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Nivelles (Municipality, Province of Walloon Brabant, Belgium)


Last modified: 2005-12-03 by ivan sache
Keywords: nivelles | nijvel |
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[Flag of Nivelles]

Municipal flag of Nivelles - Image by Ivan Sache, 12 April 2004

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Presentation of Nivelles and its villages

The municipality and town (Ville) of Nivelles (in Dutch, Nijvel; 25,000 inhabitants) is located c. 30 km south of Brussels. Nivelles is the capital city of the arrondissement of Nivelles, which is constituted by the whole province of Walloon Brabant.
The municipality of Nivelles is made of the city of Nivelles and the four neighbouring villages of Baulers, Bornival, Monstreux and Thines, which were incorporated to the municipality by the municipal reform of 1 January 1977.
The inhabitants of Nivelles born intra muros and able to prove several generations of ancestors in Nivelles are called aclots. It seems that this name does not mean "enclosed" but rather "whippersnappers".

The city of Nivelles developed around a powerful abbey. Most of the further historical developments in Nivelles were caused by the struggle of the inhabitants of the city against the power of the almighty abbess.
In the early Middle-Ages, Brabant was part of the Merovingian kingdom of Austrasia (511-751). Most of the power in the kingdom was exerted by the maire du palais (Mayor of the Palace). St. Pepin de Landen (a.k.a. as the Ancient) was Mayor of the Palace of kings Clotaire II, Dagobert I and Sigebert III. When Pepin died, around 640, the courtiers attempted to despoil his family. To avoid this, Pepin's widow Itte (a.k.a. Iduberge), founded c. 647-650 a royal abbey in Nivelles and appointed her daughter Gertrude as the abbess. She was supported by St. Amandus, an Irish monk, then bishop of Maastricht. On 7 March 659, Gertrude died, aged 33. She was succeded by her niece Wilfetrude. The abbey followed Sts. Colomban and Benedict's rule. Around 670, a monk from Nivelles wrote the first Vita Gertrudis (Gertrude's life), in which he related the miracles exerted by the saint during her life and after her death. This work was the source of St. Gertrude's cult and of the popularity of the abbey.

Due to the increasing popularity of St. Gertrude's pilgrimage, the abbey church was progressively increased in size. On 4 May 1046, German Emperor Henri III (1017-1056) attended the dedication of the new collegiate church, which was more than hundred meters in length.
A document dated 1075 or 1076 mentions for the first time a Corps of Aldermen (Echevins). This seems to be the first time the inhabitants of Nivelles challenged the abbess' absolute power over the city. Around 1035, the Knight Templars were granted 530 hectares in Vaillampont, near Thines, and founded there a commandership. A few years later (1066?), the building of the city wall was finished. A document dated 1182 called Nivelles an oppidum (fortified city).

In 1262, the commune of Nivelles revolted against the abbess, but the revolt was promptly suppressed. On 31 May 1298, St. Gertrude's relics were officially presented and placed in a dedicated reliquary which had been commissioned by the abbey chapter to the silversmiths Nicolas de Douai, Jacques d'Anchin and Jacquemon de Nivelles.
In 1312, the Duke of Brabant confirmed the municipal privileges granted to the bailiwick of Nivelles. The Crossbowmen's Guild (Serment des Arbalètriers) released its statutes in 1429. The guild was the first municipal militia. It was followed by the Culverinmen's Guild (Serment des Couleuvriniers), chartered in 1453, and later by the Archers' and Arquebusiers' Guilds. Charles le Téméraire (the Bold), the last duke of Burgundy (1467-1477), visited Nivelles around 1469 and offered the city a jacquemard, that is an automaton ringing the hours of the day on a bell. The jacquemard is the ancestor of Jean de Nivelles, to be introduced below.

On 25 September 1647, the spinners employed in Nivelles by cloth merchants caused a riot. The ill-advised town chief-councillor expelled them from the city, causing the ruin of the cloth manufacturing in Nivelles, for the great benefit of the neighbouring cities of Cambrai and Valenciennes (now in France). The lacemakers who had developed a very specific point also left the city.
In 1778, Empress Maria-Theresa (1740-1780) granted Nivelles new municipal statutes. This was the last round in the struggle between the abbess and the aldermen of the city. Maria-Theresa's son, Emperor Joseph II (1765-1790) decided to get rid of the "unnecessary" religious orders. On 15 January 1788, the 55th abbess of Nivelles was notified the definitive suppression of the abbey chapter and the wealth of the abbey was nationalized.

The village of Baulers (Bolarium, 877; Baulers, 1686) shared with Nivelles a motor-racing circuit on which two Formula-One races were run in 1972 and 1974, both won by Emerson Fittipaldi. The circuit was later suppressed.

