History of Bruges

Over the coming months there will be four blog posts for each city on the Davis High School Baroque Ensemble’s 2020 England-France Tour tour: Place of Interest; Concert Venue; Music; History of the city. This week’s post, the twelfth of the series, is on the history of Bruges.

Medieval Bruges

Medieval Bruges

Bruges (French), Brugge (Flemish) is the capital and largest city of the Province of West Flanders. The name probably derives from the Old Dutch for bridge ‘brugga’. Zeebrugge was a location of coastal settlement during prehistory. This Bronze Age and Iron Age settlement is unrelated to medieval city development. In the Bruges area, the first fortifications were built Julius Caesar, 1st century BCE, to protect the coastal area against pirates. The Franks took over the whole region from the Gallo-Romans around the 4th century. There were Viking incursions of the ninth century, and early medieval habitation started in the 9th and 10th century. Bruges became important and prosperous due to the tidal inlet that was important to local commerce. Bruges received its City Charter in 1128, and new city wall and canals were built. Since about 1050, gradual silting had caused the city to lose its direct access to the sea. However, a storm in 1134, re-established this access through the creation of the natural Zwinn channel.

'Scenes from the Passion of Christ', Hans Memling, c.1470

‘Scenes from the Passion of Christ’, Hans Memling, c.1470

Bruges had a strategic location at the crossroads of the northern Hanseatic League trade, and trade routes to the south. The city was included in the circuit of the Flemish and French cloth fairs in the 13th century, and had its own wool market and wool weaving industry, with the wool being imported from England and Scotland. The city also traded in the region, and with Portuguese traders selling pepper and other spices. In 1277 the first merchant fleet arrived from Genoa, establishing a link to the trade of the Mediterranean.

'Peasant Wedding', Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c.1567

‘Peasant Wedding’, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c.1567

This prosperity declined markedly from c.1500 when the Zwinn channel to the sea silted up again making access to the North Sea difficult, and eventually impossible. During the 17th century, the lace industry took off, rivaling Brussels, and various unsuccessful efforts were made to bring back Bruges’ glorious past. During the 1650s, the city was the base for King Charles II of England and his court in exile (following the beheading of his father, Charles I). As Bruges became impoverished it faded in importance, and the decline in commerce resulted in the city having few funds to modernise existing buildings, or demolish old buildings to build new more fashionable ones. This resulted in the accidental preservation of the medieval architecture we see today in the historic center of the city.

'The Burg, Bruges', J B van Meunincxhove, c.1700.

‘The Burg, Bruges’, J B van Meunincxhove, c.1700.

Following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, many British troops and their families stopped off in Bruges on their way to the coast and home to England. By the middle of the 19th century, Bruges had become one of the world’s first tourist destinations, initially attracting English and French tourists. Bruges remains very popular with British tourists, and English is spoken everywhere.

Food – These are some of the less familiar Flemish specialities:

  • Croquettes aux Crevettes Grises – Grey North Sea Shrimp croquettes
  • Konijn met pruimen – Rabbit with prunes
  • Paling in ‘t groen – eel in green sauce (yum)
  • Waterzooi – a creamy fish stew
  • Moules-frites – Mosselen-friet, the unofficial national dish
  • Stoemp – a mashed potato and vegetable side dish
  • and the more familiar Belgian Waffles
Paling in t' groen

Paling in t’ groen


There are over 200 international and traditional breweries in Belgium, including those in Trappist monasteries, resulting in over 800 types of beer! According to wikipedia, in 2016 UNESCO inscribed Belgian Beer Culture on their list of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’.

Bruges Lace:

Things to do in Bruges:

Architecture Walking Tour – Self-Guided:


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