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Sint-Niklaas (Municipality, Province of East Flanders, Belgium)


Last modified: 2012-08-01 by ivan sache
Keywords: sint-niklaas | saint-nicolas | waasland | turnip | sinaai | wheel: broken |
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Flag of Sint-Niklaas, left, as used; right, as prescribed - Images by Arnaud Leroy, 30 April 2012

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Presentation of Sint-Niklaas and its villages

The municipality of Sint-Niklaas (in French, Saint-Nicolas; 70,016 inhabitants on 1 January 2007; 8,380 ha) is the capital of the region of Waasland, located between Ghent and Antwerp. The municipality of Sint-Niklaas is made since 1976 of the former municipalities of Sint-Niklaas, Belsele, Nieuwkerken-Waas and Sinaai.

Sint-Niklaas emerged as a parish in 1217, founded by Gosuinus, Bishop of Tournai, upon request of Father Daniël, from Waasmunster, which was at that time the capital of Waasland, the former Roman vicus Pontrave located on the river Demer and the seat of a powerful abbey. Claiming that the secession of the new parish would make religious practice difficult, the bishop obtained in 1219 from Countess of Flanders Johanna of Constantinople the grant of eight hectares of desert land (woestine) to build a church and a presbytery. The dedication of the new parish to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of merchants, indicates that the new parish was made for mercantile reasons. In 1558, the parish was transferred from the Bishopric of Tournai to the Bishopric of Ghent; the bishop shared the right on the parish church with the abbeys of Boudelo (Sinaii), Roosenberg (Waasmunster) and Nieuwenbos (Sint-Gillis-Waas).
Challenged by the lords of Beveren, the Counts of Flanders wanted to develop a free, wealthy and well-organized community in the heart of Waasland; in 1241, Sint-Niklaas was made the administrative center of the region via the Keure van het Land van Waas (Court of Waasland); accordingly, all the domains belonging to the Counts in Waasland were placed under the rule of a High College set up in Sint-Niklaas. In 1248, Johanna of Constantinople granted another six hectares as communem usum omnium, that is for the benefit of all. This grant is the origin of the huge market square of Sint-Niklaas, the widest in Belgium, with an area of 3.19 ha.
Thanks to flax and wool trade and a strategic location between Zeeland and Brabant, as the crossroads of roads to Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent, Sint-Niklaas became the main trade center of Waasland. In 1515, Emperor Maximilian allowed a weekly market, together with a yearly fair scheduled in December around St. Nicolas' Day. A second yearly fair was granted in 1578, which took place until 1820 during the first week of September and was moved in 1821 to the first week of May.
Not protected by walls, Sint-Niklaas was a convenient target for any kind of warlords. The town was involved in the rebellion of Ghent against the Duke of Burgundy and the Hapsburg; in 1381, Sint-Niklaas was sacked and burned down. In 1578-1584, the Iconoclasts severely damaged the town. Through clever cropping systems, Sint-Niklaas became in the 17th century internationally known as "The Garden of Flanders". The region was famous for the production of flax,grain, potato and turnip. On 25 May 1690, a blaze started in a juniper warehouse and destroyed 565 houses, together with the roofs and towers of the St. Nicholas church.
In the early 18th century, the traditional, family workshops, such as oilmills, wool mills, breweries and tileries, were superseded by the preindustrial development of wool factories; in 1764, industrial cotton mills were set up, which progressively transformed Sint-Niklaas into an industrial center. The second most industrialized town in East Flanders after Ghent in 1830, Sint-Niklaas declined after the independence of Belgium and the loss of the trade with the Netherlands and the Dutch colonies. In 1850, the town was connected to the national railway network, which boosted the local economy. The cloth industry resumed by diversifying its products, first wool fabrics and then carpets and hosiery. Stopped by the First World War, the economic and demographic development of the town started again between the two World Wars, with the building of new boroughs in Art Deco style. After the Second World War, the cloth industry was once again hit by crisis and needed restructuring.

