Friday, April 1, 2011

The Pearl of Flanders

St Pancras (left) was built for trains to Mercia and Northumbria, not for those going the other way. Sandwiched between Euston and King’s Cross, it offers continentals easy connections to the most parts, though Wessex understandably comes off worse. Barlow’s red bricks, white mortar and sky blue roof provide a thrilling front door to modern Britain.

The Gare de Lille-Europe is another story, a steel and concrete cave of desolation that could double as a film-set for 1984. Only the rats are missing. The cult of maniacal ugliness that began with Le Corbusier is thriving in France. It is propelled into the future through being taught as dogma in schools of architecture worldwide. But what of its past? Where does it come from, this notion that humanity has ‘done’ beauty and cannot be allowed to return to it?

The best antidote is a weekend in Bruges, where horrors do exist but are mercifully few. Belgium is as British as it can be without ceasing to be Belgian. It has pubs. And chips. Red pillar boxes. Quirky eccentricities. Tintin. Considering how many times the map of Europe has been redrawn, we in Britain may think that our institutions of State provide us with an unequalled continuity. In fact, in many parts of the continent, that continuity is provided by other, local traditions that we have neglected. Bruges, with its almshouses and ancient fraternities, can be reminiscent of Salisbury or Winchester, though like both it faces a constant battle against developers and modernisers. I suspect that its guilds and processions do have more life in them than ours and are not maintained just for the tourists.

One of the fraternities is the Noble Brotherhood of the Holy Blood, formed to protect and promote a relic, supposedly of the blood of Jesus, brought back from the Crusades. The relic rests in a rock crystal container, inside a gold and glass one dated 1388, inside an ornate shrine, in an upstairs chapel next to the Town Hall. There are very few places in England where it is possible to get as close to the Middle Ages as this, even if the gilded bronze statues outside (above) were made in 1893. The relic has been well-guarded, surviving the Calvinists, the Jacobins and two world wars.

Wessex had its own such relic, the Holy Blood of Hayles, a gift to Hayles Abbey near Winchcombe from Edmund, the son of its founder, Richard, Earl of Cornwall and King of the Romans. Edmund had bought it from the Count of Holland, complete with certificate of authenticity. Come the Reformation, the relic did not even outlast the abbey. It was suspected that the blood was actually that of a duck, regularly renewed. The offending piece of quackery was taken to London in 1539 and examination concluded that it was “honey clarified and coloured with saffron”. It was then burnt at Paul’s Cross after a suitably fiery sermon against idolatry.

On BBC4 in 2008, Jonathan Meades presented ‘Magnetic North’, a brilliant evocation of that seaboard region stretching from the northern tip of France to wrap around the shores of the Baltic, taking in all those cities so influenced by the trading links of the Hansa. Look at the stepped gables, the canalside warehouses, the market squares and pinnacled public buildings, towering above all the Gothic in soaring brick and try to guess the country. Not a chance. This is generic northern European, as ubiquitous as the herring.

The wealth of Flanders came from woollen cloth, a fact not lost on Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, who founded the Order of the Golden Fleece at Bruges in 1430. Two of the city’s many churches – mostly the size of small cathedrals – were venues for later meetings of the knights during that century. In both cases the event was marked by placing above the choir stalls painted boards bearing their coats of arms. Those of King Edward IV – France’s lilies quartered with England’s lions – are included. Edward’s host at his installation was Louis de Gruuthuse, known as Lewis de Bruges, whom the king made Earl of Winchester for his troubles.

More ancestral heraldry is to be found on the tombs of Charles the Bold, the last of the Dukes, and his daughter Mary of Burgundy, in the Church of Our Lady (left). Mary’s step-mother was Margaret of York, sister of that Edward IV. William Caxton was Margaret’s secretary. Burgundian trade depended on good relations with England, relations that King Louis XI of France did all he could to poison, including undermining Edward's credit with the international bankers in a bid to render him unable to fund Margaret's dowry. Clearly, Edward could have done with that treasure chest from Passport to Pimlico.

Our Lady’s Church was founded to house relics of St Boniface, one of the most successful of Wessex exports, whose silver reliquary is displayed in the choir. Others with Wessex connections followed him to Bruges, including his niece St Walburga (745); Emma, the widow of King Cnut (1037-40); Gunhilda, the sister of King Harold (1067-87); John Wycliffe (1374); the exiled King Charles II (1656-59); and the Bristolian poet Robert Southey (1816). And so should everyone who wishes to see Europe at its best.