Ghent, Belgium

From Bruges to Ghent the distance is about twenty-eight miles. The
railroad runs by the side of a placid canal, with banks planted with
rows of tall trees–such as Hobbema painted–and traverses a fertile
country, a verdant district of West Flanders, famous for its gardens and
orchards. Though an inland town, Ghent can be approached by large
vessels, by way of the Schelde and a big canal draining from the river.

From the top of the belfry tower the eye wanders over the countless
spires and towers of the city, and a vague, distant expanse of flat
country. There are few city views in Europe to be compared with this.
The prospect is vast and impressive; the town below presents a curious
scene, partly old-world, and yet bustling and modern in many aspects;
for Ghent, with over one hundred and sixty thousand inhabitants, is one
of the largest centres of Belgian commerce, and was once the capital of
Flanders. In the fourteenth century it was said that over seventy
thousand of its citizens were trained to arms, while the industrial
population was large and thriving.

Prince John, third son of Edward III. of England, was born here, and
took the name of John of Ghent. The Emperor Charles V. was also born in
Ghent, in the old palace that has disappeared. The history of this city,
which was probably founded in the days of the Nervii, is nebulous until
the tenth century, but in 1297 the town was strong enough to resist a
big English army, and the prosperity of Ghent was envied by the rest of

Its busy looms gave employment to many thousands of weavers, and most of
the wool used was supplied by England. Edward III. invited Flemish
weavers to his country, and kept up friendly relations with Flanders.
English wool was, however, still the chief supply of Bruges and Ghent,
and the trade in one year enriched the coffers of Edward III. with
£30,000 in duties.

Erasmus declared that there was no other town in Christendom that could
be compared with Ghent, in “size, power, political constitution, or the
culture of its inhabitants.” The city was practically a republic, ruled
by representatives, elected yearly by fifty-two guilds of
manufacturers and thirty-two corporations of weavers, and by a principal
senate selected from all classes. It appears that these legislative
authorities were often at strife, for outbreaks of factions within the
walls of the town were frequent.

When Charles V. was in need of money to conduct a war against France, he
made a very heavy claim upon Ghent. The natives rebelled at the
extortion; they even offered to fight with Francis against the emperor.
Francis I. was, however, not disposed to ally himself with the people of
Ghent, and he communicated with Charles, telling him of the defection of
the burghers.

Hurrying from Spain, through the territory of the enemy, Charles V.
advanced on Flanders, and on 14th February 1540 he appeared unexpectedly
at the walls of Ghent. Surrounded by his great army of lancers, archers,
halberd-men and musketeers, and attended by prelates and barons, with
many of the knights of the Golden Fleece, the emperor marched into the
rebellious city. The inhabitants were awed by this pomp and display. As
a punishment, the Duke of Alva proposed to destroy Ghent; but Charles
was too cultured and rational to allow such destruction of a noble city.
Calling the leaders of the revolt before him, the emperor commanded that
they should be executed, and he humiliated the chiefs of the trade
guilds by causing them to bend before him, with halters tied around
their necks, and to ask his leniency. All the privileges and charters of
the city were made null, and the rents and revenues confiscated; while
the subsidy demanded for the war was to be rendered in full. A fine was
also levied, to be paid annually.

This was how Charles V. punished Ghent for its show of independence, and
from that day the city suffered in prosperity. The republican form of
government was banished; in its stead the emperor gave the town into the
despotic control of the supreme court of Mechlin.

Nine miles of walls encompassed Ghent in this day. It was a well-armed
city, protected on all sides, and furnished with drawbridges over the
streams that flowed through it. The population in the height of its
glory was probably two hundred thousand.

In 1376 a great congress was held in Ghent, to draw up a document of
pacification, in order to end the great struggle between the adherents
of the old faith and the reformed religion. All the edicts of Alva were
withdrawn; all prisoners were to be freed, and compensation paid for
confiscated property. Saint Aldegonde, with several commissioners,
signed the treaty at Ghent on 8th November. Thus ended the Inquisition
in Flanders. The publication of the treaty was received with the utmost
joy throughout the land. Hymns of praise were sung, cannons boomed the
news, and beacon fires were lighted.

A year later there was trouble in Ghent, through the appointment of the
Duke of Aerschot as governor of Flanders. The duke was an ardent Roman
Catholic, and the city abounded with converts to Protestantism. A grand
ceremony was witnessed when the new ruler, attended by several companies
of infantry and three hundred horse soldiers, came to Ghent. Aerschot
was regarded as an emissary of Romanism by a large part of the
inhabitants, and by the rest he was distrusted.

