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Visiting the Gravensteen: Medieval castle in Ghent, Belgium, former seat of the Counts of Flanders

Updated on November 11, 2011
Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
The Medieval, Gravensteen castle, Ghent, Belgium
The Medieval, Gravensteen castle, Ghent, Belgium | Source
Prince Charles of Belgium and President Truman and other dignitaries stand at attention in the entranceway to the White House, 1948
Prince Charles of Belgium and President Truman and other dignitaries stand at attention in the entranceway to the White House, 1948 | Source
Map location of East Flanders province, Belgium
Map location of East Flanders province, Belgium | Source

Remembering Medieval counts and their torture enforcement methods

This grim and sturdy looking castle is in Ghent, in the province of East Flanders (Dutch: Oost-Vlaanderen ), in the Flemish region (Dutch: Vlaams Gewest ), Belgium. It was formerly the seat of the Counts of Flanders. Originally built in stone in 1180 (the Dutch name 'Gravensteen' means 'counts' stone'), it is also thought that a wooden structure previously existed on the site, dating from the 9th century.

When I visited the castle, I was variously intrigued and repelled by the Medieval instruments of torture on display. (I'm sure I was not the only visitor to be struck by such sentiments.) It is sobering to reflect upon the deep sense of terror and doom which must have afflicted those who were counted as enemies and prisoners of the Medieval Counts of Flanders, as they entered the Gravensteen, to await a terrible fate at the hand of the Counts' henchmen.

Regular tours are arranged around the Gravensteen. For the organizers, it must be a challenge to find a balance between putting a benign gloss on some of the castle's more sinister associations and drawing attention to the fearful and repelling, past activities in the torture chambers.

On the one hand, some local people must have wished that the castle would just crumble and disappear; others must have wanted to preserve it. This, in fact, in a measure, did happen. In the 19th century, the Gravensteen was slated for demolition, since it had become dilapidated. Then conservationists managed to obtain consent to the castle's repair, and, in typical, 19th century fashion, did such a thorough job of the conservation process, that some observers wondered whether the public would lose sight of the original castle altogether. Be this as it may, debates about architectural conservation certainly did not begin, nor did they end, with the fate of Ghent's Gravensteen.

The title of Count of Flanders has survived to modern times, although the writ of the Medieval Counts of Flanders, based at the forbidding looking castle, expired some time in the 14th century. Prince Charles of Belgium, Count of Flanders (1903-1983), who served as acting head of state, known as Regent of Belgium, from 1944-1950, thus bore the title. (He is seen, right, with President Truman at the White House in 1948.) However, the Belgian authorities decided to allow the title to go into abeyance subsequent to the Count's death (1).

A note on spelling

'Ghent', the usual spelling of the city in English, is an archaic Dutch form of the name, which according to contemporary, Dutch spelling conventions is now written 'Gent'. Although Ghent is not in the French-speaking part of Belgium, its name also has a French form: 'Gand'. Interestingly, the city's name also has a Spanish form, dating from the period when the Spanish kings ruled the Netherlands: 'Gante'.


(1) In a highly qualified way, it might be claimed that the title of Countess of Flanders still exists, because a Roman Catholic priest, with witnesses, has asserted that in 1977, at the church of Saint-Pierre-de-Montrouge, Paris, he bestowed upon Prince Charles, Count of Flanders and Jacqueline Peyrebrune a private blessing of union. However, both Belgian and French law states that a legal marriage ceremony must pre-date a religious ceremony. Record of no such legal ceremony has emerged, so a Countess of Flanders title would today be in existence only at a notional level as a courtesy title, since it is not recognized in Belgian law. At any rate, this is a rather more romantic end to the story of the Count of Flanders title, some of the more grim and violent, Medieval bearers of which resided at the sinister Gravensteen.

Also worth seeing

In Ghent itself, the numerous visitor attractions include the picturesque Graslei riverfront, the belfry, St. Bavo's Cathedral and various other examples of ecclesiastical architecture. Its railroad station is in an impressive, monumental building.

Bruges (distance: 48 kilometres) has many outstanding examples of Medieval architecture, and attracts very large numbers of visitors.


How to get there: Brussels National Airport (Brussel -Nationaal -Luchthaven) , Belgium, where car hire is available, is the nearest large international airport to Ghent (distance: 67 kilometres). Brussels Airlines flies from New York (JFK) to Brussels National. The Belgian railroad company NMBS / SNCB maintains a service between Brussels and Ghent. Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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