Like most large buildings in the Middle Ages, this particular Abbey was built for religious purposes. It was supposed to be built in Affligem, Flanders because a man named Gilbert van Aalst donated land to the abbey of Affligem, so they could make a priory for the wives, daughters and mothers of crusaders. However, after Gilbert died, the plans were moved to Forest.
There was already a chapel for Saint Alena and a church for Saint Denis on the parish. Both were shared among the sisters and parishioners, until separated by Abbey rules. These sisters became head of the domain in 1238.
While the Abbey flourished due to many generous donations, it also faced several hardships throughout history. In the 15th century, it was pillaged during the war between Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and Charles VIII of France. After that, the plague came to the Abbey, accompanied by a famine. The following century brought damage through the French Wars of Religion, in which the building was set on fire. In the 17th century another war damaged the Abbey – the war with Louis XIV of France, during which Brussels was bombarded. It was rebuilt and then damaged by another fire in 1764. It’s a little miracle that the Abbey was still wealthy in the 18th century. During this later reconstruction period, some parts were rebuilt in a neoclassical style.
Abbaye De Forest’s religious life ended in 1796, after it was suppressed and the possessions confiscated. The sisters fled to Cologne, Germany with the religious relics, but then returned in the 19th century. What remains of the Forrest Abbey’s buildings are now a cultural center, used for art exhibitions and meetings of all kinds. There’s also an annual medieval fair held in the park, and where the church used to stand is now a playground for children.
Interestingly, there’s also a beer named Abbaye De Forest that’s brewed at Silly, Belgum, however it’s not an officially recognized abbey beer and it has no ties to the Abbaye De Forest.
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