Researching (from) a Ducal Residence: the Tower Apartment of Mary of Hamal at the Castle of Heverlee

By Miara Fraikin

Figure 1: A view of the south façade of the castle of Arenberg in Heverlee, today the campus of architectural engineering of the KU Leuven (Source: Miara Fraikin).

In March 2020 – not the best timing to be honest – I started my PhD research within the Horizon 2020 funded European Training Network PALAMUSTO (Palace Museum of Tomorrow). Uniting ten researchers from nine hosting institutions in five European countries, this research project aims to investigate the court residence or palace as a European phenomenon of cultural exchange and interactions beyond the perspectives created in the 19th and 20th century, which were commonly limited to dynastic, national or local areas or religious territories. Divided over ten research themes, all charting key aspects of material culture and architectural expression linked with spatial characteristics of the court residence, our ten Early Career Researchers (ESR’s) aim to redefine the palace-museum’s relevance as cultural heritage for present-day Europe.

Figure 2: Sixteenth-century painted wood panelling
in the third floor room of the west tower of the castle. (Source: Miara Fraikin).

In my research for the project I focus on the development of the state bedroom in royal (and ducal) residences in relation to the chamber. Together with my colleague Frieder Leipold, whose research is devoted to the court’s economical spaces such as kitchens, we work from our ‘own’ castle at KU Leuven (Catholic University Leuven): Arenberg Castle in Heverlee[1]. It is from our third-floor tower room, still exhibiting some original sixteenth-century painted wall panelling that we try to make sense of our source material (see fig. 2).

As Dukes of Aarschot, the Croÿ family were the highest appointed noblemen in the Low Countries. In 1446, Anton of Croÿ (c. 1383-1475) acquired the domain of Heverlee, and replaced the old medieval castle by what is now the current castle of Arenberg.[2] In turn, William II of Croÿ (1458-1521) and his wife Mary of Hamal (?-1540) made important extensions to the castle. When Charles III of Croÿ (1560-1612) inherited the duchy in 1595, most of the properties were severely damaged. Therefore, Charles made plans to restore his properties to their former glory and commissioned, among others, a complete description of the castle at Heverlee by Charles Millet in May 1598. From this description we can carefully, but nevertheless in detail, reconstruct the sixteenth century situation of the castle.[3]

For the purpose of this blog, I will focus on the western tower (fig. 3), in which my current office is located. From the great hall on the first floor of the castle, a partly stone and partly wooden staircase makes way to a vertical sequence of rooms (see fig. 4). In previous research, this entire sequence of rooms belonging to the west tower have been interpreted as the apartments of Mary of Hamal,[4] wife of William II of Croÿ, who in turn was the First Chamberlain of Emperor Charles V.

Figure 3: View of the castle’s south façade and west tower.
(Source: Miara Fraikin).

The first room of the vertical sequence, ‘la chambre en hault a main droitte de ladite montee’ (the chamber above at the right hand side of said stair) was completely panelled with oak wood carvings, displaying the arms of William and Mary. The room itself was furnished with an oak wooden bed decorated with yellow velvet bed hangings, a buffet and a table. The bed’s canopy and backdrop  were also made of yellow velvet and decorated with embroidered figures and the name of Philip of Croÿ – possibly referring to the father of Charles III, Philip III of Croÿ (1526-1595) or even his grandfather Philip II of Croÿ (1496-1549), in silver fabric[5].

The next room, ‘la chambre plus hault apellee la chambre du mytant de ladite thour’ (the highest chamber called the middle chamber of said tower), was similarly decorated with oak wooden wall panelling. Again this room was furnished with a bed, buffet, and table, as well as a leather chair decorated with ‘his Excellence’s’ arms, and a stool. This second bed was decorated with bands of green velvet and yellow damask. The bed’s canopy in turn was made of red and blue damask, making the entire ensemble very colourful.[6]

Figure 4: Staircase of the west-tower looking at the entrance of the second floor tower room. (Source: Miara Fraikin).

The last room, ‘la chambre deseure ladite chambre dy mytant’ (the chamber above said middle chamber) from which I am currently writing this blog, was also entirely decorated with wood panelling[7].

From the remains the room still holds we know that these panels were painted, which was probably also the case for the lower rooms. A wooden border displayed, similarly to the first room, the arms of William II of Croÿ and Mary of Hamal. Again similar to the two previous rooms, this third space was furnished with a wooden bed and table. Additionally we find an old chair and a small chair, the latter of which the backrest was decorated with the arms of William of Croÿ.

