Party like it’s 1549 at Brussels’ celebration of the Holy Roman Emperor


A two-month festival devoted to the life and times of Charles V culminates in a huge 16th-century-style procession through the capital

Fit for a king

Every year, Brussels hosts a city-wide cultural festival celebrating the time when Charles V, Duke of Burgundy, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, ruled over an empire that stretched from Eastern Europe all the way to distant Spanish colonies in the New World. Brussels was at the very heart of this empire.

The Carolus V Festival spans the two months leading up to the Ommegang, the recreation of a grand procession put on by the city in 1549 to welcome Charles V and his heir, Philip II of Spain. Ommegang, which takes place in the first week of July, is one of the highlights of the capital’s cultural calendar and a major draw for tourists.

Born in Ghent, brought up in Mechelen and with very close ties to Brussels, Charles V had a massive influence on the region, and his legend lingers both in the history books and the imagination.

But there’s a problem, according to Roel Jacobs, an expert on Charles V and an historical advisor to Brussels. “It’s the main tourist event, but we don’t talk enough about the historical context, about the meaning of it,” he says.

While the Ommegang re-enactment is in its 87th edition, the Carolus V Festival was launched in 2012 as a way of sharing its historical context with the people of Brussels and with visitors. The city plays a co-ordinating role, inviting cultural organisations to participate and publicising the programme.


“We ask museums and historical societies to do things based on the Ommegang in May and June, with scientific conferences, publications, historic walks, exhibitions, theatre and all kind of other activities that point to the importance of Brussels in the 16th century,” explains Jacobs.

This year, the central theme is the Romantic literary tradition of the 19th century. “Charles V is of course very important from a historical perspective,” says Jacobs. “But he is equally important from a legendary perspective.”

There will be talks and symposia on the influential novel about the folk figure Tijl Uilenspiegel by Belgian writer Charles de Coster, which was first published in French 150 years ago. Although Uilenspiegel  had his roots in old Germanic legends, de Coster placed him in the time of Charles V and Philip II. 

Charles V is very important from a historical perspective, but he is equally important from a legendary perspective

- Historian Roel Jacobs

Born in Damme, near Bruges, Uilenspiegel fights for independence and religious freedom against the Spanish king and corrupt Catholic priests. His picaresque adventures, set against the backdrop of the Dutch Revolt and Counter-Reformation, mix humour with historical detail.

Jacobs is keen to emphasise that the importance of Brussels under Charles V has long been underestimated. “Everyone knows that in the 16th century, Antwerp was the economic centre of Europe,” he says, “but at the same point, Brussels was equally important – not from an economic perspective but from a political one. And those things go together.”

The role that Brussels played in European politics was tied to the fact that Charles V, who was obliged to travel constantly to oversee his vast empire, spent more time in Brussels than in any other city.

Jacobs: “Brussels was never an economic powerhouse like Bruges or Antwerp, or an industrial giant such as Ghent or Liège, or a religious centre like Tournai or Cambrai. So what was it? It was the town that would become the most influential residence of the emperor.”

The young king

Born in Ghent in 1500, Charles V was the son of Philip the Fair, heir to the Duchy of Burgundy through his mother, Mary of Burgundy, and to the Habsburg monarchy through his father, Maximilian of Austria. Charles’ mother was Joanna of Castile, who inherited the crowns of Aragon and Castile.

The Burgundian lands included all of the Netherlands as well as the ancestral seat in France, and the kingdom of Aragon included Naples, Sicily and Sardinia. In 1506, Charles inherited the Burgundian lands upon his father’s untimely death.

By 1516, Charles – a teenager – became King of Aragon and Castile, and in 1519 he became the Habsburg ruler. In 1530, he was elected Holy Roman Emperor by the German princes, over claims from Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England.

He spent much of his reign fighting France, the Ottomans and Protestantism, and struggling to both defend and extend his territory. Throughout his life, Charles favoured the Burgundian Netherlands, the region where he was born and had spent his youth. 

