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The chief town of the Province of West Flanders in the Kingdom of Belgium.
Pope Nicholas I in 863 effected a reconciliation between Charles the Bald, King of the West Franks, and his vassal Baldwin "Bras-de-Fer"; by it the latter's abduction of his daughter Judith was forgiven and the union legalized. The Frankish king further invested his son-in-law with sovereign power over the northern marches enclosed by the North Sea, the Scheldt, and the River Canche, later known as Royal Flanders, of which he thus became the first count. On the ruins of an old burg, said to have dated from 366, Baldwin built himself a new stronghold, with a chapel for the relics of St. Donatian, the gift of Ebbo, Archbishop of Reims, the metropolitan see at that time of most of the Belgian dioceses, and by his valour and untiring energy speedily checked the inroads of the ravaging Northmen. The security he was thus able to afford his subjects caused merchants and artisans to gather round the new settlement, which rapidly grew in size and in wealth.
Such was the origin of Bruges. But it was under the rule of the third count, Arnulph the Great (918-989), that the Church attained the full measure of its vitality in Flanders. This prince not only founded and richly endowed the famed Chapter of St. Donatian, but he established collegiate churches in the neighbouring towns of Aardenburg and Thorholt, and built or restored eighteen great monasteries, besides a number of minor foundations; and such was his prestige that it was to him St. Dunstan turned for shelter in the hour of danger, much as St. Thomas of Canterbury at a later epoch (1164) besought the protection of his successor, Thierry of Alsace, against the wrath of Henry II.
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Under the fostering care of the monastery, learning and the arts speedily revived, while commerce and agriculture made equally rapid strides under the patronage of the court. The great charter of liberties conferred by Baldwin IV (988-1036) provided a new incentive to business, which increased by leaps and bounds, and the town so outgrew its boundaries that his successor was compelled in 1039 to rebuild and extend its walls.
The epoch of the Crusades (1096-1270) contributed in no small measure to the fame and prosperity of Bruges. Count Robert II from the first of these great undertakings brought back from Caesarea in Cappadocia the relics of St. Basil; Thierry of Alsace returned from the second with the relic of the Holy Blood presented to him by his cousin Baldwin, King of Jerusalem, as the reward of his great services; while Baldwin IX, who took part in the fourth, was raised to the imperial throne on the founding of the Latin Empire after the fall of Constantinople, 9 April, 1204.
From 7 April, 1150, the day on which Thierry of Alsace returned to his capital with the precious relic, it has played no small part in the religious life of the city. The solemn Procession of the Holy Blood, instituted in 1303 to commemorate the deliverance of the city, by the national heroes Breidel and De Coninck, from French tyranny in May of the previous year and which takes place annually on the Monday following the first Sunday in May, is to this day one of the great religious celebrations in Belgium, to which thousands congregate from all parts.
By the close of the thirteenth century Bruges had attained the height of its prosperity: it boasted a population of 150,000, a seaport with 60,000 inhabitants at Damme at the end of the Zwijn, three miles away, an important harbour at Sluus at the mouth of the Zwijn, seven miles further, besides several subordinate townships, and was one of the three wealthiest cities of northern Europe. In 1296 the staple of wool was fixed at Bruges, in 1300 it became a member of the Hanseatic League, and by 1356 it was the chief emporium of the cities of the League.
With the removal of Baldwin IX the long line of purely Flemish counts came to an end, and Flanders passed under French domination. This period of foreign rule, which lasted the best part of a century, was a time of almost continual warfare between the suzerain power and the vassal people, complicated by internecine strife with the rival town of Ghent ; and though humiliating disasters alternated with glorious victories, this the heroic epoch of Flemish history closed without the commercial prosperity of Bruges having suffered any very serious check.
With the advent of the House of Burgundy in 1384, Flanders unhappily became involved in the religious troubles which were then agitating Europe. The new prince, Philip "le Hardi" (1384-1404), who favoured the pretensions of the antipope, soon proceeded from aimless sympathy to open proselytism, but the edict by which he forbade obedience to the Pope of Rome was utterly disregarded by his turbulent subjects, the clergy, almost to a man, and the great mass of the people acknowledging Urban VI. The Clementine Bishop of Tournai, whose spiritual administration embraced Bruges, came hither to ordain schismatic priests, but the people refused their ministrations, and a period of persecution followed during which public worship was entirely suspended. Ghent, however, had purchased the right to liberty of conscience, and so in 1394 the strange spectacle was witnessed of a whole town's population on pilgrimage from Bruges to Ghent to fulfil their Easter duties.
