Bruges was founded on an inlet of the North Sea in the 9th cent. and became (11th cent.) a center of trade with England. In the 13th cent. it flourished as the major entrepôt port of the Hanseatic League and as one of the chief wool-processing centers of Flanders. New ports (notably Sluis) were founded to help accommodate its increasing trade. At its zenith (14th cent.), Bruges was one of the major commercial hubs of Europe. An early commune of the Low Countries, the city held extensive political privileges and often played a part in the chronic struggle between England, France, and the counts of Flanders. Its government, at first in patrician hands, gradually passed to the trade guilds of the wool industry.
When Philip IV of France annexed Flanders in 1301, Bruges led the rebellion against him. The French garrison was massacred (1302), and shortly afterward the citizen-army of Bruges was led to victory in the Battle of the Spurs. Despite frequent political disturbances, Bruges continued to prosper until the Flemish wool industry declined (early 15th cent.) as a result of foreign competition. In addition, the North Sea inlet on which Bruges was located silted up completely by 1490, and the city lost its access to the sea and to its outer ports. By c.1500, Antwerp had replaced Bruges as the chief entrepôt of N Europe. The commercial and industrial revival of Bruges began only in 1895, with the start of extensive repairs to its port; in 1907 the Zeebrugge canal was opened. The city was occupied by the Germans in World Wars I and II.
Bruges was the cradle of Flemish art during the rule (14th–15th cent.) of the Burgundian dukes in Flanders. Jan van Eyck, Gerard David, and many other masters are richly represented in the churches, public buildings, and museums of the city. Among its noted structures are the Hospital of St. John (12th cent.), containing several masterpieces by Hans Memling; the 13th-century market hall or cloth-workers hall, with its famous carillon; the city hall (14th cent.); the Church of Notre Dame (13th–15th cent.), with the tombs of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy and with Michelangelo's Virgin; the Cathedral of St. Salvator (begun 10th cent.); and the Chapel of the Precious Blood (begun 12th cent.), a major site of pilgrimage. The Procession of Holy Blood, an annual religious pageant, takes place on Ascension Day.
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