Mechelen – Malines (French)

Closely linked with Charles' youth.

Midway between Brussels and Antwerp, Mechelen is often missed by the visitor to Belgium. Now with a population of nearly 80,000, it was for a short period in the late 15th and early 16th centuries a leading city in Flanders under its Burgundian and Habsburg rulers. This is evident from the imposing cathedral, impressive Stadhuis, the squares and the fine houses that line the main streets. It remains the ecclesiastical centre (shared with Brussels since 1961) of the country. Mechelen makes a fine base from which to visit and explore its much larger neighbours. The surrounding countryside is well known for its market garden produce, particularly asparagus, chicory and flowers. The city has much of interest in its own right and many bars sell the Gouden Carolus (Golden Charles) range of beers of the Het Anker brewery, which include the Gouden Carolus Ambrio, the amber coloured ale based on what has been claimed to be the favourite drink of the emperor, the Mechelsen Bruynen, as well as the Gouden Carolus Tripel and the Gouden Carolus Blond

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Places to visit in Mechelen

A walk into the centre from the Brusselpoort (Photo 1), the only remaining gatehouse from the old city walls and which holds a small museum (south-west of the centre), is initially quite plain, but as you approach and cross the River Dijle onto Ijzerenleen, the streets widen and are lined by well restored facades. Zoutwerf (Salt wharf) and Haverwerf (Oat Wharf) quaysides, to the right and left as you cross the river from the south onto Ijzerenleen, have a number of interesting old buildings, such as the carved salmon on Huis De Zalm, constructed for the fishmongers guild (on Zoutwerf) and the carvings on St Joseph’s House, Devil’s House and Paradise House (on Haverwerf).

Just over the bridge on the left in Nauwstraat and Vismarkt are the famous inns, Den Akker, De Cirque and De Gouden. At the end of Ijzerenleen is Schepenhuis, the late 14th century ‘old palace’ where the Parliament of Mechelen and the Grand Council used to meet in the ground floor hall in the 15th and 16th centuries. This holds a small museum of mainly 16thcentury paintings and sculpture. You then reach the Grote Markt in the centre of the city. The large square is over looked by the cathedral and the Stadhuis, surrounded by 16th and 18th century buildings, and has a statue of Margaret of Austria.

St Romboutskathedraal (St Rumbold’s Cathedral) (Photo 2) lies to the west of the Grote Markt. The most striking feature is the 97m tower completed in the mid-16th century. Although originally planned to reach an extraordinary 167 m., including a spire of 77m., only 7 m. of the spire were ever built. The gothic tower has two carillons, one 39 steps above the other, each with 49 bells, with a combined weight of over 80 tonnes. Concerts are given during the summer months (usually at weekends and on Monday evenings). The tower, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has 514 steps and details of visits can be obtained from the tourist office. The people of Mechelen gained their nickname of ‘Maneblussers’ in connection with a story about the tower. The legend goes that in the 17th century a local citizen, having had his fill in a nearby ale house and returning home, believed the cathedral tower was on fire. On hearing his cries of alarm the local citizens hurried to put out the blaze. However, his blurred vision had mistaken an unusual reddish glow of the moonlight around the tower for fire. There was no fire and local rivals from Antwerp were quick to label them ‘Extinguishers of the Moon’ (‘Maneblussers’).

Inside the cathedral, the impressive 13th /14th century nave, over 100m. long and 28m. high, is in Gothic style, although the overall effect is reduced by the numerous later additions and statues. In one of the arches there is the 18th baroque pulpit showing the conversion of St Norbert – look closely for the frogs, snails, squirrels, pelican and other animals. The chapels in the north aisle were added between 1498 and 1502, when Margaret of York lived in the city. The 17th century black and white high alter is by Lucas Fayd’herbe, as is the sculpture of Archbishop Creusen (1660). The south transept contains Anthony van Eyck’s ‘Crucifixion’, while the north transept has the tomb of Cardinal Mercier (see Malines Conversations) who died in January 1926, with a plaque presented by the Church of England.