Philip's successors, John the Fearless (1404-19) and Philip "l'Asseuré" (1419-67), pursued this policy of subjugation, until in 1440, the year of "the Great Humiliation", the burghers of Bruges were completely at the mercy of their prince. The next quarter of a century was a period of pomp and pageantry, a feverish succession of gorgeous tournaments, public banquets, and triumphal entries, and a display of opulence out of all proportion to the true productive forces of the commonwealth. Like a true Duke of Burgundy Philip revelled in the splendour of his court. It was he who on 10 January, 1429, founded at Bruges the Order of the Golden Fleece. Munificent in all things, he gathered about him all the great luminaries of his day. It is also on record that within the twenty-four hours of one day about 1450, no less than one hundred and fifty foreign vessels entered the basin and canals of Bruges under the auspices of the resident consuls of seventeen kingdoms, several of whom were established there in sumptuous palaces. Industry at the time boasted no less than fifty-four incorporated associations or guilds, fifty thousand of whose members found constant employment within the city's walls. The days of Charles the Bold (1467-77) saw the culmination of all this splendour.
And then suddenly the blow fell. The great haven of the Zwijn was found to be fast silting up; before the close of the century no vessel of any considerable draught could enter the port of Damme, and by the middle of the sixteenth century Bruges was entirely cut off from the sea.
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By the marriage of the daughter of Charles the Bold to Archduke Maximilian, Flanders passed under the rule of the House of Austria (1477), and from 1485 the decay of the old Flemish city steadily set in. A period of continual disturbances, ruthlessly repressed by a government destitute of stability, produced a feeling of uneasiness in the commercial world. Antwerp at the time was already proving a dangerous rival, and gradually the merchant princes, enticed by the greater security offered and the many advantages held out to them, removed to the city of the Scheldt. The religious disturbances of the last quarter of the sixteenth century hastened the exodus, even to the removal of the last of the foreign consuls.
The severities of the Emperor Charles V (1519-56) and the harsher rule of Philip II (1556-98) and the Duke of Alva led to the capture of Bruges by the Calvinists in March, 1578, when for six years Catholic worship was entirely proscribed. The clergy were exiled or murdered, the churches pillaged and desecrated, some even levelled to the ground, and when peace returned in 1584 the population scarcely numbered 30,000. A period of utter misery followed, in which was developed among the wealthy, under the guidance of the Church --Bruges had been created an episcopal see in 1558 -- that great spirit of charity which led to the founding of innumerable Godshuizen (God's houses) which exist to this day for the relief of an impoverished community.
Flanders then became the cockpit of Europe : there was the unsuccessful bombardment of Bruges by the Dutch in 1704, the surrender to the Allies in 1706, its surprise-capture by the French in 1708, its capture by Marlborough in 1712, its surrender to the French again in 1745, and eventually its return to the rule of Austria in 1748; in 1792 the French again took it, were expelled, and retook it in 1794, when it became the chief town of the department of the Lys; by the Treaty of Vienna (1815) it was incorporated in the new Kingdom of the Netherlands, eventually, as a result of the Revolution of 1830, becoming the chief town of the Province of West Flanders in the then-constituted Kingdom of Belgium.
In 1877 the idea of recreating the canal with an outer harbour abreast of Heyst was first mooted, thus reviving an old scheme of the painter and engineer Lancelot Blondeel (1496-1561), discovered in the local archives. Eventually the project, despite the determined opposition of Antwerp, received the sanction of the legislature on 11 September, 1895, the cost of the undertaking being fixed at 38,969,075 francs. Seven years was the limit allowed for the completion of the work, but it was not until 29 May, 1905, that the informal opening of the canal to navigation took place, the official inauguration being celebrated in July of 1907. The result has been a large increase in population (which stood at 56,587 in 1906), the establishment of considerable industries, and a corresponding decrease in the chronic poverty of the city; so that it is not surprising if its good folk are already indulging dreams of a revival of its medieval grandeur and prosperity.
