Ghent's bad news for Charles V

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The Independent Online
AS THE leading light of Belgium's latest, and strangest, civic protest, "The Lion" prefers not to give his real name or telephone number, and can only be contacted through an intermediary. But despite the uncompromising nature of his threats, their target is unlikely to fear for his safety, or to complain to the police.

"The Lion" is the shadowy face of a campaign against Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and the most famous son of the Flemish city of Ghent. And in the Prinsenhof square of that city, the authorities have just finished clearing up after an attack by the "anti-Charles V committee" - which left the emperor's statue tarred and feathered, and sporting a Viking helmet.

This was not exactly what was expected when the authorities decided to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Charles V with a series of cultural events, beginning in September and ending next year.

Although plans are now advanced, they have not been without controversy. Because he united some of the Dutch-speaking cities of present-day Belgium with the Netherlands, Charles has at times been seen as a champion of Flemish identity. As a result, some French-speakers have questioned whether the commemoration has more to do with Flemish nationalism than cultural history. There have also been funding difficulties: a multi-media project by Peter Greenaway, the British film-maker, has been put on ice as costs spiralled out of control.

But it is among the citizens of Ghent that the real row rages, almost five centuries after the birth of Charles there in 1500. For the city the defining moment came in 1537, when a rebellion over a decision to levy taxes to fund military campaigns provoked a bitter dispute between Charles and the place of his birth.

The uprising got out of hand and the ruling elite finally restored order, siding with Charles. But when the emperor's army entered Ghent three years later a group of luckless citizens was forced to march through the city pleading for their lives, with nooses around their necks. Twenty five ring-leaders were beheaded, a big fine imposed and Saint Bavo's Abbey was pulled down to make way for a Spanish dungeon.

Although this may not have been extreme by the standards of the time, "The Lion" (the name is the same as the symbol of Ghent) argues that the commemoration of Charles V is "unacceptable" and "a provocation" because "cruelty cannot be legitimised, cruelty is not bounded by time".

Nor is the sentiment limited to extremists. On the fifth floor of a city office close to the historic cobbled centre of Ghent, Morel de Westgaver cannot hide his sympathies with the protest, despite his respectable bearing and his position as a lawyer. The action, he says, "is typically Ghent. It is symbolic, and the people who did this are showing that the mentality of Ghent has not changed. If the same situation as 1540 arose again, we would do the same thing".

Indeed, Mr de Westgaver practises for exactly such an event each July during a festival to mark the events of 1540. As president of the guild of Stroppendragers (or noose-wearers) Mr de Westgaver is one of 50 who parades through the city barefoot, wearing a white nightshirt and a noose around his neck. The staged appearance of Charles V is usually accompanied by shouts of "murderer" or "fascist".

Johan Decavele, author of a local history and director of cultural affairs for Ghent, says the city's "love/hate relationship" with the emperor "is not a bad thing. We have to think of the nuances. The glorification of a great ruler is not appropriate for our time. We cannot forget that he also introduced persecution of the heretics: 250 people were executed in Ghent, and 350 in Antwerp." But Cas Goossens, chairman of the Flemish Charles V 1500-2000 committee, argues that he wants to "commemorate an age, not glorify an individual", and points to the artistic, musical and scientific legacy of the early 16th century.

The modern-day rebellion is a telling reminder of the reality of Charles's reign, and the continuities of history. In 1519, one of his counsellors told the emperor: "God has been very merciful to you. He has raised you above all the kings and princes of Christendom to a power such as no sovereign has enjoyed since your ancestor Charles the Great. He has set you on the way towards a world monarchy, to the uniting of Christendom under a single shepherd."

The truth was rather different. So widespread were his territorial possessions that Charles was forced to juggle responsibilities, ruling by different means in separate states. Independent-minded cities and an often stubborn populace showed little automatic obedience to their shepherd. The rulers of modern-day Belgium might conclude that, on that score, little has changed.