One of the most iconic scenes at the annual Ghent Festival is that of a line of adults walking the streets in long white shirts with nooses around their necks.
This is actually a long-held tradition that remembers the Ghent Revolt of 1540. At that time, Ghent was part of the Spanish Empire, and due to its waterways, was one of Europe’s most important international centres for trade.
Spain’s King Charles V was intent on maintaining his control of the city. This was done through a variety of taxes and decrees designed to prevent Ghent’s wealthier citizens from ever having the ability to take back their own city.
These changes were, understandably considered unjust by the city’s residents. So, the Ghent Broad Council, the city’s representative forum, tore up the calfskin upon which the 1515 treaty was signed.
The council claimed that, according to a 1477 treaty, no new taxes could be imposed without the unanimous acceptance of all the provinces. But the other provinces did not support Ghent, and the act was branded as a rebellion against the King.
Charles decided to intervene personally and was intent on making an example of Ghent. He arrived in the city in 1540 with an army of nearly 5000 soldiers – surprising the residents who had not expected a personal visit.
Unprepared to resist, the leaders of the revolt were arrested and 25 were executed. The rest were left to be humiliated by being marched through the streets of Ghent, many dressed only in white shirts with hangman's nooses around their necks, intending to symbolise that they deserved the gallows. At the end of this walk, each man was made to beg Charles for mercy.
Following this spectacle, the city was fined and stripped of all of its legal and political freedoms. Many churches were demolished and Charles even banned many festivals that could nurture the city’s civic pride.
Ever since this incident, the people of Ghent have been called Stroppendragers or noose bearers and the noose itself has become an informal symbol of the city.
Today, part of the annual Ghent Festival is used to remember and celebrate these rebels. The Guild of Noose Bearers parade through the city dressed in white shirts with nooses around their necks. It is still quite the spectacle – although, today, for a very different reason!