The Ghent fencers have a well-established reputation in the sporting world. Although it is the youngest of the four Guilds of Ghent, the Gilde de Saint-Michel was three hundred years old in 1913; since its foundation it has occupied the same premises in the Halle aux Draps, at the foot of the municipal belfry. It maintains the most cordial relations with its elder sisters; the crossbowmen of Saint-Georges, the archers of Saint-Sébastien, the harquebusiers of Saint-Antoine and the fencers of Saint-Michel have remained faithful to the ancestral traditions of camaraderie and solidarity. These sentiments were once again confirmed on the occasion of the beautiful festivities with which the Ghent fencers wanted to celebrate their 300-year existence.
The festivities organised by the Royal and Knightly Chief Confraternity of Saint Michael on the occasion of the Tercentenary of its foundation are among the most important events of the Ghent World's Fair. The dates 1613 and 1913 were used in all the documents published by the society: the route and composition of the procession, commemorative leaflets, brochures, etc. They evoked a past of three centuries. They evoked a past of three centuries which, by a happy coincidence, came to an end at the height of the Universal and International Exhibition.
However, the origins of the Chief Confraternity go back further in the course of time. The ordinance of 1613 only gives the guild recognition of its existence. The well-known scholar Paul Bergmans, in his booklet on the Confraternity of St. Michael, reminds us that the charter from the beginning of the 17th century was mainly intended to "attract more members, especially from the nobility of Ghent". It was Archdukes Albert and Isabella who, by a charter of 26 March, granted the title and status of Sovereign and Knightly Gilde of the Ghent fencers. This title was later changed to Chief Brotherhood of Saint Michael.
The aim of the guild was to promote the development of the sport of arms among its members, but in return for certain favours, it had to remain at the disposal of the magistrate in order to maintain public order.
The rules of the Society, which are still in force, at least in their essential lines, date from 1616. The motto of the Royal and Knightly Confraternity of St. Michael is: FOR THE COUNTRY AND FOR HONOUR; its legend proclaims: Do not avoid, never seek; and its coat of arms bears: Azure, two swords with two hands Or, in saltire across a crown of the same.
The Oath of the Chief Confraternity for 1913 included the names of Messrs. Jules Feirens, Chief Dean; Albert Feyerick, Dean; J. Delori, Secretary; R. Brasseur, Assistant Secretary; G. Van Loo, Treasurer; Ch. Duhayon, Ch. de Behault, Féon Feirens, Count Dorsan Goethals, Raymond Fippens and G. Van Wassenhove, headmasters. To these names must be added those of Mr. Paul Bergmans and Mr. Armand Heins, the former of whom carried out the necessary historical documentary research for the festivities and their musical accompaniment, and the latter of whom contributed his talent as a draughtsman to the study of the costumes.
We know with what meticulous care, with what display of pomp, with what concern for accuracy, the Belgians manage to organise processions. Who does not remember the Fandjuweel procession in Antwerp, the Tournament of the Golden Tree in Brussels, the procession of St. Idesbald valider Gracht in Bruges and, more recently, the Henri Conscience procession in Antwerp and the Tournai Tournament? The foreigners present at these ceremonies have proclaimed their archaeological value and artistic splendour.
The programme of the 1913 Tercentenary procession had been carefully studied in order to give it both historical fidelity and exceptional brilliance. The authors of this marvellous event remembered the parade which, under the name of Ommegang, went through the city after the annual competition for the king, spel na het Coninckschap.
It is this parade that the organisers of the Cortège, Messrs P. Bergmans and Arm. Heins, proposed to reconstruct this parade. They have set it in 1619 and have assumed, in order to increase its richness and variety, that in that year the Archdukes, being in Ghent, agreed to give the Gilde they had formed a mark of their high protection by taking part with their retinue in its Ommegang. They also assumed that, on the occasion of the archduke's participation, our guilds, trades and chambers of rhetoric would also join the procession.
The 1913 Ommegang was divided into six groups: Group 1: Guilds: Butchers, Fishmongers, Boatmen, Bakers, Blacksmiths and Weavers; 2nd group: the Chief Brotherhood of the Fencers of St. Michael; 3rd group: the City of Ghent; 4th group: the Archdukes; 5th group: the other three Chief Brotherhoods of St. George, St. Sebastian and St. Anthony; 6th group: the Chambers of Speech.
