My Ancestor, the Insurrectionist

I recently discovered that one of my ancestors was a late medieval insurrectionist who at one point took over the town of Ghent in the Duchy of Burgundy and while in control, minted his own coins.

About a year ago, I wrote an article in which one of the items described how I had found a branch on my father’s side that extended back a couple of hundred years further than I was previously aware of. This was already the oldest and longest of any of my ancestral branches (besides the one that takes me back to Charlemagne). I call it “The Van Coppenolle Branch.” It is a branch on my father’s side that leads back from my fifth great-grandmother, Anna Maria Van Coppenolle (1723-1793) to her ancestors living in 14th-century Flanders. She was of a family that had had a presence in the town of Ronse (Renaix) Belgium in East Flanders for at least 200 years before she was born. Their family was part of a historically defined social class known as the Bourgeoisie. They were essentially city dwellers who had been granted specific rights based on their position as being a socioeconomic class between the peasants and the landlords or to put it in Marxian terms they stood between the workers and the owners of the means of production.

On a side note, women were allowed to own property in Flanders and this is a boon to Flemish genealogists because women’s family records are so well documented.

After having written about finding this addition to the Van Coppenolle branch, I had pretty much forgotten about it until last month when I received an email from a man in the Netherlands. He wrote to tell me that he was aware of this branch going back as far as his ancestor but was not aware that it had been carried back two more generations. He thanked me for pointing it out. However, the main thing that he wanted to tell me was that he and I shared a common ancestor and that common ancestor was the son of a man who had rebelled against the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and who had lost his head as a result.

Just like you is just started using the family search site and share your experience in the way you have described it. Most of it confirmed what I already figured out myself 30 years ago but the ancestors of Jan van Coppenolle all the way to Adelaert were new to me. From what you told in your comment I could easily figure out that our common ancestor is Willem Jansz van Coppenolle (born in Gent 1464) the son of Jan van Coppenolle who was decapitated in Gent on the 16th of june 1492 at the friday market. What strikes me is that in my family for many generations the main source of income was baking bread. I think it is in our genes.

In the last sentence there he is making a joke about the name DeBacker and its connection to bakers. Evidently, he comes from a long line of bakers also.

I had read of Jan Van Coppenolle (1434-1492) before but in the past, I had been unable to make a connection to my ancestor, Hermes Van Coppenolle, who was born in Ronse in 1510. So to remind me of who he was I googled his name and I got two key hits one was in the Netherlands edition of Wikipedia and the other was at a website called “Executed Today.” (Apparently, The latter site is a “this-day-in-history site” for executions.)

Here’s what I learned from those two sites.

Jan van Coppenolle or Coppenholle (ca. 1434 – Ghent , June 16, 1492 ) was a populist leader in the city of Ghent. He was by profession a hosier but was was also a clerk for the Alderman’s Bank of Ghent. He led a resistance movement in the city protesting against heavy taxes that encroached on privileges that had been granted to the city of Ghent by the Burgundian dukes.

During the protests which bordered on rebellion he had his own coins minted known as the “Coppenollen”. Apparently, at some point, he had the support of King Charles VIII of France. But after a truce was signed between France and Maximilian, Jan’s opponents prevailed upon him and things did not end well for the nearly 60-year-old man.

The coin that Jan Van Coppenolle minted; the Coppenollen or Coppenhollestuiver

It all goes back to the Battle of Nancy in 1477 when Charles the Bold, king of the Burgundians and ruler of the County of Flanders, was killed in battle leaving as his only heir his daughter, Mary of Burgundy. Mary who was 20 years old at the time suddenly became the most desired woman in all of Europe. Realizing that Mary could become the consort of a powerful ruler such as the King of France or the leader of the Holy Roman Empire, the leaders of the towns of the low countries (the bourgeoisie), compelled the young woman to sign a charter of rights known as the “Great Privilege” on the occasion of her formal recognition as the heir to the Burgundian lands.

The Burgundian holdings were a patchwork of highly-prized lands extending from the low countries down through Eastern France to include a small portion of northern Italy. Under this agreement, the provinces and towns of Flanders and the other regions that made up Les Provinces De Belgique, recovered all rights that had been abolished by the decrees of the Dukes of Burgundy in their efforts to create a centralized state along with the French model.

Maximilian and Mary’s meeting in Ghent, 1477, a monumental painting by Anton Petter and the showpiece of the 2022 Uitbundig Verleden exhibition at the Hof van Busleyden, that attracted top diplomats from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Austria

Within months after the Great Privilege was signed, Mary became the wife of Maximilian, son of Emperor Frederick. Shortly after that, Mary and Maximilian became co-rulers of the Belgian provinces.

Mary was a very active young woman who loved to ride and hunt with her husband. One day while they were out riding on a falcon hunt, Mary’s horse tripped, threw her into a ditch, and then landed on top of her, breaking her back. She died several weeks later, making Maximilian the sole ruler of the Belgian provinces. Needless to say, the people of Flanders did not take this well. In short, most of the people of Flanders loved Mary and many of them hated Maximilian.

Mary and Maximilian had a son, Philip. However, Philip was less than four years old when his mother died so he became only the titular Duke of Burgundy and his father acted as ruler in his place. To make matters worse hostilities between France and Austria began again.

In order for Maximilian to wage a war against France, he needed money, and to get the money, he raised taxes on the industrious and relatively wealthy bourgeois of Flanders. It is during this period that the revolts that had been simmering in towns for a number of years erupted once again but were quickly put down

One of the leaders of the revolt in Ghent, my 14th great-grandfather, Jan Van Coppenolle was briefly forced to flee to exile in France. However, with backing from the French, Coppenolle returned in 1487 when the rebellion reemerged. According to Executed Today, “Jan was a preeminent popular leader of a decade-long Flemish rebellion against the future Holy Roman Emperor that verged towards a war of independence.” He controlled the city of Ghent from 1487 until 1492 giving him enough time to even mint his own coinage, the Coppenollen, before the Hapsburgs finally suppressed the uprising. Jan Van Coppenolle was beheaded, on June 16, 1492, in the main market square in Ghent known as Vrijdagmarkt or Friday market.

I asked my correspondent in the Netherlands if he knew of any statues erected to our ancestors and as of yet, I received no response.

In 1493, Frederick III died, and Maximilian became Emperor. His and Mary’s son, Philip the Handsome, who was already the Duke of Burgundy, took his place as the young ruler of that region. Philip married the Spanish infanta, Juanita the Mad. Their first child, who was born in Ghent later became Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and person who was quite possibly the wealthiest man who has ever lived.

Fun Fact: When Karl Marx introduced his concept of the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” he was making a comparison with other historical dictatorships such as the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. When he gave examples of something he called the Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie he made reference to Jan Coppenolle’s brief dictatorship over Ghent in the late 15th century. Yet, I do not know if Marx mentions Jan by name. He may have been relying upon non-Flemish accounts. I have looked at two 19th-century histories of Belgium written in English and when describing the events in the second half of the 15th century both books mention the uprisings such as the one in Ghent but does not name any of the leaders of the rebellion against Hapsburg rule of the les provinces de Belgique. Marxists sometimes refer to Democracy as the Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie. So that might be a complement to Jan Van Coppenolle.

This reminds me of that old saying about how he who wins the war, gets to write the history of the war.

See also Revolt of Ghent (1449–1453), Flemish revolts against Maximilian of Austria, and  Revolt of Ghent (1539–1540) .

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