Lille's Krawaten history

Lille's inhabitants used to be mockingly called 'Krawaten', derived from Croatian and roughly meaning 'bandits'. Where did it come from?

Story 1 

A Croatian prince was travelling through the Kempen with his numerous entourage. The horses of this company were shod with silver horseshoes and their wagons were studded with silver bands. They arrived at 'Het Valveken', an old inn and farm, which was just being built. Since the prince and his company had lost their way, they asked the masons at 'Het Valveken' for directions to Turnhout. However, these sent the prince and his entourage into the evils of the Zegge with the intention of plundering them and amassing rich loot here. They pursued the party and killed the prince and the Croats, but one of these Croats managed to escape. 

The prince's father wanted to avenge his son and went to Lille with a large army to punish the impudent inhabitants. After looting and setting fire to several houses on the Laak in the hamlet of Beek, a procession led by the priest with the monstrance approached the army to humbly beg forgiveness from the murdered prince's father. The father pardoned the people of Lille, but they had to pay a substantial fine as compensation. 

It is even said that Lille municipality had to lease another forest for a hundred years to pay the interest on this fine. And it seems that this incident is the reason why there was never a castle or a lord at Lille, for fear that he too would be killed by the Lille people. 

Due to this incident, the people of Lille were mockingly called 'Krawaten' by the inhabitants of the surrounding villages. The old people in Lille still remember the occasion when the famous writer Hendrik Conscience, whose stepmother was from Oostmalle, came to Lille with the aim of researching 'The Krawaten of Lille' and writing a book on the subject. However, the then mayor Emiel Goetschalckx urged him not to do so because it was felt in Lille that the Krawaten history was a disgrace to the village!

Story 2

One day in 1625, a squire appeared at Wechelderzande with four mercenaries from Croatia, who were stationed at Rijkevorsel, to come and collect claimed straw. Since they did not know the way, the secretary of Wechelderzande and Lille sent a guide along, who led the company along the time-honoured lordly road Breda-Hoogstraten-Aarschot-Leuven to Lille. On arriving at Herregracht, near the place where 'Den Heksenboom' now stands, six peasants from Lille met the Squire and his five companions and led the latter to a side path in the Zegge, at the time a vast, drained swamp, where they killed the two waggoneers, the two soldiers and the Squire. However, the Wechelderzande guide was spared his life on the condition that he joined the Lille gang. In the evening, the man from Wechelderzande was released, after first being deprived of his shirt skirt and shoes. The guide then went around telling everyone that the Croatian had been captured and taken away by an enemy gang and that he had managed to escape after his shirt skirt and shoes were stolen from him. The six perpetrators from Lille sold the two wagons and six horses at the market in Geel. This was in any case what the guide claimed at the judicial enquiry into the case. 

The whole case was exposed, and since it was a case of manslaughter, the defendants from Lille turned to the Council of Brabant in Brussels on appeal, at the time the highest court with jurisdiction over the Duchy of Brabant. The Council of Brabant acquitted the perpetrators from Lille from prosecution as it considered it proven that they killed the squire and the four Croats in legitimate self-defence. In this sense, the guide's claims did not fully reflect reality. Four of the six perpetrators did go on a pilgrimage to Scherpenheuvel in 1626, as an act of 'reconciliation' for the slain squire and his Croats. 

However, the whole case took a tailspin in 1635. A person named Jehan Christoffel Smits, captain and quartermaster general of the Count of Piccolomini's army, and a direct cousin and kinsman of the squire killed in 1625, demanded a sum of money at gunpoint from the principal of the six Lille perpetrators. At the request of the latter, the president-alderman of Lille and Jehan de Proost, lord of Lille and Wechelderzande, went together with two Franciscan Friars from Herentals to Geel to negotiate with Jehan Christoffel Smits. The captain proved to be a rather insolent seigneur towards the two Franciscan Friars, and unabashedly demanded five hundred pattacons. The lord of Wechelderzande therefore approached one of captain Smits' lieutenants and promised him a sum of money if he could see to it that the requested sum was reduced. And indeed the sum was reduced to four hundred and fifty pattacons, a considerable sum at the time.

Lille's president-alderman agreed to the sum because he feared trouble for the village from captain Smits' threats. The sum, subject to proof of kinship with the slain squire, was to be handed over the next day at Herentals by the lord of Wechelderzande. Moments later, captain Smits' lieutenant came back and said he would hold either the lord of Wechelderzande or the president-alderman of Lille prisoner until the compensation was paid. Jehan de Proost was extremely outraged by this, and the lieutenant had to leave without success. 

However, Peeter Sas, the head of the Lille gang that had killed the Croats, opposed the agreement between the lord of Wechelderzande and captain Smits, and even claimed that the lord wanted to draw monetary benefit from the agreement. Peeter Sas was summoned by the lord of Wechelderzande before the Wechelderzande aldermanic court and was, of course, ordered to pay the four hundred and fifty pattacons allegedly advanced by the lord of Wechelderzande. To raise this amount, the nevertheless wealthy Peeter Sas had to sell all his possessions, so he appealed to the Council of Brabant in Brussels with the defence that he had obtained full immunity from prosecution in 1626 for the Croatian manslaughter case. He further accused the lord of Wechelderzande of colluding with captain Smits and in reality not having paid four hundred and fifty pattacons to Smits, as Jehan de Proost was unable to show evidence of this! 

The final ruling of the Council of Brabant, however, has been lost in the mists of time. Legend further relates that the people of Lille had to pay the four hundred and fifty pattacons... Partly because Croatian mercenaries were synonymous with 'rascal' or 'bandit' to the people of the time, the inhabitants of Lille were soon assigned this derisory name. This is how the people of Lille were given the mocking name 'Krawaten'. You can find more stories at the local history circle: