Mechelen is a town that hides its cultural light under a bushel. The Church of Our Lady across the River Dijle, or Onze Lieve Vrouw over de Dijlekerk as it’s known, is a case in point. Inside this hulking building is a triptych, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes. Painted by Rubens, it was commissioned by the Mechelen Fishmongers’ Guild during a fit of optimism in 1617 following five decades of hardship for the local fishing industry.
We arrived as the church was closing, but the nice lady on the door let us in for five minutes to have a look at the triptych. Restoration work meant that, while on display, it was behind a perspex screen. It was the crowning glory of several canvases by Rubens and van Dyck, as well as a host of other not-quite-as-famous painters, we’d seen. Not to mention several extraordinary carved wooden pulpits.
The interiors of Mechelen’s eight historic churches are matched by medieval buildings dotted around the town. All of which reflect the town’s prominent role in European history throughout the medieval period … a history with a surprising number of English connections. Perhaps the most famous of which is Margaret of York, sister of two kings of England, Edward IV and Richard III.
Fans of Shakespeare will recall, King Richard III was not only an arch villain (at least in the court of Elizabeth Tudor), but the last King of England from the House of York. He was replaced by Henry VII of the House of Tudor, hence the bad rap from Shakespeare. Sister, Margaret, was married off to Charles the Bold of Burgundy and lived in Mechelen until her death in 1503.
That, though, is not where the links to the Tudors end. The ill fated Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife before he decided to have her executed on trumped up charges, lived here in the early 16th century. The most infamous English connection though, is The English Fury at Mechelen in 1580 during the Eighty Years’ War – part of the religious wars sparked by the Reformation.
Mechelen found itself in the middle. The English Fury saw Protestant troops commit atrocities against Catholic inhabitants, and came only eight years after The Spanish Fury at Mechelen, another atrocity just in reverse, religiously speaking. A day spent exploring this history is one if the highlights of a visit. That includes a stop at the UNESCO World Heritage listed Groot Begijnhof.
These secluded village-within-a-town religious compounds of Beguines, women who dedicated their life to God without retiring from the world, are utterly beguiling. Then there’s the legend of the Opsinjoorke, a 16th century name for a man who mistreats his wife. Neighbours would toss a wooden doll into the air in a sheet as symbolic punishment for this behavior. There’s an Opsinjoorke sculpture near the cathedral.
Of course, this is still a living, working town, not just an open air museum. We arrived as a new university term began, and around the town students carrying bits of furniture and potted plants were moving into new digs. The student body helps explain the number of bars in the town, but they are not the only reason. Home to one of the country’s finest breweries, Mechelen is a beer lovers paradise.
Part of Mechelen’s appeal is the presence of the Brouwerij Het Anker, where magical brews of Gouden Carolus beer are brought to life. The modern brewery builds on a long tradition going back to the days of the Beguines, who had their own brewery, and is even located in the former hospital of the Groot Begijnhof. You can do an hour-long tour, but it’s just as easy to sample their beers at bars across Mechelen … which we did.
Only a 20 minute train journey from Brussels, Mechelen is a delightful place. We’ll be back, for more of those Gouden Carolus beers if nothing else.