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Map op Ghent 1534: detail showing Saint Bavo's Abbey © STAM Gent. Hugo Maertens
Map op Ghent 1534: detail showing Saint Bavo's Abbey © STAM Gent. Hugo Maertens

Earliest mention of the abbeys in the 9th century

The genesis of St Peter’s Abbey and St Bavo’s Abbey is still the subject of debate today. The first absolutely reliable written sources date from the 9th century during the reign of Louis the Pious (814–840). These texts prove the existence of two abbeys in Ghent: Ganda (dedicated to St Peter, located at the confluence of Lys and Scheldt – usually called St Bavo’s because of the relics of St Bavo) and Blandinium (dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, located along the Scheldt on the Blandijnberg, later called St Peter’s). They grew to become the most powerful abbeys in the county of Flanders in the Middle Ages.

Founded in the 7th century

The mists shrouding the genesis of both Merovingian monasteries have been the subject of much debate over the centuries involving numerous sources, some of them falsified, the main desire being to be the older of the two. Anyone wishing to delve into this debate can consult hundreds of publications and sources available online via DiplomataBelgica. What we know with certainty, however, is that both abbeys originated during the Christianization of the northern areas of the Frankish empire in the course of the 7th century. The main – hagiographic – source is the Vita Amandi from the 9th century: a medieval manuscript which we know belonged to the library of St Peter’s Abbey in the 10th century and which can be consulted in its entirety in the Ghent University Library.

Missionary Saint Amandus

Like other missionaries, Amandus was active in Ghent and its surroundings between 630 and 660. The Vita Amandi contains all the hagiographic elements of a saint’s life: the Christianization of the rebellious pagan population of pagus Gandavo proceeds with great difficulty, until Amandus raises an executed man from the dead. This miracle causes people to convert en masse. Pagan cult sites are destroyed, and with the help of King Dagobert I (629–639) and the donations of numerous pious men and women, monasteries are founded.

First community at Blandinium

More than likely, Blandinium – originally a large rural estate of King Dagobert I – was Amandus’s first base of operations. His first residence grew into a fully mixed monastic community of men and women. Among Amandus’s most faithful followers was Bavo, a wealthy nobleman from Haspengouw who, after a youth full of sin and pleasure-seeking, comes to live as a hermit in the vicinity of Ghent.

Hermit Bavo buried at Ganda

After his death, Bavo’s bones were transferred to the church in Ganda that had been founded by Amandus. A cult soon developed around the popular Saint Bavo. The numerous donations that followed in the wake of Bavo’s relics led to the development of a fully-fledged monastic community there as well. In no time, Ganda became one of the most powerful abbeys in the region and more prosperous than Blandinium.

In the empire of Charlemagne

A century later, an ambitious family of large landowners took over the throne from their Merovingian predecessors. The Carolingians were now in control of the Frankish empire. Charlemagne (+814) succeeded in creating a European Union avant-la-lettre. From 800, he was not only King of the Franks but also Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Abbeys controlled by the empire

The Carolingian sovereigns enlisted monasticism to strengthen the unity of the empire. The abbeys were entrusted with military and other obligations for the sovereign and the empire. The sovereign himself appointed the abbots in the monasteries. His preference in this regard increasingly went to lay people, the so-called lay abbots. This was also the case in Ghent, where Einhard, the famous biographer of Charlemagne, was appointed abbot of St Peter’s and St Bavo’s Abbey in 815 and 819, respectively.

Profitable cult of Saint Bavo

Ganda was more influential and important than Blandinium under Einhard’s abbatiate. Einhard enlisted the Carolingian court milieu to propagate the monastic Saint Bavo. The cult of Bavo became wildly popular in the first half of the 9th century. This benefitted not only the abbey’s treasury, but also its cultural influence. Its name and fame henceforth extended throughout the Carolingian realm.

Portus Ganda

An important trading settlement grew up around the abbey, the “portus Ganda,” as also mentioned in a Parisian text shortly after the middle of the 9th century (858/59). After all, a large abbey like St Bavo’s was not only an important religious center, but also a point of contact for regional trade. The merchants who lived there worked in the service of the abbey. They sold the agricultural surpluses of the abbey estates and purchased other products for the benefit of the monastic community.

The Norsemen destroy St Bavo’s Abbey

From the last years of Charlemagne’s reign and certainly from the middle of the 9th century, Danish Vikings terrorized the coasts. Raids by the Norsemen in the Scheldt Basin resulted in the total destruction of St Bavo’s Abbey in 851. The monks fled with the relics of St Bavo to the fortified city of Laon. After a difficult reconstruction, a second plundering and occupation of St Bavo’s Abbey by the Norsemen followed in 879. They even set up their winter camp there. The monastic community abandoned the site for decades.

St Peter’s Abbey raided and reformed

Blandinium was also invaded by the Norsemen, but after the great invasion of 883, the monastic community quickly returned. This made St Peter’s Abbey the only monastery in Ghent for a long time. And this had major consequences.

