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A beacon for the city

A proud symbol of Mons identity and an important landmark, The Belfry ("le beffroi" in French, but referred to affectionately by locals as "el catiau") was built in the 17th century, after the collapse of the Clock Tower in 1661.

A castle of counts

A real beacon for the city, this 87-metre tower projects a feeling of safety, with its singular, imposing presence. It is the witness to our lives and the guardian of our secrets – like a trusted confidant. The only baroque belfry in Belgium, it has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1 December 1999.

In the 12th century, Mons was a place of residence for counts. This was the reign of Baudouin III (who died in 1120) and then, more significantly, of Baudouin IV, nicknamed Le Bâtisseur ("The Builder"), who died in 1171. This energetic prince gave Mons new city walls, known as the "count's walls", the remains of which can still be seen today, primarily at the bottom of the courtyard of "Blanc Lévrier" House (currently the branch of ING Bank on Grand-Place) and on Rue Terre-du-Prince (partly collapsed in 1995 and undergoing restoration since 1999).

These city walls surrounded the "castrum", for which it acted as a kind of final line of defence. During this era, Mons Castle (or the Castle of the Hainaut Counts) was an ideal fortress, positioned as it was at the summit of the city's main hill, towards the north-west. It was quite rightly considered the main stronghold of the County of Hainaut, measuring 325 metres in length and with a total area of more than half a hectare. Successive counts found it to be a perfect place of sanctuary. The Clock Tower was built in 1380, thanks to the ingenuity of Roland of Brussels.

Falling into disrepair

The castle took the form of a vast fortified construction, which was redeveloped in the 14th century under the counts of the Avesnes (1279-1356) and Bavière families. From that time on, the castle was occupied largely by the Court of Mons at first, and then by the Sovereign Council of Hainaut. After the abdication in 1433 of Jacqueline of Ostrevant (daughter of William IV of Ostrevant) and Hainaut's addition to the territory of her decadent cousin Philippe le Bon, the castle permanently ended its role as a residence of counts. Gradually abandoned by the sovereign administration, the castle began to deteriorate. In 1561, the Grand Bailiff of Hainaut pointed out its state of disrepair. The great hall, where the sovereign council had once gathered, was little more than crumbling remains. The building was even being used as a convenient "quarry" for new constructions!

The Clock Tower

Integrated into the city walls, the famous "Clock Tower", in place since 1380, collapsed into ruins overnight in 1661. Nothing remains of this tower. Its bells, brought down in the collapse, were also destroyed, including the so-called "justice" bell, which had been used to announce executions. There is therefore nothing left from this period, other than Saint Calixte Chapel and a few cellars. Nonetheless, its memory has not been completely eradicated, as a number of nearby streets remind us of the fortress and its keep, thanks to their names; one road, for example, is named after the Auberon Tower. In addition, in the 17th century it largely served as a "quarry" during construction of the current Belfry, which was rapidly becoming the "Castle Tower".

Construction (1661 - 1672)

After the collapse of the Clock Tower, the idea of rebuilding it was raised. The City of Mons was the contracting authority from the start. Construction work began in 1661 under the management of the architect, businessman and sculptor Louis Ledoux, who built the foundations. Following his death in 1667, Vincent Anthony took over management of the work, which was completed on 5 June 1671 – ten years after the first stone was laid.

Mons Belfry is an example of the plain baroque style, with its classic decoration. The walls are made of sandstone from the village of Bray, while the ornamentation, including the columns and load-bearing pilasters, is in blue stone. The interior is brick with a wooden framework. A narrow spiral staircase led up to the bells. One of the special architectural features is this Eastern-inspired bulbous framework – a common roofing system in the southern Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries. With a height of 87 metres, the building has no fewer than 365 steps: a symbolic number, they say in Mons. The top of the tower holds 49 bells, which together weigh 25 tonnes.

A well guarded tower

Originally, the belfry's purpose was entirely functional. Night watchmen and bell ringers took turns performing their duties for many years. As soon as the construction work was completed, a city night watch service was instigated. Brave souls would announce the time from the top of the tower, no matter the weather. At 11 pm, the start of the night's curfew was announced, and the city would fall into a deep slumber. Victor Hugo referred to it in one of his letters. According to the city archives, the last night watchman was Joseph Verly, in 1858.

Victor Hugo "charmed"

Literature and travellers alike have not been indifferent to the building, going right back to its construction. The most famous description of the tower is undoubtedly that written by Victor Hugo, who, after passing through Mons, sent his wife Adèle these lines:

"I promised to tell you more about Mons. It is indeed a curious town. There are no Gothic steeples in Mons, as St Waudru Cathedral just has an insignificant little slate bell tower; however the town's skyline is taken up with three belfries built in that strange and turbulent taste that results, here, from the clash between north and south, between Flanders and Spain. The tallest of these three towers, built on the location of the old castle, towards the end of the 17th century, I believe, has a truly strange tower. Just imagine an enormous coffee pot surrounded at the base by four smaller teapots. It would be ugly if it wasn't so big. Its size saves it."

(Victor Hugo, Brussels, 18 August 1837)

 

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