Though the middle ages are most celebrated in Bouillon, the Musee Ducal (Museum of the Duchy of Bouillon) is just as interesting, dealing with a later era fully as troubled and turbulent as Godfrey's (the lord of the famed castle here). You will savor its exhibits best by first reviewing that later history of Bouillon. Start by recalling that upon Godfrey's death in 1100, the Prince-Bishops of Liege "called" the awesome mortgage and assumed ownership of the entire Duchy of Bouillon. They ruled it until the late 1500s, acting through governors who sometimes did, and sometimes didn't, obey orders. Again and again throughout that time, other powerful seigneurs, pretenders, usurpers, challenged the absentee owners from Liege, besieged the castle, fought bloody battles on the esplanade leading to it, repeatedly demolished the city of Bouillon.
Great dramas of medieval politics were played out here. One colorful siege, among many, lasted for forty days, caused starvation within the Castle. To show their disdain, to feign that they had supplies aplenty, the defenders hurled a live pig over the walls. From Liege, the Prince-Bishop sends a reliquary of the bones of St. Lambert to give heart to his army; they prevail. Another episode, in 1380: two ecclesiastical parties contend over the post of Prince-Bishop in liege. They fight in Bouillon. One wins and reduces the town of Bouillon to ashes. Two years later, he loses and his home city is reduced to ashes. 1480: a young nobleman named William de la Marck is expelled from court for a deed of violence, becomes deranged, forms a Robin-Hood-styie army of bandits in the great forest of the Ardennes, causes such havoc that he becomes known as "Le Sanglier des Ardennes" (The Wild Boar of the Ardennes, title of Durbuy's famous restaurant of the same name), advances on Liege with his bandit army bearing images of a boar on their right shoulders, himself murders the then-Prince-Bishop of Liege (Louis of Bourbon) with an axe, requires that his brother be given the Duchy of Bouillon. Though the despotic "Wild Boar" is later executed, his brother Robert, supported by the King of France, holds on tenaciously to Bouillon. But his own son, Robert II, turns lunatic. In 1521, in the name of the 5,000-man army of the Duchy of Bouillon—Bouillon!—he declares war on the Haps-burg Emperor Charles V. The riposte of Charles is quite terrible. He hurls the troops of Bouillon over the walls of the Castle to their deaths in the rushing waters of the Semois below, dismantles large portions of the Castle, and returns Bouillon to the Prince-Bishops of Liege. If those stones could talk!
In the late 1500's, Bouillon passes from the ecclesiastics of liege to a noble French family, de la Tour de l'Auvergne. Gradually, it comes under the effective control of Louis XIV, who in 1680 sends his great military architect, Vauban, to rebuild the castle to its former eminence. A plaque on the archway beyond the second drawbridge—be sure to see it—expresses the "reconaissance eternelle" (eternal gratitude) of Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne to the great Sun King.
Throughout most of the 1700's, the Duchy of Bouillon sleeps peacefully under the benevolent rule of the largely absent de la Tour d'Auvergnes. But beneath the surface there is intellectual ferment that makes a true bubbling bouillon out of Bouillon. A minor French author named Pierre Rousseau (1716-85) moves to Bouillon in 1760, where he becomes a much greater printer and publisher of the works of the French "philosophes" and "encyclopedistes". Because their books attack the established order, they cannot be published in France, and it is little Bouillon, in the depths of the Ardennes, that becomes the publishing capital for the emerging Revolution. In the Ducal Museum, you will see the epochal books and broadsides issued by Pierre Rousseau, all bearing elaborate frontispieces identifying them as coming from "L'lmprimerie (Printing Shop) de Bouillon". You will also see copies of "La Revue Encyclopedique", one of the world's first newspapers, published in Bouillon by Pierre Rousseau. Naturally, these revolutionary ideas also have an impact on Bouillon. When the French Revolution occurs, the people of Bouillon instantly chafe over the fact that they are governed by a particularly dissolute Duke, a certain Godfrey Charles Henry de la Tour d'Auvergne pursuing the life of a Parisian boulevardier; he is scarcely ever seen in Bouillon. Though he writes sympathetically to the civic assembly of Bouillon, they respond that they are fed up with the spectacle of "des hommes commandant aux hommes pour satisfaire leurs caprices" (men lording it over other men to satisfy their whims). By early 1794, they have decided to break with the Duke and create an independent republic, La Nation Bouillonaise! And the tiny new country then proceeds to issue laws and proclamations—you will see them in the Ducal Museum —that rival in lofty phrase and deed those of its revolutionary neighbor, France. Feudalism is abolished; all "nobles, procureurs et pretres" (noblemen, lawyers and priests) expelled from their positions; all Augustins and other foreign religious orders suppressed, their convents and monasteries sacked; the power of the aristocracy is replaced by that of the people; "la Liberie et PEgalite" are proclaimed to be the new basis of society. "Le Peuple Bouillonais", says their declaration, "ont jure de vivre libre ou de mourir" (The people of Bouillon have resolved to live free or to die!).
An independent nation. But it was not to last. In 1795, the revolutionary government in Paris annexes little Bouillon to France. And in 1815, following the defeat of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna awards Bouillon to the Netherlands, from which it then becomes a part of Belgium in 1830. The proud, little Duchy, with its nearly-independent Duke, its pretention to being a Country, fades into history.
Knowing all this may aid your enjoyment of the Ducal Museum, may bring it alive and vibrant, as you pass exhibits of Bouillon from the 16th through the early 19th centuries. Though a part of the museum is "folkloric" and deals with everyday life (the building itself is a typically bourgeois house of the 18th century), the more important sections are historic, and the most fascinating of these are the editions of Voltaire and de la Fontaine printed by the "underground" press of Bouillon. What a role it played on the European stage! What a tormented history of invasion, occupation, pillage and sack—like Belgium itself! Yet what glorious achievements of intellect and culture!