A favourable location
Bruges has a special bond with the sea. After all, water played a crucial role in its creation. The city is located precisely where two landscapes meet, with the coastal plain on one side and the sandy soil of the higher ground further inland on the other. A sand ridge served as a natural barrier. Here, a number of streams also converged to form the River Reie, which flowed northwards into the coastal plain. The Reie provided a natural connection to the North Sea via tidal channels.
The very beginning
The era began with the region being part of the Roman Empire. At the time, there was a small settlement along a tidal channel just north of today’s city centre. The inhabitants made a living from fishing, breeding cattle and extracting peat and salt. The remains of two seaworthy boats from the 3rd century prove that there was a modest harbour here. Due to increasing Germanic invasions, the Western Roman Empire finally fell in the 5th century. What happened in Bruges between the 5th and 8th centuries is largely unknown. What we do know is that during this mysterious period, the Frankish dynasty gained control of the area and divided it into several administrative regions, which were called ‘Gaue’.
A secure fortress
The Romans had built a road on the sand ridge bordering the coastal plain as part of a wider road network. Present-day Bruges arose exactly at the place where this road met the Reie: Burg Square. At the beginning of the 9th century, a simple fortress stood here as part of a coastal defence against the Vikings. It was strategically constructed by order of the Frankish ruler. After all, Bruges was accessible by sea, making it an attractive target for potential attacks. The modest structure was surrounded by earthen walls with wooden palisades and water. Yet it must have been a safe place, because some monks from Ghent took refuge there in 851, along with their valuable possessions, to avoid the Vikings. This is the first time the city’s name crops up in the history books. Bruges may be a derivation of the Old Norse word for ‘pier’ or ‘landing point’ (bryggja) or from the Germanic ‘brugjo’, which has a similar meaning.
Bruges may be a derivation of the Old Norse word for ‘pier’ or ‘landing point’ (bryggja) or from the Germanic ‘brugjo’, which has a similar meaning.
The Counts of Flanders
Baldwin I, the first Count of Flanders, arrived in the region in around 863. As the brand new sonin-law of the West-Frankish King Charles the Bald, he was gifted a piece of land as a dowry, the Gau of Pagus Flandrensis. It was not really a gift, because Charles the Bald deliberately sent Baldwin to one of the furthest corners of his kingdom to act as his local representative. Baldwin and his bride Judith settled on Burg Square. The name ‘Burg’ clearly comes from the Dutch word for castle ‘burcht’, but it also means ‘village centre’. Despite his position as a royal official, Baldwin succeeded in acquiring political authority and also in making his position hereditary. His descendants continued to build the count’s dynasty with Bruges as the centre of power and capital of the County of Flanders.
Growth of the city
Thanks to the presence of the Counts of Flanders, the favourable location and the connection with the sea, in the early Middle Ages, Bruges evolved to become an international and industrious port and trading city. The famous Flemish cloth (processed woollen fabric) provided an economic boost from the 11th century onwards. This attracted a lot of people who wanted a piece of the action and the population grew rapidly. When Italian merchants opted for Bruges as the fixed base for their sea trade at the end of the 13th century, others followed their example. Merchants from all over Europe came and settled in the city. New buildings were constructed, such as the Belfry with the City Halls on the Market Square, St. John's Hospital, several churches, as well as important commercial infrastructure like the Water Halls. The world’s very first stock exchange was also established in Bruges during this period. In the 14th century, Bruges could proudly count itself one of the most important trading centres in Northwest Europe.
The Dukes of Burgundy
In the 14th century, the Burgundian court linked itself to the County of Flanders by means of a shrewd marriage of convenience: Duke Philip the Bold married Margaret of Dampierre, the heiress of the Flemish count. When the count died in 1384, prosperous Flanders became part of the Burgundian empire. The dukes of Burgundy loved staying in Bruges and gave the city a new impetus. This resulted in a period of unprecedented prosperity and wealth in the 15th century.
