Crossbowmen under the church at the Place Royale

Written by Frédéric Solvel - 29 Jan 2014, 00:00 (Updated: 12 Jan 2022, 04:29)
Crossbowmen under the church at the Place Royale
Along with fencers, archers, friends in the Sablon, the crossbowmen of the Grand Serment Royal et de Saint-Georges (The Great Royal Saint-Georges Oath) are the last heirs to a medieval tradition. Defenders of Brussels from harm’s way, these precise shooters have been occupying the Impasse du Borgendael for about fifteen years

Today protected by a gate, the Impasse du Borgendael extends the walls of the Palais royal starting at the corner of the square of the same name. In the back, under the Coudenberg church, you can find the cave of the crossbowmen of the Grand Serment…

A great Brussels oath

Founded (or officially recognized) in 1381, the pledge was composed of armed bourgeois. Consequently, the middle class possessed more weapon power than the wealthier class. That was enough for the dukes, landowners and other magistrates of the time to kiss up to the bourgeois, making sure they were on their good side.

The church at the Sablon that we know today was built by the crossbowmen in the 14th century. It was just a chapel then, but from the 15th century onwards it was renovated to become the majestic gothic church. For the weekend of the Ascension, the crossbowmen of the Grand Serment always get on their knees under the nave of the Notre-Dame du Sablon to honor the different kings of the year.

In 1930, on the brink of the 550th anniversary, the Grand Serment is, with Albert Marinus (folklorist) and Adolphe Max (mayor), at the basis of the rebirth of Ommegang. They continue to parade every year from the Sablon to the Grand Place.

In the 21st century, the Grand Serment Royal et de Saint Georges continues to defend Brussels, not with weapons anymore, but by preserving and continuing to spread Brussels traditions and patrimony (Ommegang, Meyboom, Folklorissimo, Festival Carolus,…). We will remind you that Manneken Pis owns a crossbowman’s outfit, of course. Ok, he’s got two. The first one is with armor, safely conserved at the Brussels City Museum and a second, a Renaissance costume, that the Petit Julien likes to wear from time to time.

Grand Serment Museum

The museum is located on the grounds of the Grand Serment and conserves more than 1,500 items relating to the history of Brussels crossbowmen and their current events. Ancient crossbows hang next to trophies, medals, posters, photographs, flags, costumes and paintings. The museum, a member of the Conseil Bruxellois des Musées, welcomes visitors Thursday nights between 8 pm and 11 pm. Groups can make a reservation on other days than Thursday. This is a chance to explore a little known side of Brussels folklore and get acquainted with crossbow shooting. More information can be found at Don’t rule it out before taking the oath to be a part of the century old gild.

Grand Serment and the sport

Today, only about a hundred members of the Grand Serment and their guests continue to shoot the crossbow. From 6, 10 or 20 meters, there is but one goal: get as close as possible to the center of the target. Every year, a king is designated for each of the three distances.

To become the king is not an easy feat: setting up your body, controlling your breathing, finding the right line… once you pull the trigger, the arrow flies at more than 180 km/hr towards the target. For competitions, after 4 practices shots, the crossbowman has 10 arrows to get the best score possible.

More than 40 gilds across the kingdom have approximately 3000 shooters who devote themselves to the crossbow tradition. It goes without saying that our favorites pull the trigger in an underground Brussels location. 

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