The Belfort tower- treasury and watchtower

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Drever on October 26, 2003

Raw power is what it is all about. In Ghent, the Belfort Tower dominates together with St Nicholas tower and the cathedral tower the medieval centre of the city. Functioning as treasury and watchtower it represented civic pride and raw power.

Ghent’s prosperity depended on its Charters. Rulers in the early Middle Ages often gave powerful cities rights and privileges, such as the right to organize markets. In return, the counts received money or soldiers for their wars to expand their territories. Each new count or duke when sworn in had to promise to uphold the city’s existing privileges.

The city’s prosperity depending on keeping the Charters secure. It needed a medieval version of a bank vault. In the Belfort Tower they had it. Two large doors each with three locks protected the secret or treasury room containing the Charters. Just as in modern times when more than one finger is need to press the nuclear trigger Ghent had similar multi-stage security. Different gilds held different keys. Therefore, the treasury only opened in the presence of the main representatives of these powerful leaders of the economic life of the city.

Using the tower as the command headquarters of the city's militia, and as a watchtower increased the security further. The militia occupied two floors. They must have been fit from the constant climbing of stairs. The clanging of the bells in case of fire or attacks from a foreign army alerted the population to danger.

The site itself has had previous buildings on the site. On entering we studied excavations of these on the ground floor. Four symbolic stone soldiers also stood to attention there. Three were new but the other one was suffering from weather damage from standing guard dutifully at a top corner of the tower for centuries. Copies of the originals guarding the other corners had replaced his companions. Four real soldiers also stood guard on top of the tower. Every hour, they had to blow their horns to show their alertness.

Up one floor the three treasury boxes are on display. Present also is a gilded copper dragon. Originally he had a prime position at the top of the spire but a modern replica has replaced him.

Taking the lift to the top we were able to see the bells. The apparatus whirred into action and the bells began to sound. The Carillon (or set of Bells) is part of the Flemish tradition of bell music. In 1914, one of the bells when electrically tested burst. This bell, the 'Triomfant', now stands in the square next to the tower.

Close trading ties existed with England - England supplied the wool for the Flemish weavers. To honour the English king Edward II, on completion of the tower in 1338, the bells rang loudly, long and merrily for him.

Moving to the surrounding balcony we had a splendid view of the city with its competing towers, waterways, castle and noble town hall.

Belfort of Ghent
Emile Braunplein
Ghent, Belgium

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