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The Emancipation of Leuven in the 14th Century - the struggle for democracy

Presentation by Jules Audiens


The town hall in Leuven features 236 statues.

Among them we find these two:


Why are they there? Before we find out, let's first go a few steps back in the history of Leuven and its environment to prepare the picture.

Charlemagne, in the 9th century, centralises the government of his empire, founded on feudal principles:

  • General laws, "capitularia" are made to apply for ALL his subjects:
  • State affairs (war, money etc.) resort under his direct power,education, care for the poor and the sick, charity… resort under the Church.
  • Control is exercised by "missi dominici", visiting officials;the lowest officials in rank were the counts.
  • Functions were not hereditary.
  • Feudality is based on the principle that the vassal has to offer military service in change for land. This makes the nobility and the knights very influential.

By the 10th century the loss of central control in the "Holy Roman Empire" has allowed feudality to develop, or degenerate, into a system in which local rulers become rather independent.

Local officials (dukes and counts) take more and more power and their functions become more and more hereditary.

Brabant belongs to the Holy Roman empire (and will until 1548, under Charles V).

By the 12th Century Leuven has developed into a town (with own justice, protected rights, a market and city wall), on the spot up to which the river Dyle was navigable and where it crossed the ancient road from Cologne to the sea: it was a strategic spot, and therefore there were two cores: the castle and the port, that gradually grew together.

Count Lambert II Baldric founded or enlarged the church of St. Peter and founded a chapter of 7 canons. This became the centre of the town. It is the people related to St. Peter's church (including the duke's men) that will develop into the Leuven "noble lines".

The first town government consisted of 7 aldermen, entrusted by the Duke. The "bench of aldermen" was first mentioned around 1131 or 1140. This "bench of aldermen" had judiciary powers, in civil and also in criminal cases. Their judgment was absolute. They administered justice on the churchyard of St. Peter. They are taken from the prominent noble lines in Leuven.

Around 1183/1184 the Duchy of Brabant was formally erected, the title "Duke of Brabant" being created by the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in favour of Henry I, son of Godfrey III of Leuven (who was Duke of Lower Lotharingia at that time).

In the first part of the 13th century Duke Henry I, fearing loss of influence, adds his own bailiff. The bailiff was entrusted with safeguarding the Duke's interests, public security and peace. He had administrative, judicial, military and police powers. He could only arrest anybody on the demand of the aldermen, but had to ratify their sentences.

From 1234 on we find reference to two burgomasters. They were elected by the aldermen, as a "counterpoise" to the Duke's bailiff, to safeguard peace in the town, to administer the goods of widows and orphans, to survey the markets. Their financial tasks were soon entrusted to "paymasters". Later "peace makers" and "cauchiedemeesters" (street masters) took over part of their control functions on markets and streets. More and more corruption played a role, and council members started to protect or even favour their friends and families. This led to coterie spirit, and so to conflicts, of course.

Between 1261 to 1267 a strong family feud dominated Leuven politics: the "Colneren" against the "Blankaarden".

In 1261 Duke Henry III dies. His elder son Hendrik IV having a weak health, the widow, Aleidis of Burgundy, preferred her second son to become the new Duke (Jan I). The Blankaarden agreed but the Colneren did not and appealed to the crafts and guilds. After a two year struggle the Blankaarden finally managed to chase the Colneren in 1264; in 1265 these came back though, and this on and off continued until Hendrik renounced his rights and Jan I became the Duke, at the age of 15.

Duke Jan I, not at all pleased with the support of his brother's rights by the Colneren and guilds and crafts of Leuven, moves his court to Brussels. He decrees that the aldermen have to be replaced yearly on the 24th of June (St. John's!). This would allow more "Pietermannen" to take part in the town's government.

A few more noble families enter the town government, but power still remains in the hands of very few.

In 1288 guilds and crafts helped to finance Jan's cause in the battle of Worringen. They hoped to get his support to gain more power, but to no avail, which lead to a real hatred towards the noble families.

In 1302 Flemish guilds and crafts win the battle of the Golden Spurs, the first battle in our area in which townsfolk (albeit with the help and strategic skills of a few noblemen!) defeated a regular army. This may well have had an influence in Brabant too. We see a wave of upraises in many towns in the area in the years 1302-1306.But in 1306 Jan II allows the patricians to crush all rebellions. Rioters are mostly banished, which means that they are not allowed into other cities of the duchy either. In spite of this the guilds and crafts become more and more assertive, and also financially powerful. On the other hand traders from Brabant are frequently held liable elsewhere to paying the Duke's debts, which, of course, they do not appreciate at all. It goes as far as some traders being taken hostage until they (or others) pay the required sum.)

