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The Crossbow Guild Museum of Brussels, Belgium

By alison - July 26, 2013 (Updated: November 18, 2014)

Inside the Crossbow Guild House Museum in Brussels

A peek inside the Crossbow Guild House Museum in Brussels

Many fascinating traditions exist in Brussels, dating from the city’s beginnings: festivals, parades, religious ceremonies and trade guilds. One of the most interesting of the later is the Grand Serment Royal et de Saint-Georges des Arbalétriers de Bruxelles – the crossbow guild of Brussels.

While you will no longer see crossbowmen protecting the city of Brussels, as they once did, there is still plenty of evidence of their important historic role. You can visit several places in Brussels, of importance to the guild and you can even see the crossbowmen in action, every Thursday night.

While the crossbow guild today is active in historic festivals, such as the Ommegang, at one time they served a very important role, in Belgium. Founded in 1381, before the heyday of Coudenberg Palace, the crossbow guild defended the city of Brussels from all intruders.

The guild was so powerful it had its own church built, which we know as Notre Dame au Sablon. Inside the church you can see hints of this connection in the stained glass windows, featuring crossbowmen.

Notre Dame au Sablon Church in Brussels

Notre Dame au Sablon Church in Brussels

Another, less apparent, connection is a rowboat inside the church. While a boat doesn’t seem a likely symbol for crossbowmen, it eludes to the legend of Béatrice Soetkens. While doing her washing in the river one day, Béatrice heard the voice of God, tell her to steal the statue of the Holy Virgin, from the cathedral of Antwerp. She arrived via rowboat to claim the statue while the guards were sleeping. When she returned to Brussels, she was greeted by the crossbowmen, who swore to protect her and build a church to house the statue.

The statue telling of Béatrice Soetkens' voyage from Antwerp

The statue telling of Béatrice Soetkens’ voyage from Antwerp (via Michel Wal on Wiki)

The crossbow guild’s final connection to Notre Dame de Sablon is seen during their shooting competitions.  The most difficult event consists of shooting 36 meters straight up into the air, to hit a tiny metal bird target. The distance is taken from the ground to the top of the steeple of the church, where the target used to be placed. The winner of this annual competition becomes ‘King’ of Serment. If a crossbowman wins this competition 3 times in a ten year period, he becomes the guild’s ‘Emperor.’

The current King of Serment

The current King of Serment

By far the most interesting place to visit, if you want to learn more about the crossbowmen (and these days there are crossbow-women too!), is their guildhall. Tucked in behind Place Royal, on the Impasse du Borgendael, is a cellar filled with memorabilia of the crossbow guild. This is a living museum, where the crossbow guild meets each Thursday night, to practice their craft, offer lectures on historical aspects of the guild, and teach newcomers the art of shooting the crossbow.

Inside the Crossbow Guild Museum

Inside the Crossbow Guild Museum

The guildhall and museum looks like it was pulled directly from the history books, with its dark wood and shooting galleries. In true Belgian fashion, there is a bar complete with Belgian Ommegang beer, the packed fridge one of the only nods to modernity.

A collection of crossbow guild memorabilia

A collection of crossbow guild memorabilia
Crossbows of all shapes and sizes

Crossbows of all shapes and sizes

Of course, visiting the guildhall means conversing with the King, a passionate man with perfect aim – he did have to shoot that tiny target at 36 meters straight up to become King, after all.

The King gives us a crossbow demonstration

The King gives us a crossbow demonstration
The longest shooting range in the Crossbow Guild hall

The longest shooting range in the Crossbow Guild hall (Currently being used to dry soggy cloaks after a wet Ommegang festival)

The King informed us there are over 200 members in his guild, although only about 80 are active and even fewer visit regular meetings. Still, coming from a country younger than some of the crossbows in the collection, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the number of people still upholding this tradition.

Even Manneken Pis is a crossbowman, once a year

Even Manneken Pis is a crossbowman, once a year

The guildhall museum is free to visit during the Thursday night meetings (or you can call ahead and arrange a guided tour). You can watch the shooting practice, and maybe even give it a go yourself. It’s a fascinating slice of Brussels history, most people have no idea still exists.

Grand Serment Royal et de Saint-Georges des Arbalétriers de Bruxelles
Impasse du Borgendael – Place Royale, 7-9
1000 Brussels

Museum open during meetings Thursday at 20:00 and for special events. See the calendar for times.

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Alison

Alison

Big Cheese at CheeseWeb
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of Cheeseweb.eu. She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
Alison
Cheese + Goats = My personal heaven. We discover an oasis in the cheese desert. https://t.co/Os8U86UEiX - 7 days ago

4 comments

  1. Comment by amy

    amy July 26, 2013 at 13:19

    One of the most fascinating hidden gems of Brussels! We visited one year during Ommegang and couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Where else would you find a crossbow guild that is still in use…

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison July 26, 2013 at 13:43

      Exactly! I think it’s incredible that they meet every single week!

      • Comment by Alison

        Alison

        Alison July 28, 2013 at 11:23

        Yes, there are apparently several still active around the country and they get together for competitions, which I think would be pretty interesting to see. 🙂

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