Perhaps we all feel we have a stake in the BBC’s version of Wolf Hall, to be filmed in Bruges this summer. After the Bookers, and the rave reception it’s had on the boards, the book and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, have reached national treasure status. But I feel more of a stake than most. Before Wolf Hall, another BBC crew were in Bruges, shooting the adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen. And before, either of them, there was me.
Half a millennium ago, before any of us, there was Margaret of York; why I was there, really. I was writing a book, Blood Sisters, about the women behind the Wars of the Roses – and I can tell you, it didn’t come easy. Not only are the written sources notoriously patchy, but it’s very hard to know where to go to get into the mood for that period – or to do visual research, as is sometimes put, politely.
It’s a strange, specific time, that changeover between the medieval world of castles and clashing knights, and the far more familiar Elizabethan era in all its glory. In Britain it’s oddly hard to find . . . some of the Oxbridge colleges, maybe? It was a problem for me – and for the Wolf Hall team too, maybe. Thomas Cromwell’s later career took him to palaces like Hampton Court; but where do you go for his home turf, the City? Where did I go, to find women who predate Hampton Court by half a century? To Bruges. Curled up in a window seat in the Gruuthuse museum - where Margaret of York’s brother Edward IV once took refuge, while the turmoil of the Cousins’ War briefly thrust the opposing Lancastrians back onto the throne – I felt that at last I had finally found the fifteenth century.
In Bruges you don’t even need to gaze at the turret on the Markt from which Margaret of York watched the tournaments in her honour, when she was brought here in 1468 to marry the Duke of Burgundy. You don’t need to take out a second mortgage, as I did, and stay in the hotel which has been made from part of her palace. (The Dukes’ Palace Kempinski, since you ask, and the tower once decorated with marguerites for her name is still there plain to see.) Just to walk the sparsely-vehicled streets is to be clobbered by history. The past – not some mouldering ghost but bustling, prosperous and full of energy, just the way it would have been – is there in the very layout of the streets, in the shops full, now as then, of covetable goodies.
I bought embroidered silk purses and some good modern jewellery; chocolates go without saying; as far as I’m concerned, you can keep the lace and embroidery. Back in 1468, as part of Margaret wedding party, John Paston wrote that for the splendour of the jewels he saw at the Bruges feasts, he ‘heard never of none like to it save King Arthur’s court . . .’ But then he had just been fed on gilded swans, while trained monkeys tossed beads and purses to the company.
The Burg is one of the finest medieval squares in Europe; the outside of the Stadhuis a white Gothic wedding cake. The glowing decorations inside the Heilig-Bloedbasiliek, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, may date in part from the nineteenth century, but the great black chimneypiece in the main chamber of the Bruggemuseum-Brugse Vrije is a Renaissance masterpiece - and that’s even before you’ve headed into museum territory.
Edward IV stayed in the Gruuthuse, across the Dijver canal, with his younger brother, the future Richard III. So did Charles II in his exile, and the carved angels, the tranquil rooms flanked by waterways, gave reassurance to him, too, maybe. From the private chapel of the Gruuthuse, a discreet window looks straight down into the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, the Church of Our Lady, and the golden tombs of the ducal family, caught with their pet dogs at their feet. It seems to be another of Bruges’s specialties – that combination of colourful richness, and an unexpected intimacy.
On the other side of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk is Sint-Janshospitaal, which did indeed function as a hospital from the twelfth to the nineteenth century. In the old hospital church you’ll find a small museum, Memling in Sint-Jan. Stop in front of Memling’s The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, and the faces of the saints Catherine and Barbara may be those of Margaret of York, and her stepdaughter Mary of Burgundy.
It’s a cliché that Bruges is the ‘Venice of the north’, firstly for the canals that circle and cross the city. But while Venice is a lateral waterscape of pale dreaming tones, Bruges is vertical and verdant, built in warm brick and of the earth, earthy. Except when it isn’t. Bruges boasts many different brands of charm, for a place so tiny. Up to the north east of the Markt is the Sint-Anna district – what used to be the artisan area – has open streets of small houses, elegant in their simplicity , where the almshouses and folk museum still pay tribute to the city’s craft history.
One of attractions for film makers must be that Bruges offers so many different moods, without ever having to step outside the late medieval past. Ten minutes walk from the craggy medieval buildings of the centre is the Minnewater - the Lake of Love, with swans sailing on the dark water - where the secluded spaces of the Beginhof manage to feel a world away. Founded in 1245 as a beguinage, a refuge for religious-minded women who stopped short of the full nun’s vows, it operated as such until very recently. Past meets present again – it is still a Benedictine convent today.
I mean – if we can just lower the tone for the moment - even the eating in Bruges is the kind of thing you’d expect to find after a careful study of medieval cookery. Rich and satisfying, with sometimes unexpected combinations of flavours. Never mind the mussels and the waffles, and the fries with mayonnaise; there’s also eel with herb sauce, or hare cooked with prunes; carbonnades and chicory. Cherry beer served warm on a cold day; and yes – has anyone warned the BBC? - the weather does tend towards the damp and chilly. Margaret of York arrived in July but it was pouring anyway.
The citizens were impressed that she still got drenched leaning out of the litter to wave to them; but give the girl credit, she knew what was expected - the demands of royal life are still the same today. In Bruges, you do get used the idea things haven’t changed much since the fifteenth century. Wolf Hall is being produced for the BBC by the same firm, Company Pictures, who did The White Queen, which may or may not worry us slightly. But give them credit – they learned one thing, on that earlier production. They knew to come to the right city.