Humans first settled in the Lys valley and Comines in prehistoric times, mostly on the river’s right bank that was less prone to flooding. In antiquity, a Roman road connecting Tournai to Cassel passed close to the rural community of Comines. According to ancient hagiographies and local legend, a religious community was founded in 3 AD by St Chrysologus who supposedly built an altar (dedicated to St Peter) and was killed during the last Roman persecution.
During the Middle Ages, the economy of Comines was mostly supported by the cloth trade and commerce. A covered market was erected in the 13th century where merchants sold cloth, wheat and other commodities. The site was also where the aldermen met and court hearings were held. In 1276, Lord Baudouin granted privileges (enshrined in a charter) to the merchant-class citizens who then had the wherewithal to build the first bell tower, a symbol of Comines’ legal status as a town and the beginning of its communal authority.
In the 16th century, Comines was part of the Spanish Netherlands. The religious wars during the 1500s followed by the Nine Years War led by Louis XIV in the 17th century meant that Comines experienced a turbulent history before it became known as ‘Comines la Jolie’ (Pretty Comines) and its narrow fabric industry was modernised in the 18th century.
The Church of St Chrysologus was severely damaged by air raids during the First World War. It was rebuilt between 1922 and 1938 almost on its original site by architect Maurice Storez, assisted by Dom Paul Bellot, in a Byzantine Revival style, employing innovative techniques for the time such as the use of concrete, which meant that high ceilings and wide openings could be built with the need for buttresses and flying buttresses. Recognised as an asset of cultural significance by the European Commission in 1995, it was entered into the ‘supplementary inventory of France’s Historic Monuments’ in 2001 and listed as an Historic Monument in 2002.
The town hall
It was built in 1929 by Louis Marie Cordonnier in the Flemish style using brick, stone and reinforced concrete. It features a remarkable series of stained-glass windows that depict the town’s succession of lords represented by their coat of arms, the symbol of the Fête des Louches (the traditional ‘wooden spoon’ festival celebrated annually) and the town’s main industry, narrow fabrics. This building was added to the supplementary inventory of France’s Historic Monuments in 2001.
Constructed in 1927 on an imitation sandstone foundation of brick and stone, the belfry consists of a square tower measuring 9 metres wide and 22 metres tall. The tower is crowned by an onion-shape dome that makes the structure one of a kind architecturally. The belfry was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005 along with 22 other belfries in Nord Pas de Calais and Picardy following others in Belgium.
The Fête des Louches : celebrated annually on the second Sunday of October, louches (wooden ladles) are thrown from the top windows of the town hall. The custom harks back to an old local legend. The lord of Comines was imprisoned in a tower in his castle. While his family searched for him high and low, he had the bright idea of throwing a wooden spoon engraved with his coat of arms from his cell. The tower was besieged and the prisoner released. To commemorate this event, Comines introduced a festival where wooden spoons are thrown on the day of the market held following the Feast Day of St Denis. The town comes alive during three days of activities including a procession of tableaux depicting the town’s legends and history along with a parade of giant effigies, the famous throwing of wooden spoons from the town hall and a huge market.