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Origins of the Cistercian Order

Around 1100, several monastic reform movements first saw the light of day. One of these was the Cistercian Order. This order originated in Cîteaux (near Dijon in France) as a stricter return to the Rule of St Benedict. The order was particularly successful due to the actions of the energetic abbot Bernard of Clairvaux. The order grew explosively by creating new foundations and incorporating existing abbeys. One of these was Ten Duinen in Koksijde.

From hermit community to Benedictine community

Like many abbeys of its time, Ten Duinen started as a community that grew up around a hermit, in this case Ligerius. Around 1107, Ligerius settled in the inhospitable dunes near the town of Veurne. A few years later, Desiderius, a Flemish cleric, fled from Flanders for reasons unknown. He became a monk at the abbey of Fontmorigny (near Nevers in France), and spread the word there about Ligerius and his followers. After the murder of Count Charles the Good in 1127, Desiderius returned to Flanders. Shortly after his return, however, he was murdered in unclear circumstances. Instigated by these accounts, the abbot of Fontmorigny decided to send a fellowship of monks under the supervision of a certain Fulco to Ligerius. They turned the hermit’s community into a Benedictine community, with Fulco as its first abbot. The new community received a few large donations from the Counts of Flanders William Clito and Thierry of Alsace, including the dune area to which it owes its name. Ligerius appears to have died in 1128 and therefore missed the next step in the abbey’s history, viz. its transition into a Cistercian abbey.

From Benedictine community to Cistercian abbey

Fulco was also involved in the foundation of Clairmarais Abbey (near Saint-Omer in France). After a meeting with Bernard of Clairvaux, Fulco dedicated both institutions to him in 1138. Subsequently, Clairvaux sent Robrecht of Bruges to Ten Duinen as the first Cistercian abbot. When Robrecht returned to Clairvaux in 1153 as Bernard’s successor, he was briefly replaced in Koksijde by Albero. Then in 1155 Idesbald (d. 1167) was elected as the first abbot of Ten Duinen from the local community.

Cloister buildings in brick

The abbey had modest beginnings: a wooden building donated by the chapter of Veurne. But by as early as the 12th century, it was growing into a large abbey complex in natural stone. From the 13th century onwards, it was extended and renovated in the Gothic style. The abbey accomplished this with brick, becoming one of the first large-scale producers and users of brick in Flanders.

Economic prosperity in the 12th century

These expansions were made possible by the enormous growth of property and of the community. Donations, purchases and exchanges allowed the development of large granges or abbey farms, with the largest at Dunkirk. As early as the 12th century, Ten Duinen had trade contacts and properties in England and owned its own fleet. Shortly before the turn of the century, possessions were acquired in Zeeland and the Four Shires (Vier Ambachten). The abbey expanded its property there through land reclamation (drainage), among other things, so that this region became its economic centre of gravity. A century later, the abbey’s total property had grown to around 10,000 ha with numerous large monastic granges and smaller farm estates. Niklaas van Belle (1232/3–1253) built imposing brick barns at the largest granges.


The abbey reached its maximum size in the middle of the 13th century, with around 370 members: 1/3 choir monks, who were mainly engaged in prayer, liturgy and study but were also active in the granges, and 2/3 lay brothers, who were generally less educated but who were employed as skilled workers because of their various abilities. As a result, the abbey of Ten Duinen belonged to the top tier of monasteries in Flanders and even attracted notice beyond its borders.

Floods and religious turbulence

In the middle of the 13th century, however, the abbey was affected by floods that threatened its property in Zeeland and Hulst (Zande). When the abbey sided with the French in the Franco-Flemish conflict around 1300, this caused a break with the Counts of Flanders and economic problems ensued. The abbey’s English possessions were sold and its debts reduced when relations with the sovereigns were restored. Lambrecht Uppenbroeck (1317/8–1354) was able to make new acquisitions and even carry out impressive renovations to the abbey complex. Later, Ten Duinen also acquired domains in the region around Veurne and in Zeeland, but the latter in particular became increasingly problematic due to the ongoing struggle against floodings and surges.

Economic and political development

The abbey experienced further ups-and-downs. During the Western Schism, Jan Maes (1376–1406) was able to obtain the prestigious pontificalia (the staff and mitre of a bishop). But Pieter vander Marct (1418–1442) experienced such financial problems that he had to find accommodations for the community in other monasteries on several occasions. Nevertheless, he is praised for his vigorous economic action, as is Jan Crabbe (1457–1488), who inherited the burden of financial debt when he took office. Crabbe could only become abbot after the death of an opposing candidate supported by the Dukes of Burgundy. He then became an influential counsellor of the dukes, with an interest in humanism and a penchant for luxurious manuscripts. He developed the abbey’s refuge in Bruges into a permanent residence for the abbots.

Advancing dunes

The abbey was beset by problems in the 16th century. Heavy flooding in Zeeland necessitated re-embankment that Ten Duinen could hardly afford. In Koksijde, the monastery complex, which had become far too large for its few remaining monks, was threatened by the advancing dunes. As a result, the abbey sought to relocate, but this always met with resistance from the regional authorities. In spite of this, the abbots maintained an ostentatious lifestyle.

