on March 28, 2007
The Gravensteen – or Castle of the Counts – is an imposing 12th Century fortress in the centre of the city. Built on the site of early wooden castles, its main purpose has over the centuries been connected to the maintenance of law and order.Fillips of Alsasse, Count of Flanders between 1157 and 1191, began construction of the present Gravensteen in approximately 1177. The Counts needed to travel round the country in order to assert their authority and maintain law and order. Castles were therefore built in all major cities in order to accommodate them on this circuit. The Gravensteen is the only one of these which still survives. In the 14th Century the Counts abandoned the castles and over the intervening years the Gravensteen was used as a prison, courthouse, mint, and even a cotton factory. By the late 19th century it had fallen into disrepair with much of its stonework crumbling or taken away to build other structures, indeed one of the castle rooms contain some very interesting photographs of the castle at this period including one where houses have been built flush against the castle walls. These can be compared with later photos of the castle after some reconstructive work and, of course, how it looks today. From the end of the 19th century the city began a restoration project and gradually the castle was rebuilt until it resembles its originally structure and now functions as a museum.On a tour of the castle you follow a numbered route leading you through various rooms and onto the battlements. Each room/area contains a wall plaque in Flemish, English, and French giving information about the room you are in. There are some fine vaulted ceilings, brick fireplaces and stone columns. Having just taken part in a play set in Knaresborough castle during 1171 (“Four Knights in Knaresborough” by Paul Webb) we were able to relate rooms of the Gravensteen to scenes in the play and it was quite joyous imaging that this was the sort of fireplace Steve’s character would warm himself at or a spiral stone staircase such as my character would climb with wood and food. Or, for anyone who knows the play, the wonder of an outside battlement latrine!One room contains some quite fearsome looking weaponry and armour and in other a gruesome array of torture implements. The latter really do prey on your mind when, towards the end of the tour, you stand in a cellar where such instruments were used and image the suffering that took place. Likewise standing in front of a reconstructed guillotine, a feature of another room, provokes feelings of both revulsion and fascination as you marvel at the bleakly practical efficiency of such a killing machine.
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