The birthplace of Charles V

Ghent was one of the great cities of Europe between the 13th and early 16th centuries, its wealth based on the woollen trade. Now the third largest city in Belgium (after Brussels and Antwerp) Ghent has a population of 240,000, and nearly 600,000 people live in the larger metropolitan area. Ghent is an industrial centre, a large port, and has one of Belgium’s most prestigious universities with over 40,000 students, as well as having much to attract the visitor.

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Visit Ghent

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Places to visit in Ghent

Although Ghent covers a large area, most of the places of interest to the visitor are within walking distance of the centre and an effective public transport system (trams and buses) is available.

Sint-Baafskathedraal (St Bavo’s Cathedral) (Photo 1) was formerly St John’s church, where Charles V was baptised in 1500. It took its current name after the original St Bavo’s Abbey was destroyed as part of the punishment of Ghent by Charles V in order to make way for a large fortress (which was itself demolished in the 19th century). The church was then given its present name and became a cathedral in 1561. Only the large crypt remains of the original 12th century Romanesque church and what we see today was largely built between the 14th and 16th centuries (C14th chancel / C15th nave / C16th transept).

The cathedral is best known for the alter-piece ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lambs’ (1432) by Jan van Eyck (1385-1441) – photo 2. Read More +

Much has been written about the origins and history of this polyptych. Even the authenticity of its artist has been challenged; on its frame a Latin inscription mentions Hubert van Eyck, even though no other paintings by this artist are known. It has had a fascinating history: it was donated to the church by the wealthy Joos Vijd; Calvinists wished to destroy it; Philip II of Spain wished to own it; Emperor Joseph II found the naked Adam and Eve so shocking that he had them removed and replaced with clothed versions (originals now back in place); the French took it to Paris in the 1790’s and it was returned in 1815; various panels were separated and exhibited in a Berlin museum; it was reassembled in 1920, but in 1934 one panel ‘The Righteous Judges’ was stolen and is still missing; the polyptych was taken by the Germans during the Second World War and found in 1945 by U.S. troops in an Austrian salt mine; having been restored to Ghent, it was moved to its present position in 1986 for greater security. Its history is perhaps the result of the esteem in which the painting has been held, reckoned to be one of the finest paintings of the 15th century, a masterpiece in the late northern Gothic tradition.

Other works of art in the cathedral include: Rubens’ ‘The Conversion of St Baaf’ (1624); the ‘Calvary Triptych’ by Justus van Gent (1466); the coats of arms of the members of the Order of the Golden fleece who met here in 1445; the alter-piece ‘Jesus amongst the Doctors’ (1751) by Frans Pourbus the Elder which includes the figure of Emperor Charles V in the lower left corner; extensive stained-glass windows; and Delvaux’s wood and marble rococo pulpit (1741)

The Belfort (Belfry) (completed in the 14th century) has a 91m. (298 ft.) high tower, a symbol of Ghent’s independence, where the documents that set out its rights and privileges were kept - documents that were to be the centre of attention in 1539 and 1540 (See history of Ghent – below, and in Chapter 20 of 'Charles V:Duty and Dynasty - The Emperor and his Changing World). Fine views of the city can be seen from the top - stairs and a lift (March–November) are available – and a 52 bell carillon is housed on the fourth floor. Adjacent is the Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle) started in the 15th century and not completed at the time as the woollen trade started its decline before 1500. Much restored in 1903, as was the spire of the belfry, it has never really served a major function in the city. The Tourist Information Office is on the ground floor.

Construction of the Stadhuis (Town Hall) started in the early 16th century based on a Gothic design by Roubout Keldermans. Read More +

However work ceased in the 1530s and was then continued from the 1580s, piecemeal through the 17th and 18th centuries, in Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo styles, reflecting the changing fortunes of Ghent and the architectural fashions of the time. It was from a balcony in the Hall of Justice that the ‘Pacification of Ghent’ was announced in 1576. It has an impressive throne room, where Emperor Joseph II was inaugurated as Duke of Flanders in 1781, a Wedding Chapel with stained-glass windows portraying the counts of Flanders, the wooden vaulted Arsenal Hall, and a Council Room. (Guided visits, only in summer months).

