Castle of the Week 76 – Gravensteen

Belgium has over 3,000 castles, about 300 of which are open to the public. Gravensteen, a medieval castle in the middle of the city, is one of the best-known and most popular. The original castle was built around 868 by Count Baldwin I, rebuilt and expanded by the Count of Flanders around 1180. The Gravensteen was the seat of the Council of Flanders. Inside, you can visit the torture chambers.

The Gravensteen is the Dutch name for the ‘castle of the count’. In the Middle Ages, Flanders was a very rich region, world famous because of its fine flaxen linens. It was also a very restless area; it was part of France, but an ally of England, as it needed their wool. And if there’s commotion, there are fortifications.

Around the year 867, Baldwin Iron Arm, the first Count of Flanders, decided to build a (wooden) castle at the meeting of the Leie and Lieve rivers in order to thwart the raiding Norsemen. A town soon grew up around the Gravensteen Castle (castle of the Counts of Flanders). Around the beginning of the second millennium (1000), the castle was almost entirely made out of stone. You can still see traces of this in the castle. By the 12th century, the castle had been enlarged and the town of Ghent was rapidly growing into a prosperous city with no less than three castles to protect it.

Gravensteen as we know it now is the work of Filip van den Elzas (Filip of Alsasse) who was Count of Flanders from 1157 until 1191. He took part in one of the crusades and died during the siege of Akko in the Holy Land. He modelled it after crusader castles that he saw in Syria during his time at the Crusades. The opening in the form of a cross, right above the main entrance gate, proves that he already had taken part in a crusade when the Castle was built around 1177-1178. Filip started his building campaign to impress the inhabitants of Ghent and to keep them between the lines. But the city became bigger and bigger and the castle lost its military purpose so the castle was furnished as a residence for the Counts. These Counts left the building in 1353 and went to more luxurious housing.

From then on the castle got all kind of functions. It was used as the Mint and later as the main prison of Ghent. The castle became private property in the 19th century and was turned into a textile factory. The little houses in the inner court are still a remainder of that era.The city bought the castle back in 1887 and started to restore it. Today the castle is a tourist magnet and the historical halls are often used as a backdrop for concerts and theatrical plays.

Today, the Gravensteen has been beautifully restored. It is still partially surrounded by the medieval moat. It can be visited all through the year. Inside is a museum about the history of prison life and organization. Check out the castle’s crypt, its underground dungeon, a museum of old weapons like crossbows, rifles, etc… and armor…. and its instruments of torture.

The Museum of Instruments of Torture opened in 1922 and in 1935 was expanded considerably with a collection of instruments of coercion from the now vanished Central Prison (Rasphuis) on the Coupure. These objects were also accompanied by a few remarkable items from the mental asylum for men which was formerly in the Castle of Gerard the Devil. The collection was completed with several implements used by Ghent’s last executioner (1861). The collection is now divided into four main sections: imprisonment, the insane, torture and interrogation and execution and punishment.

Certainly worth a visit!

Write-up provided by Duke of Mulnis Pictures courtesy of Burgenwelt.