History of Veurne

Veurne and Veurne-Ambacht

Veurne is first mentioned in 877 as Furnae, on a list of possessions of the Sint-Bertijns abbey in St.-Omer (FR). The name is thought to refer to a small island that rose above the marshy, water-rich area. The inhabitants of Veurne are called Veurnaars or Veurnenaars.

Veurne was formed around a castle, built as a defence against the Vikings at the end of the 9th century. It subsequently became one of the most fortified places in the county of Flanders. The community that settled around the castle was given city rights in the 12th century. The Stadspark (City Park) still features the motte (mound and public hunting ground).

From the 11th century, the county of Flanders was divided into castellanies. Veurne castellany comprised not only what is now ‘Bachten de Kupe’, the area between the North Sea, the IJzer and the French border, but stretched south all the way up to Poperinge and Ypres. 42 parishes were directly dependent on the castellan, while around eight parishes and a dozen baronies where mainly expected to contribute financial and military resources. “Veurne-Ambacht” refers to the 42 parishes together. The curious word “Ambacht” (barony or manor) means that this area did not have higher jurisdiction, only lower courts. Supreme justice was reserved for the count himself and his council.

12th - 14th century

Veurne became very economically active during the 12th and 13th century. The city was a member of the Londen Hanze (London Hanseatic Society), a group of Flemish cities engaged in trade with London. A breakdown of Flemish-English relations in 1270 landed Veurne in a period of crisis that lasted all the way to the end of the 16th century, leaving the townspeople with the unflattering nickname “Veurne Sleepers”.

The Veurne churches also date back to this period. The Sint-Walburga church originated from the count’s O.-L.-Vrouw chapel and was enriched with Saint Walburga relics in the 10th century. The gothic choir from the 13th century was restored after a fire in 1353. At 23 metres high, the vaulted ceiling is impressively magnificent. Work on the transept started in 1902. The church is filled with ornate embellishments, such as the Flemish Renaissance choir stalls from the 16th-17th century, and numerous paintings and sculptures. It is also the home of a Holy Cross relic. The Sint-Walburga tower (approx. 1350) was never completed. Its foundations were later used as gunpowder store and water tank (cistern). The Sint-Niklaas tower has its origins in the 13th and 14th centuries and is home to the city carillon (47 bells) and the “Bomtje”, a bell from 1379. The church’s nave dates back to around 1500. There is also a triptych by Bernard van Orley from 1526 at the church.

15th - 17th century

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the area was ravaged by numerous wars. May works of art in monasteries and churches were destroyed by iconoclasts and members of the Reformed Church. Nevertheless, the construction of the Spaans Paviljoen (Spanish Pavilion) was started in the 15th century: the corner tower, part of the keep, was built around 1450 to serve as Veurne’s town hall, and the wing in the Ooststraat was added around 1530. Later, in the 17th century, the building became the headquarters of the Spanish officers; hence the name.

In 1586, the two councils that governed Veurne up to that time - the City and the Castellany - were united. Together with the reign of Albrecht and Isabella (1598-1621), this signalled a period of great prosperity and affluence for the city and the wider area, and as a result, there are many historical buildings that date back to this era.

The north-westerly corner of the Grote Markt boasts a magnificent Renaissance complex: the manor house, with it’s concierge’s lodge and belfry. The concierge’s lodge became the town hall after Belgium gained independence. This elegant building with Flemish Renaissance facades is made up of two parts (1596 and 1612). The beautiful frontage ties in perfectly with this complex. The walls of the Stadhuis (Town Hall) rooms are clad in gilt leather from Mechelen, and are adorned with peculiar paintings, such as portraits of the Archduke Albrecht and Archduchess Isabella, a “Last Judgement”, and a unique collection of bronze judicial items from the 16th century. The manor house itself dates from 1612-1623, and served as the seat of the Castellany council. The building later became the courthouse (until 1982). The Stenen Zaal (Stone Room) on the first floor features a stunning fireplace. Particular eyecatchers in the former courtroom are the old oak wall cladding and the oak furniture. Two works by Paul Delvaux are displayed in the former chapel.

The manor house has a crowning glory in the form of a graceful tower in gothic style with a Baroque showpiece: the belfry (1628). This newly restored tower, together with the other Belgian belfries, is part of the UNESCO World Heritage.

De Hoge Wacht is another Renaissance building, constructed in 1636 to serve as an inn. It was later bought by the city magistrate and transformed into a guard house. The row of houses with their stepped gables, on the northside of the Grote Markt, and the Oude Vleeshalle (Old Meat Market) also date from the same period - just like countless other houses scattered around Veurne and the Beauvoorde castle that was built in Wulveringem by Antoon de Bryarde. The moated castle was thoroughly restored by Arthur Merghelynck at the end of the 19th century. He bequeathed it to the Belgian State and ordered it should be made available to the Royal Academy for Language and Literature.  The building is currently in the care of the Vlaams Erfgoed (Flemish Heritage) Foundation. The late-gothic Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe church in Wulveringem, opposite the castle, only has two aisles. It was built as an annexe to a Roman cruciform church in the 15th-16th century, traces of which are still visible.

The church has a spirelet and is very richly decorated. The Onze-Lieve-Vrouw church in Houtem is a gothic hall church built between the 15th and 17th centuries, with a bulky western tower and still bears the remnants of the prior Roman church. They are beautifully framed by the cemetery, near the Flemish Renaissance vicarage.