Belsele, as proved by several findings from the late Age of Iron and the Gallo-Roman period, is one of the oldest settlements in Waasland. The foundations of a Roman villa excavated in the village of Steenwerk seem to indicate that the early settlement developed along the Antwerp-Ghent-Lille road. Known since the 9th century, the name of Belsele gives away a Frankish origin, especially the suffox -sele.
Belsele became an independent parish in 1217; the Sts. Andrew and Ghislain church was built in the 13th century and houses an organ built by Van Peteghem in 1784. By Decree of Johanna of Constantinople dated 1234, Belsele and Sinaai formed a single Court (vierschaar) depending on the Court of Waasland.

Source: Municipal website

Since the 2006 municipal elections, the most famous Municipal Councillor in Sint-Niklaas is the cyclist Tom Steels, born in Sint-Gillis-Waas in 1971. Once considered as one of the best sprinters in the world, Steels won Ghent-Wevelgem in 1996 and 1999, the national championship in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2004, nine stages in Tour de France (1998-2000) and two stages in the Vuelta (1996).
Wouter Van Bellingen (b. 1972 in Rwanda and adopted by a Flemish family) might be an even more famous Municipal Councillor since he is the first black Councillor in Flanders. Three couples refused to be married by him because of the colour of his skin, which caused several other couples to ask to be married by him and a national and international support.
Sint-Niklaas is the birth town of the singer Bob Benny (b. 1926 as Emilius Wagemans, he chosed his pseudonym as a tribute to the American jazz musician Benny Goodman), who competed, unsuccessfully, for Belgian in the Eurovision song contest in 1959 and 1961.

Ivan Sache, 8 November 2007

Municipal flag of Sint-Niklaas

The municipal flag of Sint-Niklaas is vertically divided blue-yellow with the Waasland turnip (yellow root and red leaves) placed in the blue stripe.
According to Gemeentewapens in België - Vlaanderen en Brussel [w2v02a], the flag was adopted by the Municipal Council on 26 October 1979, confirmed by the Executive on 9 December 1980 and published in the Belgian official gazette on 29 January 1981.
The colours of the flag and the turnip come from the municipal arms (image).

The story of the Waasland turnip is told by Servais [svm55a] as follows (quoting the translation from the International Civic Heraldry website):

Emperor Charles V once visited the city of Sint Niklaas and obviously a crowd gathered to see the emperor. Among these was a small farmer holding a huge turnip, which he wanted to hand to the emperor. The guards, however, prevented the farmer to reach the emperor. The emperor, however, noticed that something was happening and asked the farmer what he had in his hands. The farmer answered that he had a giant fruit and that he wanted to give it to the emperor. The emperor was intrigued and let the farmer pass the guards. The emperor accepted the turnip and awarded the farmer with a large purse.
Seeing the reward for a simple turnip, a local horsebreeder imagined the award he would fetch if he gave the emperor a good horse. So he offered the emperor a beautiful horse. The emperor responded, saying that for a beautiful horse, he would donate one of his precious possessions, and handed the breeder the turnip. Embarrassed the breeder had to accept the turnip, which ever since has been the symbol of the Waasland and its fertile soil.

The famous turnip is portrayed on the municipal flags of Lokeren, Sint-Gillis-Waas, Sint-Niklaas and Waasmunster.

According to Servais, the arms of Sint-Niklaas (image) were granted by (Dutch) Royal Decree in 1819 and confirmed by (Belgian) Royal Decree on 27 March 1840. The arms show on a field azure St. Nicholas holding a crozier in his dexter hand, flanked in dexter by the salting tub where the nasty butcher put the dead children eventually resurrected by the saint, and in sinister by the Waasland turnip, all in or. As can be expected, the arms were designed after a municipal seal portraying the saint, but the oldest known seal is quite recent, being dated 1784.

The former arms of Sinaai, granted by (Dutch) Royal Decree on 30 December 1820 and modified by (Belgian) Royal Decree on 23 December 1849, show on a field azure St. Catherine's broken wheel above a turnip. The original arms, designed after a municipal seal from 1690 portraying the saint with the wheel, lacked the turnip, which was added in 1820. On the artwork, the turnip has green leaves but a red ribbon, which might be the origin of the red leaves shown on the flag of Sint-Niklaas.
The former arms of Belsele and Nieuwkerke-Waas portray the patron saints, St. Andrew and the Blessed Virgin, but are, unfortunately, turnipless.

