According to an article published in The New York Times (October 25, 1908), the Belgian city of Furnes (Veurne) celebrates a Medieval Procession of Penance or Penitence. The religious pageant is 500 years old, but it is said that the Procession originated in 1099 when Count Robert II of Flanders returned from Jerusalem with a splinter from the Holy True Cross.
However, one of the greatest mysteries of this Mystery Play is why there is not one modern source or Belgian website where you can find this information. Check out for instance the official website of the Procession, where the history starts in 1637. It’s as if the dark origins of the Penitents in Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium, are erased from the history books…
In 1908 The New York Times reported that the 500th anniversary of the Procession of Penance (or Penitence), held annually at Furnes, had just taken place with great pomp: “The procession is one of the last remaining Christian mysteries and represents the life of Jesus Christ. According to tradition, it was instituted by Robert of Jerusalem, Count of Flanders, for the purpose of carrying about in great state through the streets of Furnes a splinter of the Holy Cross which he had brought back from Jerusalem. Gradually, owing to the popular taste for public parades, other mysteries were added to the great Christian drama – the legend and mystery of Tobias and the mystery of St. Sebastian.”
Robert II was the eldest son of Robert I of Flanders, also known as Robert the Frisian, and Gertrude of Holland. His sister Gertrude would become the mother of Thierry of Alsace, the count of Flanders who brought the Holy Blood to Bruges. Robert the Frisian was an enigmatic person: from 1085 to 1091, he went on a secret mission to the Holy Land, as if he had to scout something. He died in 1093 and two years later the First Crusade was launched by Pope Urban II. His son, Robert II of Flanders, joined Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine. In Constantinople, they had to promise to Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus to return any land they might capture to the Byzantine Empire. Robert, whose father had already served Alexius during his “pilgrimage” , had no problem swearing this oath, but some of the other leaders did.
Jerusalem was captured on July 15, 1099. Robert supported Godfrey’s claim to the city and the establishment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. At the end of August, Robert returned home by way of Constantinople. He declined the request of the Byzantine Emperor to stay there in his service. The “Liberator of the Holy Sepulchre” was a cruel crusader who seems to have really enjoyed the murdering and the pillaging. According to Wikipedia, ” Robert brought back with him a precious relic, the arm of Saint George, a gift from Alexius. The relic was placed in the church of Anchin Abbey in Flanders (now in France, near Douai). After he returned, Robert built the monastery of St. Andrew near Bruges. Because of his crusade and the spoils he brought home, he was nicknamed Robert of Jerusalem.”
Wikipedia does not mention the relic of the Holy Cross which was given by the Count of Flanders to the St Walburge Church in Bruges, where the relic already in the 12th century would be the centre of a Procession that honoured the theme of penitence. The modern festival takes place on the last Sunday of July and still has a penitent theme.
Maybe any record of the history of the procession is erased because of the “heretical” background of the origin?