A great symbol of emerging civic independence, the belfries have proudly served as tokens of the influence and wealth gained by Flanders’ towns. Built in Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles of architecture, the oldest of them date back to the 11th century. While English, Italian and German towns were focusing more on gaining local notority by building town halls, in the regions of Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardy and in Belgium, the population opted for lofty belfries.
History of the belfries
The edification of the belfries in France corresponded with the rising of the communal movement in the 11th century. The economic and demographic growth gave birth to several market towns being administrated by some merchants who gathered in associations. Those merchants, became the bourgeois ruling class and claimed an administrative, juridical and economic independence to their suzerain through a privilege charter. In order to give their towns a degree of prestige, they wanted to have their own tower, to be able to compete with other towns’ keeps and church towers, as a result the belfries were created. In the beginning, they had multiple functions (watchtower, meeting room, prison, safe-house) but with time and throughout the centuries, the belfries would lose their usefulness. Nowadays, the belfries are known as famous monuments of the north of France, beautiful symbols of French culture that you can visit as many have been turned into museums.
Wars created much devastation. Some cities like Dunkirk, Bailleul or Arras were nearly erased from the map. The belfry, both a symbol and a landmark, has been the main target during wars. The damage raised awareness about this monument’s value but they were rarely left as they were. In fact every town wanted to rebuild their tower, even if it took decades to collect enough funds. At this point in History, the belfry’s death meant the city’s death. When a belfry rises from its ashes, all the city recovers.
The most meaningful period was the 20th century. France had to face many reconstruction problems because of the two World Wars.
Traditions and celebrations
Traditions and celebrations in the north of France and in Belgium are very close. The culture is similar and constitutes a common cross-border area. During celebrations in northern cities, the crowd gathers around the belfry which becomes the main actor of those urban parties. There are three kinds of celebrations:
✤ Carnivals enable inhabitants to become street actors. With outfits and make-up, the atmosphere is warm and friendly!
✤ Giant processions are very famous in the north. The giants are hold by corporations and parade in the streets, leading the crowd all over the city. In a way, the belfry is one of them.
✤ Throwing “fetish objects” during celebrations is a tradition in several northern cities. For example, during the Dunkirk Carnival, the mayor throws herrings from the balcony of the city hall. The crowd tries to catch as much fishes as possible. It’s always a lot of fun!
The most famous French belfries
Bergues: Since 2008, we can consider that the most famous one is the Belfry of Bergues. This elegant belfry is a star since the success of the movie “Welcome to the Sticks” (in French: Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis). Parents and children are amazed to recognise the sets from their favourite comedy. Most of the kids love to play like knights at the top of the tower.
The Belfry of the city hall of Lille was inaugurated in 1932. It was built to replace the city hall which was destroyed during the First World War. It’s the highest administrative building in France (101m). This belfry is made of red bricks and concrete and hosts many contemporary artworks.
The Belfry of Armentières offers an incredible viewpoint but you have to deserve it. Indeed, you have to climb more than 200 steps to reach the top. It’s a bit tiring for children but they are rewarded with the panorama, they turn into giants looking at Lilliputians.
Families can also take advantage of the view from the top of the Belfry of Dunkirk. Each side of the tower reveals an aspect of the city: the harbour, the beach of Malo, the hills of Flanders…
The Belfry of Calais is relatively recent. It’s undoubtedly the favourite belfry of the little girls. It looks like a castle from a fairy-tale. The last floor blends bricks, stones and sculptures for an impressive result. This belfry is considered as the most beautiful of the region Nord-Pas-de-Calais. At the bottom of the tower, there are six bourgeois in bronze designed by Rodin.
Arras: To finish our little belfries tour with the Belfry of Arras. It’s the highest of the Northern Europe (102 m). It would be a shame not to take advantage of the other attractions of the city. Take a walk through the two wonderful squares in the centre of Arras: the “Grand Place” and the “Place des Héros” own 155 Flemish style frontages, attracting tourists from the whole world.
The most famous Belgian belfries
The belfry of Mons is one of the newest amongst the belfries of France and Belgium. It’s the only Belgian belfry built in Baroque style. It’s situated on a hill and overlooks all the city of Mons (87m).
The belfry of Tournai is the oldest belfry of Belgium. It was built in 1188.
The belfry of Namur also called the tower of Saint-Jacques is an historic building of the city of Namur. It was built in 1388.
The belfry of Gembloux is a 35 meters high communal tower built on a rock next to the river Orneau, in the city centre.
Nowadays, belfries play an important part of the northern French and Belgian touristic attractions. In 1999, the UNESCO listed 32 belfries in Belgium as World Heritage Sites and decided to extend the list in 2005 with 23 additional belfries located in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and 1 in Gembloux, Belgium.
The French belfries included by UNESCO are those of The city hall of Armentières, Bailleul, Bergues, Cambrai, Comines, Douai, the city hall of Dunkirk, Saint-Eloi in Dunkirk, Gravelines, the town hall of Lille, Loos, Aire-sur-la-Lys, Arras, Béthune, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Calais, Hesdin, Abbeville, Amiens, Doullens, Lucheux, Rue and Saint-Riquier.