French (1795 – 1814) and Dutch (1815 – 1830) period
As early as 1773, a Bureau des archives was set up in Brussels by imperial decree. Brussels remained the main archive repository location after the transition from Austrian rule to the French rule. When Brussels was part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the city had gained even more importance as a location for a central archives repository. In late 1814, Pierre-Jean L’Ortye was appointed as “archivarius” and was charged with the administration and supervision of all archives originating from the central authorities.
The archives law from the French period laid the foundations of the organisational structure of the Belgian State Archives. The law of 5 Brumaire of the year V (26 October 1796) stipulated that the archives of institutions and administrations abolished by the French authorities were to be collected and preserved at the regional metropolis of each newly created ‘Département’.
In the area that constitutes Belgium today, the law of 25 June 1794 remained in force, stipulating that deeds of ownership of national goods urgently had to be traced and that all documents of ’feudal’ nature had to be destroyed due to their inhuman character! In all Départements except for ‘Twee Neten’ (province of Antwerp), archive repositories were set up, and from 1800 they were placed under the supervision of the general secretary of the prefecture. Archivists on the payroll of the state were first appointed in Brussels and Liège, later in Mons and Gent.
After the independence of Belgium (1830 – today)
When Belgium became independent, State Archives were set up in the provincial capitals that did not yet have an archive repository: Bruges, Namur, Arlon, Hasselt and finally Antwerp, in 1896. In 1831, the first National Archivist, Louis-Prosper Gachard, who had been deputy of Pierre-Jean L’Ortye since 1826, was appointed. By virtue of the Royal Decree of 17 December 1851, the State Archives in the Provinces were placed under the authority of the National Archivist. For over half a century, Gachard headed the State Archives of Belgium, until he passed away on 24 December 1885!
The French laws and regulations continued to govern the Belgian archives sector until 1955, when the Belgian Law on Archives was passed. This relatively restricted archival law was revised only in 2009 – after numerous previous amending attempts – and adapted to today’s state of affairs. With the vast influx of archive documents as a result of the new Law on Archives of 1955, expansion of the State Archives repositories became indispensable. After 1960, a total of 11 new repositories were set up over the following decades: four district repositories in Huy, Kortrijk, Ronse and Tournai, three auxiliary archives in Saint-Hubert, Beveren and Brussels (National Archives 2 –Joseph Cuvelier repository), and the State Archives in Eupen, Anderlecht, Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve.
In the early 21st century, the State Archives in Huy and Ronse were closed in order to rationalise, raise efficiency and save costs.