The various outings of the procession took place on Sundays 20 and 27 July and on Saturday 9 August. This last outing took place in front of H. M. le Roi des Belges, after the inauguration of the van Eyck Monument.
The Ommegang followed a different itinerary for each of these walks. The idea was a good one, for each district of the city had the good fortune to see it march, and there was no jealousy.
Without going into the details of the procession, it is appropriate to note its splendour. The nobility and the upper middle class of Ghent played a large role and, my goodness, it was admirably held. The richness of the costumes was truly astonishing; the ladies had made an assault on elegance, and God knows how much the fashions of the time of the Archdukes lent themselves to this. Ladies and lords, dressed in silks, velvets and lace, evoked the sumptuous vision of the 17th century toilet and the grace with which our forefathers wore them. At certain moments one thought one was seeing the grandfathers in their faded gold frames, as they still are in some old patrician salons, and the grandmothers in their gilded brocade dresses. The study of the costumes had been done with meticulous care. The organisers had delved into the documents of the period, sketched and drawn; a long period of work had preceded the elaboration of the clothes, the choice of colours, their harmony, etc.; this is enough to show what a faithful reconstitution the Ghent Ommegang was and the success it had.
At the first two exits the procession ended up at the Palace of Horticulture and Festivities, where the Caroussel was to take place. According to the libretto, historically, the carousels succeeded the Tournaments. They were very fashionable at the end of the 17th century, so the organisers of the procession found an additional attraction in the re-enactment of one of the equestrian festivals that were the joy of our fathers. The Carroussels included the most diverse ensemble movements, performed by groups of riders, and entertainments, a sort of jousting in which individual riders competed with skill and enthusiasm. It was a festival of this kind, the details of which had been studied with the greatest care, which took place at the Palais des Fêtes, while the participants in the procession, grouped together on the main stage, formed a shimmering ensemble with a very rich appearance.
The programme of this equestrian festival included an entry and salute, a display of quadrilles, the ring game, the javelin game, a general evolution, the head race, the quintaine of general movements, the final charge and the parade.
A platoon of fifty cavalrymen, under the direction of Lieutenant Bambin, of the 4th Regiment of Lancers, had taken charge of this part of the festival. A huge crowd crowded the vast stands at either end of the immense hall. In the centre, opposite the tribune of the figurants of the procession, a tribune of honour brought together all the Belgian and foreign personalities of the Exhibition; Princess Stephanie of Belgium and Count Lonyai attended the first exit. By estimating the number of spectators at 15,000, we believe we are underestimating the reality. But suddenly a rumour announced the arrival of the procession: It is here!
Majestically, he enters the Royal Casino through the side door. A shimmering reptile, he advances into the licea and circles it. The trumpets of the guilds, which are at the head of the procession, sound cheerfully. Under the sonorous vault of the hot greenhouse, the metallic brilliance of the brass instruments rolls and rumbles. Behind the standard and the Fishmongers' guild, the Boatmen's guild marches along singing old Flemish songs; bakers, blacksmiths, weavers pass by... Greetings to the music of the bourgeois guard which plays an old German romance, and to the bourgeois guard itself. The guilds have passed. The high-pitched sound of the fifes rips through the air, accompanied by the dull roll of the drums which precede the music of the Confraternity of Saint Michael. They play a march on a Flemish theme from the end of the 16th century, a march transcribed by Mr. Paul Bergmans. It is original and striking. These fife tunes seem strange; they rise, harsh and strident, marking the rhythmic steps of the men. Forgotten fifes, which so often led to battle, shall we ever know your penetrating soul? The group of the Confrérie unfolds; the confrères and confrères de Saint-Michel are on horseback. Passing in front of the tribune of honour, the men gracefully remove their feathered caps; the ladies bow and smile happily at the applause that bursts forth incessantly. The notables of Saint-Michel, also on horseback, the King of Saint-Michel, the oath of the Chief Confraternity in a coach and the Francs Michellistes follow. The figure representing the King of the Brotherhood, Mr Jacques Sauvage, bears the same name as the King of the Brotherhood in 1619.
