Our history : The European Tour of Francis Willughby, John Ray, Philip Skippon & Nathaniel Bacon: Bruges

Over the last few months a group of our volunteers have been working on a new exhibition focusing on the European travels of Francis Willughby (owner of Middleton Hall), John Ray (lived at Middleton Hall), Philip Skippon and Nathaniel Bacon that took place between 1663 and 1665. The Tour was so extensive that it couldn’t be covered in one exhibition and so they have broken the journey up into parts and written an accompanying book (which will be on sale once we re-open!). Perhaps this blog post written by Middleton Hall volunteer and historian, Debbie Jordan will inspire you to make a wish list of places to visit once normal travel can be resumed.

“When I was asked what place was the highlight in the section of their journey covered by the first book (Dover to Ghent) there was only one answer: Bruges. The travellers stayed in Bruges from 24th to 27th April 1663.

Lock gates

The travellers arrived at Bruges via canal boat from Ostend. This journey was one of their highlights, not from a scenic point of view but from a scientific engineering perspective. This canal had only been finished in 1623 and when travelling along it they journeyed through locks. Today, locks are locks but to them this technology was novel. In England we still used the ancient technology of flash locks but on the continent they used pound locks enhanced by the design of the mitred gate by Leonardo da Vinci. At the time of their visit Ray wrote that pound locks had only been erected twice in England: on the river Trent (but since destroyed); and on the River Wey (the Wey Navigation, still present today) in Surrey. The travellers took the time to record in detail the entire mechanism of how the gates worked.

Gentpoort (photograph by Richard Jordan)

When they visited Bruges, there were nine gates. Only four have survived: Smedenspoort (1368); Ezelpoort (1368); Kruispoort (1402); and Gentpoort (1402).  There were also extensive earthwork defences but over the centuries these were left to slowly decay and all that remains is the earthen bank. On the earthworks the travellers were many windmills. Today, there are four windmills on the ramparts. However only one is a native to Bruges, St Janshuismolen, and that was only built in 1770. The current windmills are also all grain mills but in the two mills the travellers investigated sheepskin was being used to make parchment in one and in the other calfskin was used to make vellum.

Water buckets sketch from John Ray’s Travel Book

Another engineering aspect that caught their eye were the waterworks. In Bruges at this time every house was connected by pipes to a machine which brought up water to a cistern from the canals in buckets hung over a waterwheel on a chain. They were also completely and utterly fascinated by fountains. Fountains didn’t make it to England until quite a few decades after their visit. Imagine their surprise when they go into a yard and see statue of Neptune to then be suddenly surprised when water shoots up through the pavement any sprinkles them all with water! The water was even made to form shapes as it came out through pieces of brass. Skippon tried to draw one, which in my opinion looks just like a modern-day shower head.

They met with a Mr John Taeks, who was a giant of a man. Skippon was able to stand with his hat (about 6ft) on beneath Taeks’ armpit. They took the time to measure each of his limbs and compare it to their own.

They also visited two of the guilds in Bruges: St George’s guild for the crossbow; and St Sebastian’s guild for the longbow. Both of these guilds have survived and St Sebastian’s is still in the same building as when they visited. In St Sebastian’s Guild they saw the great hall, which had actually been paid for by King Charles II of England. Within the hall were many portraits including one of Henry, Duke of Gloucester and another of King Charles II. In the garden the travellers saw a wooden parrot on top of a very tall pole. They were told that whoever shot down the parrot was the next master of the guild. That is the game of popinjay. The symbol of St Sebastian’s guild remains the parrot. Originally the members used to shoot the sails of the windmills on the ramparts behind the guild. The first pole was erected, with a wooden parrot, in 1641.

The travellers described Bruges Town Hall as well adorned with statues on the outside, having a stately high tower and cloisters around the outside in which merchants walked. Bruges Town Hall was constructed between 1376 and 1420 and originally had many statues that were painted and gilded. In the 18th century, the occupying French Revolutionary soldiers destroyed them all.

They also visited what they called a “pawnbroker’s house”, which had “Mons Pietatis” written above the gate. Here they learned that things that were pawned would be kept but forfeited if they were not claimed within a year and six weeks. If the item was sold, the profit was then given to the owner. This system had been introduced to Flanders by Archduchess Isabella. This house is now the Gruuthuse Museum. Last year, one of our volunteers went to Bruges and we asked them to see if they could find the Mons Pietatis sign. They went into the museum and asked on the desk … no idea but the gentleman contacted the historian … no idea. Out of luck the volunteer thought they would have a look around the museum anyway, maybe there would be something else of interest. Just inside the door of the first room he entered there was the original stone that once hung above the gate with the engraving “Mons Pietatis”!

St Walburga’s Church (photograph by Richard Jordan)

The travellers also visited many religious houses in Bruges. They saw the bishop of Bruges, Robert de Haynin, and commented that the scarlet of his robes looked like those of English judges! They noted that there were two English convents in the city, one Augustinian (founded in 1629 and still survives) and one St Clare. They visited the Cathedral Church of St Donation and made a note of many of the tombs. St Donations was destroyed by the French Revolutionary Army in 1799, but its foundations can be seen in the cellars of the Crowne Plaza Brugge Hotel. They visited St Salvator’s Church, which is now a Cathedral, and saw a very enthusiastic and animated Capuchin monk give a sermon. They visited St Bartholomew’s Abbey (also known as Eekhout Abbey), which was also destroyed by the French and is now the site of the Groeningemuseum. The monks there were printing and selling paper copies of Imago Flandriae, a prophecy by abbot Lubert Hautscilt. They visited the Dominican’s Church on the Predikherenrei, also demolished by the French and now an apartment building. Here they saw a burial and made quite a detailed account of it too! They visited the abbey of St Bernard (Ten Duinen Abbey) which had been built in 1643. It is now the Great Seminary of Bruges. They visited the Jesuit Church, which is now known as St Walburga’s. The travellers were fascinated by the flooring which had been laid in a designed that created the shape of crosses in the floor. Can you see it?

One of their highlights was the Jerusalem Church. This private church remains exactly as it was when the travellers visited it. The church is an exact replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and was built in the 15th century for the Adornes family. To make sure that it was an exact replica the travellers took the time to measure everything and the distance between everything to make sure that it was the same, which it did.

Painting of the Passion in the Church of Our Lady (photograph by Richard Jordan)

On 26th April they visited the Church of Our Lady. Here they saw a marble sculpture of Madonna and Child, which they said was worth its weight in gold. They are probably correct, it is by Michelangelo. They also noted the tombs of Charles, Duke of Burgundy and his daughter Mary and what they described as a very nice picture of The Passion above the high altar. The painting was by Barend van Orley and Marcus Gerards. The travellers also saw a very large statue of St Christopher in the church, we are not too sure what happened to this statue, if anyone finds where it has gone please let us know!


Debbie Jordan, Middleton Hall Trust Volunteer & Historian