A young noble named Ryhove vowed that he would deliver Ghent from the
duke; so he went to William of Orange with a plan for carrying out the
extinction of Aerschot’s power. He stated that he was prepared to lead
a cause which would result in the expulsion of “the Duke with his
bishops, councillors, lords, and the whole nest of them.” On the day
following Ryhove’s interview with the prince, he was visited by Saint
Aldegonde, who informed him that the Prince of Orange did not strongly
discountenance his plan, nor did he strongly approve of it.

Meanwhile, Imbize, another young aristocrat of the city, had confronted
Aerschot, and the governor had threatened the rebellious citizens with a
rope for their necks. When Ryhove arrived, he called on the citizens to
make a fight for their old charters and rights, and to banish for ever
all vestiges of the Spanish Inquisition. Incited by the ardent Ryhove,
the burghers arose and rushed through the streets to the house of
Aerschot, demanding admission. Refused by the guards, they threatened to
burn down the residence. But the duke surrendered in time, and Ryhove
protected him from the violence of the crowd, at the same time
commanding that he should be taken prisoner. Half naked, the governor
was conveyed to the house of Ryhove.

So began an anti-Catholic campaign, which shattered the supremacy of the
older form of religion. Aerschot was released. The Prince of Orange
came to Ghent, and strove to restore peace in the city. He was received
with honour, pageants were arranged, a spectacular drama was displayed,
and the prince was entertained generously.

In 1579 Imbize again led the inhabitants in revolt, and incited them to
attack and plunder the Catholics. William of Orange successfully stemmed
the conflict for a time, but Imbize put himself at the head of a
regiment, and actually arrested the magistrates of the city and other
dignitaries, and established a board of rulers. William the Silent again
intervened. He came to Ghent, reprimanded the riotous burghers, and had
Imbize brought before him. With his customary clemency, the prince
pardoned the young man, after chiding him for his intolerance and folly.

We read again of the fanatical Puritan, Imbize, in 1584, when he allied
himself with the Catholic party, and plotted against his country. His
scheme was, however, discovered; he was charged with treason, and
brought to the gallows.

Ghent was early a stronghold of powerful trade guilds, and one of the
meeting-places of these unions was in the Market Square. These
organisations of craftsmen were probably established first by the
Flemish weavers to protect the woollen industry. All over Europe the
guilds were instituted by artisans working in walled towns during the
Middle Ages. Chaucer mentions them in England in his day. The guilds had
their masters or wardens, who exercised an almost despotic sway over the
members, and watched their interests zealously. The election of the
wardens was made a pompous ceremony, accompanied by a religious service
which was attended by the mayor and corporation, and followed by a
banquet. No doubt the Market Square of Ghent saw many of these
ceremonies in days of old.

The power of the merchants and manufacturers of Ghent was great in the
time of the city’s affluence. We gain an idea of their sumptuous houses
and their costly apparel from many paintings of the Dutch School. Often
the merchant was wealthier than the feudal baron, and kings were known
to borrow from them.

Jacques Van Artevelde, “the brewer” of Ghent, was an important burgher
in his day, though he was not, strictly speaking, a brewer, but a
patrician who joined the Brewer’s Guild, and headed a riotous faction
against a rival guild. A fierce fight broke out in the square, and
several hundreds of the combatants were slain. Van Artevelde was a
staunch friend of Edward III. of England. He was killed by the populace
for plotting to make Edward ruler of Flanders.

Such, briefly, are some of the main historical events of this old town
of martial and industrial renown. Let us now inspect some of the works
of art preserved in the Cathedral of St Bavon. Perhaps the masterpiece
here is “The Adoration of the Lamb,” the marvellous altar-picture
painted by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck. The colour is glowing, though the
picture was painted in 1432. The Lamb is attended by angels, and
worshipped by a company of the devout. There are hundreds of heads in
the composition, which has several compartments. The landscape is
exquisitely rendered, both in the effect of distance and in the flowers
of the foreground. Parts of the altarpiece are elsewhere, in Berlin and
Brussels, and the whole was carried away by the French, only a portion
being restored. Portraits of the brothers Van Eyck are among the Just
Judges in the picture.

Among other paintings in the cathedral are works of Roose, Jansen,
Porbus, and a Rubens, highly praised by Sir Joshua Reynolds. There are
several monuments, notably the statue of St Bavon by Verbruggen, and the
effigies of bishops of Ghent. In the crypt is the tomb of Hubert Van

In the Academy the pictures chiefly claiming inspection are “St
Francis,” by Rubens, some works by Grayer, and Jordaen’s “Woman taken in

St Michael’s Church contains a painting by Vandyk, “The Crucifixion,”
which is in poor preservation, and several modern pictures by Flemish

The Hotel de Ville and the University of Ghent are both fine buildings;
the first has highly decorated frontages on two sides, that on the north
showing the greater wealth of detail and ornament. A more modern, but
very noble, structure is the university, containing a museum and


  • The Project Gutenberg EBook of Old Continental Towns, by Walter M. Gallichan