Mechelen’s history is reflected in the numerous churches that can be visited. Read More +

Close to Margaret’s palace is the former Jesuit Sint-Pieter en Pauluskerk (Church of St. Peter and St. Paul) with its restored baroque facade. The sandstone exterior of the 15th century St Janskerk (St John the Evangelist) contrasts with the baroque interior, which has Rubens’ triptych with ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ (1619) as the centrepiece, in which he uses his first wife, Isabella Brand, as a model for the Virgin Mary. (opening hours are limited). Nearby is the picturesque canal-side Abdij van St Truiden (Abbey of St Trudo)(no public access). Another Rubens triptych, ‘The Miraculous Drought of Fishes’ can be seen in the Kerk van Onze-Lieve-vrouw-over-de-Dijle (Church of Our Lady across the River Dijle). The Basiliek van Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-van-Hanswijk (Basilica of Our Lady of Hanswyck) was built by the local architect and sculptor Lucas Fayd’herbe, one of Rubens’ pupils and leading assistants. Other churches include the Begijinhofkerk and Sint-Katelijnekerk.

The Stadhuis (Townhall) consists of three original buildings of contrasting styles. On the right is the Lakenhal – the Hall for the merchants of Woollen Cloth – originally 14th century with a 17th century gable added. In the centre is the Belfort, again originally 14th century, part of which was demolished in the early 16th century to make way for the third section, the Palace of the Grand Council, an ornate, arcaded structure, only completed in its present form in the 20th century, which contrasts with the plain stone work of the other sections. The side of the Palace has bas relief portraits of the rulers of the Low Countries around the top of the first level (exterior), including Charles’ grandparents Maximilian and Mary and his father, Philip the Handsome (Photo 3).

The modern sculpture in front of the Stadhuis is the city’s mascot, now known as ‘Op Signoorke’ (‘The Senor’), being tossed in a blanket. Older versions of the mascot all seem to have represented male irresponsibility - the unfaithful drunkard or the disloyal bridegroom. In 1775 it is said that a young man from the rival city of Antwerp attempted to steal the statue. He was caught and beaten, and afterwards the citizens of Mechelen called the statue ‘Op Signoorke’ in reference to their old nickname for the people of Antwerp, which comes from the Spanish ‘senor’, a reference to Antwerp’s perceived favoured status under earlier Spanish rule and intended as an insult.

The Paleis van Margaretha van Oosrenrijk (Palace of Margaret of Austria) (Court of Savoy) (Photos 4 and 5), on Keizerstraat, was constructed in the early 16th century by adding to pre-existing buildings by the architect Roumout Keldermans. Set around a hedged central courtyard, the rear buildings are late gothic, but the gatehouse is one of the earliest Renaissance-style building in northern Europe, designed by Guy de Beaugrant from Savoy, appointed by Margaret herself. Not only did this hold the court of Margaret, but it was here that Charles V would have first come into contact with the world of government and power. He was being watched over and guided by his aunt, as well as Guillaume de Croy (Lord of Chievres) who largely had control of Charles education from 1509, Mercurino Gattinara, Margaret’s chief advisor, Adrian of Utrecht and many other illustrious visitors to the court. After Margaret’s death, although less a centre of international attention, the palace was lived in by Cardinal Granvelle, used as the meeting place of the Grand Council of the Netherlands (1616-1795) and has been used as Courts of Law since 1796. The buildings are not open to the public but a good impression can be gained from the courtyard.

The Palace of Margaret of York (Photos 6 and 7), also on Keizerstraat, next to Sint Pieter en Pauluskerk , is now the city theatre. It was here that Charles and his sisters lived when Philip and Juana were out of the country and after the death of Philip in 1506.

The Joods Museum van Deportatie en Verzet (Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance), just north of the city centre, provides a detailed history of the persecution of the Jews in Belgium under the Nazis and the resistance to it. Housed in the former barracks that were used by the Nazis as an internment centre for Belgium’s Jews (mainly from Brussels and Antwerp) it catalogues the life of Jews before the war, the occupation, followed by internment, deportation, the death camps and liberation for the few survivors.

The Beiaardschool (Carillon School) Jef Denijn Royal Bell-Ringing school, on Frederik de Merodestraat, is the renowned school which attracts students from across the world (Not open to the public). Next door Museum Hof van Busleyden, a fine 16th century mansion, where visitors such as Erasmus, Thomas More and Adrian of Utrecht were received in the time of Margaret of Austria, is now the Municipal Museum, holding a wide ranging collection, including the 1647 wooden carving of the city mascot.