Wenzel Cobergher was a versatile man: archaeologist, economist, chemist, numismatist, architect, painter, ... He organised the Bergen van Barmhartigheid (Mount of Piety), the institution that provided cheap loans. In 1604, he became the court architect to Archduke Albrecht and Archduchess Isabella. His most impressive achievement was the drainage and reclamation of De Moeren, an expanse of marshland, now partly in Belgium and partly in France. He was the first person to successfully transform the land into fertile polder land. At the end Veurne’s prosperous period in the 17th century, Jacob Clou - a Norbertine from the Sint-Niklaas abbey in Veurne - arranged the first Boetprocessie (Penitential Procession) in 1637. He had already organised the Vastenkruisweg (Advent Stations of the Cross) with his Sodaliteit (Sodality) for some time. The wars of expansion waged by Louis XIV of France and the Spanish wars of succession brought more destruction and suffering during the second half of the 17th century.

18th century up to WWI

The city could breathe again under the rule of Maria Theresa of Austria and Charles of Lorraine. Numerous classical buildings are reminders of this era, such as the St-Jan hospital or the former arrondissement commission’s premises. The Sodaliteit experienced difficulties, resulting in the Boetprocessie not being able to take place when contemplative monasteries and spiritual fraternities were abolished under the rule of Joseph II, who spent a night in Veurne on 10 June 1781. These processions only became possible again in 1790, when emperor Leopold II was in power.

Then, the French Revolution came and the city was ravaged by several attacks. The monasteries that still stood were abolished. The St.-Walburga church with its 13th-century choir narrowly escaped being sold because the local people managed to raise enough money just in time to buy the church themselves. After the Battle of Waterloo and the reunification with the Netherlands (1815), Veurne experienced a period of peace. Veurne became the first city honoured with welcoming Leopold I as King of Belgium.

WWI until WWII

During the First World War (1914-1918), the Belgian army retreated all the way behind the IJzer river to avoid German attacks. Veurne resident Karel Cogge, supervisor of the Veurne Noordwatering, helped the Nieuwpoort skipper Hendrik Gheeraert and the Genietroepen (Army Corps of Engineers) to deliberately flood the IJzer plains. The Belgian then took refuge, entrenching themselves behind the track beds of the old Nieuwpoort-Diksmuide line, which resulted in four years of trench war.

King Albert I made the Veurne town hall into his military headquarters during this IJzer battle, and he hosted the French president and the English king here, among others. The headquarters were moved to Houtem vicarage in January 1915 and stayed there until the final offensive against the Germans in 1918. An airfield was created nearby. The royal family stayed in De Panne, but when this became part of the English sector after they were called in to reinforce the exhausted Belgian troops, the royal family moved to the Sint-Flora castle in De Moeren on 16 August 1917. So from then on, the allied commanders made their way to Houtem and De Moeren.

To safeguard the conservation of Veurne, special measures were taken to make sure soldiers no longer needed to enter the city. However, the city still bore the brunt of some direct hits that destroyed several historical monuments (rebuilt around 1920). The King and Queen paid regular visits to see the situation for themselves from atop the Sint-Niklaas tower. The war-torn region attracted some literary figures, and Marie Curie and her daughter also visited Veurne to demonstrate the workings of the X-ray machine at the College,

which served as a hospital at the time. Later, an army hospital was established by doctor Lepage from the famous "l'Océan" hospital in De Panne. It was here the famous Flemish artist Joe English passed away. The Queen personally made sure there were schools in Wulveringem for those children whose parents would not entrust them to the school colonies abroad.

After 1918, Veurne and Houtem - both in the centre of liberated Belgium - returned to their pre-war tranquillity. Damage from the war was repaired and the French president Poincaré visited the city in 1920 to personally bestow the French War Cross with Palm. The Sugar Factory, relocated from the ravaged Komen-Waasten, became the first industrial player of note. Yet on the whole, the period between the two wars - the era that formed the backdrop for Simenon’s famous novel “The Burgomaster of Furnes” - was a relatively quiet time.

WWII up to the present

At the start of the Second World War in May 1940, Veurne was fiercely defended by the English during their retreat past Dunkerque, after the Belgian army had surrendered. For days, frightened inhabitants of Veurne hid in the Citerne (the unfinished westerly tower of the Sint-Walburga church in the city park) while the city was under heavy attack. This lead to Veurne being officially included in the list of ‘town or city victim of acts of war 1940-1945’ on 1 July 2004. As a result, the city received an honorary certificate with memorial ribbon from the Ministry of Defence.

Large parts of the countryside surrounding Veurne were deliberately flooded for strategic reasons at the start of the war, but particularly at the end. For De Moeren, a very fertile area, the salty seawater was especially disastrous.

During the years that followed, Veurne remained a small central city, with the traditional seats of judicial and financial services, but also with a regional role in trade, care (hospital), education and many more. Improved infrastructure had to wait until the 1960s, but boosted by various government initiatives, Veurne saw improvement of the A12, electrification of the railways and newly built industrial zones that were still very much geared towards the agricultural nature of the surrounding area. This was also when tourist opportunities were explored.

Today, Veurne is a pleasant city with ten rural municipal districts, home to merely 12,000 inhabitants. The old city centre boasts a remarkable heritage with its two churches; the Sint-Walburga church is particularly magnificent. The Stad- en Landshuis are beautiful examples of the regional Renaissance interpretation, and there are 18th-century private buildings dotted all around the city, built with regional yellow bricks and sometimes with stunning embellishment. The district municipalities remind us of their rich history with old farmsteads, stately churches, and even some mills and a moated castle.

Flandria illustrata
17th century (Flandria illustrata – 1641)
Ferraris 1771-1778 (www.geopunt.be)
vrij vaderland foto
Grote Markt 1914
Grand Place Veurne 1914 (C. Steenbergh)