Gravensteen sits between two branches of the Lys, in the middle of the Belgian city of Ghent. Philip of Alsace, a crusader and the Count of Flanders, built the castle toward the end of the twelfth century, on the site of earlier fortifications going back to the time of Arnulf the Great. With a name that means “count’s stone” or “castle of the counts,” Gravensteen has all the expected trappings of a medieval citadel: a moat, a gatehouse, an imposing keep, and an oval-shaped ring wall with twenty-four bartizans. Of course, there’s also a banquet hall, a dovecote, a set of stables, a bunch of spiral staircases, and a sinister dungeon, complete with various torture devices that make the head spin.
Despite its basement, Gravensteen boasts a certain romance — in the most literary sense. When he was still the abbot of Glastonbury, the future Saint Dunstan spent time in Ghent under the protection of Count Arnulf. Upon returning to England, he left behind some manuscripts, including one about the Holy Grail. Two centuries later, Count Philip passed those blessed materials to his court poet, Chrétien de Troyes, who used them when writing Perceval, which then inspired Thomas Malory’s classic Le Morte d’Arthur. However important Gravensteen’s bibliographic part in perpetuating the grail myth, the castle itself was always more imposing than comfortable. After Louis of Male decided to move his court to nicer quarters down the way, in the mid-fourteenth century, the site fell into disrepair and neglect. Over the years, it served as a prison, a mint, a source of construction materials for penny-pinching locals, and, during the Industrial Revolution, a textile mill. By the 1880s, derelict Gravensteen was no longer suitable for even factory workers.
When the city floated the idea of knocking the entire thing down and building a new intersection in its place, a wealthy engineer and industrialist named Auguste de Maere led a campaign to save Gravensteen. Inspired by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and his “creative restorations” of Notre-Dame, in Paris, and of postcard-perfect Mont-Saint-Michel, in Normandy, de Maere’s group of preservationists embarked on a fourteen-year reimagining of their fortified landmark, which reopened to the public in 1907: a whimsical mixture of authentic Flemish heritage and ersatz Gothic architecture.
Having grown up rather obsessed with castles, I was grateful for that rehabilitation, whether contrived or not, as I spent a couple of hours exploring Gravensteen on a recent rainy afternoon. And having just that morning read about the Quebec government’s plan to double university tuition for out-of-province students attending McGill, Concordia, and Bishop’s, I was delighted to learn of yet another moment in Gravensteen’s storied past: a siege.
On November 16, 1949, a group of 138 students from nearby Ghent University — alarmed by a proposed tax that would increase the price of beer some 33 percent — entered the grounds. After they locked the lone guard in a closet, they lowered the portcullis and raised banners from the battlements. From high above the cobblestone streets, they pelted a growing gathering of police officers and firefighters with smoke bombs and rotten produce, while sharing their demands: beer kept at three Belgian francs a pint and the closure of the municipal drunk tank.
The so-called Battle of Gravensteen did not last long. As firefighters trained their hoses on the ramparts, police officers scaled the gatehouse and corralled the students, interrogating them into the night and releasing them two by two. Though short-lived, the siege garnered international attention, including in the New York Herald Tribune, and proved a harbinger of the Flemish Movement of the 1960s, when Dutch nationalist groups would call for greater linguistic and political autonomy within Belgium.
Walking back to my hotel, I wondered how today’s more adventurous students would protest Quebec’s intended tuition hike. Might those at McGill, for example, take a page from the Ghentish playbook and lay siege to Martlet House, that faux baronial castle on Montreal’s Peel Street built for Samuel Bronfman and once described by Peter C. Newman as a combination of “the worst of Tudor and Gothic with early Disneyland”? Or might they dream bigger, joining forces with their Concordia brethren and occupying the old Royal Victoria Hospital, with its distinctive crenellations and turrets?
Regardless of how they lodge their protests, those undergraduates in Quebec may well have as little success as their predecessors in Ghent. There, the authorities had made up their minds; the price of beer skyrocketed. Today, only an annual parade commemorates that earlier time, when it cost so much less to be young.