Upholding law and order, the Counts were always on the move from one city to the other. Preferring safe purpose-built accommodation they erected a castle in most cities where they wanted to stay for a few months. GRAVENSTEEN is the Dutch name for the 'castle of the Count'. This one has substantially surviving the centuries.
The first stone castle on the site arose 1000 years ago. Its chimney and the fireplace still exit in the walls of the lower floors of the main tower. Archaeological excavations proved the existence of three earlier fortified castles built in wood. Today’s castle was never seriously intended to be battle proof. Its walls are too thin for that. Nevertheless it makes a statement about might and power. Its walls surrounded by a moat incorporate crenellated cylindrical towers and a vast brooding keep. The main keep or 'donjon' (tower) with its panoramic view over the city symbolized power.
Fillips of Alsasse built the present Gravensteen. He was count of Flanders between 1157 and 1191. The opening in the shape of a cross, above the main entrance gate, proves that he had taken part in a crusade. He took part in one too many, dying during the siege of Akko in the Holy Land. After the counts moved to more comfortable mansions in the later centuries, the castle served as the Mint and later as the main prison of Gent. In the nineteenth century cotton plant hummed within its walls. In the inner court little houses where built for the textile workers of the plant.
Today, beautifully restored the Gravensteen is still partially surrounded by the medieval moat. Open all the year-round, inside is a museum about the history of prison life and organization, with an instructive collection of medieval torture instruments. Among the displays are suits of armour, guns, swords and daggers. A realistic display shows a man stretched on the rack. He has a funnel in his mouth to force him to drink copious quantities of water. Presumably it increased the pain or increased the stretching process. Schoolchildren often roar with laughter when they see it. Other grisly objects include ankle irons and a collar with sharp spikes that inflicted wounds if the person moved.
One instrument that I almost approve of is the guillotine. An import from France it tidied up the messy business of chopping of heads. If necessary, the least satisfactory way must be with the uncertain aim of an axe man. Beheading Mary Queen of Scots by order of Elizabeth I of England took two blows. The first blow went into the back of her head.
Next to the Gravensteen lies the Veerleplein (a market square). On non-market days public executions took place there. Anything for a bit of entertainment!