Did you know that Charles V was born in Ghent?


Flanders, Burgundy, the Iberian peninsula, the Spanish colonies and the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation: the empire ‘where the sun never sets’. Emperor Charles V, born in 1500 in Prinsenhof, Ghent, ruled over this. But he was not well-liked among the people of Ghent.

In the 12th century, the imposing walled castle of Hof ten Walle was erected in the place that is now called Prinsenhof, in a curve of the Lieve canal. It had 300 rooms, each with its own hearth, and six towers, one of which even had a glass roof. The luxuriant buildings were grouped around an inner courtyard. There was also a ‘Leeuwenhof’ – a medieval zoo. Hof ten Walle served as the residence of the counts of Flanders, the dukes of Burgundy and the House of Habsburg in succession.

On 24 February 1500, one of the greatest monarchs of his age would come into the world: the boy who would become Emperor Charles V. Since then, the castle became known as Prinsenhof. From there, the child was brought to the Chapel of St. John the Baptist, which later became St. Bavo's Cathedral, in a festive procession beneath triumphal arches to be baptised. Tightrope walkers balanced between the church and the belfry, where torches were burning above. The eager onlookers kept one eye on the open-air theatrics from the chambers of rhetoric, and the other on the golden coins that the proud father had ordered the shield-bearers to lavishly scatter around. The Ghent city council went the extra mile. It showered the tiny tot and his proud parents, Philip the Handsome and Joanna of Castile, with the most valuable gifts: a miniature ship, a silver helmet, a golden sword, a golden head set with precious stones, a golden dish decorated with pearls and diamonds and a valuable bound Bible.

Forty years later, a different procession headed in the exact opposite direction. In 1540, there was a great malaise and the city coffers were almost empty. To make matters worse, Emperor Charles imposed a very heavy tax. The people of Ghent refused to pay. Strikes and uproar broke out. 500 representatives from the city council, the trades and the common people were paraded through the city, barefoot and wearing hairshirts. Fifty of these, with a noose around their neck as a sign that they deserved the gallows, were even expected to kneel before Emperor Charles, his sister Mary of Hungary and his magnificent court, to beg forgiveness. The nickname ‘noose-wearers’ was born.

In 1648, the Prinsenhof came into the partial ownership of the city of Ghent, which furnished it with stables and a barracks. It was later converted into a sugar refinery, soap works and cotton mill. All that now remains is the Dark Gate, as it is known – the northern entrance gate to the forecourt, to which a copper plate was affixed showing a floor plan of the former Prinsenhof and the names of the people of Ghent who were beheaded or burnt at the stake at that time. Was it only the ravages of time that were not very kind...?

© Picture Visitflanders/L. Aerts