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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler


A visit to this Flemish town in Belgium revealed its links with our own history.

The Cathedral’s Treasury houses a marvellous survival from medieval times – a rich red silk chasuble that once belonged to Archbishop Thomas Becket. The chasuble includes a decorative motif of what at first sight looks like a swastika but is, of course, a gammadion (four capital gammas intertwined and a symbol of good fortune – yet still an odd thing to find on such a garment); I know of no other unless you tell me otherwise. The vestment dates from the 1160s when Becket was in exile near to Tournai, with the Cistercians at Pontigny.

A further English ecclesiastical connection with the Belgium town is the fact that Cardinal Wolsey was appointed Administrator of the Diocese of Tournai during the English occupation of the town between 1513 and 1519. A physical reminder of this English presence is Henry VIII’s tower, the last surviving part of the English defensive works around the town. Henry himself visited Tournai in September 1513, a fact commemorated in 2013. However, the most striking piece of history is perhaps that Tournai returned two Members of Parliament to Westminster during this period.

Although the English occupation of Tournai was relatively a short one, the history of the town has been one of being a political football between its more powerful neighbours. Politically stability was only reached in 1830 when it became part of the newly created Kingdom of Belgium, where it has remained ever since; Although the French presence is never far away, and a train journey from Lille to Tournai, which my wife and I took, gives absolutely no sense of moving between countries. Perhaps this will change with Brexit.

As a political crossroads, Tournai also became something of a religious one as well during The Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the 16th century. At first the town enthusiastically embraced Protestantism, only for it to be restored to Rome by Spanish force of arms (remember that the Spanish were the rulers in the area of modern day Belgium and Netherlands at the time).

Slightly off main tourist routes Tournai is certainly worth a diversion to see its cathedral, medieval bridge, wonderful art deco houses and to visit its numerous museums.

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