As we can learn from the description, the first room of the tower was flanked by a garderobe and a small cabinet. It is based on the description of this cabinet as ‘le cabinet de feu Madame’ that we can assume that at least these first spaces had been used by one of the past ladies of the castle, be it Mary of Hamal or Anne of Croÿ (1501-1539).[8] Since the tower itself does not allow for these spaces to be independent rooms (see fig. 4), it is likely that both the cabinet and garderobe were created in the space of the chamber with the use of wooden partitions. The second chamber was also accompanied by a garderobe, for which we should also assume a location within the tower room of the second floor[9]. The third room did not include a cabinet or garderobe, but from a small wooden staircase access was given to the space directly located under the tower’s roof.[10] 

What is striking is that all three main rooms were furnished with a bed. While we have some information on the use of ceremonial beds at the Burgundian court of Charles the Bold during two specific events – that is the baptism of Mary of Burgundy in 1457 and his marriage to Elizabeth of York in 1468, it is unlikely that we should interpret the different rooms in the west tower of the castle of Heverlee as separate ceremonial bedrooms and sleeping rooms belonging to one apartment. Especially since the other pieces of furniture displayed in the different rooms are also similar, with the main difference between them their splendour, it is very possible that we are not dealing with one vertical apartment devoted to one specific person, but instead multiple smaller apartments. The first and most extensive one is possibly that of Mary of Hamal, and the two others possibly used by courtiers or ladies of the duchess of Aarschot.

Following the excellent work of my colleague Frieder Leipold in organising and interpreting all the source material concerning the castle of Arenberg in a Wikimedia database – also known as De Jonge Wiki-[11], we have good hopes to soon unravel more of the interesting stories our castle holds. In the meantime, I am certain that my office in the tower will give me the welcome inspiration and motivation to endeavour my research into the development of the chamber in the early modern castles of Europe.

Miara Fraikin is an Early Stage Researcher within the H2020 funded European Training Network PALAMUSTO. As part of this research project, Miara’s doctoral research at the KU Leuven is focused on the development of the state bed in relation to the (bed)chamber in the royal and noble residences of Early Modern Europe. In her research, she is particularly interested in understanding how court specific notions about accessibility to the ruler influenced the development of the chamber. Miara, furthermore, is passionate about the possibilities of using digital approaches like Geographic Information Software and Network Analysis for the field of court studies. Do you want to find out more about the PALAMUSTO project? Check out our website and/or Instagram!


[1] A 360° view of the castle and some of its rooms is available at: https://limel.kuleuven.be/vt/deptarch/

[2] For more information on the building history of the castle, see: https://expo.bib.kuleuven.be/exhibits/show/adellijkwonen. Other suggestions are: Krista de Jonge, ‘Schloss Heverlee bei Löwen (Leuven) und die Residenzbildung in den südlichen Niederlanden um 1500’, in: Burgen und Schlösser in den Niederlanden und in Nordwestdeutschland, Vol. 8, Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2004, pp. 69-80, and Sanne Maekelberg, The Residential System of the High Nobility in the Habsburg Low Countries. The Croÿ case, unpublished PhD-thesis, 2019

[3] Leuven, University Archives KU Leuven: KUL UA 398, ‘Recueil et registre du château d’Heverlé, c. 1600.

[4] Krista De Jone, ‘Vivre noblement. Les logis des hommes et des femmes dans les résidences de la haute noblesse habsbourgeoise des anciens Pays-Bas (1500-1550) ‘, in …. Le Prince, la princesse et leurs logis. Manière d’habiter dans l’élite aristocratique européenne (1400-1700), p. 109.

[5] KUL UA 398, fol. 207v-214v.

[6] KUL UA 398, fol. 216v-220v.

[7] KUL UA 398, fol. 221v-224r.

[8] KUL UA 398, fol. 216r.

[9] KUL UA 398, fol. 221r : ‘la garderobbe iondant et derrière ladite chambre’. (transcription by Sanne Maekelberg)

[10] KUL UA 398, fol. 225r : ‘la montee allante de la chambre susdite a la place quy est au sommet de la thour’. (transcription by Sanne Maekelberg)

[11] Frieder Leipold, ‘Futuristische software voor een oud kasteel. ‘De Jonge Wiki’: een semantische database over de architectuurgeschiedenis van het Arenbergkasteel’, Geniaal. Tijdschrift van de faculteit ingenieurswetenschappen en alumni ingenieurs KU Leuven, 2022 (1), pp. 24-25.


All images are the author’s own and not to be reproduced without permission.

Cover Image and Figure 1. A view of the south façade of the castle of Arenberg in Heverlee, today the campus of architectural engineering of the KU Leuven. Source: Miara Fraikin.

Figure 2: Sixteenth-century painted wood panelling in the third floor room of the west tower of the castle. Source: Miara Fraikin.

Figure 3: View of the castle’s south façade and west tower. Source: Miara Fraikin.

Figure 4: Staircase of the west-tower looking at the entrance of the second floor tower room. Source: Miara Fraikin.

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