De Wit Royal Manufacturers Tapestry Museum housed in the 15th century refuge of Tongerlo Abbey (on Schoutestraat), shows the development of tapestry production from the 16th century, when many of the finest tapestries now on display across Europe were produced in the area, up to the present day. It is renowned for the conservation of old tapestries (One and half hour tours – Saturday mornings). The Speelgoedmuseum (Toy Museum) in Nekkerstraaat has a 17m. long train table and a model of the Battle of Waterloo.

Historical background

History up to the 15th century

Little is known of the earliest settlement, but there is evidence of habitation during Roman times, followed by that of Germanic tribes. During the 7th or 8th century it was converted to Christianity by St. Rombout (St. Rumbold), probably from Ireland, who was martyred nearby. Traditionally his death is said to have been in 775, but modern analysis of the relics claimed to be of St Rombout suggested a death date of between 580 and 655. The settlement gradually grew in size and prosperity, with numerous pilgrims to St Rombout’s shrine, and trade along the River Dijle. It was granted profitable trading rights by John II, Duke of Brabant, in 1303, creating an on-going rivalry with Antwerp. During the 13th century new city walls were built, with 7 main gates and 5 smaller ones.

In the mid-14th century most of the Low Countries came under the control of the Dukes of Burgundy and a century later Charles the Bold (r. 1467-1477) chose Mechelen (or Malines, its French name by which it was then generally known) as his administrative centre. Here he established his Court of Accounts and the Parliament of the Burgundian Estates.

Malines became the permanent residence of Charles’ widow, Margaret of York, and after her death that of Margaret of Austria, twice Regent of the Low Countries, between 1507 and 1515, and then from 1519 until her death in 1530. It was during this period that it reached its peak of power and influence. Although born in Ghent, Charles V lived for much of his first 15 years in Malines, from 1507 until his coming of age in 1515 under the guardianship of his aunt, Margaret of Austria.

Margaret of York and Margaret of Austria

The city was part of the dower settlement of Margaret of York (1446-1503) (Photo 8), the sister of both Edward IV and Richard III, after she married Duke Charles (the Bold) of Burgundy, Charles’ great grandfather in 1468. Margaret was known for her energy, intelligence and piety, as well as her looks. Although Charles and Margaret had no children, Margaret became close to her step daughter, Mary of Burgundy, who was 11 years younger than her and who inherited the Burgundian lands in 1477. Margaret selected Malines for her court for a number of reasons. It was the largest of the dower towns; her husband Charles had made it the judicial centre of the Low Countries; it was regarded as more loyal to the ruling family than Ghent or Bruges; it was well protected with walls and moats; it was relatively prosperous, and regarded as healthier than many other towns because it had more paved streets since the rebuilding after a major fire in the 14th century. Malines benefitted from her presence by the trading privileges granted by England (Margaret’s royal brothers) and by her husband’s successors as rulers of the Low Countries, and also from the visits of high ranking noblemen and foreign ambassadors.

She purchased a large property in what is now Keizerstraat, bought adjoining houses, organised rebuilding and added extensions. Behind fine reception rooms and a council chamber (now a theatre) there were gardens, a tennis court, and baths. Over the next twenty-five years Margaret established an impressive library of manuscripts, and collected paintings, tapestries and plate. She is known to have had a meeting (probably in Bruges) with William Caxton before he returned to England to establish the first printing press there. In 1485 seven year old Philip, the heir to the Burgundian lands, was placed under her care at Malines, and so the court developed further as Margaret established his household. Margaret continued and furthered the pattern for the Burgundian court in the Low Countries – learned, cultured, patrons to some of the best artists of the time, with a keen interest in the new ideas being generated at the time.

As the senior female family member in 1500, it was Margaret who carried the new born Charles from the Prinsenhof along the raised wooden walkway to St John’s church (now St. Bavo’s) in Ghent for his christening. She had performed the same task in Bruges at the christening of Charles’ father, Philip, back in 1478.

