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Vilvoorde (Municipality, Province of Flemish Brabant, Belgium)


Last modified: 2019-01-13 by ivan sache
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Municipal flag of Vilvoorde - Image by Filip van Laenen, 3 November 2001

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Presentation of Vilvoorde

The municipality of Vilvoorde (in French, Vilvorde; 37,964 inhabitants on 1 January 2007; 2,148 ha; municipal website) borders the Region of Brussels-Capital in the north. The municipality of Vilvoorde was established in 1976 as the merger of the former municipalities of Vilvoorde and Peutie.

Vilvoorde was mentioned for the first time in 779, as Filfurdo, a domain transferred by Pepin of Herstal to the abbey of Chèvremont.
Vilvoorde means "the villa near the ford", referring to the location of the original settlement on the river Zenne, near a ford used by the Asse-Elewijt main way. Starting to develop in the 12th century, the town of Vilvoorde became a bone of contention between the Dukes of Brabant and the lords of Grimbergen. To definitively get the support of the burghers of Vilvoorde in his struggle with the County of Flanders, the Duke of Brabant granted in 1192 a chart to the town, allowing the building of city walls and free export of the local products. These privileges attracted even more inhabitants to the town. In the 14th century, Vilvoorde was considered, together with Leuven and Brussels, as among the wealthiest towns in Brabant. A main place of trade and cloth industrty, Vilvoorde was also (and still is) a main military and political center, with a castle built by the Dukes of Brabant.

The decline of Vilvoorde started in the 15th century, because of the increase of clothing industry in Flanders, the decrease in population due to epidemics, the Wars of Religion and the strong competition with the swift-growing town of Brussels. Vilvoorde turned to a second-rank, provincial town: the castle fell into ruins, the churches were no longer revamped and the beautiful manors were abandoned.

In the 19th century, activity resumed in Vilvoorde due to the industrial revolution. Located a few kilometers from the capital of Belgium, with easy ways of communication, Vilvoorde was one of the first European towns to benefit from industrialization. The first railway in continental Europe was built between Brussels and Vilvoorde in 1835. The increase of the Canal of Willebroek (1830) attracted several factories on its banks. The area limited by the Zenne, the canal and the railway became a busy business park. The industrialization of Vilvoorde required the suppression of the last remains of the old city walls and gates and the diversion of the Zenne outside the town; the historical center, including the Beguine convent, was completely destroyed and replaced by large avenues and squares. The old town hall, dated 1489, was also rebuilt in neo-classic style. The Canal of Willebroek was increased once again in 1900-1922 to become a sea canal, suitable for barges uo to 105 m in length and 5.80 m in draught; a river port was built with docks and another bunch of factories. The today's business park covers a 6 x 4 km area.

Vilvoorde is the place where the Protestant William Tyndale was executed on 6 October 1536 during the Spanish rule on the Low Countries. Tyndale promoted the translation of the Bible from Latin into popular languages. At that time, owning or reading an illegal translation fo the Bible was punished by law. Accordingly, Tyndale went to Germany, where his translation of the Bible was published and smuggled back to England. Captured and chained in Antwerp, Tyndale was brought to the castle of Vilvoorde and sentenced to death as an heretic. One year after Tyndale's death, Cromwell ruled that the Bible should be published in English and that every church should have a copy of the translation. Tyndale's translation of the Bible was the base of the first official release of the Bible in English. The monument dedicated to Tyndale in Vilvoorde bears the martyr's last words "Lord, thou shall open the eyes of the King of England".

Vilvoorde has a statue of the Brabantian draft horse, made by Koen Van Daele in 1993. The symbol of Flemish Brabant, the horse is also the symbol of Vilvoorde, famous in the past for its horse traders and butchers. The Vilvoorde horse meat was highly prized in the best restaurants and inns of the town.

In the 1970s, the economic crisis severely hit Vilvoorde. The permanent closure of the big Renault factory in 1997 was felt as a catastroph, mostly because of the very brutal announcement of the closure, at that time not considered as a sign of "efficient management". On 27 February 1997, the 3,000 workers of the factory, of which 2,500 were eventually fired, saw on TV or listened on the radio a spokesman of Louis Schweitzer, CEO of the French car manufacturer, announcing that the Vilvoorde factory, deemed obsolete, not competitive etc., should be closed, with immediate effect. The announcement caused a big turmoil in Belgium (and also in France), since nobody had been told the "social plan" before its official annoucement. In spite of national and international support, the workers could not prevent the definitive closure of the factory on 29 June 1997. The Vilvoorde affair interfered with the political life in France and Belgium, but the collateral damage for the politicians, quite strong for a few weeks, was much less durable than for the workers.
The Prime Minister of Belgium was then Jean-Luc Dehaene, from Vilvoorde. He claimed that he was not aware of anything before the announcement of the closure and that he had been fooled by Renault and the French government. The French part answered that he had been noticed but had preferred to conceal the facts to protect his political future. Far from bearing grudges, the inhabitants of Vilvoorde elected him Mayor from 2000 to 2007.
The French government claimed it was Renault's private affair, since the car manufacturer had eventually been privatized in 1996. Some nasty specialists mentioned that it was a privatization à la française, with the higher state administration keeping an eye, if not more, on the company. The affair was embarrasing for Jacques Chirac, elected President of the Republic in 1995 with a "leftist" program aimed at reducing the famous fracture sociale (social gap); the never embarrassed President answered that the affair was serious but had to be dealt with by Renault and the Belgians. The affair was even more embarrasing for Lionel Jospin, appointed Prime Minister by Chirac on 1 June 1997. After the weird dissolution of the National Assembly by Jacques Chirac, the Socialists won the election. Jospin joined a demonstration of the Vilvoorde workers on 16 March 1997, promising that he would never allow the closure would he win the elections. However, he could not prevent the closure and blamed Chirac, Renault and the Belgians.
The only positive consequence of the Vilvoorde affair was the adoption by the Belgian Parliament of the so-called "Renault Vilvoorde Law", prescribing accompanying and information measures in case of permanent closure of a company or factory employing more than 20 workers.

Ivan Sache, 13 December 2007

Flag of Vilvoorde

The flag of Vilvoorde is red with a yellow, square canton, of side the half of the flag height.
According to Gemeentewapens in België - Vlaanderen en Brussel [w2v02a], the flag, adopted on 8 September 1982 by the Municipal Council, is prescribed by a Decree issued on 1 April 1985 by the Executive of Flanders and published on 8 July 1986 in the Belgian municipal gazette.
The flag is the banner shown on the municipal arms; the banner shows itself the oldest known arms of Vilvoorde.

According to Servais [svm55a], the arms of Vilvoorde, granted on 15 September 1819 by (Dutch) Royal Decree and confirmed on 6 May 1839 by (Belgian) Royal Decree, are "Gules a castle or surmounted by two swallow-tailed flags of the same and flanked by two peaks bearing a banner 'or a canton gules'". The two-towered castle is shown on the oldest known municipal seal, dated 1346; the two flags surmounting the castle appear on the seal dated 1366, while a later seal shows the lateral banners. The colours are not explicit on the seal, and the first arms of Vilvoorde, based on the later seal, had a yellow banner with a canton gules. The colours were reverted on the new arms adopted at the same dates as the flag.


Former flag of Vilvoorde - Image by Ivan Sache, 13 December 2007

Jan Mertens remembers having seen in the 1980s in Vilvoorde flags vertically divided red-yellow, probably unofficial flags with the traditional colours of the town. The official flag has definitively superseded those flags, which are also shown on an old post card.

Pascal Vagnat & Ivan Sache, 13 December 2007