Belgium – Gent – The Belfry

A Belfry tower is perhaps the most typical building in medieval Flemish cities. It represents the power of the cities and functioned as treasury and watch tower.
In the early Middle-Ages most cities were granted a set of privileges from the count or the duke. These rulers were often forced to give the expanding cities certain rights and privileges, such as the right to organize a yearly market, or the staple right for certain products or animals. In return, the counts received money or soldiers for their never ending battles and wars to expand their territories. The privileges were written on documents and were read to each new count or duke who took over power after the death or demise of the previous one. Therefore, the documents had to be preserved very well. This was done in the treasury rooms of the belfry towers. At the same time, the towers were used as the command headquarters of the city’s militia, and as watch towers to overlook the city. In case of fire or attacks from a foreign army the population was warned with bells.
The Belfry tower of Ghent is perhaps one of the most impressive ones in Flanders. It dominates, together with the St-Nicholas tower and the cathedral tower the medieval center of the city. The architects were Jan van Aelst and Filips van Beergine. The tower was completed in 1338, when the bells were rung for the English king Edward II. At the top corners of the towers a stone soldier on watch was placed. The only remaining original stone soldier was placed in the treasury room in 1870 to preserve the sculpture from further withering. Copies now adorn the four corners of the tower. The ‘secret’, or treasury room, was protected by two large doors, each with three locks. The keys of these locks were in the hands of the different guilds of Ghent. Therefore, the ‘secret’ could only be opened in the presence of the main representatives of these powerful leaders of the economic life of the city.
In Ghent, there were always four soldiers on guard on top of the tower. Every hour, they had to blow their horns as a sign that the city was still being guarded.
The Carillon (or set of Bells) is part of the Flemish tradition of bell music. The most famous of all Flemish bells, the ‘Roeland’ bell, used to hang in the Belfry. Later, other and smaller bells were hung in the tower. In 1914, one of the bells was electrically tested, with a burst as a result. This bell, the ‘Triomfant’, can now be seen on the square next to the tower. The tower is also crowned with a guilded dragon, which was cast in Ghent in 1377.

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