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St Nicholas, the Belfry’s Dragon and Ieper’s Third Margaret

Workers for the city remove Ieper’s Belfry Dragon for restoration on December 1, 2020. (Source: Stad Ieper)

On the 1st of December, workers took down the copper dragon from the top of Ieper’s belfry tower. Having replaced an earlier, fourteenth-century version, the dragon has been looking out over the city since the seventeenth century. The object, which serves as a wind vane but also symbolically protects the city’s urban privileges, will undergo a thorough restoration over the next five years. To mark the occasion, the Yper Museum is setting up a series of events consisting of, among others, an exhibition and a dragon marathon. The museum has also decided to give the dragon a name. From now on, it will be known as Margriet or Margaret in honour of two people who played an important role in the city’s history. The first of these is Margaret of Constantinople, who was the countess of Flanders during the period (1244-1278) when Ieper’s cloth trade was at its climax. Ieper and the princess were on very good terms, especially after the city had helped her collect the ransom for her son, who had been captured during a crusade. The second person the dragon is named after is Margaret of Ieper, a local thirteenth-century saint. We at the Make-Up of the City project believe that there is a third Margaret whose impact on Ieper’s past is worth commemorating.

Margaret of Alsace was born in 1145 as the eldest daughter of the Flemish count Thierry of Alsace. In 1160, at the age of fifteen, she married Ralph, count of the French principality of Vermandois. Unfortunately, Ralph’s leprosy prevented the marriage from being consummated and the pair remained childless until his death. In 1169, Margaret remarried Baldwin, heir to the counties of Hainaut and Namur. She saw an opportunity to bring together her paternal lands and those of her husband when her brother Filip, who had succeeded their father as Flemish count in 1168, died childless in 1191. Margaret claimed the county of Flanders but saw her rights contested by a coalition headed by the French king Philip Augustus, who believed that in absence of a male heir the principality should return to the French crown. Only in 1192 could a compromise be reached, by which Margaret was acknowledged as the next countess of Flanders. She died two years later, in 1194.

Countess Margaret and her husband Baldwin of Hainaut, illustration from the seventeenth-century Flandria Illustrata (source public domain).

Why do we think that Margaret of Alsace deserves a nomination alongside Ieper’s two other Margarets? According to a source known as the Petite Chronique de la Ville d’Ypres, in 1180 she founded the city’s St Nicholas church, whose cemetery is the focus of our project. Not much is known, however, about the Petite Chronique and its reliability. It must have been held in Ieper’s city archives in the nineteenth century, when city archivist Isidore Diegerick published the text, regrettably without much further detail. It has been tentatively dated to the seventeenth or eighteenth century, when similar documents were compiled in Ieper. Despite its name, the Petite Chronique is essentially a chronological list of a variety of events related to the history of the city. The oldest of these events, starting in the fifth century, are nearly all fictitious. The entries for the later Middle Ages, by contrast, are remarkably accurate; many of them can be corroborated by other evidence. The foundation of St Nicholas by Margaret of Alsace in 1180 is not attested in other sources, but would fit in well with what we know about the later development of St Nicholas parish. In 1214, the area around the church was incorporated into the city walls, thus becoming urban territory. In a charter recording a gift from 1220, St Nicholas is mentioned as one of the city’s six parishes. In subsequent decades, references to the parish and the church multiply, even though it remains one of the lesser-known parts of the medieval city. This is also the period to which the oldest parts of the excavated cemetery of St Nicholas have been dated.

Apart from being a remarkable figure in medieval political history, standing her ground as a woman in a strongly patriarchal system, Margaret of Alsace may thus also have been responsible for the earliest development of one of Ieper’s most fascinating neighbourhoods, one whose history we hope to further unpack over the next few years. That is more than enough, we believe, for a dragon to be named after her.

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