Walking around Antwerp you might find yourself feeling like you’re being watched. Look upwards as you wander the cobbled streets, and gazing down benignly (at least I think they’re benign) will be one of the many statues of saints that are found on buildings around the city. Perhaps they’re there to keep an eye on the people who’ve been drinking beer made in the local monasteries?
When monks are making the beer – and they make some spectacular and spectacularly strong beers – it’s hard to tell who’s saint and who’s sinner.
Antwerp’s the sort of town that invites you to partake of its hospitality. There are lots of wonderful little cafes, bars and restaurants with outside tables to idle away an hour or two, possibly a day or two, sampling the hard work of the monks. Add to this a rich history, wonderful culture and excellent food, and Antwerp makes for an energising destination.
This makes my next confession all the more surprising. I ‘misspoke’ (as idiot politicians might say) in my previous post on Antwerp. I do know someone who doesn’t like Belgium’s second city and cultural lodestone. One of my colleagues isn’t a fan, and this isn’t a Dutch-Belgium rivalry thing, he’s British. Strange but true.
Settled in the 3rd Century by Germanic sailers, Antwerp’s location on the Scheldt River has been the driving force behind its long and often bloody history. The Romans settled here and, when the Scheldt was the boundary of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemange built a fortress here. The Vikings came up the river in the 9th Century and destroyed everything, as Vikings tend to do.
After that setback Antwerp went on to become an economic powerhouse, with a spectacular Golden Age in the mid-16th Century. The bloody religious wars unleashed by the Reformation, and the Protestant Dutch uprising against the fanatical Catholic rule of Spain’s Philipe II, brought this period of prosperity to a brutal end.
Violence engulfed the city when Antwerp’s Protestants unleashed the Iconoclastic Fury in 1566, destroying many Catholic icons in Antwerp Cathedral. This was viciously put down by Spanish troops who, after a decade of war, unleashed the Spanish Fury on the city in 1576. For three days they ransacked the city and murdered over 8,000 people.
The Spanish were back laying siege to Antwerp in 1585. The city eventually surrendered after a year. The surviving Protestants fled the devastated city to the Netherlands, taking trade and skills with them. Antwerp was forced to remain under Spanish control as a Catholic city. Which probably explains all the saintly statues staring at you from on high.
The Protestant Dutch had the last laugh though. The Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, closed the Scheldt to all non-Dutch ships. The Dutch strangled Antwerp’s economy, and the city sank into relative obscurity, only reviving in the 19th Century.
It was badly bombed during World War II, but much of ancient Antwerp survived into the 21st Century. The glorious Grote Markt is surrounded by magnificent medieval Guild Halls, golden statues on their roofs glinting in the sun. In the middle of all this grandeur is a large statue-cum-fountain of a man throwing a severed hand – water gushing from it like blood. This is the legend of Druon Antigoon and Silvius Brabo that gives Antwerp its name.
Antigoon was a giant who terrorised people wanting to cross the River Scheldt by forcing them to pay a toll. If you refused to pay he’d chop your hand off and throw it in the river. People were, naturally, unhappy about the whole ‘pay a toll or lose a hand’ thing. When a young Roman soldier, Silvius Brabo, was offered the choice he killed Antigoon, chopped his hand off and threw it in the river.
This is what the statue commemorates and where Antwerp got its name, the Dutch hand werpen means to ‘throw a hand’. Pretty literal stuff for such an inventive myth.