At the end of the 9th century, monasticism was left in a state of disarray. The lay abbots increasingly abused the land holdings of the abbeys to strengthen their own power. There was an urgent need for reform. Count Arnulf I (918–965) was especially active in this regard. With the help of monastic reformer Gerard of Brogne (+959), he ensured material restorations, the return of regular abbots, and the (re)introduction of the Rule of Benedict. He also made St Peter’s Abbey the privileged burial place of the Counts of Flanders, resulting in numerous gifts, relics, and above all, favors.

Return to St Bavo’s

The monks of St Bavo’s, who did not return to their home base in Ghent until around 920–930, lost a large part of their abbey domain permanently. They had little to look forward to but disdainful treatment by Count Arnulf I. Fortunately, from 974 onward, they could rely on the support of German emperor Otto II (973–983). Otto was only too eager to look after the interests of St Bavo’s Abbey in order to strengthen the empire’s border along the Scheldt in his fight against the king of France. He is therefore considered the protector and savior of St Bavo’s Abbey.

Growing influence and power

Both abbeys in Ghent grew into powerful political and economic centers with great cultural influence from the mid-10th to the end of the 12th century. The two abbeys owned and operated estates and villages as far away as England. They were at the forefront of the reclamation movement of the 12th and 13th centuries, which significantly increased the agricultural area of Flanders.

The struggle for saints and relics

Tensions between the two competing abbeys in Ghent repeatedly ran high during this period. The rival monks did not hesitate to forge documents and even invent saints. Relics of saints brought in a lot of money: relics attracted pilgrims, who were only too happy to buy off their sins with donations.

The most beautiful acquisitions for St Peter’s Abbey were the relics of Wandregisilus and Ansbertus from the great Norman abbey of Fontanelle. But St Bavo’s Abbey also acquired a bevy of new relics in the course of the 11th century, mostly from obscure and even fictitious saints such as Macharius and Livinus.

For centuries, a battle of prestige raged between the two monastic communities of Ghent. Only in the 12th century did the infamous conflict subside. At that time, both abbeys had to yield their dominant position to the city of Ghent.

In the grip of princes and ostentatious abbots

In the 13th century, however, St Peter’s and St Bavo’s Abbey began to struggle. The two Benedictine abbeys no longer met the religious and intellectual needs of an urban society. Mendicant orders and universities offered better answers to the needs of an urban population. Ill-considered purchases and loans, famines, and ambitious building policies created severe financial problems.

Politically, abbeys were more than ever manipulated by the sovereign. Increasingly, they were the setting for diplomatic meetings, births, marriages, and funerals. For example, the impressive wedding ceremony of Philip the Bold (1342–1404), first Duke of Burgundy, with Margaret of Male (1350–1405), daughter of the Flemish count, took place in St Bavo’s Abbey on June 19, 1369. Philippa of Hainault, wife of the English king Edward III, gave birth to John of Gaunt, later Duke of Lancaster, in the same abbey on March 6, 1340.

The sovereign also increasingly succeeded in appointing minions (compatriots, relatives) as abbots. Thus, in 1478, Philip the Good (1396–1467), Duke of Burgundy, appointed his illegitimate son Raphael de Mercatel as abbot of St Bavo’s Abbey. Addicted to luxury and entertainment, De Mercatel had St Bavo’s Abbey completely rebuilt in the Gothic style. He also built up an impressive collection of luxury manuscripts on history, philosophy, geography, botany and zoology, some of which are held today at Ghent University Library and at the Bishopric of Ghent.

The intense bond between the abbey and the ruling house is also expressed in the way the Joyous Entries took place. In this ceremony, the new sovereigns received the sword of justice of the Count of Flanders in the abbey church of St Peter’s, where they confirmed the freedoms and rights of the abbey. Only then were they inaugurated in the city. In this way, the sovereign made clear that he had received his authority from God, and the abbey assured itself of its privileged position. The oldest account of the subject dates from April 23, 1331, and describes how Louis of Nevers made his entrance there in 1322.

Because of their good relations with the sovereign, Ghent’s abbeys found themselves in narrow straits more than once during the many conflicts between the city and the lord of the manor in the 13th and 14th centuries.

St Bavo’s Abbey demolished – St Peter’s Abbey in ruins

When the city of Ghent refused to pay taxes in 1539, a true popular uprising ensued. As punishment, Emperor Charles V had large parts of the abbey and the surrounding village of St Bavo’s razed in 1540. On the same spot he built a fortress, the so-called Spaniard’s Castle. From then on, a garrison of Spanish soldiers kept an eye on the rebellious citizens of Ghent. The protests of Lucas Munich, the last abbot, were to no avail. The monks became canons and moved to St John’s Church, which was known as St Bavo’s Church from 1559 and later St Bavo’s Cathedral.

