Grand Béguinage

Leuven, Belgium

The Grand Béguinage of Leuven is a well preserved and completely restored historical quarter containing a dozen of streets in the south of downtown Leuven. With some 300 apartments in almost 100 houses, it is one of the largest still existing beguinages in the Low Countries. It is owned by the University of Leuven and used as a campus, especially for housing students and academic guests.

As a community for unmarried, semi-religious women (Béguine), this béguinage originated in the early 13th century. The oldest written documents date back from 1232. A Latin inscription on the church mentions 1234 as founding date. The community is presumably a few decades older. Local historians from the 16th century, including Justus Lipsius, mention 1205 as founding date. Just like other béguinages in Flanders, the béguinage in Leuven had a first golden age in the 13th century, and difficult times during the religious conflicts in the 16th century. One of the priests of this béguinage was Adriaan Florensz Boeyens, spiritual tutor of the infant Charles V and later known as pope Adrian VI.

From the end of the 16th century, and especially after the Twelve Years' Truce in 1621, the Béguinage had a second flourishing period, culminating near the last quarter of the 17th century and continuing afterwards, albeit in a gradual decline, until the invasion of the anti-religious French Revolutionarists. The peak in entries occurred in the period 1650-1670, when the number of beguines reached 360. Near 1700, the number had already fallen back to 300, due to Nine Years War and diseases. By the mid of the 18th century, the number of béguines was further reduced to approximately 250. The sudden increase in entries, followed by a long period of gradual decline, explains the homogeneity in the architectural style of the houses, most of which were constructed in the years 1630-1670.

After the invasion of the French revolutionaries, the béguinage of Leuven was not sold as bien national, as happened with most monasteries and abbeys. The properties of the community were, however, confiscated and attributed to the local welfare commission and reorganised as civil almshouses. Beguines were allowed to continue to live in their houses but free rooms were rented to elderly and poor people. Some former clerics lived on their mandatory pension in the béguinage, among them the last prior of the abbey of Villers.

The last priest of the Beguine community died in 1977 at the age of 107. He is buried in the graveyard of Park Abbey. The last Beguine died in 1988.

After more than 150 years in use by the local welfare commission and being inhabited by people not financially able to maintain the dwellings, the place was in deplorable state in 1960. The restoration proceeded in two phases. The majority of the streets were restored in the 1960s and 1970s. The church and the street next to it were restored in 1980's. The large scale restoration project of an entire quarter, and according to the principles of the Venice Charter was an important momentum in the popularity of béguinages and traditional architecture in general. In 1998, it was officially recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The Grand Béguinage of Leuven has the appearance of a small town on its own, with houses planned along a network of narrow streets and small squares. This is in contrast to the béguinages of Bruges and Amsterdam, where all houses face a central courtyard. The only large greenyard, on the left river bank, resulted from the demolition of some houses in the 19th century. Five houses date back from the 16th century, three of which still show timber framing. The house of Chièvres was built in 1561, in accordance with the will of Maria van Hamal, widow of William de Croÿ, duke of Aarschot and advisor in political affairs of Emperor Charles V. The characteristic tented roof with the onion-shaped top, refers to the two towers of the duke's castle in Heverlee (today known as Arenberg Castle).

The majority of the houses dates back from the period 1630-1670. They were constructed in the local, traditional architecture, enriched with some sober, baroque elements. The facades show red bricks with sandstone cross-bar frames for windows and doors. A typical element in the beguinage of Leuven are the numerous dormers, often elaborated with crow-stepped gables and round arched windows. Many houses have strikingly few and small windows on the ground floor. The beguines were keen on their privacy. Houses with large windows on the ground floor used to be hidden by an additional wall, as is still the case in other beguinages.

The church is an early Gothic basilica with Romanesque elements. As usual for mendicant orders or women's congregations, it has no tower, only a flèche. Since 1998, this flèche has carried a small carillon, which plays a béguine-related melody every half an hour. The east end of the church has a strikingly tall 14th century quire window, whose upper part illuminates the attic above the groin vault constructed in the 17th century. The arcades separating nave from aisles carry Baroque statues of the twelve apostles, Mary and Saint Joseph with the holy child.

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Founded: 1234
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4.6/5 (based on Google user reviews)

User Reviews

Lorenzo Vincenti (18 months ago)
It worth a visit! In my opinion is the most beautiful in Belgium compared to the one in Brugge or Gent.
Laurent Derijck (19 months ago)
My favourite begijnhof! A beautiful small medieval town within town. It remains also well preserved and quiet because it is managed by the university KU Leuven.
Chloe Ward (19 months ago)
I can't even describe how much I loved this place. It's serene and beautiful. Just go - you'll be glad you did.
Kevin Siasi (2 years ago)
Beautiful area, feels like you're walking in medieval Louvain. Always very clean. Good place to go for a stroll.
Alberto Nantiat (2 years ago)
Really great place to see, extremely well preserved. Difficult to go round with a bike, but it's perfect to go around. Recommended to go with a guide
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