Sint-Niklaaskerk (St Nicholas’ church), towards the river, is a 13th century church in Tournai stone, with its tower unusually not above the entrance but above where the nave and the transept cross, allowing light into the centre of the church. The original interior was destroyed in the wars of the late 16th century and replaced in Baroque style in the 17thC. It has been much restored in more recent years. The short walk to the river takes you past the end of Korenmarkt, lined with bars and restaurants. Looking back from Sint Michielsbrug (St. Michael’s Bridge) is a fine view of the three towers of St Nicholas’, the Belfry and St, Bavo’s, and also down onto the river with Graslei and Korenlei on either side.

Graslei (Herb Quay) (Photos 4,5 and 6) was the original harbour and is lined with many of the Guild Houses, a perfect portrayal of Ghent’s wealth and importance in the late Middle Ages. These include the Stone mason’s house (No. 8), two Corn Measurers’ Houses (No. 9 – original – and No. 12-13 – newer), the Staple House (No. 10) the oldest of the buildings (where grain taken as payment for duties was stored), the Toll House of the Customs Officers (No. 11) and the Guild-house of the Free Boatmen (No. 14).

Photos 4, 5 and 6) The Graslei with its many Guild Houses - by day and by night, with a detail from the doorway of the Boatman’s Guildhouse.

Groentenmarkt is a small square, the old vegetable market, to the left of which is the Groot Vleeshuis (Butchers’ Hall), the imposing meat market constructed in 1404. Crossing the river takes you to a small square opposite the Gravensteen, where the decorated entrance to the Oude Vismarkt (Old Fishmarket) is of interest.

Het Gravensteen (the castle) is still the imposing presence that it was originally designed to be - to show who was in charge - although that did not prevent the people of Ghent from regularly challenging that claim. Read More +

Built by Philip of Alsace in 1180 after his return from the Crusades and inspired by the castles that he saw there, it was extensively restored 100 years ago. Thus all the features of a medieval castle, its massive walls, fortified gateway, courtyard, powerful donjon (keep), dungeons, watch towers, merlons, and oriel windows, as well as the later rooms of the counts’ residence, have been retained. These can be visited, along with the display of torture instruments and a guillotine, and there is a good view of the city from the battlements.

Photos 7, 8 and 9) Het Gravensteen - Exterior - View from the roof - Interior - upper

Of the Prinsenhof Palace where Charles V was born nothing remains, though a street is named after it and there is a nearby statue of the Emperor (Photo 10). On the building at the junction of Burgstraat and Gewad, opposite the end of Jan Breydelstraat, there are clear bas-relief portraits of four figures central to the history of Ghent: Emperor Maximilian, Archduke Philip, Emperor Charles and his son King Philip II. (photo 11)

Other places of interest

Nearby Patershol, best entered from Kraanlei taking you on to Oudburg, is an old area of the city that until relatively recently had fallen into disrepair. Now it is the area to visit for a wide choice of restaurants and bars set in the narrow winding 17th century streets and alleys. Close-by is the Huis van Alijn, now the Folk Museum (Museum voor Volkskunde), housed in the 18 almshouses and the chapel of a 14th century hospice. Set around the courtyard, there are recreations of house interiors, shops and workshops showing life in the late 19th century, together with old films from local inhabitants.

Back across the river brings you to the Vrijdagmarkt (Friday market), a large open square lined with cafes and shops, where much of the civic and social life of Ghent used to take place. It was used for public meetings, celebrations, executions and it was here that Jacob van Artevelde, who effectively controlled Ghent in the early 1340s, was assassinated in 1345. A 19th century statue of van Artevelde now stands in the centre of the square.

