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Houthulst (Municipality, Province of West Flanders, Belgium)

Last modified: 2021-06-27 by ivan sache
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Flag of Houthulst - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 23 June 2006

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Presentation of Houthulst and its villages

The municipality of Houthulst (9,104 inhabitants on 1 January 2007; 5,591 ha; municipal website) is located in central Westhoek, between Diksmuide and Roeselare. The municipality of Houthulst was established in 1976 as the merger of the former municipalities of Houthulst (1,249 ha), Jonkershove (946 ha), Klerken (744 ha) and Merkem (2,642 ha).

Houthulst (lit., "hollywood", hulst being in Dutch "the holly" and hout "a wood") was written in the past Walnesi Nemore Out-Houthulst (1096), Woltehulst (1151), Outhulst (1397), Den Busch of Hulst of Vrijbusch (1699), Houtheulst (1806) and eventually Houthulst (1877). The wood belonged to the Counts of Flanders. It was purchased in 1838 by Senator Cassiers (1788-1870), who built there a castle after his marriage with Carolina de Patin de Langhemarck. Houthulst was severely damaged during the First World War. The beautiful Vrijbos wood was used as a hiding place by the German army. Ammunition brought by train from Staden were stored there. The Germans buit an impregnable fortification surrounded by rows of barbed wire, holes made by shells, mud, fallen trees, and protected by several bunkers and machine gun nests. The battle of the Vrijbos was short but violent; after the first day of fighting, all the enemy positions on a 18 x 6 km area were seized. The Houthulst wood, which had remained inaccessible until then, was eventually seized.
After the War, Eugène De Groote campaigned for the secession of Houthulst from its mother municipality, Klerken, which was prescribed by Royal Decree on 11 April 1928, after the delimitation of the borders between the two municipalities in February 1926. Houthulst had then 2,792 inhabitants, Klerken, 1,447.

Jonkershove (lit., "the young noble's court") was mentioned for the first time in 1483, and belonged then to Jan van Provyn. The domain remained in the hands of the Provyn family until the second half of the 18th century, when it was transferred to the de Corte family.

Klerken was known in the past as Clarc (961), Clercken (1310), Clerckem (1422), Clerken (1803) and Klerke (1903). It is a rural village located on a outlier dominating the plain from a height of 43 m. Until 1384, Klerken was granted a privilege on cloth manufacturing; later on, agriculture was the main activity in the village. The steam tramway linking Diksmuide to Roeselare via Klerken and Houthulst was inaugurated in 1911. It was replaced in 1933 by a domestic oil tram, known locally as 't Mazoutje or Kamieltje. The tramway was a great enemy of sheep and goats that grazed in pastures along the lines; too often, the animals carelessly crossed the way when Kamieltje was popping up, and the outcome was fatal. The tramway line was suppressed in 1951.

Merkem (lit., "a border settlement") was known in the past as Marckheim (869), Merkhem (1107), Markhem (1307) and eventually Merkem in 1915. The village formed the southern border of the lordship of Veurne. The place was already settled in the Roman times, as shown by medals dating back to Alexander Severus and a golden coin dating back to Lucius Verus found in 1783. In the 17th century, Jean-Jacques van Outryve owned the castle of Merkem; his daughter married a de Coninck, so that the de Coninck family kept the village since. Like Klerken, Merkem was crossed by the tramway: the lines Diksmuide-Merkem-Noordschote-Reninge-Vleteren-Poperinge and Dikslmuide-Merkem-Boezinge-Elverdinge-Ieper were set up in 1904.

Houthulst was known for leurders (lit., pedlars), travelling merchants who sold brushes, rattan chairs and all kind of stuff. They travelled with the whole family in a cart pulled by a horse, mostly to France and Germany. They dubbed themselves not as leurders, considered as a pejorative word used for people selling cheap stuff, but as voyageurs (in French, "travellers"). Peddling was regulated by a Royal Decree issued on 28 November 1939; a peddler's charter was set up. Between the two world wars, one third of the employed inhabitants of Houthulst were leurders. Peddling trade became motorized after the Second World War and the peddlars formed a confederation in 1955.

Ivan Sache, 23 June 2006

Municipal flag of Houthulst

The flag and arms of Houthulst, adopted on 15 July 1985 and 11 September 1985 by the Municipal Council, are prescribed by a Decree issued on 11 March 1986 by the Executive of Flanders and published on 8 July 1986 and 17 October 1986 in the Belgian official gazette.
The flag is horizontally divided green-white-blue, charged in the center with the municipal coat of arms in the center, "Or a crozier azure supported by a raven argent with two turned keys gules".
[Gemeentewapens in België - Vlaanderen en Brussel [w2v02]]

The arms of Houthulst originally belonged to the abbey of Corbie. The raven (Latin: corvus, French: corbeau) makes the arms canting. The keys symbolize St. Peter, first pope and patron saint of the abbey. The crozier with its curl turned left refers to the exemption from the power of the local bishop granted to the abbey. The exemption was first granted in 855 by Pope Benedict III. The arms were modified many times.

Corbie (6,307 inhabitants) is located in Picardy, in the north of France. In 657, St. Balthild (d. 680), wife of King Clovis II (635-657; King of Neustria and Burgundy, 639-657), founded the monastery that would be ruled in the Carolingian times by St. Adalard, a cousin of Charlemagne. Corbie was one of the main centers of the Christian civilisation at that time, where more than 300 monks chanted night and day the Lord's perpetual praise. St. Paschasius Radbertus wrote in Corbie the first theological treatise on the Eucharist. Monks from Corbie founded a daughter monastery in Corbey (Westphalia). Under the rule of St. Oscar, born in Corbie in 801, the abbey of Corbey was the main center of evangelisation of Northern Europe. The abbeys of Corbie bore the title of count and minted their own coins.
In the 11th century, St. Gerard, a monk of Corbie, retired in the south-west of France, where he founded the monastery of Sauve Majeure. St. Colette (1381-1447), the daughter of a carpentar from Corbie, spent a cloistered life and had several visions. She abandoned reclusion and reformed the Poor Clares' order.
The closter and the convent buildings of the abbey were destroyed during the Revolution. The big entrance gate and the St. Peter's abbey church were preserved. Some ruined parts of the church (choir and transept) were suppressed in 1815.

The municipal arms of Corbie, designed by Mireille Louis, are "Or two keys in saltire the wards upwards and outwards gules a chief azure three fleurs de lis or".
The lords of Corbie bore canting arms, "Or three crows"

Arnaud Leroy, Pascal Vagnat & Ivan Sache, 28 July 2007