Ghent, birthplace of the Emperor

When one hears of Ghent, no great deeds or events that took place here come to mind.

No warfare of special significance occurred in Ghent during the period when it was under the Spanish rule, apart from the usual conquests and reconquests that occured in the contexto f the various Flemish or Dutch revolts.

Therefore, it was not in my mind to write an article about Ghent and Spanish history. In Belgium it is posible to find Spanish vestige almost everywhere, despite the Little effort made to maintain that memory, so Ghent, I thought had nothing relevant to add to that history.

However, my previous researchs led to an opposite conclussion.

Charles I of Spain was born in Ghent, undeniable one of the most important characters of the Spanish history. Therefore, I believe Ghent is worthy of an article.

Charles was born in Prinsenhof Palace, which was later destroyed and no trace ofi t reamins today. He was the son of Juana of Castille and Philip I of Flanders. He is, subsequently, the grandson of the Catholic kings (Aragon and Castille) and on his father’s side of Maximilian of Austria (Holy Roman Emperor). The succession of a series of deaths, as well as the Discovery of America, made him one of the most powerful emperors who ever ruled.

However, Charles was not raised in Ghent. When he was barely one year old, his parents had to go to Spain to take the oath of succession to the Catholic Monarchs in front of the Courts. Charles was raised together with his sisters (Eleanor, Elizabeth and Mary), between Mechelen and Brussels, by his aunt Margaret of York, who in turn became regent of the Nethelands.

Knowing this, I visit Ghent to see what I can find out about that period. However, I don´t hold out much hope of finding Spanish heritage; besides I am travelling with a large group of friends, some of whom are foreigners and with Little interest in knowing about the relationship that existed between Spain and Belgium centuries ago.

Again, I travel by train. This time the station is a bit far from the downtown área and it is a fifteen-minute walk to get there. As you get closer, you notice the beauty of the city you are arriving in. There are lots of people on the streets and son the cars disappear, giving place to a large pedestrian centre. The buildings are progressively becoming older, although they are well preserved. Actually, Ghent is the Belgian city with the highest number of historic buildings.

In the Middle Ages, Ghent was more important tan London, however city’s decline began under Spanish rule. The need to keep Ghent under its control at all cost affected negatively to city’s splendour. Ghent’s economic and comercial importance was greatly diminished when the canal leading to the North Sea was blocked. In addition, many protestants and merchants left the city for Holland.

Although the palace where the emperor was born no longer exists, the castle of the Counts of Flanders (or Gravensteen) still remains and is worth a visit. The castle dates from the end of the 12th century and is located practically in the centre of the city. The building is stunning and is surrounded by a moat. We were on a tight Budget and most of us did not visit its inside, wich would be highly recommended.

Nevertheless, my opinión is that the castle is excessively restored, which gives it an air of artificiality that does not remind uso f its past.

The city’s belfry is also a must-see. After going up a small spiral staircase, from the top you get a magnificent view of the city. It is also posible to visit a curious exhibition of bells.

It is also worth visiting the church of St. Nicholas, the city’s quays or wandering through the narrow streets that surround the centre of Ghent.

It is also posible to arrange a visit to the town hall, a spectacular building combining Gothic and Renaissance styles.

It is important to remember that the paving of the main streets of Ghent was done by Spaniards in the 18th century.

But if there is one essential visit to follow Spanish traces, it is the Cathedral of Saint Bavon. Saint Bavon was a Frankish knight who converted to the Catholic religión and is now also venerated in the Corthodox church. The building is very large and spectacular and is home to numerous Works of art, including the polyptych of “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”.

In 1500, shortly after his birth, Charles I was baptised in this Cathedral. The Emperor was to be one of the main defenders of the Catholic faith in an era marked by Protestant reforms, which began after the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 theses and led to the subsequent religious fights, which were partly responsable for the fact that the kings of Spain were never able to gain control of their provinces in Flanders. On the other hand, Spanish remnants can also be seen in the choir stalls and the Chair of the bishop of Ghent, as they are made of Wood from Cadis.

But Ghent is also known for other vents that marked the history of Spain in these regions, in particular for the “Pacification of Ghent”, explained below.

We have to leave the early 16th century and move from the reign of Charles I to that of his son Philip II. In 1575, during the Eighty Years’ War (discussed in previous articles), Spain had some control over the progress of the war. However, the second bankruptcy during Philip II’s reign caused a significant delay in the pay of the soldiers of the Spanish Tercios (soldiers). This was the trigger for a rebellion and subsequent sack of the city of Antwerp. As a result, the southern provinces, so far loyal to the King, reached an agreement with the northern provinces to seek peace with Spain.

At that moment, John of Austria, the king’s brother, had jus been appointed governor, and had no choice but to accept the agreement. However, this included the departure of Spanish tropos from Flanders.

No content with that, the Dutch led by Willian d’Orange rebelled against John’s Authority and provoked the return of the tercios to the área, and thus the continuation of the war. In 1579, the Catholic territories in the south, once again, recognised the King’s authorities.

Today, each of the romos in the Ghent Town Hall has a name connected with the history of the city. In one of them, the pacification was signed in 1576.

In fact, the pacification would not have been such a bad solution, since it granted a certain religious tolerance. Also, within the Empire, self-government was sought for the different territories, always under the control of the Crown, and guaranteeing the loyalty of the local rulers. However, Orange’s numerous “tricks” and Spain’s inflexible defence of the Catholic religion prevented the Pacification of Ghent from coming to a successful conclussion.

Ghent was also one of the final destinations of the Spanish Path (Camino Español), a famous corridor between Italy and the Netherlands, along which Spain  sent troops to these provinces of the Monarchy with so much effort, resources and money.

Together with Bruges, Brussels and Antwerp, Ghent was one of the main cities in the north, and its canals gave i tan important communications network.

I was no table to visit it myself, but I read that ther eis still an old abbey in Ghent (also named afted Saint Bavon) and that it is still known as the Spanish barracks (it is conveniente to ask at the tourist office, since it is apparantly only open on weekends).

It is said that after his conversión, Saint Bavon livid in this monastery, and hence its name was subsequently taken.

In 1540, after the Ghentese refused to help Charles I to fight France, the Emperor decided to convert the abbey into a barracks, which would later be used to shelter Spanish tropos arriving in Flanders. For this reason, the street that houses the abbey is still called Spanjardstraat.

The so-called castle of the Spaniards also served for centuries as a cementery for those who, coming from Andalusia, Catalonia, Biscay or Galicia, died fighting in these lands after a long and tiring journey, giving their lives in some cases convinced of the ideal for which they were fighting, or simply trying to survive in a harsh society, such as that of the 16th century Europe.

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