A city in the making – Velzeke

Rulers derive their power from the people below them. We should not see a ruler as one person, but as a closely knit group of people that support loyally a common leadership.  This is the case today, this always has been the case in history, this is a fundamental property of civilisation.  So when talking about historical places, it is required to look at the people involved, and how they are related to this place and to each other.

Otto I

Otto I and a king subjecting to him

So, when the Frankish king Otto I is proclaimed emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by pope Johannes XII in 962, he tries to get a better grip on his vast empire.  One zone of interest is the border zone along the river Scheldt that he assigns to count Godfrey of Verdun, a very loyal member of his family, who has both Carolingian and Ottonian roots. In 963, Godfrey marries Mathilda of Saxony, daughter of Herman of Billung, duke of Saxony and right hand of Otto I. As a wedding gift, Mathilda most probably receives from Otto I properties in this border zone.  Two of these properties were Ename and Velzeke. Although Mathilda originates from Saxony, 600 km to the north-east, she knows Flanders as she was married for about one year to Baldwin III, the count of Flanders, who died of smallpox in 962, at the age of 22.

Godfried en Mathilde

The roots of Godfrey of Verdun and Mathilde of Billung

The zone we are focusing on is the county Biest (comitatus Biest), which was one of the four counties in the pagus Bracbatensis, and extends from the row of hills at in the city of Ronse in the south to cities of Ghent and Dendermonde in the north. Velzeke, at 15 km of Ename, was a Roman vicus from the first to the fourth century AD and probably from the end of the 9th century the capital of the comitatus Biest.

Kaart Biest

Map of the county Biest and the pagus Bracbatensis

Although the archaeological excavations provide us information only for the zone of the church, we can assume that Godfrey and Mathilda built a fortified residence at Velzeke around 965, containing a church and some residential buildings. The church, which partially is still standing, has been extensively researched by the archaeological team of the Gallo-Roman museum in Velzeke.

Saint Martinus church of Velzeke

Saint Martinus church of Velzeke

excavations Saint Martinus church Velzeke

Excavations at the Saint Martinus church of Velzeke

This research has resulted in a new 3D reconstruction of this Saint Martinus church, the first stone church of Velzeke, probably built between 965 and 970.  Based on several older graves in this church, archaeologists suspect that this church has been proceeded by a Carolingian wooden church, although no direct traces of this building have been found yet.

reconstructed Saint Martinus church

Reconstructed Saint Martinus church from the west (by Visual Dimension)


Reconstructed Saint Martinus church from the east (by Visual Dimension)

Through several excavations, the archaeological team at Velzeke found parts of a double ditch around this church.


Schematic indication of the double ditch around the Saint Martinus church of Velzeke

There are indications that the structure continues on the top of the hill, on the east side of the church, where other buildings are presumed.  Geophysical scanning (in 2003) shows indeed that there is a continuation of the double ditch in the direction of the east.


Geophysical scanning at the east side of the Velzeke church

So Velzeke, that had already a regional importance at that time, is supposed to have been one of the residences of the noble family of Verdun.  More details can be found in this publication by Dirk Callebaut.

The church was a single nave, double choir church with an extended east choir. This suggests that local secular canons were present. Typically such canons would not only take care of the religious aspects (celebrating the mass) but would also deal with the administration of a court.  About 12 people could sit in the blind niches of this so called priest choir, which is perfectly preserved today.

extended east choir

The extended east choir of the Saint Martinus church (by Visual Dimension)

Today, the west choir is only visible by the place of the side doors, but has been replaced by a bell tower in the 13th century. The west choir is supposed to have two floors, as indicated by the reconstruction below.  We are not sure what the function of the west choir was, it could have been used as a kind of chapel to celebrate the mass for a small group of people (such as the noble people at the site) but it could also have a more symbolic meaning and have a throne inside.

west choir

Virtual reconstruction of the double west choir (by Visual Dimension)

Normally, such a settlement would have been the nucleus of a new city.  But local politics interfered with this destiny.  When Baudouin IV gets 16 years old, he becomes count of Flanders in person in 993 (he was already count from 988 as boy of 11 years old).  He re-organises his position and gives large military powers to the local lords in Ghent and Tournai, both at the river Scheldt.  This forces the local trade settlement of Ename (see next blog post) at the river to improve its military capacity. Ename was founded by Godfrey and Mathilda around 965 as a trade settlement at the river Scheldt.

Tension builds up and in 1006, the count of Flanders attacks Valenciennes. Counterattacks by the Ottonian emperor follow in 1007 and 1020. All this shifts the focus and the function of local capital to Ename, making Velzeke disappear to the second plan.

Ename 1020

This blog is about the history of Ename around the year 1000. Ename is today a village in the Flemish part of Belgium, but shortly before the year 1000, it transformed in a short time from a rural domain into an important trade settlement and military stronghold. But this early city did not live long, from 1063 onwards it turned into a Benedictine abbey.

Ename today

Ename today (archaeological park, heritage centre, village and the wood in the background)

Today, it is a major heritage project project in Flanders, realised by the Province of East-Flanders. For the exhibition The legacy of Charlemagne in the new Heritage Centre of Ename, we realised the virtual reconstruction of Ename in the year 1020.

Ename 1020

Virtual reconstruction of Ename in 1020

To have an idea what this blog will bring, please have a look at the video of a Frisian ship entering the harbour of Ename in 1020.


Frisian ship entering Ename in 1020