Belfort kind kijkt over de stad
© Tini Cleemput

The Belfry

The belfry was intended as a tribute to the power struggle between the people of Ghent and the Count of Flanders since the 11th century. It symbolised the political power that the trades and guilds had gained on the city’s council.

Arduous construction work

The works on the belfry started around 1313. It was built from grey limestone that was ferried to Ghent by boat from Tournai. Initially, the works progressed well, but the conflicts between England and France, in which Flanders was also embroiled, soon threw a spanner in the works. Construction even stopped for several years. The Belfry’s first provisional wooden spire was added in 1380. 

The corps of town guards

The Belfry primarily acts as an alarm installation for the medieval city. A colourful bunch of tower guards populated the tower. The bell-ringers sounded the bells on the hour and for work and stood guard during the day. At night, they patrolled the city’s streets with a small lantern and a trained guard dog. The night watch was the job of the city trumpeters, who blew their trumpets every hour out of the Belfry’s windows. The ‘schalmeiers’ or town pipers were professional musicians, who went from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, proclaiming the new bylaws. Together they formed the corps of town guards. They were the city’s watchmen.

Clock of the city

Life in the city was lived to the rhythm of the clock. The first wooden clock mechanism was installed in the belfry as early as 1380. The time indication was not that accurate in those days. The tower guards had to correct the time several times a day, relying on a sun dial. In the seventeenth century, time-keeping became more accurate thanks to the pendulum clock. The current tower clock mechanism, from 1913, is still wound manually by the present-day ‘tower guards’.

The 'Secreet'

From 1408 onwards, the city council preserved the city’s privileges or charters which spelled out the city’s rights and privileges in the ‘secreet’ chamber. Only three people had keys to the reinforced chests that were chained to the floor: the  
bailiff and the city’s two first aldermen. In 1578, these valuable documents were transferred to Ghent’s town hall. 

During WWII, the Germans used the ‘secreet’ as a command post. They built a shelter here, which could be reached through underground corridors under Sint-Baafsplein.