From ‘t Zand, one of the biggest squares in the city and if you feel like walking a bit, then follow cross the square to the Northwest corner, in the Smedenstraat, to find the Smedenpoort, one of the four gates there is left. When you’re there, go on the outside of the city and look at the gate. Don’t be frightened when you see the green skull smiling at you, it’s not a real skull… anymore!

The skull at the Smedenpoort

It was a warm summer’s day on 25 June 1691. The sun was high in the sky, burning down on the metal helmets of the soldiers guarding the Smedenpoort. There was a certain tension in the air, as everyone knew the French king; Louis XIV ordered a large army to move north to invade Bruges.

The guard duty was long. The city was constructed in such a way to be easily defendable and at every city gate soldiers were on high alert, keeping an eye out for any invading army. During the day, everyone coming in or going out of the city had to undergo a thorough check for any suspicious activity. At night, the gates remained firmly closed. Not only soldiers staffed the fortifications around Bruges, but also civilians helped where needed. Nobody wanted to imagine what would happen if the French would occupy the city!

The French knew Bruges would go down without a fight, and a long-lasting siege wasn’t something the invaders wanted to undergo with the high temperatures. An extra problem for the French was the lack of money. They weren’t able to pay their troops, for several months now, so there was much dissatisfaction with the men. To make victory a bit easier, they looked for a henchman in Bruges.

One of the gatekeepers who lived outside of the city of Bruges, François van der Straeten, made a deal with the French. Did he go for the money the French offered him? We don’t know. The arrangement was he would unlock the Smedenpoort at night during his shift. The day before this, a small group of French soldiers would hide in barracks near the Waterhouse, just outside the city walls. They would go through the unlocked gate to overtake the guards inside, thus securing the gate itself. Next early morning, the major part of the French troops – who would be waiting in the woods of Tillegem – would be able to get in the city easy and conquer Bruges.

In theory, a simple and fail-safe plan. On the evening of 25 June, the skies were overcast with dark clouds. Soon the first big raindrops fell. Heavy storms were about to end the hot day. A premonition of what was to come? Sweat ran down the face of François van der Straeten. Tomorrow he would be a rich man and flee south. 

However, that evening a skipper from Bruges, Jacob Wyndekens, sailed to the city of Bruges, coming from Damme. He docked just past the Boeveriepoort (on the map a bit north of the Smedenpoort) and walked towards the Waterhouse. The gates of the city were already closed for the night, so it was no use to try to get inside the city. He knew he would be able to find shelter for the night in one of the barracks at the Waterhouse. He already slept there before. At night, the barracks were empty, except for the occasional stray cat and mandatory rats.

It was there he discovered the French troops. How they got there, or what they were planning to do, he didn’t know, but it was without a doubt they were up to no good! Making sure they didn’t see or hear him, he returned to the Boeveriepoort. The guards let Jacob inside, where he told them about the French troops at the barracks. This news spread like wildfire through the city. While a sense of panic also spread with the news, several bold civilians gathered and armed themselves with whatever they could find. They went to the barracks to overcome the surprised French soldiers. 

Meanwhile, François van der Straeten, our traitor had unlocked the Smedenpoort, but saw what happened at the Waterhouse. He tried to escape but alert guard captured him. After a few medieval interrogation techniques, he confessed the conspiracy. 

The secretary noted for this event: “… He named François van der Straeten was condemned to be hanged with rope by the neck, at the gallows on Burg Square until death occurs. His dead body was carried outside the Smedenpoort to the Gallowsfield (Galgeveld) along the road to Dixmuude, to be hang by the feet upwards at a gallows. His head was cut from the body, and the head was placed on a pole above the Smedenpoort.

The next morning, 26 June 1691, the sun rose with a golden glow at the northeast, with the promise of another beautiful summer’s day. That same day the traitor hanged. His head cut, placed on an iron pole on the Smedenpoort… The crows feasted on his eyes.

True or not?

Well, for that you’ll have to wait until my book is out!