The medieval Smedenpoort, or “Blacksmith’s Gate,” dates back to 1297, and is one of the four remaining city gates of Bruges. Look closely at the upper lefthand corner above the arch and you’ll notice a morbid curiosity: A bronzed human skull is affixed to the gate’s yellow brick facade.
It is a replica of the skull of an executed traitorous statesman whose head was prominently displayed as a warning to the people. In 1691, hostile French troops had gathered near Bruges but could not infiltrate the city’s ramparts. They conspired with Belgian statesman François van der Straeten to enter the city through the Smedenpoort.
Unfortunately for the conspirators, the plot was discovered and relayed to the city council. François van der Straeten was arrested on June 26, 1691, and hanged. His head was dipped in bronze and then hung from an iron pin on the gate as exemplum justitiae.
The skull disappeared during the French Revolution and was rediscovered in 1876. The remnants of the original skull are housed in the Archaeological Museum in Bruges, and a bronze replica now hangs on the Smedenpoort.