It is not unlikely that the capital of the old County of Biest was located on top of the Korte Munte hill in Velzeke (now part of the City of Zottegem, Belgium). The monumental Saint Martin Church was built there, and presumable, the residence of the Count of Biest was located there, too.
In 1977, a two meter thick fencing wall was discovered close to the entrance of the church. This wall probably was part of a fortified military stronghold. According to archaeologist Marc Rogge (residing in the City of Oudenaarde, Belgium), this stronghold had an eight-shaped structure (1).
Archaeological excavations behind the choir of Velzeke church in 2003, not only led to the discovery of skeletons of 2 youngsters and 1 child of 4 to 5 years old from the second quarter of the 14th century, but also of two fencing moats. The inner moat had a defensive structure and was filled in the 9th or 10th century. The outer moat was filled somewhere between the 10th and 12th century. Between the two moats, traces of a Carlingian wooden construction, earthenwork and mantle pins were discovered. These might be traces of a residence and/or official building, similar to the buildings found at the archaeological site in Ename (now part of the City of Oudenaarde, Belgium). It would strengthen the these that Velzeke used to be a the residence of a ruler (3).
In 965, the Abbey of Saint Vanne in Verdun (France) held the patronage of Velzeke church, but in 1065, it went over into the hands of the Abbey of Hasnon, near to Valenciennes (France). The earliest construction (the choir) of the Saint Martin Church might date back to the Carolingian or Ottonian era (1). 8th and 9th century material (earthenware and a coat pin) was found in the foundation ditches and radiocarboon dating confirmed that the choir was constructed mid 10th century (3).
The Romanesque church was constructed in two phases between 963 and 1034/1050. The church is 25 meter long. Its outside width was 15.5 meter, but later, this was brought back to 12 meter (1). It was at least 23 meter long (1) (3). Such measures are considerable for that era.
The walls of the probable Carlingian or Ottonian choir are 1.3 meter thick. It was later expanded with a semicircular, 0.65 meter thick apse. The construction was done with a mix of sandstone, limestone, ironstone, Roman parament stone and Roman roof tiles. The brickwork of some of the Roman roof tiles was done in herringbone pattern. The remains of a former priest door and round arch windows (0.85m wide and 2.1m high) can be seen in the walls of the choir. The windows of the apse are 1.4 meter wide and 3.7m high (1). Around 1500, late-Gothic windows were added to the south and north walls of the choir (2).
Not only the choir, but also two wall sections beside the tower are remains of the late Carolingian church. These wall sections show remains of two doorways, which supposes the existence of a west construction, particularly a west choir. Only churches of great importance, like the church of Ename had two choirs : a west choir for the wordly leaders, and an east choir for the clergy (3).
Some records mention that the Saint Martin Church had a crypt (1). The auctarium of the Abbey of Affligem (Belgium) mentions the burial of two children (dead at young age) of Herman II, Count of Ename, in the Church of Velzeke. Through radiocarboon dating, it became clear that some discovered graves were digged during the construction of the late-Carolingian church. It is therefor probable that an old graveyard is located below the choir (3).
Though most publications position the construction of the monumental square west tower in the 13th century, field research made the art historian K. De Wolf conclude that the large blocks of Balegem sandstone in the tower cannot be older than 1390-1410 and that the construction has an early-Gothic style. The highest part of the tower is post-Gothic and was probably constructed after the devastation caused by the Spanish troops in 1581 (2).
The excavations of 2003 brought not only 3 child/youngster graves to light, it also found that the ground layer from around mid 14th century contained quite some rubble. This rubble might originate from the north and south walls of the nave. The construction of the west tower and two aisles, and the destruction of the north and south wall of the nave might therefor be placed mid 14th century (3).
In 1728, a fire raged through the village of Velzeke. During the reconstruction, the aisles of the church were lowered and brought under one roof with the nave. The height of the former nave can still be deducted from part of its drip remaining in the east wall of the tower (1) (2).
The sacristy was built in 1774. In the 1960s, the graveyard around the church was cleared and replaced by a parking (1).
The Saint Martin Church was classified as a very important monument by the Government of Belgium on December 28, 1936 (1) (2).
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Acknowledgement to: Weekblad De Beiaard (3)
Above picture: the 2003 excavation behind Velzeke church, with 2 of the 3 discovered skeletons from the 14th century.
(1) Koenraad DE WOLF,
Zuid-Oost-Vlaanderen. Romaanse bouwkunst (1000-1225), 1996, p. 20 and pp. 62-63.
(English translation: Architectural
Guide of South-East-Flanders. Romanesque Architecture (1000-1225).)
(2) Koenraad DE WOLF,
Zuid-Oost-Vlaanderen. Gotische Bouwkunst (1225-1625). , 1997, p. 79.
(English translation: Architectural
Guide of South-East-Flanders. Gothic Architecture (1225-1625).)