More warlike fanfares! These are the heralds of the City of Ghent. They precede a group of pikemen, the Blazon of the City, a group of young Ghent girls singing old songs of the time: H and Heerken van Maldegem, Ik zeg adieu, etc.; the carriage of the aldermen of the Parchons, that of the aldermen of the Keure, preceding the group of Archdukes. Here is the herald, the butler, the sword bearer on horseback, the coat of arms of the Sovereign House of the Archdukes, pages on foot and on horseback, a group of lords and ladies of the Archdukes' court, all mounted on richly caparisoned steeds, halberdiers and pikemen, followed by the Archdukes themselves. The felts wave, the leaders bow to the tribune of honour. Enthusiastic bravos come from all mouths; hands are clapped; the public is carried away by the striking beauty of the spectacle.
Over there, at both ends of the hall, the same spontaneous demonstrations take place. The standard of the Archdukes and a large group of ladies and lords of the Court on horseback follow the Sovereigns. Court carriages, in which ladies from the Sovereigns' retinue are seated, the Court Chapel, a group of halberdiers and the College of Saint Cecilia complete the main group of the procession. Drums and fifes are heard again; and here come the Chief Confraternities of the crossbowmen of Saint George, the archers of Saint Sebastian and the harquebusiers of Saint Anthony; the old Chamber of Rhetoric De Fontein passes in its turn; finally, the Burgundian guard passes; standard at the head, and composed of a large group of infantrymen and horsemen. The number of participants in the Ommegang was estimated at over fifteen hundred.
Once the procession was over, the extras took their places on the platform in front of the tribune of honour. The archdukes occupied two seats in the centre; around them was their court. At the signal given, here were the riders taking part in the carousel, who made their entrance into the ring.
The crowd applauded the beautiful pace of the men and the various exercises began.
All were executed with admirable precision and perfect order. The evolutions followed one another rapidly and methodically, showing the skill of the participants. The general evolution, the quintaine and the general movements were met with acclamations; the final charge was agonising: the two lines of riders, launched at triple gallop, lance at a standstill, stopped face to face, with the immobility of statues, less than two metres away. A fine ovation was given to Lieutenant Lambin, who had been entrusted with the organisation of this peaceful joust, and who had brought to it a truly remarkable competence. The pretty party is over... Outside the sun was having fun playing with the foliage of the Park. A large crowd was crowding the avenues of the Exhibition. We passed lords and ladies in costume. In the human swell, they put the sharp note of their brilliant costumes. This did not detract from the fact that all around us praise was rising, rising high, very high, to the throne of Monseigneur Saint-Michel, "the fair godfather of the Royal and Knightly Guild, whose great and noble feast day it is", "Pro patria et honore! "All for the Fatherland and for Honour!
The second outing of the Ommegang took place on Sunday 27 July, in the midst of an even larger crowd than the first time. Its success was complete and unforgettable. The third and last outing took place on 9 August, a Saturday, the day of the visit of His Majesty the King and the inauguration of the van Eyck monument. After His Majesty attended this ceremony, the King went to the Cloth Hall to watch the procession. The carillon was still playing its crystalline notes when the Sovereign arrived at the foot of the staircase, where the members of the Oath of the Royal and Knightly Confraternity, Messrs Jules Leirens, Chief Dean, Albert Feyerick, Dean, Delori, Secretary, and Robert Brasseur, Assistant Secretary, were waiting for him.
After the presentations, the King signed the Golden Book of the Confraternity in the large hall of the Halle aux Draps where the Society has been based since its foundation. Mr. Jules Leirens then presented His Majesty with a commemorative plaque of the Society's Tercentenary. In front of the Halle aux Draps, a royal platform had been set up; His Majesty took his place and attended the parade of the Ommegang.
After having taken its sumptuousness through the streets of the city, the procession ended up in the Old Flanders Quarter, in the heart of the Exhibition. There, stands had been set up for the guests and members of the Congress of History and Archaeology. In the archaic setting of Old Flanders, the spectacle of the procession was incomparable. The spectators had the sensation of reliving a page of history from the past; there was only one voice to proclaim that the festival was wonderful. Will we ever see such a spectacle again?
©Livre d'Or de l'Exposition Universelle & Internationale de Gand 1913