I begin thus because, as on previous visits, I noticed that the good people of what we tend to call Bruges would rather speak German or English, or indeed Chinese, than utter a word of French. But we were (for a few days only) in Bruges, and not only in Bruges but in the very hotel room out of which, apparently, Colin Farrell jumped in the film ‘In Bruges’. I say ‘apparently’ because although I saw the film on television a few years ago, I disliked it intensely, and can remember very little about it except that I think it didn’t end too well for any of the protagonists? (For some reason, I can never see the humour in ‘black comedy’, only the blackness.)
It was a bit disconcerting to see crowds of people on the dozens of tour boats that went past staring at the window while the name of Colin Farrell wafted upwards on the breeze. Indeed, the main difference between Brugge now and Brugge on our last visit, several years ago, is the hugely increased number of Other Tourists – though of course the fact that we were there (celebrating Him Indoors’s birthday) at the peak of the holiday season may have something to do with it. When we came for the first time, with infants in tow, about 35 years ago as best as I can recollect, and in spring, we had the place almost entirely to ourselves, and the horse-drawn carriages were drawn up in the Markt with no takers at all – though of course memory may be a bit at fault here.
On this occasion, a new discovery for us was the church of Jerusalem – to be precise, the Jeruzalemkapel in the Adornesdomein. The Adornes family were originally from Genoa (where they were presumably named Adorno), and settled in Brugge about 1300. They made a lot of money from alum, vital to the Flanders cloth trade as a mordant to fix the colour of dyes in wool.
Alum at this time came mostly from Anatolia and north Africa, and was an important export to the west (via Genoa and Venice) of the Byzantine empire. (After the fall of Constantinople, other sources were handily found in Italy, mostly in the Papal States.)
The most important member of the Adornes dynasty in both trade and politics was undoubtedly Anselm, born in Bruges in 1424. When he was four years old, his father Pieter and uncle Jakob began a rebuilding of the family’s Jerusalem chapel, which Anselm later continued on an even larger scale.
Entering the family business, he married in 1443 (he and his wife, Margriet van der Banck (1427–80) eventually had sixteen children) and soon afterwards became a participant in the tournaments held by the chivalric Company of the White Bear.
He reached the zenith in this area in 1468, when he helped to organise the ‘Tournament of the Golden Tree’ which was a part of the celebrations in Brugge for the marriage of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV of England.
From 1447 to 1476, Anselm held various posts on the Brugge City Council, and was mayor in 1475–6. More surprisingly, perhaps, as the consequence of a journey he made to Scotland in 1468, he became a trusted personal adviser to James III.
A year earlier, the Scots Parliament had forbidden Scottish merchants to trade with Flanders, and the Scottish community in Brugge withdrew. Anselm took part in a delegation to negotiate their return, and not only succeeded in this (the merchants returned in 1470) but also was dubbed a knight and made a royal councillor. He was also given the barony of Cortachy in Angus (later the seat of the earls of Airlie).
Almost at the same time as the Scottish negotiations were finalised, Anselm and his eldest son, Jan, set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem* (a journey which was a family tradition and which his father and uncle had made before they started building their chapel – it looks possible that Pieter had done it twice). Jan (1444–1511), who had been educated at the universities of Paris and Pavia, wrote an account in Latin of the journey which was later presented to James III. The group (which also included Anselm’s chamberlain, Jan de Ghausy, who left a briefer account, in Flemish) visited Genoa, arrived in Rome during Holy Week in 1470, and had an audience with Pope Paul II.
They then returned to Genoa, and sailed by way of Corsica and Sardinia to Tunis, then to Sicily, Crete and Alexandria, where they hired camels to visit the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai. This unusual route was partly prompted by the family devotion to St Catherine, but also, probably, by the knowledge an international trader would have had of the high mortality rate among pilgrims who took the more normal voyage from Venice to Jaffa. (Meeting fellow pilgrims later in Jerusalem, they learned that three compatriots had been among the fifty who had died on just one Venetian galley … .)
At the monastery, they were allowed to touch the body of the saint with jewels destined for James III and Charles the Bold, while they were given not only the standard ampoules of holy oil but also pieces of silk which the monks had placed on her head. They then continued their journey overland, arriving safely (though not without danger, as Jan recounts) in Jerusalem on 10 September.
Pilgrims came under the control of the order of Observant Franciscans, who provided lodgings and a guided tour through the Holy Places which followed a precise ritual, including three visits to the Holy Sepulchre. Exceptionally, the Adornes party were allowed to spend two consecutive nights and the day between inside the church, and, according to Jan: ‘Each performed his devotions on behalf of himself, his prince, and for his relations.’