St Peter’s Abbey henceforth went down in history without its sister institution. From the middle of the 16th century onward, a political-religious crisis tore through the Netherlands. Privileges and abuses within the church gave rise to the Reformation, a movement of resistance against such abuses. The strong anticlerical feelings culminated in the Iconoclasm of 1566 and 1578. The splendid St Peter’s Abbey, which had good relations with the sovereign and supported the persecution of heretics, suffered greatly. Altars, statues of saints, paintings, and stained-glass windows were smashed to smithereens. “Te triest om ’t al te vertellen [too sad to relate],” wrote Marcus van Vaernewyck in his eyewitness account. The abbey church, the library, and the abbot’s residence suffered heavy damage. In 1577, the Calvinists seized power in Ghent and occupied St Peter’s Abbey. This was the start of a second “purge.” The abbot and his monks fled to Douai. A Calvinist worship service was held in the parish church next to the abbey, but the abbey church was destroyed.

In 1584, Governor Farnese brought Calvinist Ghent to its knees. The Benedictines returned. The once mighty St Peter’s Abbey was then little more than a ruin. The abbey church and dormitory were destroyed and partly demolished, the abbot’s residence and the provostry suffered heavy damage, and the library had been looted.

A princely abbey

The rebuilding of St Peter’s Abbey was a mammoth task. Only in the first quarter of the 17th century did the financial and material reconstruction gradually take shape. The new abbey church, modelled on St Peter’s in Rome, was the jewel in the crown. It took nearly a century to build … Its unabashedly Baroque architecture symbolizes the triumph of the Catholic faith.

From the 17th century onward, Ghent experienced a strong Catholic revival. Yet St Peter’s Abbey continued to struggle with financial and disciplinary problems. Only after the appointment of Abbot Mutsaert in 1720 did things start to improve. The abbey became the meeting place of choice for conferences, ceremonies, and celebrations. The abbey thus evolved into a regal residence that could compete with the castles or palazzos of aristocrats and wealthy citizens. This included the luxurious abbot’s quarters, with its lavishly decorated interiors, conservatories, and an orangery.

Abbot Filips Standaert (1730–1759) had the refectory and the library completely redesigned according to 18th-century taste. His successor, Gudwalus Seiger (1760–1789), nicknamed Le Magnifique, also had grandiose building plans. He had a new infirmary built in the classicist style. At that time, St Peter’s Abbey was the richest abbey in the Low Countries.…

The end

Abbot Martinus van de Velde (1789–1796) succeeded Gudwalus Le Magnifique in 1789, the year of the Brabant Revolution. The Southern Netherlands turned against the Austrian regime of Emperor Joseph II, and again St Peter’s Abbey came under heavy fire. The recapture of power by the Austrians a year later unfortunately brought no relief.

The French drove out the Austrians and entered Ghent in 1792. Finally, they abolished all religious institutions with a stroke of the pen. The thirty-one monks of St Peter’s Abbey had to leave in 1796 and were no longer allowed to wear a monastic habit. All property was nationalized. It was the culmination of a slow process of social change that greatly reduced the influence of the monasteries.

The abbey church was given a new purpose in 1798. For the next ten years, it served as the Musée du Département de l’Escaut, the forerunner of the Museum of Fine Arts. From 1803 it was also partially open again for Catholic worship. Henceforth, the church was called Our Lady of St Peter’s.

The library was heavily ransacked, but large parts of the collection were transferred to the Baudelo Abbey in 1798. Incidentally, the wood from the monastery library of St Peter’s was used to furnish this municipal library. Since the founding of Ghent University in 1817, the collection has come under the management of the University Library, which still preserves these precious works today.

The abbey and the city

The rest of the abbey buildings did not fare as well. The city of Ghent bought them in 1810 and converted them into barracks. The parish church, the luxurious abbot’s quarters, and the provostry with its prison were demolished. They had to make way for a military training ground. In 1849, the square in front of the abbey was given its present form after the designs of architect Charles Leclerc-Restiaux. Where the garden is now was formerly the site of stables, latrines, and other utility buildings for military activities.

In 1948, the abbey’s barrack days came to an end. The city decided to restore St Peter’s Abbey and give it a cultural function. The military buildings in the garden were demolished.

Both abbey sites are currently owned by the City of Ghent and managed by Historische Huizen Gent. In recent decades, the sites have also been the subject of extensive archaeological research projects.

The ruins of the St Bavo’s site are among the most beautiful places in Ghent and are open to visitors from April to November. St Peter’s Abbey has grown into a renowned exhibition hall of European stature and an open historical house that is well worth a visit.

(Hendrik Defoort and Kristin Van Damme, 2021, for

St Peter's Abbey and St Peter's Church © Wernervc Wikimedia Commons CC-SA-3.0
St Peter's Abbey and St Peter's Church © Wernervc Wikimedia Commons CC-SA-3.0