Ghent and England
Many of you, like my wife and I, will have visited the lovely Belgian city of Ghent. It has a long historical association with England.
Edward III was proclaimed King of France, at the start of The 100 Years War, right here in one of Ghent’s main Squares. The year was 1340 and Edward was acknowledged as the French king by Van Artevelde, spokesman for The Weavers Guild, in what must have been quite a grand ceremony. The reason behind this extraordinary event? The shared economy of the wool trade.
A later cloth connection is that a citizen of Ghent, one Lieven Bauvens, stole, around 1800, the blueprint of The Spinning Jenny and built one in his own city, importing British workers to man the new machines; by 1816 there were 28 cotton mills at work. The original machine still survives and can be seen in one of the municipal museums.
In 1658 a Father Roger Nottingham from Ireland became catholic priest of the Ghent church of St Nicholas. Nottingham, given his surname, was undoubtedly an English catholic fleeing in the last year of Cromwell’s life. Ghent incidentally had turned Protestant at the time of The Reformation, and for a short time had established a Calvinist theocratic state in the city and area in 1577, along the lines of Geneva. But this did not survive the Catholic Counter Reformation, which achieved some of its greatest successes in reversing Protestantism in this part of Europe by 1584.
In 1815, Wellington was in Ghent prior to the Battle of Waterloo, at the same time as the exiled French king, Louis XV111. Napoleon had dismissed Louis by calling him the King of Lille and Ghent!
A year earlier a treaty had been signed in Ghent between Britain and The United States bringing the War of 1812 to an end.
The early twentieth century grand Post Office building (now a shopping centre), built by a Belgium architect, has two unusual links with Britain. Its tower is modelled on that of Big Ben in London; and amongst the busts of various Heads of State adorning its facade is incongruously one of Florence Nightingale.