In 1312 Duke Jan II, feeling his death near, and afraid that his son (Jan III, at the age of only 12 then) could not do without financial as well as political support of the towns, gives out the Charter of Kortenberg: it confirms the rights and privileges of the towns:

There are 9 articles, three of which are essential:

  1. towns are only due taxes for his son's knightship; his daughter`s marriage; in case of ransom to get him free;
  2. honest administration of justice for poor and rich, and
  3. recognition of the liberties.

In fact the duke has himself well paid for this.

The charter of Kortenberg also installs a Council in which the towns can supervise the Duke's administration and decisions.

After 1302 cloth trade boomed in Brabant, but by 1340 it had declined. (Edward III had decided to take Bruges as the centre for English wool trade on the continent; so Brabant lost its dominant position to Flanders.)As a result of the decline there were new revolts against the patricians. In order to combat corruption, in 1341 it was explicitly stated, that no one was allowed to promise money or goods in order to be designed as a councillor.

Soon, Duke Jan III's policy proved very expensive; therefore he needed the financial support of the towns and he asked for extra aid concerning:

  1. the reception of knighthood and marriage of his son Hendrik;
  2. the marriage of his son Godfried;
  3. the dowry of his daughter Margaretha who was to marry Lodewijk van Male, the Count of Flanders

Because some Leuven traders got their goods seized (history repeats itself, doesn't it) in the Rhine country in order to cover the Duke's debts, the town sought to recover the money and wanted to reduce the agreed sum of 3000 lb to 2000. The duke's collector however kept requiring the whole sum previously agreed.

The town then appealed to the council of Kortenberg: this could lead to the town dismissing their service to the duke. In this situation Pieter Couthereel was designated bailiff. Pieter Couthereel was supposed to defend the duke's rights, so he soon came into conflict with the town's patricians. In December 1350 he tried to rule out the town council, with the support of the crafts. This failed and he was dismissed himself. What was his situation between 1350 and 1355 is not known

When John III died in 1355, his sons having died before, he left only daughters. His eldest daughter Johanna was married to Wenceslas, duke of Luxemburg and brother of the emperor Charles IV. She had to concede the "blijde inkomst", (joyful entry) granting the towns their privileges. Wenceslas though was opposed to the patricians having so much power. This brought the Brabant towns to seek the support of Lodewijk van Male, Count of Flanders, who was married to Jan III's second daughter Margaretha. Lodewijk invaded Brabant.

The crafts however were on the side of Wenceslas (because opposed to the patricians and hoping for change) and chased Lodewijk van Male. Margaretha however got the town of Mechelen as her part of the heritage.

Wenceslas reinstalls Couthereel as the bailiff and "cancels" the Blijde Inkomst. The patricians on the other hand want to get rid of Couthereel and find a reason in the following case:

  • A fish merchant got stuck with his chart halfway between Mechelen and Leuven. He got a horse from a meadow to get it free but failed to put the horse back. Arrived in Leuven he was arrested for theft. The patricians want the fish merchant to be freed, Couthereel refuses.
  • The patricians discharge Couthereel from office - a right in fact that belonged only to the duke, so Couthereel went to him to complain; the duke's does not take action although Reinier van Valkenburgh, who was as Couthereel a "buitenpoorter" (burgher come from outside) of Leuven advised the duke to do so with the help of the craftsmen.

We cannot know how the duke supported Couthereel then, but we do know that he was bailiff in Nivelles, Walloon Brabant, for some time, and that was probably where prepared the coup he did finally manage in 1360.

One of the reasons that he got the craftsmen over to take part in this coup was certainly the financial catastrophe the town found itself in. (The town was not even able to pay the interests on the loans! Detroit was obviously not the first city that this happened to!)

A number of patricians were captured and their privileges were torn apart.

Couthereel taxed the patricians with 1 %, later 2 % of their possessions, and those who refused to pay were imprisoned on Mount Cesar (the duke's palace).

On 1 September 1360, the duke confirms the new organisation of the town government.He still appoints the bailiff and the 7 aldermen himself, taking 4 patricians, 2 craftsmen (one from the weavers, one alternatingly from the butchers and the blacksmiths) and finally one guild member not being a patrician.

