Among the monarchies of Europe still existing, the Kingdom of Belgium is the most junior, founded in 1830 after the small kingdom declared its independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. However, the official residence of the King of the Belgians is slightly older and forms a fascinating monument to the history of the nation.
The Palace of the Austrian Governor
The Royal Palace was first built at Laeken, from which the palace took its name, in 1782 at the behest of Archduchess Maria Christina of Austria and her husband Albert of Saxe-Teschen. At that time Laeken and the nearby city of Brussels were still part of what was called the Austrian Netherlands and formed a distant outreach of the Hapsburg empire in Europe. Recently appointed as Governors of the Austrian Netherlands, it was the intention of the couple to make the palace their summer residence as they oversaw the territory. The palace was designed by French architect Charles de Wailly and executed by Louis Montoyer. The palace grounds, meanwhile, were designed by English landscape artist Lancelot “Capability” Brown and were one of his last major projects before his death in 1783.
The Archdukes were in residence for much of the next decade, conducting business within the Southern Netherlands on behalf of the Austrian Emperor throughout the duration. However, their tenure quickly saw trouble as, just south of the border, the French Revolution suddenly flared like a wildfire. Within ten years of their tenure, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette (the Archduchess’s estranged sister) were executed by the National Assembly of France, and the sparks of revolution had started to spread across Europe. Although they initially defied orders to return to Vienna, the Governors were compelled to vacate Laeken after Belgian Patriot forces seized Brabant and established the short-lived Republic of the United States of Belgium.
An Austrian reconquest saw the Governors’ return on 15th of June 1791; however, their stay was to prove just as brief. Determined to spread the cause of liberté, égalité, and fraternité across the continent, Revolutionary France invaded in November 1792 and decisively crushed the Austrian army garrisoned in the Austrian Netherlands. The Governors were forced once more to flee, and this time they would not return.
The Austrian Netherlands was incorporated into the First French Republic, which under Napoleon transitioned into the First French Empire. Initially, the Republic intended to demolish the palace after its lands were sold off, but the building was saved when it caught the eye of a particular artillery commander from Corsica who had been rapidly climbing the new republic’s ranks.
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I briefly stayed within the palace several times during his tenure as Emperor of France, notably when he issued a call to arms to the Belgian people during the Hundred Days, inviting them to join his “invincible phalanxes” to crush his enemies who were flying “with rage and despair in their hearts.” After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo a day later, the region was annexed by the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815.
The New Kingdom
The Belgian Revolution in 1830 saw Belgium secede from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, establishing a French-speaking, Catholic, popular constitutional monarchy. Initially the National Congress of Belgium invited Louis, Duke of Nemours and son of King Louis-Phillipe of the French to take the Belgian throne; however, his refusal caused them to offer the Belgian crown to Leopold I instead. Initially reluctant, he accepted the offer and was enthusiastically welcomed by jubilant Belgians as he entered Brussels to take his oath as their first king.
The Mayor of Brussels received the newly crowned King Leopold I in the Palace of Laeken on the 21st of July 1831, and it was assigned as the official residence of the King of the Belgians. The estate was extended to provide more grounds, but otherwise, the palace itself was mostly left untouched by King Leopold I. It remained more or less intact for the rest of his reign.
Of course, no history of a royal palace would be complete without an incident of a fire, and the Royal Palace of Laeken did not disappoint. On New Year’s Day in 1890, a blaze ravaged the palace, and it had to be restored by Belgian architect Alphonse Balat. King Leopold II would take this as an opportunity to experiment further with the palace’s architecture, adding new additions to such as a large complex of conservatories, iron-wrought greenhouses, and gardens. It also included a colossal “Iron Church” that was intended to be a private chapel, but upon Leopold’s death was converted into a bathing house. These today form the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, accessible for three weeks during the spring to the public.
A final extension of the Royal Palace, giving it its current outline, was completed by Charles Girault in 1902.
One interesting note is also found in one of Belgium’s former colonies, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. During the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, a palace was built in his hometown that was modelled quite extensively on the Palace of Laeken.
The Royal Palace Today
The Royal Palace of Laeken survived both World War I and II intact, avoiding the majority of the major points of conflict, and continues to operate as the residence of the King of the Belgians and his family. As a private residence of the monarch, it is not always open to the public. Traditionally, the doors are opened to visitors from the 21st of July to the beginning of September. Otherwise, only specially invited guests are allowed inside.
A functioning royal palace, the Palace of Laeken is often the venue for many important civic events, such as state receptions, royal banquets, the reception of foreign ambassadors and dignitaries, and formal meetings between the King and his ministers. These are conducted in the many lavishly decorated reception rooms, such as Empire Room — which forms the oldest parts of the Royal Palace — the Large Gallery, the Mirror Room, and the Throne Room. Each member of the Royal Family also has an office in the building, where their staff can conduct their work in privacy.
The former King of the Belgians, King Albert II, and the former Queen preferred to live in Belvedere, a private residence within the grounds of the palace itself. The current monarch, King Philipe, lives within the palace proper with the rest of the immediate Belgian Royal Family.