Oud Begijnhof St-Elisabeth (The Old St Elizabeth Beguinage) and Museums. Read More +

Oud Begijnhof St-Elisabeth (The Old St Elizabeth Beguinage) is the site of the old beguinage which became too small in the 19th century. No longer walled, it has a church and picturesque houses. The beguines were groups of women who wished to serve God without withdrawing completely from the world. They formed sisterhoods which often gained the aid of wealthy benefactors. In Ghent there were also the Klein Begijnhof (Little Beguinage) founded in 1235, with its later baroque chapel, to the east of the centre, and the Groot Begijnhof (Great Beguinage) in Sint Amandsberg.

The city also has a number of museums worth visiting. The Ghent City Museum (STAM) on the Bijloke site (on Godshuizenlaan) provides an interesting display of many aspects of the history of Ghent and Flanders, set in buildings which include a 14th century Abbey, a 17th C monastery and a 21st C development. The recently refurbished Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Museum of Fine Arts) stands in Citadelpark, a 25 minute walk or quick tram ride to the south of the centre. It holds a wide collection of paintings from the 14th C to the early 20th C and a limited number of sculptures. The older paintings include works by Roger van der Weyden and Hieronymous Bosch (‘Christ Carrying the Cross’), and a good overview of the 16th and 17th centuries – Rubens (‘St Francis Receiving the Stigmata’), Pieter Breughel the Younger (‘Peasant Wedding’), Frans Pourbus the Elder, Van Heemskerck, and Frans Hals are all represented. An extensive range of Belgian, French and international works from the 19th and early 20th centuries includes examples of expressionism and surrealism.

The nearby Stedelijk Museum voof Actuele Kunst (City Museum of Contemporary Arts) is housed in buildings constructed for the World Exhibition of 1913, when much of Citadelpark was established, and renovated in 1999. SMAK displays paintings, sculptures and installations from the 1950’s up to the present day from its permanent collection, and the museum has a reputation for its challenging and adventurous temporary exhibitions.

The Museum voor Industriele Archeologie en Textiel (MIAT) is housed in an old cotton mill on Minnemeers, to the north of the centre, and provides a view of the industrial and technological developments over the last 250 years. The Museum voor Sierkunst en Vormgeving (Museum of Decorative Arts and Design) in Jan Breydelstraat, displays a fine collection of furniture, tapestries and chandeliers from the Renaissance to the 20th C, including Art Deco and Art Nouveau pieces, in an 18th C mansion.

Each year the city hosts De Gentse Feesten, starting on the Saturday before the 21st July, Belgium’s national holiday. This is a ten day festival of music and street theatre which includes events such as the Ghent Jazz festival, Ten Days Off (electronic dance music), Comedy Festival Gent and others. The city is particularly lively, with cafes, bars, restaurants and of course the many venues buzzing throughout the festival period. The city also holds an international flower festival (Photo 12) in April – check dates/year.


Early history

Built near an earlier settlement at the confluence of the rivers Leie and Scheldt (the Celtic for confluence is ‘ganda’ – perhaps the origin of its name) French monks in the 7th century, led by St Amand and joined by St Bavo, founded the abbeys which became St Baaf’s (St Bavo’s) and St Pieter’s (St Peter’s). The settlement grew around the abbeys with a small trading centre nearby. By the 9th century they were wealthy enough to draw the attention of Viking raiders, who plundered the abbeys in 851 and 879. It is believed that Count Baldwin ‘of the Iron Arm’ built the first wooden castle in about 940, on the site of the present-day Gravensteen, to protect the settlements.