Her step daughter Mary (known as Mary the Rich) became the wife of Maximilian of Austria (Habsburg) in 1477, seven months after the death of her father in the battle of Nancy, thus linking the Burgundian inheritance with the Habsburgs. They had three children Philip (b. 1478), Margaret (b. 1480) (later known as Margaret of Austria or the Duchess of Savoy) (Photo 9), and Francis (who died in infancy), before Mary’s untimely death in Bruges after an accident while out hunting with falcons in the marches of Wijnendaele in March 1482 . It would probably have fallen to Margaret of York to have a major influence in the upbringing of her step grand-daughter had not the Treaty of Arras in 1482 between Maximilian and Louis XI of France arranged for the marriage of the young Margaret and Louis’ son and heir, Charles, who later became Charles VIII. As a result three year old Margaret went to live in France, where she remained for ten years. However, in 1491 Charles repudiated this betrothal and instead married Anne of Brittany (who had already married Maximilian by proxy) in order to gain Brittany for the French crown. Margaret was eventually returned to the Low Countries after the Treaty of Senlis in 1493 and went to live with her step grandmother in Malines.

In 1496 it was arranged that she would marry Juan, Prince of Asturias, son and heir to the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. At the same time her brother Philip, now ruler of the Burgundian territories, was betrothed to Juana, Juan’s sister. Juana arrived in the Low Countries with a fleet of 130 ships in 1496, and having been married by proxy in November 1496, Margaret travelled back to Spain with the returning fleet, arriving in March 1497, aged 17. En route, fearing for her life in a violent storm Margaret wrote her own epitaph: ‘Here lies Margot, the willing bride, Twice married – but a virgin when she died’. It is said that Margaret and Juan, only two years her senior, fell for one another and had a very active love life, which some blamed for his premature death, only seven months later, in October 1497. This explanation was certainly recounted by Charles to his son Philip over 40 years later. Margaret was pregnant but the baby girl was stillborn in December 1597. Margaret remained in Spain until 1499, leaving Granada in September and arriving back in the Low Countries in March 1500, just in time for the christening of her nephew, Charles, at Ghent.

She was not to remain long in the country of her birth, being the subject of many marriage plans – Ludovico Sforza of Milan, Prince Arthur of England (until he married Catherine of Aragon, her sister-in-law), Vladislav, King of Hungary were all possible matches. In 1501 her brother Philip, with the agreement of the Emperor Maximilian and Louis XII of France, selected Philibert of Savoy, and by November 1501 Margaret had travelled to Geneva, married, and established herself in a new role. She came to care deeply for Philibert; he was lively, fun to be with, but not always keen to apply himself to the governance of his lands, in which Margaret was soon showing herself capable of taking a leading role. Again ill health destroyed her happiness when Philibert died in September 1504 at the age of 24 before the couple had had a child. Margaret set about the construction of a fine mausoleum for her husband at the monastery of Brou, outside Bourg-en-Bresse, where she would also be entombed nearly 30 years later. Margaret might have remained in Savoy as dowager duchess had not events elsewhere in Europe intervened. In November 1504 the death of Isabella of Castile meant that her sister-in-law Juana, and her brother Philip, became rulers of Castile. In 1506 en route to Spain from the Low Countries Philip and Juana were forced by storms to land in England, where plans were discussed for Margaret to marry Henry VII and for the young Charles to be betrothed to Mary, the daughter of Henry VII. Margaret, for her part, made it clear that she did not intend to marry again. She was rarely, if ever, seen in anything but the white widow’s cap and black clothing portrayed in the painting of Bernard van Orley. Philip died in Spain in September 1506 (aged 28). The Burgundian lands (as well as Castile) were inherited by the 6 year old Charles. Since his mother Juana was deemed unfit to rule, and in any case refused to leave the body of her husband, Philip’s father, Maximilian, became regent in the Low Countries. Since he had other responsibilities as Emperor, he appointed his daughter as his representative in the Low Countries, so by early in 1507 Margaret of Austria became regent of these lands and guardian of Charles and his sisters. She chose Malines, familiar to her through Margaret of York who had died in 1503, as her base. Her nephew, Charles, and nieces, Eleanor (Alienor), Isabelle (Ysabeau) and Mary (Marie) lived in the Keizerhof, the old palace of Margaret of York on Keizerstraat, under the control of Juana’s former lady-in-waiting, Anna de Beaumont. Margaret established her ‘Court of Savoy’ close-by and it was there that Charles was gradually introduced to the business of government by his aunt. The palace was not on a monumental scale, with both administrative and living quarters built around a small courtyard. About 150 people worked there, under Margaret, her chancellor Gattinara (who would later be Charles’ chancellor in the 1520’s) and the Privy Council, but few lived there. In the ‘Chambre de Madame’, Margaret’s private quarters, she collected fine works of art, with family portraits and other works by van Eyck, van der Weyden, Memling, Bosch, and van Orley, as well as tapestries, miniatures, dining services and a substantial library, with writings from the classics, famous philosophers, and recent Renaissance humanists. This was a cultural centre as well as an administrative one. Margaret’s court welcomed the presence of the finest thinkers and artists of the time. The court became known for its taste, refinement, comfort and, on a small scale, splendour; a northern renaissance court that others would seek to emulate. It was a court to which many noblemen, such as the English ambassador Sir Thomas Boleyn, sought to send their daughters as ladies-in-waiting; they regarded it as Europe’s finest finishing school. There they would mix with Europe’s future leaders, and have access to the music, poetry, ideas, art and courtly behaviour thought to be so desirable. Margaret served as Regent in the Low Countries from 1507 through Charles minority until he became of age in 1515, and again, this time appointed by Charles on his election as Holy Roman Emperor, from 1519 until her death in 1530. She was a more than competent administrator and involved herself in all aspects of government. Her position enabled her to provide much needed support to Charles at a time when he was mainly in Spain. She was also able to put forward the case of the interests of the people of the Low Countries to the emperor if she felt that they were being ignored. These interests were largely that they should be at peace – war with England damaged trade; war with France could lead to invasion. Given the wider political divisions this was not always possible. She was closely involved with the Treaty of Cambrai in 1508 and the League of Malines in 1513 during her first term as regent. Towards the end of the second term she was instrumental in negotiating the Peace of Cambrai (known better as the Ladies’ Peace) in 1529 with Louise of Savoy, her sister-in-law and mother of Francis I of France. Her death-bed letter to her nephew, dictated in November 1530, emphasised her loyalty to him, the fact that she had often had to support him in war in consideration of her role, but recommended that he should seek to maintain peace. Her body was first laid to rest at the convent of ‘Our Lady of Seven Sorrows’ in Bruges and then, when all was ready in May 1532, moved to join her second husband in Brou. The new regent, Charles’ sister Mary of Hungary, moved the centre of government to Brussels.