The Golden Age of Bruges
The Burgundian dukes, known for their refined taste, expanded their permanent residence in the luxurious Princes’ Court and commissioned the most famous painters such as Jan van Eyck. This incredibly talented master made Bruges his home, as did many other artists and craftsmen. Noblemen and distinguished families followed the showy example of the Burgundian court. They moved into majestic city mansions and spent fortunes on decorating their residences. The interplay of supply and demand meant that Bruges became a famous production centre for all kinds of luxury goods. Guilds ensured that all the products were of the highest quality. Foreign merchants further elevated the city to a hub for international trade. Bruges grew into a true metropolis and was one of the largest cities in Europe, home to approximately sixty thousand inhabitants.
The economic boom came to an end after the sudden death of the beloved Duchess, Mary of Burgundy, in 1482. The relationship between the people of Bruges and the widower Maximilian of Austria soured. Maximilian left the city, with the court, merchants and noblemen in his wake. Antwerp became the new trade metropolis of the Low Countries. As its trade drifted away, Bruges’ connection with the sea increasingly silted up, although the city did everything in its power to maintain the connection. The impressive 16th-century map by Marcus Gerards was a genuine promotional stunt to emphasise the city’s favourable location near the sea. To this day, this masterpiece is the most detailed historical map of the city in existence. Fuelled by religious and political differences, centuries of wars and changes in power followed. In the midst of all this, Bruges remained a Catholic city and belonged successively to the Spanish, Austrian, French and Dutch empires.
- Gouden-Handrei Jan Darthet
Around Belgian independence in 1830, Bruges found itself greatly impoverished. The Industrial Revolution largely bypassed the city and the economy remained characterised by small-scale cottage industry. At one time, for example, over ten thousand of the fifty thousand inhabitants, mostly women, earned their living by making lace. Nevertheless, modern innovations also made their appearance: in 1838 Bruges was connected to the young Belgian railway network. At the time, the station was located at ’t Zand Square. Britons visiting Waterloo by train, the battlefield of Napoleon’s defeat, spent the night in Bruges. Many decided to settle there permanently. This resulted in an English presence in the city, a colony if you like, which went hand in hand with a revaluation of the city’s old, Gothic brick architecture, averse to the fashionable French styles. The restoration of the Gothic style and its imitation had a major impact on the look and feel of Bruges. More than that, it has given the city a visual architectural unity. Readers of Georges Rodenbach’s novel ‘Bruges-la-Morte’ (1892) were introduced to Bruges as a somewhat sleepy, but distinctly mysterious place. The photographs that illustrated the novel inspired readers to visit the city. Bruges’ splendid heritage was rediscovered and the city cautiously took its first steps in the tourism industry.
Visionary urban renewal
At the end of the 19th century, resulting from the desire to be connected to the sea, the city council gave the green light for the construction of a new seaport, which was named Zeebrugge. After a difficult start, the port grew into a world-class player in the 20th century. The two World Wars left the historic city centre almost intact, but impoverished. A visionary urban renewal project in the 1970s restored Bruges to its former glory for a second time. The emphasis was on renovating historic houses, cleaning up the canals, developing more green spaces in the city and banning cars. The strategy was a success because today Bruges is considered one of the most beautiful and agreeable cities to live in.
Thanks to the special attention devoted to its heritage, Bruges received the honorary title of UNESCO World Heritage City in 2000, and it enhanced its international profile as Cultural Capital of Europe in 2002. Six years later, the city starred in the film ‘In Bruges’, after which other international productions also recognised Bruges as an ideal film location. For example, Bruges appears in the prestigious BBC series ‘The White Queen’ (2013) and in the Indian film ‘PK’ (2014), the very first Bollywood film ever to be filmed in Belgium. In 2015, the city served as the backdrop for the renewed Triennial Bruges. Since then, every three years, a selection of national and international artists and architects are invited to engage in dialogue with the historic city centre. It results in a fascinating, temporary, outdoor trail featuring contemporary art and architecture.
Bruges is not only proud of its rich history and status as a World Heritage City, but also embraces the future. Because the city is dynamic and constantly evolving, thanks to the proud citizens of Bruges, passionate entrepreneurs and astonished visitors. Together, they contribute to a sustainable future for the city, which is balanced, unifying, appealing and enterprising.