From the 11th century onwards growth was rapid. Ghent became one of the seats of the Counts of Flanders and around 1180 Count Philip of Alsace constructed the Gravensteen to dominate and intimidate the town. By the end of the 13th century Ghent had a population of over 50,000 and was possibly the second biggest city in Europe after Paris. Its wealth was based on the woollen industry; wool was imported, particularly from England, and Ghent became the largest woollen cloth producer of the age. It was here that John of Gaunt (old English for Ghent), son of Edward III and his wife Philippa of Hainault, was born in 1340, Philippa having accompanied Edward to her homeland in the early stages of the Hundred Years War against France. John of Gaunt (1340-1399) was the founder of the House of Lancaster. His son became Henry IV (r.1401-13) and he was followed as king of England by Henry V (r.1413-1422) and Henry VI (r.1422-1461; 1470-1471) who was deposed by Edward IV during the Wars of the Roses, which ended with the victory of Henry VII founder of the House of Tudor in 1485, linked to John of Gaunt through his third wife, Katherine Swinford and the Beaufort family.

Resistance to the Dukes of Burgundy, the birth of Charles V and his reign

Ruled by the Dukes of Burgundy from early 15th century, Ghent often led resistance to the increase of ducal powers, defending the rights and privileges of the municipalities and resisting taxes imposed upon them. Philip the Good (r.1419-1467) and Charles the Bold (or Rash) (r.1467-1477) were generally able to enforce their wishes, even though Charles had to flee from Ghent in 1467, with local inhabitants protesting about restrictions on trade with England. Earlier, in July 1453, Philip had crushed a rebellion by the people of Ghent over high taxation at the Battle of Gavere, in which it is believed 16,000 inhabitants died. Philip did not totally destroy the city, as some feared he would, saying: ‘If I would destroy this city, who is going to build me one like it?’ Even though it was troublesome, Ghent was simply too valuable.

With the death of Charles the Bold at the battle of Nancy in January 1477, his daughter and heir Mary the Rich had great difficulties. Even though Mary had spent most of her early years (often with Margaret of York, the wife of her father, Duke Charles) in Ghent at Hof Ten Waele, later to be renamed ‘Prinsenhof’, the widespread anger at the waste of men and money caused by Charles’ wars forced Mary to sign the Great Privilege, which re-established the rights and privileges of the cities of Flanders, Brabant, Hainault and Holland. A virtual prisoner in Ghent, she promised to rule with advice from the estates (delegates of the cities), submitting matters of war and peace and the issue of her marriage to them. The estates could meet whenever they saw fit to do so, and the powers of the central court at Malines (Mechelen) over regional courts were removed. Ducal officials were executed, though a threatened French invasion encouraged them to agree to Mary’s marriage to Maximilian I, son of Frederick, the Holy Roman Emperor, which was celebrated in Ghent in August 1477.

After Mary’s death in 1482, the cities objected to the regency of Maximilian, who they saw as an outsider and a threat to their liberties. Their children, the heir, Philip, aged 4, and his sister Margaret, aged 2, were held in Ghent and the city refused to release them to their father. Margaret was soon betrothed to the dauphin, Charles, and went to live in France; Philip remained a pawn until November 1484, when Maximilian’s position had strengthened and he was able to be reunited with his son in Ghent. Even then there were riots as Maximilian’s troops entered the city and a number of executions took place, even though Maximilian generally honoured the amnesty that he had granted the city on the request of Margaret of York. Maximilian’s regency was plagued by ongoing problems especially with Ghent, Bruges (where he was held captive for 3 months early in 1488) and Ypres. The situation only really improved with the signing of the Treaty of Cadzand in 1492, which to some extent nullified the Great Privilege of 1477, the Treaty of Senlis (1493), which ended French interference, and Philip’s coming of age in 1494. Known as Philip the Handsome, he was regarded as Burgundian, and thus more acceptable to the cities.