History post 1530

Even though the Grand Council, acting as the Supreme Court, remained in Malines, other administrative and government functions were removed and the influence of the city inevitably declined. Its religious significance continued however, being made an archdiocese in 1559, with its archbishop being the senior churchman throughout the Low Countries. One of the first to hold this post, along with that of President of the Council, was Cardinal de Granvelle – Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, a senior advisor to Philip II who had also worked for Emperor Charles V, and son of Nicolas Perrenot de Granvelle, Charles V’s most important advisor outside Spain after 1530. His unpopularity at a time of increasing religious and political hostility to Philip’s rule in the Low Countries led to his removal as President of the Council in 1564. Soon after this, parts of the Low Countries were in open revolt (the Revolt of the Netherlands) and in 1572 Mechelen was pillaged and burned by Spanish troops.

Rebuilding and recovery during the 17th and 18th centuries was based on its position as a trading centre. It became known for its production of lace, tapestry and baroque furniture. In 1781 the Emperor Joseph II ordered the demolition of the city walls, which now form the route of the inner ring road, with only the Brusselsepoort (Brussels gate) remaining from the original 13th century walls. Industrial development in the 19th century came relatively early to Belgium. The first steam railway in continental Europe linked Mechelen with Brussels in 1835 and the city became a hub for the Belgian network. Railway workshops opened along with other metalwork industries. Much later these railway links resulted in Mechelen being chosen as the location for the Nazi transit camp, from where over 25,000 people were deported to the death camps.

Between 1921 and 1926 Mechelen was the host to a number of meetings aimed at the reconciliation of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, known as the Malines Conversations, co-ordinated on the Catholic side by Cardinal Mercier. These were unofficial but had the tacit backing of the church hierarchies, even though they were not publicised for fear of unfavourable reactions. No breakthrough was achieved but the talks indicated a growing level of mutual respect between the two communions. Between 1974 and 1986 Cardinal Suenens, archbishop of Malines-Brussels issued a series of six articles, known as the Malines Documents, which investigated the possibilities of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement, the fourth of which ‘Renewal and the Power of Darkness’ included a forward by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI. Mechelen is now a pleasant middle sized city in which there is an authentic Flemish atmosphere without being dominated by tourism.


i Weighman, C.: Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy (1446-1503). Alan Sutton, Gloucester, 1989. pp.124-125
ii Weighman p.139