Tucked away in the rolling landscape of Wallonian Brabant, about 50km south of Brussels, lie the ruins of Villers Abbey.
In 1146 Saint Bernard ordered one abbot, twelve monks and 5 may brothers to build an abbey in Villers. At first, things didn’t go as well as they had hoped; a few months after construction had begun, they decided to relocate lower down into the valley as it was more secluded and water and building materials were readily available. Then, during the 13th century, the abbey was completely rebuilt.
Once finished though, the abbey was ready for a great future. By the end of the 13th century, thanks to the protection of the Dukes of Brabant, the estate covered about twenty-five thousand acres, stretching between Namur and Antwerp. there were no fewer than one hundred monks and three hundred lay brothers.
Decline set in when the Burgundians came to power and demanded their say in how the abbey should be run. This often led to internal discord, causing the abbey to loose much of its power and influence.
On top of that, in 1544 Spanish troops plundered and seriously damaged the abbey, causing the monks to flee. By the end of the century abbot Robert Henrion started rebuilding the abbey and gradually, things started to improve again.
The 18th century, when the Austrians came to power, brought back the golden days of yesteryear, at least until Bruno Cloquette decided he wanted to go down in history as the abbey’s last abbot and started arguing with Emperor Jozef II. The latter was not too pleased and finally ordered his troops to occupy the abbey. Things got slightly better under the reign of Emperor Leopold II, but not for very long.
The French decided to export their revolution and when they invaded the Empire, the abbot chose the emperor’s side, which turned out to be a fatal decision. In December 1796 the monks were chased away by the French and everything was sold.
The property itself came into the hands of a merchant in building materials who saw no problems in demolishing the buildings and selling off the ‘recycled’ materials.
In 1820 Charles-Lambert Huart bought the property and recuperated some of his investment by allowing the Belgian railroad company to run the trains of the Brussels-Namur line right through the property in 1851.
Finally, in 1893, the Belgian State bought the estate and started works to prevent further decline. Since then, off and on, more work has been done to restore the remains of the buildings and the result is a magnificent ruin, a wonderful place to walk around for hours and get an idea of what the abbey must have looked like in its heyday.
Visiting the abbey today, there is something for every body, and there’s many ways to see it. You can just wander around leisurely by yourself and pick up as much information as you want from the many signs along the route (in four languages!). For a more in depth visit you can book one of the themed guided tours. Also, there’s no need to leave your kids at home. They can learn about how life in the abbey was by cartoon book-like signs dotted throughout the estate.
If you want to experience the abbey in a more dramatic way, visit it when they’re having a concert or play.
For more info about the abbey and what’s going on, click here
If you want to see more of my pictures of Villers Abbey, click here
My friend Jon made a nice little video about the abbey, which you can see here.