Bruges: History

A bit of history

Bruges is the capital and the largest city in the province of West Flanders in Belgium. Although the true beginnings of the city did not begin until 865, the first fortifications in the area were built after Mr. Julius Caesar’s Conquest of the Menapii (a Belgic tribe in the Roman times; i.e., 1st century BC) as a means of protecting the coast from pirates. Nothing really happened for a long time until 865 when this guy named Baldwin (the first Count of Flanders) came along and decided to reinforce the old Roman fortifications to protect against the Vikings; while he was at it, he also built a castle for himself. The city slowly and steadily grew from that time.


In 1000, Regional Brugse Vrije was established. This was essentially an area of land that was governed by a common captain. That ended in 1127; this was the year that Charles I, the Count of Flanders was assassinated. One day, he was kneeling to pray at his church, when a group of Knights (under the order of the Erembald family) assassinated him brutally. See, the Erembalds were a very wealthy family who caused a fair deal of trouble, and Charles I was working to bring their status down to “serfs”. They didn’t like that, and they plotted, successfully, to kill Charles I. There was a huge uproar after this, and Charles I was brought to Saint status, although not officially until the 1800s.

Anyway, one year after his assassination, the city received its official city charter and new walls and canals were built.

A few short years later, in 1134, there was a big storm. Like, really big; and it created the Zwin Inlet which connected Bruges to the North Sea. This was important, since in the previous years Bruges had lost its direct access to the sea because of silting (i.e., blockage). This storm, although destructive, allowed Bruges to have access to the water (and therefore, trading) once again.

In the next 20 or so years, plenty of important structures were built including St. John’s Hospital (still there, one of Europe’s oldest surviving hospitals), the Eekhout Abbey (demolished), and the Chapel of the Holy Blood (i.e., the Basilica of the Holy Blood). The Basilica of the Holy blood still remains in Bruges and is an important historical landmark visited by thousands of tourists each year. The Roman Catholic basilica allegedly houses a vial containing a cloth with Jesus’ holy blood on it.

Saint John’s Hospital:


Seriously, over the next 100 years, Bruges just continued to expand. There were harbors and churches built. The Belfry of Bruges was built in the market in 1240. This iconic tower still stands; and *SPOILER ALERT* you may recognize it from the unforgettable and bloody death of Ken (I know him better as Mad-Eye-Moody) in the movie In Bruges. Anyway, later that century, in 1294, the Waterhalle (i.e., Bruges’ wonder of the world at that time; a covered harbor) was built on the Grote Markt (i.e., Bruges’ main market then and now). The Waterhalle, however, is no longer around. But, The Church of our Lady tower was also built during this time and it absolutely still stands 122 meters tall near Bruges’ city center. It was built in 1297.

Church of our Lady:

Urlaub in Brügge 22. bis 25. Mai 2008

During the beginning of the 1300s, Bruges became a thriving trading center, especially known for its clothing. Happy, happy, joy, joy. Until….. May 18th, 1302. The Bruges Massacre occurred. The city’s increased wealth led to political tensions and new taxes. Some people did not like these new ideals and taxes. There was a Flemish Garrison commanded by two guys, Jan Breydel and Pieter De Coninck, who led a revolt against the French Garrison of over 2000 members. In the night, members of the Flemish military killed the members of the French Garrison in Bruges. Specifically, they crept into town and murdered anyone would could not correctly pronounce the Flemish phrase, “Schild en vriend” (shield and friend). This obviously sparked an uproar, and rebels rose up for six weeks. The population ended up siding with the Flemish and the Count of Flanders; the Flemish ultimately defeated the French at the “Battle of the Golden Spurs” (this sounds like a Harry Potter novel. Battle of the Golden Snitches? Off topic? Ok, moving on). While Flemish independence was established, it didn’t last long, and the French came back into control once again.

The leaders of this uprising were honored via statues that are still standing in Bruges’ Market square.


In 1303, The Procession of the Holy Blood was instituted. This was and is essentially a Roman Catholic procession; the festivities still occur each May with over 3000 participants every year.

Procession of the Holy Blood on Ascension Day in Bruges (Brugge)

So, we’re still in the 1300s. All is good in the hood in Bruges. The people of Bruges are selling tons of stuff and trading with England and Scandinavia. Their population is growing, and royalty from other countries are starting to hear about Bruges. In 1309, the Bourse opened in Bruges; this was likely the first stock exchange in the world.There was a large trading business with other regions around this time and the city became quite wealthy. The merchants of Bruges were known as the best weavers in the entire world, and there were a lot of important things built (e.g., some towers, a public clock, a city gate, city hall). There was some important wedding between the Burgundian duke, Charles, and Margaret of York; a printing press starts operating in 1475. Bruges even joined up with Franc of Bruges, Ghent, and Ypres to form a parliament. Business was booming all through the 14th and 15th centuries. Wahoo!

The Bourse:



The city’s waterways silted up once again, destroying Bruges’ ties to the North Sea. Without easy access to the water, trading companies and many merchants picked up and moved to Antwerp, leaving many abandoned houses and empty streets in Bruges. The city was no longer considered a prestigious trading town and essentially was left devastated through the next few hundred years. The population dropped from 200, 000 to under 50, 000 over the course of only a couple of years.

Let’s jump forward a bit to happier times. We aren’t going to dwell on the negatives. In the 1700s, the Academy of Art (1719) and the Lawyer’s Guild (1743) were established. Here comes 1794, and the French are in Power again! How? Well, something about a revolution, the French, the Habsburgs, and the Austrians? It’s a long story, but the French took over. Here’s a website (Pappas, 2012) that details this time if you’re interested.

It wasn’t until 1830 that Bruges became a part of Belgium. Actually, Belgium wasn’t independent at all at this point. It was ruled by the French for a while, then the Dutch; finally in 1830, there was a revolution that resulted in Belgium’s separation and independence. In 1838, the Bruges railway station opened, connecting it to many other major European cities. The rest of the 1800s were relatively happy with the Bruggians (i.e., Bruges residents; i.e., I created a new word) erecting monuments and establishing football clubs. *yay*


In the 1900s, there were some famous cinemas and restaurants established. Of course, Belgium as a whole was affected by the World Wars; however, Bruges was left relatively untouched. Belgium had decided to remain neutral during World War II, but they eventually surrendered to the Germans (ugh, Nazis). Belgium was invaded by the Germans over a period of four years; however, Bruges, unlike many other European cities, was not destroyed during the war. Thanks to its authentic and historical medieval beauty, the German Commander, Immo Hopman, refused to carry out orders from his superiors to bomb the city.

In 1965, the city of Bruges took it upon themselves to restore residential and commercial structures and historic monuments, and this created an influx of tourism and economic income for the old town center. The well-known Tour of Flanders cycling race began in 1998. In 2002, Bruges was named the “European Capital of Culture” and it now attracts over 2 million tourists each year. With an entire old town being deemed a World Heritage UNESCO site, nearly 118, 000 residents, and its being friggin’ be-a-u-t-i-ful, Bruges is a fascinating and thriving city once again!

Be sure to read about our trip to Bruges for great travel ideas. Also, check out our favorite local spots.


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