Pascal Vagnat & Ivan Sache, 30 April 2012

A flag (photo) kept at the Nieuwkerken-Waas museum (185 cm x 135 cm, height of flagstaff 250 cm) bears a rather fanciful rendition of the turnip, yellow highlighted with brown.
The flags hoisted on the main square of Sint-Niklaas (photo) and on the former Town Hall of Nieuwkerke-Waas (photo) bear no turnip at all.

Jan Mertens, 6 September 2011

Various flags used in Sint-Niklaas

Marcellyn Dewulf (Sinterklaas, de schutspatroon van de stad Sint-Niklaas in de heraldiek, de ikonografie, de naamgeving, en de volksgebruiken [St. Nicholas, patron saint of the town of Sint-Niklaas, in heraldry, iconography, onomastics, and folklore], Annalen van de Oudheidkundige Kring van het Land van Waas, 73: 5-48, 1970) describes banners and flags used at Sint-Niklaas and the surrounding Waasland. Dewulf recounts various tribulations (his choice of word) having to do with the municipal arms and some flags are mentioned.

At the occasion of St.Nicholas's procession or other joyful events, a temporary flagpole was erected and a banner flown upon which were painted the municipal arms: for instance sometime during the 1675- 1700 period, Mayor De Cauwer ordered a banner painted showing the saint and the three children.
A painting by E.J. Smeyers (1739) shows the swearing-in of Philip the Fair at Sint-Niklaas on 7 June 1497 (a subject taken from an older painting, now lost). One of the many priests is shown bearing a gonfalon: a staff with a cross-and-rooster finial and a square blue cloth bearing an oval shield with the saint, dressed as a bishop, and the three children in the vat at his right. This, according to Dewulf, may have been the banner of the Waasland dean's office (a dean ranks between a bishop and a parish priest).
In 1729 there was a solemn reception of ransomed Flemish sailors (freed from Algiers, after a local brotherhood had collected funds for their ransom) by the local clergy bearing a silver cross and the parochial banner. The next year this was repeated for a second group from the same ship.

A civil flag is mentioned as being used on the 19 Floréal of the Year 10 (9 May 1802), as le drapeau de la commune (the municipal flag). Sint-Niklaas was then a French town and on that date the Consular Decree on religious freedom was solemnly proclaimed. The next year, when on 18 July 1803 First Consul Napoléon Bonaparte and his wife Joséphine visited the town, the municipal flag was borne at the head of the column of dignitaries.
The municipal seal of that period showed an imperial eagle: "then", as Dewulf writes it, could not have been the case before 1804. I am surprised by his writing "the municipal banner would surely have borne the same image". Did French municipalities such as "Saint Nicolas (Escaut)" fly the Imperial eagle?

The (main) St. Nicholas church at Sint-Niklaas possesses six richly embroidered procession banners, four of which belong to religious brotherhoods. Of those six, four were made at the end of the 19 century or in the beginning of the 20th century by the J.B. Van Severen-Vermeulen (successor: H. Van Severen) textile workshop.
One banner acquired in 1899 commemorates the 200th anniversary of the Our Lady of Halle brotherhood and shows St. Nicholas in a seated position, next to him the vat containing the three children and the Virgin Mary behind them standing on cannon balls.
Another banner, not belonging to any brotherhood and also showing the saint and the children, may have been inspired by the old parochial banner mentioned above, as an oval medallion is used.
Our Lady's church at Sint-Niklaas possesses four similar banners, one of which belongs to the Brotherhhod of the Sacred Heart and shows the municipal arms in a faulty version: Saint Nicholas does not wear a gold chasuble (or) but a blue one (azure).

The Boerke Naas folkloric group (Farmer Nick, after a droll poem by Guido Gezelle) uses a number of flags for display and throwing, two of which bear St. Nicholas and the Waasland turnip. The local painter Josef De Beule designed the older one, no longer used as it is too heavy; a second and lighter one, made of silk, was designed by the glass artist Staf Pijl. Both artists used as a model the relevant HAG Coffee album, which shows the arms without the crown.