Luxury products

He spoke French and Dutch fluently, only learning Spanish later in life. And for the most part, the Low Countries were loyal to Charles. They were also an important source of tax revenue – which funded his military ambitions.

By 1554, Charles was exhausted from years of constant war, and ill with gout. He began a series of abdications, dividing his titles and lands between his brother Frederick and his son Philip.

In 1555, he conferred the Burgundian territories on his son in the Aula Magna (great hall) of the Coudenberg Palace in Brussels. He died in a monastery in Spain in 1558.

The complexities of running such a large empire gave rise to a new class of educated civil servants, who no longer followed the ruler on his constant travels but stayed in one place to conduct his business and administer his laws, even when he was absent. The Broodhuis, built on Brussels’ Grote Markt during Charles V’s reign, housed his ministers and courts.

The majority of European people who come to Brussels are more interested in the history of Brussels than the people of Brussels themselves are

- Roel Jacobs

The presence of this cosmopolitan class of imperial functionaries, combined with the royal court and local aristocracy, contributed to a political and economic stability that fuelled the growth of local industries producing luxury products such as tapestries.

Jacobs tells the story of the tapestries woven in Brussels in 1515 for the Sistine Chapel and based on the now-famous Raphaël Cartoons. Although we now admire the ceiling painted by Michelangelo as one of the greatest works of Renaissance art, the tapestries cost five times as much as the ceiling paintings at the time.

“We don’t understand that anymore, because we consider painting to be the pinnacle of the arts,” he says. “But at that time, tapestry was much more important than painting.” And Brussels was the main centre of tapestry weaving in the 16th century.

The Carolus V Festival is centred on the Coudenberg Museum, an archaeological site under the Kunstberg that preserves the remnants of the old Burgundian palace. In the 16th century, it was one of the most splendid palaces in all of Europe, and Charles V had a magnificent Gothic chapel added to it in honour of his parents.

An Italian traveller

As part of the festival, the museum will present the exhibition Remigio Cantagallina: An Italian Traveller in the Southern Netherlands. This Florentine artist visited the court of the Hapsburg Archdukes Albert and Isabella in the early 17th century and created detailed drawings of Brussels and the surrounding area.

The original sketches are quite small and will be displayed in the Old Masters wing of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. But enlarged reproductions will be on display in the Coudenberg, along with information about the artist and his travels, presenting a unique opportunity to see how Brussels appeared not long after the time of Charles V.

Like Cantagallina, the outsider who arrives in Brussels today often appreciates things that go unnoticed by locals. Jacobs believes the expat community has had a hand in kindling modern interest in Charles V.

“The majority of European people who come to Brussels are more interested in the history of Brussels than the people of Brussels themselves are,” he says. “It’s important that there is that kind of international interest.”

Tourists, he says, are regularly asked why they chose to visit Brussels. “Always, history and patrimony are their biggest reasons to visit. It’s not because of the weather!”

Photo: V Evrard

Carolus V Festival highlights

Family Day at Coudenberg Renaissance-themed activities for young and old. Period buffet and cooking workshops, crossbow demonstrations, games, period dances and more. 21 May 10.00-18.00, Paleizenplein 7, Brussels; €7

Ommegang 1,400 costumed performers in Renaissance dress re-enact the Ommegang as it was presented for Charles V in 1549. 5 & 7 July 20.30, Grote Zavel, Brussels; free

Other Ommegang activities include a Renaissance market around the Oude Beurs, crossbow shooting in Grote Zavel and jousting in Warande Park across from the Royal Palace.

Renaissance Weekend at Erasmus House Two days of family-oriented activities in Brussels’ oldest house. Costumed musicians and dancers, a Renaissance market, craft demonstrations, stories and games. 23-24 September 10.00-18.00, Kapittelstraat 31, Anderlecht, €1.25