Brief history of Ghent, the rebellious city of Flanders

Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

For years, Ghent has remained Belgium’s best kept secret. In the shade of fairytale Bruges, only half-an-hour away, Ghent used to be overlooked. Big mistake! If Bruges seems frozen in time back during the Middle Ages, Ghent is a vibrant city with a rich medieval past and architecture, but also an industrial heritage. Today, the lively student town is a destination you don’t want to miss… To fully appreciate this lovely city, take this brief travel through time and be amazed!

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The foundation of Ghent dates back to 630 when Saint Amand established the abbey of Saint Bavo, at the confluence of the Scheldt and Lys (Leie) Rivers. The location is ideal for trade, but also for looters! Vikings were a serious threat between the 8th and 11th century. Ghent could flourish only thanks to the protection of the County of Flanders, a peer of the kingdom of France. The story goes as such: Count Baldwin I of the small region of Flanders fell in love with Judith, the daughter of Charles V, King of France. The King did not approve a little count of an obscure region for his daughter and had the couple excommunicated after Baldwin abducted Judith in Senlis in Northern France. For over a year, the love birds travelled and went all the way to Rome to ask the pope for forgiveness. The pope backed them up and the King of France had no choice but to accept: the wedding took place in 862, and to look more serious, Charles V added more territories for Baldwin to protect from the Vikings: this is the birth of Flanders as we know it – more or less.

Thanks to this efficient protection, Ghent could grow into an important trade centre in the 11th and 12th centuries. Mimicking Bruges, the surrounding lands were no good for crops but ideal to herd sheep on the swampy pastures. The food was coming to Ghent on the river: grains from France were traded and 25% of them were taxed and kept for the city, allowing it to become self-sufficient and wealthy fast. The local production of cloth became so famous that wool had to be imported from England. It became so lucrative that the medieval bourgeoisie challenged the authority of the Count who built the impressive stone Castle of the Counts (or Gravensteen) as a reminder of his power (and more importantly, of the burghers’ duty to pay him taxes!). By the 13th century, Ghent counted amongst the biggest cities of Northern Europe.

In 1500, it was in Ghent that Charles V (I know, a bit confusing but this one was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ruling over Austria, Spain and the Low Countries), destined to become one of Europe’s greatest rulers, was born. But although a native of the city, Charles V was not popular in his home town (see the interesting Noose Bearer story). And things got even worse for Ghent under his son’s rule, Philip II of Spain: like most other cities in the Low Countries, Ghent suffered from the continuous religious troubles between Protestants and Catholics, the competition of Antwerp, and was in the midst of the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) that gave the Netherlands – also ruled by Spain – its independence. By the late 15th century, the cloth trade had begun to decline, though Ghent remained prosperous by shifting its economy to the shipping trade along the Lys and Scheldt Rivers.

The decline of the clothing industry was reversed during the industrial boom of the 19th century, when Ghent became a part of the French Empire. From 1800, new factories were constructed such as sugar refineries and cotton mills, thanks to the local hero and industrial spy Lieven Bauwens, and Ghent soon became the Manchester of mainland Europe. Peace and prosperity were restored to Ghent and its industrial heritage is part of today’s cityscape. However, the industrial revolution brought prosperity to few, and challenges to many. With its lot of migration from poor countryside to miserable neighbourhoods in the cities, its number of inhabitants tripled. The horrendous working and living conditions of the working-class resulted in the creation of the first modern Belgian trade union in Ghent still palpable today at the Vooruit building.

Today, the rebellious heritage of Ghent, from standing up to their French King for love, to refusing to pay taxes to their Holy Roman Emperor, from creating trade unions to oppose the obscene wealth of a few while masses were exploited to taking the castle to demonstrate against the price of beer gives the capital of the province of East-Flanders an irreverence that is now found in graffiti streets, music festivals, innovative plates of Michelin-crowned chefs or student parties all over town.

Travel tips:

  • To help you plan your trip make sure to check out Visit Ghent!
  • To appreciate Ghent to the fullest, get a City Card which gives you access to all the museums, public transport and some other attractions.
  • For a comfortable stay in style a stone’s throw away from the heart of Ghent, with a spa to recover from your day exploring the city and an excellent service, we warmly recommend the 4-star Pillows Grand Boutique Hotel Reylof.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

For more in Belgium, click on the images below:

2 thoughts on “Brief history of Ghent, the rebellious city of Flanders

    • True: Bruges gets a lot of attention (that it is well deserved), and both cities are definitely worth exploring: they are so close that it is very easy to arrange during the same trip as long as you planned for enough time. As a student town, the vibes of Ghent are great.
      I hope you’ll be able to make it there very soon once we are all sheltered from this virus…
      Thanks for your read & comment!
      Claire

      Liked by 2 people

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