Philip was naturally delighted when early in the new century, on the night of 24th /25th February 1500 in the Prinsenhof Palace, his wife Juana, known to history as Juana ‘the mad’, gave birth to their first son. The birth was celebrated as was befitting the arrival of a future ruler. A raised wooden walkway was constructed, stretching some seven hundred metres from the palace to St John’s church (now St. Bavo’s cathedral). It was decorated with numerous colourful gateways, representing Justice, Peace, and Wisdom, covered with coats of arms, and lit by thousands of torches. Along it walked the leaders of the various guilds, the town magistrates, members of the court and the Council of Flanders, knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and lastly relatives of the infant. Foremost were Margaret of Austria, the child’s aunt, and Margaret of York, the surviving wife of his great-grandfather, Charles the Bold of Burgundy, after whom the boy was to be named. As the senior female member of the family Margaret of York carried the child to the font, just as she had in Bruges at Philip’s baptism back in 1478.

The marriage of his parents brought together several European dynasties and meant that the infant Charles became the heir to lands across Europe. Before the age of twenty he inherited the Low Countries (Burgundian), Castile and Aragon (Spanish) along with their territories in Italy, the Mediterranean and the Americas, the Habsburg lands of central Europe and had been elected Holy Roman Emperor. With such responsibilities Charles was to spend relatively little time in the city of his birth, but that does not really explain why there are so few statues or other memorials to him in Ghent. Despite describing himself as a ‘son of Ghent’, Charles showed that such sentiment played little part in his decisions if his authority, or that of his family, was threatened. In the late 1530s the citizens of Ghent refused to pay the taxes that other cities in the Low Countries had reluctantly agreed to. The city was already facing severe economic difficulties with the decline of the woollen cloth industry and their anger was increased by the belief that the taxes would not be used for their benefit but in Charles’ wider interests. Charles’ sister Mary, the regent, having failed to bring the city into line, requested that Charles himself come to deal with the problem.

He arrived from Spain in February 1540 along with Mary, ambassadors, princes, nobles and 4,000 troops. He called upon the leaders of the opposition to surrender. The charges - ‘breach of allegiance, disobedience, incitement to riot, mutiny’ and ‘lese-majeste’ (offence against the dignity of the sovereign) - could not have more serious. After the trials twenty-five men were executed, ranging in status from an influential lawyer to a day labourer. The city also lost its rights and privileges, the city administration was reformed to end the influence of the guilds, all weapons and ammunition were confiscated, and a large fine imposed, as well as the symbolic removal of the city’s famous bell ‘Roland’, traditionally used to warn of attack or to celebrate victory. The old abbey of St. Bavo was to be demolished and a fortress built on the site, to be paid for by the city, as a base for Imperial troops to further intimidate the inhabitants. Finally on 3rd May 30 burghers, 6 representatives of each craft guild and 50 workmen had to go in procession before the Emperor with their heads uncovered, barefoot, in plain white shirts, with nooses around their heads. This is remembered annually in the procession of the ‘Stroppendragers’ (the Guild of the Noose Bearers).

History from Charles V to the present Day

Ghent was never to regain its international importance. With the abdication of Charles V in 1555 the Low Countries became part of the territories of Philip II of Spain. He had always been regarded as an outsider by the people of the Low Countries, and his efforts to impose more central control together with his attempt to enforce religious conformity, resulted in rebellion. Ghent’s trade, along with most of the Low Countries, suffered badly during the ‘Eighty Years War’ (1568-1648) of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The first phase, the Dutch Revolt (1568-1609) eventually resulted in the seven northern provinces of the Low Countries gaining de facto independence from Spanish rule. Read More +

In the early stages of the war, the Pacification of Ghent (8th November 1576) was a treaty between the ‘loyal’ states and the ‘rebel’ states, namely Holland and Zeeland, to act jointly against mutinous Spanish troops, who, having not been paid, were a threat to the whole area. The Spanish government had just declared bankruptcy and 400,000 florins sent to pay the troops had been seized by the government of Elizabeth I when the ships took shelter from a storm in an English port. As a result these troops had sacked some smaller towns and then Antwerp, where 7,000 lives had been lost and much property either stolen or destroyed, in what became known as the ‘Spanish fury’. A common front was needed to prevent further atrocities and to achieve it the states also negotiated a degree of religious tolerance.