For the first time that we know there seems to be an equality between patricians and crafts, as we will see: 11 to 11 councillors.

The crafts, 38 in number, were organised into 10 "nations". (for example the butchers and fishers formed one "nation".)The "nations" propose 33 candidates for the 11 council seats on the crafts' side: the patricians could refuse two out of three, the remaining 11 would go into office.

The eleven council members on the crafts' side elect eleven patricians for next year's term.

The idea was that both parties would tend to elect moderate rather than extremist members.

The charter also stipulated that, in case of equality of votes, the arbitrators would be the heads of the three mendicant orders: Dominicans, Franciscans and Augustinians. In fact Pieter Coutereel, as the captain of the crafts, kept most of the power in hands.

Several patricians fled the city, others were kept prisoners.

Peace of 1361

On 24th June Wenceslas does not appoint the aldermen and Couthereel is not successful in convincing him to do so. In the meantime the patricians have been trying to regain their position and possessions in the town, and appealed to Wenceslas. In October the duke pitches camp near Leuven: the patricians are obliged to come and ask for forgiveness, the tenor of 1360 is kept, but the duke takes more power into his own hands and withdraws the "blijde inkomst". In fact, Wenceslas appoints all the council members. Pieter Couthereel is now appointed burgomaster of the patricians. Moreover the duke demands considerable sums of money.

In 1362 Wenceslas allows the council to elect their members again, probably to gain their goodwill as to more financial demands.

Pieter Couthereel remains the patrician burgomaster, and continues trying to increase his powers. In recognition of services rendered, the duke bestows on him the manor of Asten.

Some sources also suggest that Couthereel should have enriched himself during his terms in office, but the town accounts still available show no reason to believe this.


Because the duke needs money he restarts supporting the patricians and finally sets up a commission for them to recuperate their possessions. In exchange they have to pay him a large sum of money - which, however, they take from the town treasure - and they have to renounce the rights of the Blijde Inkomst. Fearing new action from Couthereel, the patricians finally urge the duke to banish Couthereel and finally succeed: in 1364 the duke banishes Couthereel and 40 of those who supported the 1360 coup. In exchange the patricians again pay the duke. The patricians now seem to have taken back the power but soon make a series of mistakes: they monopolise offices. Moreover they empty the treasury.

Finally the town is so in debt that everywhere Leuven merchants are arrested and obliged to pay for the town's debts.

In 1378, burghers of Leuven convene in order to try and rectify the situation, the main problem being the financial catastrophe.

The crafts claim more involvement and as a result of the convention a commission is installed, in which 8 craftsmen would seat together with 8 patricians. This Commission of Sixteen decides among other things:

  • new taxes for burghers and church
  • a stop of gifts from the town
  • reduction of the income of some public servants
  • taxation on heritage
  • The town would commit itself to paying half of the due rents to their creditors, the other half to their heirs

First Duchess Johanna, then her husband Wenceslas, want to take the town's financial situation in their own hands, but the commission declines this. Thinking that the patricians are blocking the situation, and seeing they harass craftsmen and traders, in July 1378 weavers start an upraising. They invade the town hall in the night of 22 to 23 July, under Wouter Vander Leyden, taking the town government into their own hands. Some patricians take the side of the craftsmen, others flee the town, and Wenceslas is called in to mediate again. Finally, what results is the following complex model (which grants the patricians 11 councillors, as before, but the crafts 10:

In spite of all this, a fraction of malcontent patricians keep harassing and even murdering Leuven burghers, and they also murder Wouter Vander Leyden, who was the burgomaster of the crafts then, when he was on his way to the Duke in Brussels where he was going to complain about this. As a reaction the craftsmen invade the town hall again and throw 17 of these patricians out of the windows.

We may say that, through the 4 uprisings between 1300 and 1380, the Leuven townsfolk had to pay a heavy price in order to reach a form of democracy, but that they managed, also by negotiating as well, to reach a certain amount of influence in town government about a hundred years earlier than in Flanders. In Brussels the crafts never succeeded in breaking the patricians monopoly.

We know that Pieter Coutereel died in 1370, having lost most of his fame and riches, and that he had always defended the rights of the crafts in spite of never acting against the duke's interests. (In fact the Duke often misused his loyalty!) Seen what he must have known about Pieter Coutereel, we can assume Wouter Vander Leyden knew the risks he was running and was a very brave man.

The final model of town government agreed on in 1378 will hold out until the French Revolution.

September 2012