Iconoclasm and flight from Koksijde

In August 1566, Ten Duinen fell prey to iconoclasts. Some of the artworks, tombs, printed books, manuscripts and archives were saved, but much was lost. In the years that followed, the abbey suffered the terrible consequences of political and religious strife. Around 1578, the monks left the old abbey site for good; its buildings were eagerly torn down for building materials.

New site at Ten Bogaerde

After the region around Veurne was conquered by the Spanish Catholic authorities, the abbey community was again able to settle in the Westhoek, first in Nieuwpoort and then at the abbey farm Ten Bogaerde in Koksijde. There, a new abbey arose, and the community experienced a religious and intellectual revival.

Veneration of Abbot Idesbald

The monks themselves continued the demolition of the old abbey. In 1623, Bernard Campmans (1623–1642) discovered the alleged grave of Abbot Idesbald with an intact body. This led to a popular devotion, although the abbey did not succeed in having him beatified or canonised.

New site in Bruges

Campmans was able to acquire the movable and immovable property of the former daughter abbey, Ter Doest. Subsequently, in 1627, he was able to transfer the abbey community to the refuge of Ter Doest in Bruges. This was then expanded to become the new abbey of Ten Duinen.

The abbey benefitted to the fullest from the economic revival of the Westhoek, where the farms were leased by a receiver at Ten Bogaerde. The possessions in Zeeland gave more cause for concern: the fight against the water continued, but in the end the possessions were lost in the 1648 peace negotiations, when everything was allocated to the house of Nassau. Together with the ensuing Franco-Spanish wars, which affected the domains in the Westhoek region, this caused economic problems. Construction on the abbey in Bruges came to a standstill.

Counter-abbot supported by France

The troops of the French Sun King conquered the Westhoek. They supported the receiver of Ten Bogaerde, Arnold Terrasse, who was elected (counter-)abbot of the ‘real’ abbey of Ten Duinen near Veurne. The abbot in Bruges, Martin Collé (1680–1698), was only able to restore his authority five years later. After that, however, the abbey’s possessions in the Westhoek region were confiscated several times by the French or destroyed during the ongoing military conflict. The troubles continued until the Treaty of Utrecht (1713).

Cautious recovery

The 18th century, especially its second half, presents a picture of tentative revival. In Bruges, the abbey church was finally realised. Ten Duinen was also able to reduce its debt burden and reclaim forest land, which along with the general economic boom led to material prosperity.

Abolition and nationalisation of the patrimony in 1796

When the French Revolutionaries invaded Flanders after 1789, the community still had around twenty-five members. The abbey was abolished in 1796. Its possessions were nationalised and put to market; the former monks of the Dunes were only able to buy back a part of them. Part of the movable property, particularly manuscripts and paintings, ended up in the city of Bruges; part was retained by the former monks. By appointing each other as heirs, they managed to concentrate all they had preserved in the hands of the last monk, Niklaas De Roover. After his death in 1833, the immovable property went to the diocese of Bruges, which in turn donated it to the cathedral church and the Episcopal Seminary. The movable property went to De Roover’s nieces, but F.-R. Boussen, the first bishop, succeeded in acquiring most of it, including the important archives and remaining manuscripts.

The abbey site in Bruges

The former site of Ten Duinen abbey at the Potterierei in Bruges was allocated to the Seminary. The buildings had previously been used as a school and a military hospital, and the abbey church as a museum for confiscated works of art and as a Protestant place of worship. The Major Seminary Ten Duinen, located on the former abbey site, is nowadays a diocesan centre for the education and permanent training of ministers of worship: diocesan priests, permanent deacons, pastoral counsellors, and volunteers who participate in religious and parish life. The site is also home to the Library of the Major Seminary, with printed books, and the Archive of the Major Seminary, which includes the handwritten library books of Ten Duinen.

The abbey site in Koksijde

Over the centuries, the abbey site in Koksijde was completely buried under the sand of the dunes. Nevertheless, building materials continued to be removed from the ruins. Shortly after the Second World War, even for the restoration of the Seminary in Bruges….

Meanwhile, historical interest in the abbey had grown during the 19th century, and it received a boost after Abbot Idesbald’s beatification in 1894. Publications about the abbot appeared and the first trial excavations around the abbey were started. In the interwar period, the exact location of the buildings was mapped out. Targeted archaeological research began in 1949, with the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences taking the lead. The excavations immediately uncovered the church and continued systematically from there. Soon a museum was set up that combined the important finds with a scientific natural-historical section. A non-profit organisation was set up to manage it in 1959. After years of great public interest, the museum began to wane. Around the turn of the century, the municipality of Koksijde took over and the museum was completely renovated. The Ten Duinen Abbey Museum now focuses on the larger story of the abbey and its order with renewed scientific operations.

(Jan Van Acker, 2021, for

Pieter Pourbus, Map of the Abbey of the Dunes (Groeningemuseum Brugge 0000.GRO1534.I)
Pieter Pourbus, Map of the Abbey of the Dunes (Groeningemuseum Brugge 0000.GRO1534.I)