The Godelieve procession has been held in Gistel since 1459. On the first Sunday after 6th of July, her saint’s day, Godelieve's life is played out in a traditional Flemish procession, involving hundreds of extras.
Godelieve of Gistel, an 11th century Flemish saint, was born and raised at Londesvoorde castle close to present-day Boulogne in France.
The young woman was betrothed to a son of the chatelaine of Gistel castle, Bertolf, who repudiated her on their wedding day. Godelieve was ill-treated, starved and even imprisoned by her in-laws. She managed to escape and make it back to her parental home. After her father threatened to hand Bertolf and his family over to the authorities, the family pretended to repent. Godelieve was able to return to her husband. She still had the intention of saving her marriage. But Bertolf started scheming and in 1070 two of his servants strangled Godelieve with a scarf. They threw the body into the water.
During her short life Godelieve always showed a concern for the poor and the outcasts, so the people started to call her a saint and Bertolf repented. He went on a pilgrimage to Rome to atone for his sins and married for the second time. In that second marriage Bertolf spawned a blind daughter, who he named Edith. As legend goes, the child's sight was restored after she washed her eyes in the water into which the body of the strangled Godelieve had been thrown.
Godelieve is seen as a symbol of marital fidelity, because she laid down her life to save her marriage.
A few decades after her death Drogo, a monk at St Winoksbergen Abbey wrote the Vita Godeliph, the life of Godelieve. Other particularities and miracles were subsequently added, turning the figure of Godelieve into a phenomenon in Catholic Flanders.
Shortly after the exhumation of her relics in 1084, nuns took up abode on the sacred site of her martyrdom, which was already a popular destination. The sisters adopted the rule of St Benedict. And although there is no absolute certainty on when the abbey in Gistel was founded, there is a document from 1191 that explicitly refers to the nuns’ devotion of St Godelieve.