The treaty failed to provide a permanent settlement and once the mutinous troops had been withdrawn the differences between the provinces re-emerged and more years of fighting resulted. A ceasefire in 1609 lasted for 12 years before renewed attempts by Spain to re-conquer the north, a conflict which became part of the Thirty Years War. This was ended by the Treaty of Munster, between Spain and the Netherlands, which was part of the more general European settlement of the Treaty of Westphalia. These established the seven provinces as the independent Dutch Republic, while the southern, largely Catholic, states (including Ghent) remained under the control of the Spanish Habsburgs.

During the 17th century wars between France and Spain, the Spanish Netherlands were repeatedly invaded, as they were after 1700 during the War of Spanish Succession, when Louis XIV aimed to dominate the area. This continued until 1713, when the Treaty of Utrecht handed the provinces of the Spanish Netherlands over to the Austrian Habsburg Emperor Charles VI as part of the break-up of the Spanish possessions in Europe. This was at the insistence of the British and Dutch as a means of resisting French control, and the Austrians really had little interest in the area. Even then wider European conflicts had a significant impact upon Ghent. During the war of Austrian Succession (1740-1748) Ghent was captured by the French in 1745, though returned, along with the rest of the Austrian Netherlands to Austrian Habsburg control by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) in 1748.

Rebellion in 1790, when the brief-lived United States of Belgium was established, was followed by invasion and annexation in 1794 when French revolutionary armies occupied the whole area and made it an integral part of France. By 1797 Austria had accepted this loss in the Treaty of Campo Formio and Ghent was part of France until the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, just south of Brussels, in 1815. Between 1815 and 1830 the area was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands - effectively the Low Countries of Charles V’s time reunited - until the southern provinces declared independence and were supported by the European powers at the London Conference. Belgium had come into existence. This was only recognised by the Dutch in 1839 by the Treaty of London, which also guaranteed Belgian independence and neutrality, a treaty that was to have major impact on British and European history 75 years later in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War.

The early 19th century had seen the renewed development of the textiles industry. The first large scale textile machines in continental Europe were set up in Ghent in 1800 by Lieven Bauwens. He had visited England, made plans of the machines used there and returned to Ghent with them. Industrial development aided by the construction of a wider and deeper canal from Ghent to the sea at Terneuzen during the 1820’s meant a flourishing economy, bringing wealth to some, but chemical pollution of many waterways. Initially, independence resulted in serious economic problems for Ghent. With direct port access to the sea blocked by the Netherlands during the 1830’s, overseas trade went into freefall and the decline of the cotton industry -in 1829 7.5 million kgs. of cotton were processed, by 1832 it was only 2 million kgs.- resulted in reduced wages and widespread unemployment.

After the settlement with the Netherlands, industry and trade picked up and the city expanded as factories and workers’ houses spread. As an industrial centre with its associated social issues, socialism and trade unions developed early in Ghent. The first steam train had arrived in 1837 along the Mechelen-Dendermonde-Ghent line. A horse drawn tram service started in 1874; by 1899 there were seven lines and in 1905 the electric trams were introduced. The greatest changes to the city centre occurred in preparation for the World Exhibition of 1913. The old, cramped medieval inner city was opened up with wider roads and new squares to establish the street plan that exists today. Many of the historic buildings, such as the Belfry, the Cloth Hall, the Gravensteen, and the facades of Graslei, were restored. A new railway station, St. Pieter’s, was opened on the Ostend-Brussels line and a vast hotel, the Flandria Palace, with 600 rooms, constructed opposite. Like the rest of Belgium, Ghent was under German occupation for much of the First and Second World Wars, though not being on the front line meant that it did not suffer the level of damage experienced by Ypres during the First World War. Clearly foreign occupation had a significant impact on the people of the city, with the usual pressures and decisions about resistance and collaboration. After 1945 the chemical and steel industries grew rapidly and now the industrial area around the port and canal-zone has steel, car and truck manufacture, paper and many food processing plants.