Voices from the past return to Gaasbeek Castle


The castle of Gaasbeek has teamed up with an English theatre company to give three of the castle’s most intriguing residents a voice after centuries of silence

The memory of a castle

Imagination can take you just about anywhere – even back in time. This spring and summer, students of all ages will be able to learn more about historical times past as several castles across Flanders are rolling out art-meets-education programmes that let youngsters experience medieval life first-hand.

Belgium’s many castles, approximately 3,000, are the perfect setting for such an experience. After all, it’s said that, after Wales, this country boasts the world’s highest density of castles per square kilometre.

And when it comes to experiencing historical lives and times, the castle of Gaasbeek – a world-renowned chateau in the sleepy village of Gaasbeek in Flemish Brabant – is the icing on the cake. In Once upon a Castle, which opened earlier this week, the Cornwall-based theatre company WildWorks stages performances and installations that bring some of the castle’s most prominent inhabitants back to life.

“We wanted to look inside the memory of the castle over time,” says Mercedes Kemp, archive researcher for Wildworks. “The first thing I had to do was talk to the people working for the castle – those who know most about its history – about the important figures who lived here. Based on their answers and extensive research in the castle’s archives, I came up with three central characters whose lives couldn’t be more fascinating – the count of Egmond, Paul Arconati-Visconti and the last marquess of the castle, Marie Peyrat.”

After Kemp wrote their stories, her texts were transformed into theatre installations by the company’s musicians, composers, designers and performers. The castle caters to school groups, and many are expected to visit this particularly unique exhibition, which is coupled with historical workshops catering to different age groups. But Once Upon a Castle is also open to the public.

Kemp stresses that, even though appealing to children, the stories and performances target a much larger audience. “Everyone can enjoy them,” she says, adding that they especially focus on the characters’ emotional lives. “We express human emotions in awe-inspiring stories, making use of what truly happened at the castle.”

“Beautiful and sad”

Kemp finds the story of the count of Egmond, a central figure in the religious wars of the 16th century, the most striking. While initially a loyal representative to the Spanish crown, he was still deemed not Catholic enough and was beheaded in Brussels by the Spanish Inquisition.

When you read these letters, these figures communicate directly with you

- Mercedes Kemp

“We found a letter, which we use during the performances, from the count to his wife and children, written after he had received the news he was going to die,” Kemp says. “The letter is emotional and moving. The story of his life is beautiful and sad.”

In the middle of the 18th century, meanwhile, the illustrious Italian Arconati-Visconti family reigned over the castle. “Paul Arconati-Visconti, the first of the Milanese family to live in the castle, was eccentric all over and truly ambitious,” Kemp says. “But, most importantly, the man wrote everything down. He left behind a huge archive of documents – which can all be found in the castle’s archives – on how he wanted to improve world health, reform education and agriculture.”

Once upon a Castle ends with the figure of Marie Peyrat (1840-1923), the last marquess and the woman who donated the castle to the Belgian state in 1922. Kemp sees her as a romantic with a clear dislike of the contemporary world. “Marie longed for the romance of Renaissance and medieval chivalry,” the WildWorks writer explains. “Her nostalgia is expressed by a plenitude of objects she collected and exhibited in the castle. Most of these objects are still there today.”

For Kemp, the most fascinating element in the production process was the retrieval of the original material. “The stories are based on letters,” she says. “When you read these letters, these figures communicate directly with you.”

But more than anything else, Once upon a Castle demonstrates the importance of Gaasbeek throughout history. “The inhabitants of the castle were well-connected, and they have all played crucial roles in European history,” Kemp says. “Now you can see them talking again, after centuries of silence.”

Once upon a Castle
Until 9 November
Gaasbeek Castle
Kasteelstraat 40, Gaasbeek

More castle activities

Several other castles across Flanders are offering educational activities for children over the next few months. In Ghent’s Gravensteen, for instance, six- to 12-year-olds can dress up in steeple hats, Italian turbans and heart-shaped gowns for a royal feast in the courtyard. At Castle de Merode Westerlo in Antwerp province kids can change into one of the many extravagant personalities who have inhabited the castle in the last 1,000 years.

At the Beauvoorde Castle in Wulveringem, West Flanders, children can become the castle’s cook, gardener or architect for the day. After that, they can forge their own knight’s helmets, design a coat of arms or learn how to play medieval tunes in workshops organised in the castle’s coach house. Meanwhile, older children can attempt to uncover the truth behind the “Merghelynck Mystery”, one of the castle’s most gruesome murder plots.