The Stroppendragers of Ghent

It is a procession that commemorates the events of 1540

Ghent is the city where Emperor Charles V was born, but it is also the city that remembers the Stroppendragers every July. If you are not familiar with this tradition, you should read on.

In the 16th century, Ghent was no longer the great and powerful industrial centre it had been until then. Little remained of the medieval cloth and cloth trade, so the city went through times of economic decline. This caused the city’s economic centre of gravity to shift to the surrounding countryside not only because of the absence of numerous urban corporate regulations, but also because of lower wages.

Consequently, the city suffered an economic recession, and in 1534 even a poorhouse was established.

When in 1537 the city was forced to pay the emperor’s war expenses again, Ghent took up arms. Annoyed by such obstinacy, Emperor Charles V decided to personally call his native city to order.

On 14 February 1540, he entered the frightened city, followed by numerous dignitaries and an army of more than 5,000 soldiers. For three days silence reigned in the city, until on 17 February 1540 a warrant was issued for the arrest of the 25 most prominent dissidents, who paid for their participation in the revolt with their lives.

With some drama, the city magistracy was summoned before the emperor on 24 February 1540. He was given ten days to prepare his defence. On 6 March it appeared again before the emperor and apologised, although the clumsiness of its members led them to refer again and again to the privileges of the city, as well as to the bad government which they held responsible for what had happened. The emperor’s response was exemplary punishment.

The imperial decree of 29 April 1540, the so-called Caroline Concession, which decided the fate of the city, reduced Ghent to an ordinary provincial city. The city was found guilty of disloyalty, sedition, mutiny, disobedience, breach of treaty and desecration of majesty.

Ghent lost all its liberties and privileges; the city statutes were surrendered; all city property was confiscated; the alarm bell, the «Klokke Roeland», was removed from the bell tower and the city had to pay a large fine. St. Bavo’s Abbey became a Spanish fortress, and some of the city’s fortifications and gates were also destroyed.
But the decree also foresaw a profound humiliation for the city and its inhabitants.

On 3 May 1540, a procession of Ghent’s inhabitants left the Town Hall for the Prinsenhof, where the emperor and his entourage were staying. The councillors, the town clerks and all the city officials, 30 notable porters and craftsmen walked barefoot and dressed in black sackcloth. They were followed by 318 members of the small craftsmen’s guilds and 50 weavers. The procession was closed by 50 men dressed in white sackcloth with a noose around their necks as a sign that they had won the hanging.

Once on the Prinsenhof, they knelt down and begged the emperor for mercy in a loud voice.

Since that day, the nickname «Stroppendrager» has marked all the inhabitants of Ghent.

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