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A crusader statue in Belgium

For the millions of residents and tourists who pass through the city of Brussels each year, the statue of Godfrey of Bouillon is a somewhat forgotten relic. Yet there it stands in the heart of the Belgian capital - a statue of this leader from the First Crusade, portrayed majestically riding a horse. Why is it there?

Statue of Godfrey of Bouillon in Brussels

The answer to this question was the subject of a paper given earlier this month at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds. "'Au heros belge de la premiere croisade': The 1848 Equestrian Statue of Godfrey of Bouillon in the Place Royale, Brussels, and the Memory of the First Crusade in 19th- Century Belgium," by Simon A. John of Swansea University, tracks the development and unveiling of this statue.

The inauguration of this statue took place on August 15, 1848, marking what was believed to be 752 years to the day on which Godfrey, the Duke of Lower Lorraine, supposedly departed his home to take part in the First Crusade. He would go on to become one of the leaders of that crusade, and held the title of the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem before dying in the year 1100.

John notes that the unveiling of the statue was a major event in Brussels. The King of Belgium attended along with much of the political elite of the country, music and speeches were given during the event to help celebrate the occasion. The actual site of the statue was very important, as the Place Royale was the same spot where in 1831 Belgium's first king, Leopold I, was crowned.

While it might seem odd to modern-day observers that Belgians would want to commemorate a medieval leader who had no obvious connections to their country, John's research reveals that many of the men who were involved in the founding of Belgium in the early 1830s were major backers of the project. As this new state was forging a new national identity, it turned to medieval figures as examples of who they wanted Belgians to be. Godfrey of Bouillon was seen as both a great military figure for his victory in the First Crusade, and as a state-builder who laid down the Assizes of Jerusalem, a set of laws for his new kingdom.

A view of the statue from 1856

The sculptor for this project was Eugene Simonis - he was paid 90,000 francs and given four year to complete his work. John also notes some interesting details to the project, such as that the form we now see it was not completed for another forty-seven years. The simple inscriptions were not added until 1874, and the two bas-reliefs - one depicting the capture of Jerusalem and the other Godfrey proclaiming the Assizes - were only made in 1895.

Today the statue is somewhat difficult to get close to, as modern-day railway trams run through Place Royale, creating an area not friendly to pedestrian traffic.

The statue today - photo by Ebielmaj / Wikimedia Commons

Simon A. John is a Lecturer in Medieval History at Swansea University. Click here to visit his university homepage.

2 thoughts on “A crusader statue in Belgium”

  • Dirk Schoenaers
    Dirk Schoenaers July 19, 2018 at 1:23 pm

    "While it might seem odd to modern-day observers that Belgians would want to commemorate a medieval leader who had no obvious connections to their country,..." This strikes me as strange. Admittedly, there was no such thing as Belgium before the country was founded in 1830, but Godfrey of Bouillon (modern day Belgium, in the province of Luxemburg) was clearly connected to the former Duchy of Brabant (now divided over Belgium and the Netherlands). Godfrey was margrave of Antwerp and Duke of (Lower) Lorraine. The later Dukes of Brabant styled themselves as the rightful successors to Lorraine and as such Godfrey
    constituted an important branch of their family tree. Like their other ancestor Charlemagne, Godfrey was one of the Nine Worthies. In this view, it does not seem very odd that the crusader king was directly associated with the newborn state of Belgium.

  • Danny Mertens
    Danny Mertens July 24, 2018 at 7:23 am

    Two remarks:
    a. Belgian kings are not 'crowned'. They take an oath. The 'Koningsplein' or 'Place Royal' is indeed the spot where this took place for the first time on July 21st 1831.
    b. At the same time as the belgians were erecting this statue of Godfried, the british did put a statue of Richard the Lionheart in front of the houses of parliament in Westminster. Not only did Richard commit more crimes during his crusade, but as king of England he hardly spent 6 months out of his 10 year reign in the country and didn't speak a single word of english (french was his mothertongue).
    It's clear that in the 19th century a lot of countries did look back to the past, invented some heroics of local leaders or otherwise famous people (e.g. Jeanne D'Arc or Vercingetorix in France) and erected monuments which these days look very much over the top.

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