In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the cities of Flanders rose up against their feudal overlords in a series of rebellions that would shape the history and identity of modern Belgium. One of the most dramatic episodes of this struggle was the siege of Gravensteen, a medieval castle in Ghent, where the rebels captured the wife and children of the Count of Flanders and held them as hostages for several months.
The Gravensteen, also known as the Castle of the Counts, was built by Philip of Alsace in 1180 as a residence and a symbol of his authority over the burghers of Ghent, who often challenged his power and demanded more autonomy and privileges. The castle was surrounded by a moat and a defensive wall with 24 turrets, and featured a large central donjon and a permanent residence.
The revolt that led to the siege of Gravensteen was sparked by a dispute over taxes and trade rights between the Count of Flanders, Guy of Dampierre, who was also a vassal of the King of France, and the cities of Flanders, especially Bruges and Ghent, which were prosperous centres of cloth production and commerce. The conflict escalated into a war that pitted the count and his French allies against the rebels and their English supporters.
The siege of Gravensteen took place on November 24, 1302, when a group of rebels from Ghent, led by Willem de Deken, a wealthy cloth merchant, stormed the castle and captured the count’s wife and children. The count himself managed to escape through a secret passage and fled to France. He later returned with a large army and defeated the rebels at the Battle of Zierikzee in 1304, regaining control over most of Flanders and crushing the rebel army.
The siege of Gravensteen was one of the most dramatic episodes of the Flemish Revolt, which was not a nationalist movement, but a struggle for autonomy and self-government within a feudal system. As one historian put it: “The Flemish Revolt was not a nationalist movement, but a struggle for autonomy and self-government within a feudal system.” (History Hit)
The revolt also revealed the paradoxes of Ghent, which was both a bastion of democracy and a hotbed of social unrest; it was both a hub of commerce and a centre of rebellion. As another historian wrote: “Ghent was a city of paradoxes: it was both a bastion of democracy and a hotbed of social unrest; it was both a hub of commerce and a centre of rebellion.” (The Guardian)
The siege of Gravensteen also had a lasting impact on the history and identity of modern Belgium, which is still divided along linguistic and cultural lines between Flemish-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. The revolt was one of the first expressions of Flemish consciousness and resistance against foreign domination, which would resurface in later centuries.
The Gravensteen today is a museum and a major landmark in Ghent. It was restored in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in a Gothic style that may not reflect its original appearance. It also hosts a macabre torture museum that displays some of the instruments used to punish the rebels after their defeat.