The village of Bornival received its current name in 1656. He was called Pourbais in the XIIIth century and later Bornivaus. This name might have meant Val borgne, the obstructed valley. Bornival hosts the Krein Equine Center, of international reputation.

The village of Monstreux is said to have been named after a monastery or a convent (Monasteriolum) supposed to have existed there in 877.

The village of Thines (Thienes, 1209 and 1644; Thiennes, 1566; Thisnes, 1602) is named after the river Thines.

The most important historical character related to Nivelles is Laurent Delvaux (1696-1778), who was the best sculptor in the Southern Netherlands in the XVIIIth century. Delvaux studied in England and Rome, where he was mostly influenced by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), master in the monumental baroque style. Back to Nivelles in 1732, he opened a studio and produced several works, such as the "verity pulpits" of Nivelles and Ghent, statues for the abbey church of Nivelles and sculpture groups still kept in the former palace of governor Charles de Lorraine in Brussels.

St. Gertrude's church in Nivelles, the former abbey church, is one of the best example of Mosan-Romanesque style. Its building started in the XIth century. The Romanesque-like octogonal bell-tower was built after the Second World War to replace the Gothic spire, which had been destroyed by a German bombing in May 1940.
The church peal of bells is made of 49 bells, one of them being rang by the jacquemart nicknamed Jean de Nivelles. Jean is a 2 m tall, 350 kg heavy golden brass human figure hanging on the upper tambour of the southern tower of the church. The automaton rings the hours and half-hours of the day with a hammer. The jacquemart dates back at least to 1525. A document dated 1535 mentions l'homme de koeuvre [cuivre], the brass man. It was then placed on the city hall but was moved for an unknown reason to the church tower. It seems that the automaton was called Jean de Nivelles after the transfer. Jean worked continuously until 1859, when the church tower was struck by lightning. In 1926, Jean resumed his job but was again laid off in May 1940 and eventually reinstalled after the Second World War. Jean is now the main symbol of the city of Nivelles.

The origin of the name of Jean de Nivelles is a bit obscure. A story claims that in the XVth century Jean de Montmorency, Lord of Nivelles, refused to join his father who had called him for fighting war against the duke of Burgundy.
The story was popularized by Jean de la Fontaine in his fable Le Faucon et le Chapon (The Hawk and the Capon ; VIII, 21) as follows :

Une traîtresse voix bien souvent vous appelle; / A treacherous voice often calls you
Ne vous pressez donc nullement : / Don't hurry
Ce n'était pas un sot, non, non et croyez m'en / Not at all stupid was, believe me
Que le chien de Jean de Nivelles / Jean de Nivelles' dog

La Fontaine twisted the original popular sentence, which was:

Ce chien de Jean de Nivelles qui s'enfuit quand on l'appelle.

The most direct translation is: "That Jean de Nivelles the Dog, who escapes when called", but ce chien de Jean de Nivelles can also be understood as: "That Jean de Nivelles' dog".
However, this Jean de Nivelles, with or without a dog, has probably nothing to do with the city of Nivelles. If he ever existed, he was most probably from Nivelle (without final s), a city located now in the north of France, close to the Belgian border.
Jean de Nivelles is the hero of a popular song from Brabant. This song seems to have been adopted by the French revolutionary soldiers stationing in Brabant in 1792, who changed the name of the hero to Cadet Rousselle. Cadet Rousselle owned three copies of every kind of things, but none of them worked correctly.
Jean de Nivelles is also an opera (1880) by the French musician Léo Delibes (1836-1891).

Like several other Belgian cities, Nivelles has a carnival and a family of giants.
The carnival is celebrated around the 17 March, which is St. Gertrude's Day. Nivelles owns one of the most ancient giants, which was initially kept in the abbey church. Goliath was mentioned for the first time in 1367, and was renamed Argayon around 1500. He married Argayonne in 1645 and they got a son called Lolo, famous for his comforter. In the XVIIth century, the giants were joined by a menagerie made of the Dragon (1596), the Horse-Godet (1637), the Eagle (1637), the Lion (1640), the Unicorn (1668) and the Camel (1713).
As it was the case elsewhere in Belgium, the carnival of Nivelles was reestablished after the Second World War as a symbol of national liberation

Source: Municipal website

Ivan Sache, 5 March 2003

Municipal flag of Nivelles

The flag of Nivelles is vertically divided blue-white-red, and therefore similar to the French national flag.

In an article published in Folklore Brabançon (August 1926), the heraldist René Goffin explained that the colours of Nivelles were taken from the ancient coat of arms of the abbey Chapter, blue standing for the kingdom of France and white and red for ancient Brabant or Lothier (Lower-Lorraine), like on the coat of arms of Leuven.

Source: Municipal website

Ivan Sache, 12 April 2004