The history of Bruges begins in Roman times, when a settlement grew up on the site of the present-day city. The town was fortified by the Romans and began to prosper through its trade with England and Scandinavia. The Roman fortifications were strengthened in the 9th century amid fears of Viking invasions.

The 14th century Smedenpoort gate.

In the 11th century the channel linking Bruges to the sea silted up, hampering her trade. However, fortunes were restored by a violent storm in 1134, which resulted in the formation of a deep channel known as the Zwin. This channel re-opened Bruges to the sea and trade boomed once more.

Over the following centuries Bruges became a key trading centre in north-west Europe, exporting Flemish cloth all over the continent. The city expanded rapidly, which necessitated the construction of a new circuit of walls in the early 14th century. The city had grown so big that the new walls were 4.3 miles (7km) in length.

In 1300 Bruges had been annexed by France and when the inhabitants rebelled against French rule they were put down with force and the newly-built city walls were partially demolished. It was probably in the mid 16th century that the first artillery defences were constructed at Bruges.

Map of Bruges in the 17th century, showing the extensive earthwork fortifications around the city.

A double line of earthwork bastions'was built in place of the old medieval walls. There were two flooded ditches'but no covered way'or outworks. These lines were extensive (there were over 70 bastions) and would have required a huge garrison to defend.

Remains of the inner line of earthwork fortifications with the ditch on the right.

During the 80 Years War'the city rebelled against Spain along with much of the rest of the Netherlands, but it was retaken in 1584. In 1640 Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, attempted to lay siege to the town but the Spanish reinforced it and he decided to abandon the venture. Bruges remained in Spanish hands.

The channel to the sea had silted up in the 16th century and Bruges lost its importance as a trading centre to the city of Antwerp. The lace industry revived in the 17th century and new canals were dug to link the city with the port of Sluis to the north, but Bruges never regained its medieval status.

In 1708 during the War of the Spanish Succession'Bruges was captured by the French in a surprise attack. A number of French troops pretending to be deserters succeeded in capturing one of the gates and they let in the rest of the French forces.

The Ezelpoort (Ostend gate).

In the 18th and 19th centuries the city became poorer and was largely forgotten by the world. In 1810 Napoleon made another attempt to reconnect it with the sea by building a new canal through Damme and Sluis to the river Scheldt in the north, but the project was never completed.

Visiting Bruges

The Kruispoort (Sint-Kruis gate).

Bruges' earthwork bastions were allowed to decay as the city lost its importance and all that remains of them today are the earthen banks between the flooded ditches that still extend around three-quarters of the city. Out of the 9 gates in the 14th century walls, 4 survive today.

In the south, the 15th century Poertoren (powder tower) and the adjacent bridge have survived and are found near the Minnewater park. On the north-east side of the city four ancient windmills can be found. They stand on the remains of the earthwork bastions of the inner fortification line.

Bruges is a beautiful city that has retained its large medieval core due to the fact that it was forgotten and remained untouched by the industrial revolution. There is a huge amount of architectural heritage and many museums to be visited.

The Poertoren (powder tower).

Even though there is not much to see in terms of fortifications, Bruges is well worth a visit to see the well preserved medieval town.

The Gentpoort (Ghent gate).

Bruges has a main-line station, which is situated just south of the old town. The remains of the fortifications circle the town, and they make an excellent place for a quiet walk away from the bustle of the centre. There are plenty of places to stay in Bruges.

Condition Access to fortifications Size of fortress Accessability of town Museum/Info Overall score
9 6 3 8 3 5.8
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