On Thursday 26 January 2023, the charter of Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders, which was kept in the Benedictine Abbey of Messines (Mesen) in West Flanders, and which had disappeared at the beginning of the First World War, was officially handed over to the State Archives of Belgium. The charter had resurfaced at The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City (The Met) in December 2016. In early 2020, The Met agreed return this precious document, which is part of our cultural heritage, to Belgium.
In 2016, Belgian medievalist Jean-François Nieus (FNRS researcher, UNamur) and seal expert Samuel Mathot informed the State Archives of Belgium that a charter granted by Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders, to the Abbey of Messines (Mesen) in 1176 was probably kept in the collections of The Met. The State Archives thus contacted this renowned museum. Extensive research concluded that the charter indeed was part of the archives of the Abbey of Messines (Mesen). As the charter falls under the public domain, The Met supported its return to Belgium. The Belgian Consul General in New York collected the medieval deed for safekeeping by the Belgian State.
After its official handover to the State Archives of Belgium by the curator of the Department of Arms and Armor at The Met, Pierre Terjanian, organised at the Egmont Palace in Brussels, in the presence of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Affairs and Foreign Trade, and Federal Cultural Institutions, Hadja Lahbib; the Secretary of State for Recovery and Strategic Investments, in charge of Science Policy, Thomas Dermine; the US Ambassador to Belgium, Michael M. Adler; and the National Archivist of Belgium, Karel Velle, the document shall be preserved at the State Archives in Bruges.
The eventful history of this charter form the Abbey of Messines is well-known among medievalists. The abbey was founded in the region of Ypres in 1060 by Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, and his wife Adela, granddaughter of Hugh Capet. In the course of time, the abbey was bestowed with lands and rights. These benefits were often granted through solemn acts written on parchment and sealed by the counts of Flanders, their entourage or other high dignitaries.
In 1776, the abbey was secularized by Maria Theresia and transformed into a military institution. The properties of the abbey, among which were the most precious cartularies of the region, thus came into possession of the State.
The suffering that descended upon the region and the people of Ypres during the First World War is still in everyone’s mind. In addition to hundreds of thousands of injured and killed soldiers and civilians, the war also brought its ravages in the form of unprecedented destruction and plunder. In the context of these war crimes, the abbey was destroyed entirely, and all its possessions were scattered or got lost.
In the past decades, a few charters reappeared in private collections and at public sales organized by prestigious auction houses all over Europe. These documents are sometimes sold at exorbitant prices. As soon as they are informed of this type of transaction, the State Archives of Belgium do everything possible to obtain the return of these items, whose status as inalienable treasures of the State is imprescriptible.
In 2016, Belgian medievalists informed the State Archives that a charter granted by Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders, to the Abbey of Messines (Mesen) in 1176 was probably kept in the collections of The Met. As a result, the State Archives contacted the renowned museum. The Met acquired the charter of Philip of Alsace in 1923 in good faith as a gift from its Curator of Arms and Armor Bashford Dean. Dean had purchased the charter from an unrecorded source in Europe and wished to donate it because the seal attached to it provided a rare representation of an early medieval European armor.
Extensive research at The Met and correspondence between those involved in the matter concluded that the charter was indeed part of the archives of the Abbey of Messines (Mesen) prior to its destruction in World War I. Hereupon, The Met has taken the generous and complaisant decision to gratuitously hand back to Belgium the precious charter it had received as a donation in 1923, and carefully preserved ever since.
Thanks to the efficient assistance of the FPS Foreign Affairs, our diplomatic representative in the United States took delivery of the medieval deed, bringing it back under the protection of the Belgian state.
Now that the deed is back on this side of the Atlantic, it will once again become part of the Mesen charter treasury preserved at the State Archives in Bruges,, the branch of the State Archives entrusted by law with the preservation of the public archives formed or acquired by the Belgian State and its legal predecessors on the territory of the province of West Flanders.
Hadja Lahbib, Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Affairs and Foreign Trade, and Federal Cultural Institutions, host of the award ceremony: "First of all, I would like to thank the researchers and archivists on both sides of the Atlantic for their exceptional work. This charter is an important part of our heritage, as it has travelled through history. We are happy to see it returned to Belgium. This return also illustrates and strengthens the ties of friendship that we have with the United States.”
Thomas Dermine, Secretary of State for Recovery and Strategic Investments, in charge of Science Policy: "The return of this charter through collaboration with American colleagues shows how our heritage can strengthen the bonds between communities and countries. I am very grateful to the State Archivists for their great expertise in this area.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Met is pleased that this important charter of Philip of Alsace can be returned to Belgium – with the assistance of the Consul General and the State Archives in Bruges – and we look forward to continuing our long-standing, collaborative relationships with colleagues and scholarly institutions in Belgium.”
Karel Velle, National Archivist of Belgium: “It was a long-winded procedure, but we are very pleased that the charter of Philip of Alsace finally returns to Belgium. The records of the Abbey of Messines are, for the most part, still missing, however. We hope that the news of this return enables us to track down more of these lost records.”