time of their pride in their newly-discovered past and of their present status and their confidence in the future. For example, M. Eggermont, a rich ambassador, built at Leignon a chateau, which would have been the envy of any English peer or Bohemian noble. The enormous size and the splendor of the late Victorian decor may be termed the work of a vulgar upstart by some, but they were done in the most brilliant epoch of Belgian architecture. In contrast, the Dutch showed very quickly a sympathetic awareness of their architectural heritage and succeeded in preserving much of it, in all its beauty and integrity.

If the industrialists of the Twente built charming country houses, their style is no longer, as in the south, in a direct line of descent from the age of a dominant noble class, interested in greatness, power, brilliance and historic justi-fication. It is more in the manner of a continuous aesthetic fulfillment. The only slightly mad chateau in the Netherlands is Haar, which was built by the Belgian baron van Zuylen van Nyevelt, the husband of Helene de Rothschild. His architect was Cuypers, a Catholic, who worked in this staunchly Protestant country, and the result is obviously one, which runs directly counter to national sentiment and taste.

After the First World War, which in effect rang down the curtain on the 19th century, social change completely altered the scope and nature of the problem. Nobody now dreamed of building a chateau. On the contrary, the overwhelming preoccupation was how to maintain what was there. Here, it was the 1950s, which proved to be a major turning point in the history of European castles and chateaux. Apart from the fact that the old world had now completely disappeared in Eastern Europe, there was the astonishing economic development of western countries which dramatically cut off the supply of domestic servants, without which these large structures could not be maintained. Up to this point, in spite of all the dramas of European history, the servant population of the average castle or chateau had remained at a constant level: the same numbers appear for domestic staff in 1250, 1500, 1700, 1850 and 1930. The challenge that faced the owners, whose private fortunes were being taxed to pay for social improvements, was so intense that many of them simply gave up. In Belgium, above all, chateaux disappeared by the dozen, mostly those of the 19th century but also some pure masterpieces of the classical era. It was not an un-common sight to see a farmer knock down with a bulldozer a medieval tower that got in the way of his planting while the historian hurried to complete his monograph on that particular building. Not all buildings shared the same fate. Some of them have been taken over by foundations or associations, which can seek government aid, and, in this area, the Netherlands has set the example. In respect of this, while it is true that most people feel that a discriminating private owner would do a better job and cost less in government funds, the obvious quid pro quo of a government subsidy is accessibility to the public. And that would be weighting the dice against the chateaux which are not on some tourist itinerary or which deserve to be saved even though the proprietor's attitude to the opening of his chateau is negative.

This web site has a two-fold aim: firstly, to give the general public an idea of the limitless choice of chateaux in Belgium and, secondly, to help the owners, or custodians bring to wider notice the properties of which they are in charge.

We hope that the wider dissemination of such information will help, in a modest way, to safeguard our heritage.



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