It were difficult to exaggerate the importance attaching to Bruges from the point of view of art. Singularly ill-favoured as West Flanders was in respect of building material, the only local stone available ( veld steen ) being of a description little adapted to weather the centuries, Bruges presents no examples of stone architecture of the early period; and later, when suitable stone came to be imported from Tournai and from France, the master masons employed in its use and treatment were likewise of foreign origin. In respect of civic and domestic brick architecture, however, Bruges stands unrivalled, both for number and variety of design.
Her school of sculpture was early held in high esteem, eliciting a large foreign demand for stalls and other descriptions of church and domestic furniture in oak, and the revival of the art during the past half-century has been attended with marked success.
In equally high esteem stood her wrought-iron work, and in even greater her engraved monumental brasses, which, prior to the Calvinist outbreak in the sixteenth century, were exceedingly numerous throughout Flanders, and examples of which are of frequent occurrence in England, Germany, Scandinavia, and Spain, from which countries there was a constant influx of orders.
In the department of embroidery and lace work Bruges likewise enjoyed a high reputation, especially in respect of ecclesiastical vestments, in the production of which, as of lace, a large number of hands are employed to this day.
But above all, Bruges, since the second quarter of the fifteenth century, has been celebrated for her paintings. Owing to the greater peace and security enjoyed within her walls many master painters from the valley of the Maas, from Holland, and from Brabant were attracted thither at that period. These, however, had all learned their art elsewhere. John van Eyck, who worked there from 1431 to 1441, exercised a considerable influence, and the scheme of his altar-piece in the Town Museum was imitated by the Brabanter Peter Christus, the Rhenish Hans Memlinc , and the Hollander Gerard David. The Town Museum and the Hospital of St. John are treasure houses of paintings from the brush of these great artists. Gerard David was the first to form a school, whose traditions were carried on until the seventeenth century; and he with his pupils and followers produced an immense number of paintings, scattered all over Europe. Later on Peter Pourbus of Gouda and the Claeissens adhered to the old traditions, which held the field in Bruges longer than anywhere else.
In the matter of illuminated books and miniatures it also enjoyed considerable celebrity, and examples of both are to be found in almost every library of importance.
In 1558 Pope Paul IV, at the request of Philip II, raised Bruges to a separate bishopric. The diocese at the present day comprises the entire province of West Flanders, an area of 1,249 square miles with 828,152 inhabitants, almost exclusively Catholics. Twenty-two bishops have so far administered the see. For the purposes of administration the diocese is divided into the archpresbytery of Bruges and 14 rural deaneries, the former being subdivided into 8 parishes ministered to by 31 priests, and the latter into 286 parishes served by 642 priests. The cathedral chapter consists of 10 titular and 19 honorary canons, with 6 chaplains. The diocesan seminary at Bruges has more than a hundred students, advanced from the preparatory seminary at Roulers. For the purposes of general education there is an episcopal college at Bruges and eight similar colleges at the larger centres of the diocese in which all the humanities are taught, besides four others at minor centres were the studies are not so advanced; for technical education there is a normal school at Bruges and four in other parts of the diocese, all these institutions being almost entirely taught by ecclesiastics. Most of the religious orders, both male and female, have houses in the diocese, besides hospitals and asylums for the aged and the poor.
Bruges returns 2 members to the Senate and 4 members to the House of Representatives, while other portions of the Province elect a total of 7 senators and 16 representatives, the Provincial Council further electing 3 senators. Under the law of proportional representation, which first came into operation in 1900, Bruges returns 1 Catholic and 1 Liberal to the Senate, and 3 Catholics and 1 Liberal to the House of Representatives; other portions of the Province return 5 Catholics and 2 Liberals to the Senate, and 12 Catholics, 3 Liberals, and 1 Socialist to the House of Representatives; the 3 members returned to the Senate by the Provincial Council belong to the Catholic party; the result is that West Flanders (otherwise the Diocese of Bruges) is represented in the Senate by 9 Catholics and 3 Liberals (in addition to the Count of Flanders, who is a member by virtue of his title), and in the House of Representatives by 15 Catholics, 4 Liberals, and 1 Socialist. The government of the province is entirely in the hands of the Catholics, the governor and the great majority of the Provincial Council belonging to that party. As much may be said of the local administration of Bruges, the Communal Council (which consists of the burgomaster, 5 aldermen, and 24 councillors) with the exception of 6 councillors (five of whom are Liberals and one a Christian Democrat ) being in the hands of the Catholic party.
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