The history of the castle of Westerlo

For more than five centuries, the name of Merode has been linked to the history of the Westerlo commune. However, the Merode family has not always been in possession of the castle.


According to a document dating from around 994, Westerlo belonged to Count Ansfried of Louvain during this period. Count Ansfried, a descendent of Pépin de Landen, became a monk and then the Bishop of Utrecht. Under his direction Westerlo entered into the possession of the Cathedral of Utrecht. During this time of feudalism, the Cathedral gave Westerlo on a long lease to a noble family of Brabant, the Wesemaels.


The newly appointed owners of Westerlo, the Wesemaels, went there to build a dungeon in the blue stone of the region upon old foundations. The dungeon was completed at the start of the 14th Century and it gave Westerlo an unmistakeably defensive outlook. The thickness of the dungeon’s walls measured up to 2.75 meters at the point closest to the soil, which is further illustrative of the dungeon’s militaristic function.


Around 1361, Richard I de Merode, a direct descendent of Werner, married Marguerite de Wesemael the sister of the Master of Westerlo. Their descendents had all died by start of the 15th Century. At the end of the 15th Century after many difficulties and law suits, Jean II de Merode received the assets that he was entitled to, although they were still bound by inheritance laws.


In 1620, the Merode family bought the property rights and in 1626 Westerlo became a Marquisate. It is due to this that the eldest Merodes successively bear the title “Count of Merode, Marquis of Westerlo.”


Jean Phillipe Eugène de Merode Westerlo (1674-1732) became the head of the family. He was Capitan of the Guards Regiment (Trabants), Colonel of the Westerlo cavalry Regiment, and then Brigadier in 1704 under the Emperor Charles VI of Austria. Under the command of the Empress Marie-Thérèse he became Field-Marshall, Grandee of Spain and a Knight of the Toison d’Or order.


His travels, most notably to Versailles, allowed him to discover the beauty of French style gardens. At the start of the 18th Century, he designed the park which extends in front the Castle and he planted four rows of oak, beach and lime trees along the Castle’s avenue. The first two avenues were built between Westerlo and Tongerlo (1710) and then Westerlo and Geel (1711.) The constructions of these avenues lead Jean Phillippe Eugène into conflict with neighbouring property owners as well as with the Abbey of Tongerlo. In 1710, he also built a large lake in the Castle’s parkland. These additions to Westerlo were completed in 1711 and cost about 80,000 florins. Jean Phillipe

Eugène also initiated the embellishment of the castle. In 1721, work inside and outside of the Castle was completed. These important renovations considerably improved the physical state of the Marquisat of Westerlo This impact is still visible today and something which the inhabitants of Westerlo and the Merodes are very proud of.


The wide range of Jean Phillipe Eugène’s additions is rather uncharacteristic for a defensive Castle of the Middle-Ages. The mix of styles is unique in Belgium.


In the middle of the 16th Century, the interior courtyard was built, in front of the dungeon. It was surrounded by walls and the half-round Tower gateway. In the 18th Century, the corner towers were connected by the Castle wings that one can see today.