Lastly, Dewulf mentions a car pennant used by Mayor Romain De Vidts, showing a faulty rendition of the arms and that his successor, Frantz Van Dorpe, had immediately replaced on assuming office (1965).
The new pennant bears two horizontal stripes, blue and yellow, the word "Gemeentebestuur" (Municipal Authority) in gold and the municipal arms, surrounded by two laurel branches, in the centre. Dewulf believes that as the municipal flag had never been officially described, there could be no heraldic argument against either horizontal or vertical placement of the town colours.

Jan Mertens, 25 March 2008

Former municipality of Sinaai

Sinaai was, according to historians from the 19th century, named after Mount Sinai in Egypt because of a relic of St. Catherine of Alexandria allegedly brought back to Flanders by a crusader. Catherine is indeed the village's patron saint but the name of the village most probably comes from zwijn, "a natural channel" and aai, "a river", Sinaai meeaning therefore "a place rich in water". While Sinaai is probably of Frankish origin, the name of the village appeared for the first time in Gosuinus' deed in 1217. By Decree of Johanna of Constantinople dated 1234, Sinaai and Belsele formed a single Court (vierschaar) depending on the Court of Waasland.
The abbey of Boudelo was founded around 1197 in the place called Klein-Sinaai, located six kilometers north of Sinaai. The monks drained wet areas and transformed several hectares of moors in arable land, significanty contributing to the early development of Waasland. After the plundering of the abbey by the Calvinists from Ghent in 1578, the monks moved to a safest residence in Ghent in 1584 and stayed there until the suppression of the abbey by the French rulers.

Source: Municipal website

An article written by Sylvain Luyckx and published on 7 March 2008 in Het Nieuwsblad reports a proposal for the flag of Sinaai.
Local designer Bert Groenendaal has conceived a flag for his village to adorn new lamp posts. While the unusual triangular shape of the flag was the result of much brainstorming (such a flag would be easily hung up and less prone to wear and tear), its contents - the former municipal arms bearing the Waasland turnip and St. Catherine's broken wheel - are more traditional.
Groenendaal reckons that about 150 flags would be necessary; the operation would cost about 3900 €. It seems the municipality was interested and would investigate feasibility. The designer offerred his work freely to the village.

Looking as if the lower fly of a vertically hoisted flag had been cut away along a diagonal line, the flag is yellow, edged blue at fly end, and bears a blue shield containing a yellow St. Catherine's wheel above a turnip in natural colours, brown and green, tied with a red ribbon.
According to Servais [svm55], the arms of Sinaai (image) were granted by (Dutch) Royal Decree of 30 December 1820, after the oldest known village seal, dated 1694 and showing St. Catherine and her broken wheel. The 1820 arms showed the wheel but the saint was omitted. The arms were changed by (Belgian) Royal Decree of 23 December 1849, adding the Waasland turnip to the early design.

There is no information on the former municipal flag, provided there was one, but it might have been yellow and blue.

Ivan Sache & Jan Mertens, 5 December 2008

Former municipality of Nieuwkerken-Waas

Nieuwkerken-Waas is a very ancient settlement. A chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin was built around 1143 in the north-west of the current church; in 1294, the village that had developed around the chapel became a parish independent of Sint-Niklaas. Until the middle 16th century, the agricultural development of the village was ran by the abbey of Boudelo (Sinaai). Nieuwkerken and Sint-Niklaas formed a single Court (vierschaar), which gathered most the time in Sint-Niklaas but at least once per year in Nieuwkerken. In 1650, the High College of Waasland sold Nieuwkerken to the De Jonghe family.

The former municipal flag of Nieuwkerken-Waas (photo) kept at the local museum (height, 100 cm) is vertically divided blue-white with the municipal arms in the centre.
The coat of arms is vertically divided in counterchanged colours, with the initial "N" and Virgin Mary and Child in white, with blue holding lines, and the initial "K" in white on blue. The letters are serifed. The official version of the coat of arms (image) is "Azure, Virgin and Child proper (mainly azure and or), initials or, and grass ground vert".
Blue and white are the Marian colours. A simpler version of the flag, without arms, may well have existed.
On 2 February 2011 the Village Council requested that the local flag be also used when flags are hoisted on the former Town Hall (text).

Source: Municipal website

Jan Mertens, 9 September 2011