One of Belgium's oldest cities (first mentioned in the 7th cent.) and the historic capital of Flanders, Ghent developed around a fortress built (early 10th cent.) by the first count of Flanders on a small island. The town soon spread to nearby islets, still connected by numerous bridges. By the 13th cent. the city had become a major wool-producing center, rivaled only by Bruges and Ypres. Medieval Ghent was an industrial city in the modern sense. Its four chief guilds—weavers, fullers, shearers, and dyers—comprised the majority of the working population. Social conflict emerged between the workers and the rich bourgeoisie; strikes and insurrections were frequent.

After the Battle of the Spurs (1302), at Kortrijk, the guilds' role in communal government increased rapidly, although not without opposition. A turbulent period of oligarchic rule followed, but the guilds regained power at the beginning (1337) of the Hundred Years War under Jacob van Artevelde and, later, Philip van Artevelde. The guilds continued to rule even after the French defeated and killed (1382) Philip van Artevelde at the battle of Roosebeke, and in 1385 the weavers made a favorable peace with Philip the Bold of Burgundy, who had inherited Flanders the previous year. Ghent retained its liberties and privileges until 1453, when, as a result of an unsuccessful rebellion, they were drastically curtailed by Philip the Good of Burgundy.

Rights were restored by the Great Privilege, promulgated (1477) by Mary of Burgundy. Mary's marriage (1477) to Archduke Maximilian (later Emperor Maximilian I) was at Ghent; their children were kept virtual prisoners by the burghers after Mary's death (1482). It was only in 1485 that Maximilian was able to overcome the rebellious city and obtain the release of his son Philip (later Philip I of Castile). Philip's son, later Emperor Charles V, was born (1500) and raised in Ghent. In 1539 the city rose against Charles, who hastened to Flanders, suppressed (1540) the rebellion, abrogated Ghent's liberties, and established a garrison to prevent further outbreaks.

Ghent later joined (1576) William the Silent in the revolt of the Netherlands and Flanders against Spain. The Pacification of Ghent, signed in November of the same year, was an alliance of the provinces of the Netherlands for the purpose of driving the Spanish from the country. For a time Ghent was a city-republic under Calvinist domination, but its capture (1584) by the Spanish under Alessandro Farnese restored it to Hapsburg rule, under which it remained until the French Revolution. The modern industrialization of the city began in the early 19th cent. with the development of its port and the establishment of textile factories. The city was occupied by the Germans in World Wars I and II.

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