After their eleven-day stay in the Holy City, the party started for home, eschewing the Venetian galleys for an route which took them to Beirut, Damascus, Cyprus and Rhodes, eventually disembarking at Brindisi and travelling up through Italy via Bari, Naples, Rome and Venice, then over the Alps and up the Rhine from Basel. They arrived back in Brugge in April 1471, and Anselm almost immediately began to rebuild the family chapel to reflect the experience of his pilgrimage.
The most striking interior feature today is the sixteenth-century stone representation behind the altar of Calvary and the Instruments of the Passion, dominated by three crosses, and with five niches containing relics, obtained on the pilgrimage and later, including a fragment of the True Cross.
Beyond, in a chamber which can be accessed only by stooping low or on one’s knees, is a replica of the Holy Sepulchre (also built after Anselm’s death). Anselm built six almshouses on his domein to support twelve poor women, who were obliged to attend the chapel, put their lights out at a certain time every night, and have no male visitors, but who in return received a pension, wood and turf for heating, and doles of bread and wine, as well as the proceeds of the collections taken at the chapel services.
Anselm’s prestige in Brugge, to say nothing of his fortune, was by now enormous. Six months later, he and his wife travelled to Scotland with James III’s sister Mary, her husband and his father, who after two years of exile in Brugge (partly at Anselm’s house) had been allowed to return. (It was on this visit that he gave James a copy of Jan’s account of their pilgrimage.) He later undertook an even greater journey at the behest of Charles the Bold himself – a diplomatic mission to persuade Shah Uzun Hassan, ruler of the White Sheep Turcoman tribes, who held sway from Georgia to the Indian Ocean, to form an alliance against the Ottoman empire. Anselm and the Franciscan monk Lodovico Severi travelled across the Baltic, arriving at the court of King Casimir IV of Poland in April 1474.
Here he attempted to secure the return of a ship, the San Matteo, which had been chartered by his merchant friend Tommaso Portinari (a distant relative of Dante’s Beatrice). It had been seized in Danzig (Gdansk) the previous year: one of the more valuable items on board had been Hans Memling’s ‘The Last Judgment’.
Despite Anselm’s efforts, however, the picture stayed, and is now on display in the Gdansk National Museum. At this point, he seems to have returned to Brugge, leaving Fra Lodovico to carry on alone on what turned out to be a fruitless journey, as no anti-Turkish alliance was forthcoming.
In 1477, the fortunes of the Adornes family took a disastrous turn. After the death in battle of Charles the Bold and the succession of his only daughter, Mary of Burgundy, the mood in some of the cities ruled by him turned ugly, and men perceived as having been loyal to the duke were in danger. Anselm was arrested at the end of March, and managed to bribe his way out of trouble, but was rearrested in May, put to the rack, and forced to confess to crimes of corruption. He had to perform a public penance, to pay back four times the money he had allegedly siphoned off, and was fined a large amount in addition. He was also barred from holding public office in Brugge again.
He left for Scotland, where his friend James III welcomed him and made him an official of the royal palace at Linlithgow. He acquired various properties in the town, and often received the king at his home. However, politics in Scotland were now as perilous as they had been in Flanders. After an English invasion in the summer of 1482, led by Richard, duke of Gloucester and abetted by disaffected Scots nobles including James’ brother, the duke of Albany, the king was imprisoned in Edinburgh castle. Evidently fearing for his life, Anselm made a will in which he proclaimed his loyalty to the king, made practical arrangements for his burial, and left all his Scottish property to his illegitimate daughter, Efemie.
He then undertook his final diplomatic mission, of reconciliation between James and his rebel brother, preparing for this dangerous role by undertaking a pilgrimage to the convent of Our Lady at North Berwick, a few miles from Edinburgh, on 23 January 1483.
He was followed there and surrounded by eighteen knights with their retinue, to whom he submitted on the promise that the sisters of the convent would not be harmed. He was cut down by swords. The nuns prepared his body for burial, and it was taken to St Michael’s church at Linlithgow, where a modern plaque commemorates him.
His heart was later returned to Brugge in a lead casket and buried in the Jerusalem chapel beside the body of his wife, who had died in 1480. Their monumental tomb was commissioned by Jan from Cornelis Tielman.
The Adornes domein has remained in the same family ever since (with name-changes caused by descent through the female line), and, after various changes of use and threats of collapse or demolition (one, needless to say, by the French in 1799), is now run as a charitable foundation. Vaut bien le détour, as they probably don’t say in Brugge.
*For an account of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, see ‘”Capell nuncapato Jherusalem noviter Brugis”: The Adornes Family of Bruges and Holy Land Devotion’, by Mitzi Kirkland-Ives, published in the Sixteenth Century Journal (Winter 2008) and available through JSTOR.