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Heverlee France - William "Guilliame De Coy" 868ad
Lord of Chievres

Chateau de Cheverny Castle

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First A Walk through France 868ad
Guillaume de Croy - Lord of Chievres preceptor to emperor Charles V
Later owned by the Duke of Arenberg who allowed it to fall into ruins.

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

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

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. 

Excerpt from this site.

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