There is a close link between the development of the town and its abbey which owned large tracks of land. Thanks to new donations, particularly from the landed gentry, the abbey expanded. Almost every Norbertine abbey in Belgium owned its own carillon. This was the case in Heverlee, Averbode, Tongerlo, Postel, Antwerp, and of course, Grimbergen. This is the reason why it can be said that this religious order was an excellent propagandist of campanology.
During the 17th century
An art print by Sanderus in 1659 shows us that the church tower was much higher than today. There was a big tower with one clock and a little lantern tower to house the smaller bells. Unfortunately, we know very little about the first carillon of the abbey. The present church was built between 1660 and 1725. When you climb the tower, you‘ll find the year 1664 carved in a stone, and the year 1668 carved in another stone 15 meters higher up.
During the 18th century
The new carillon rang for the first time on April the 27th of 1716 to mark the birth of the Austrian prince Leopold John. On May the 8th of 1718, three new bells were blessed. The bellfounder is unknown. In 1728, the brothers Nikolaas and Jozef Chevresons from Lorraine were asked to cast six new bells. On June the 1st of 1749, two new bells were cast by L.Franquin. One of these two bells was meant to be hung in the Saint Martin‘s tower. In 1756, the abbey decided to buy a new drum. Around this period, archive records mention some spendings to extend the carillon. At the end of the 18th century, it was made up of 47 bells, 41 of which for the carillon.
The French Revolution
During the French Revolution, the abbey was certainly not safe from plunderings. In 1796, the carillon was seized in order to be melted for coinage.
In July 1802, the burgomasters were given the authorization to get their bells back at the Caudenberg… if they were still unharmed. If the burgomaster couldn‘t find his bell back, he got a new one from an abolished monastery.
The burgomaster came back to Grimbergen with a small bell from a monastery. This bell was immediately hauled up in the tower. Three weeks later, however, it was decided to dig up all the other bells that had been buried very carefully.
The third carillon (1928)
After one century without carillon, the local authorities decided to order a new one and to give it as a present to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the abbey. The smallest bell cast by Van den Gheyn in 1830 marked the starting point of this new carillon.
In January 1928, Marcel Michiels from Tournai gave an estimate for a new carillon. It would cost 89,200 BEF to cast those 35 bells.
Prosper Michiels from Mechelen saw to the new carillon keyboard, manufactured in accordance with the Mechelen keyboard standards, for the price of 14,950 BEF. Jef Denyn and the then burgomaster were present during the first keyboard maintenance.
Due to a shortage of money, the then burgomaster Mr Van Campenhout was forced to delay the order for a new carillon. Eventually, the instrument was ordered, provided that everything be ready before July the 8th of 1928. The carillon had to be ready to chime the start of the festivities.
On June the 12th of 1928, Jef Denyn wrote a letter to Marcel Michiels in which he told him the carillon would be inaugurated on Sunday the 8th of July. Therefore, it had to be hung in the tower before June the 23th. Six days later, Jef Denyn became red with anger because Marcel Michiels always broke his promise. On June the 20th, Jef Denyn wrote another letter in which he called Marcel Michiels to order. The burgomaster implored to find a solution because the schedule of activities had already been printed.
Eventually, Jed Denyn promised to hang in the tower Jan Donnes‘ first carillon. Everything should be ready for the festivities. And it did happen. So, the 800th anniversary of the foundation of the abbey could be celebrated as it was expected. Between July the 8th and the 22th, six concerts were given by Jef Denyn, Staf Nees and Jan Donnes.
After that, the problem was certainly not solved. On August the 11th of 1928, Marcel Michiels asked the burgomaster not to publicly announce anything about the new carillon, since the casting of five little bells had failed.
On October the 30th of that same year, Marcel Michiels informed that the new carillon was going to be ready at the end of November. But his promise did not come true. On February the 5th of 1929, Jef Denyn wrote another letter to ask when he would finally be entitled to come and see the bells.
In June of that year, Prosper Michiels could finally install the carillon. But there were still problems to solve. Several bells had been turned down. On July the 12th of 1929, Marcel Michiels wrote that he had replaced three bells which were out of order and verified carefully all the others.
Despite the different problems, Jef Denyn defended the Belgian interests. Furthermore, during a meeting in the presence of the local authorities of Enkhuizen (the Netherlands) and the Commissie Orgel en Beiaardraad in Nederland (the Organ and Carillon Commission), Jef Denyn succeeded in convincing them to come to Grimbergen and admire the carillon.
On August the 4th of 1929, the fourth carillon was inaugurated. This event attracted many people. As of 4 o‘clock, streets were already overcrowded. Then, at 5 o‘clock, everyone listened very carefuly to the concert given by Jef Denyn and Jan Donnes. At the end of those concerts, everyone applauded.
It seems that the foundry Marcel Michiels in Tournai had to face many serious problems, not only about the production of the bells, but also about the way of tuning them. This particular point was brought to light by Jef Denyn when he wrote a letter to Marcel Michiels on October the 1st of 1929. Many years later, that same problem had also been described by Victor Van Geyseghem in his letter written in March 1956 to Father Jan Feyen.
Mr Boon, the manager of Horacantus, wrote on August the 31th of 1956 that the scientific examination already showed at that time that the bells hadn‘t been tuned properly. So, they couldn‘t produce a harmonious sound. Most of the weights and diameters were wrong; and the tuning of the differtent bells was particularly disappointing. At the time the carillon of Grimbergen was made, it was already possible to obtain better tuning and casting results. Even non-professionals, who heard the carillon of Lokeren or Herzele for instance, instantaneously noticed the difference. Yet, some people have another view on that subject. On July the 25th of 1938, a certain Luca Rizzardi wrote the abbot of Grimbergen that the Belgian French-speaking public television station intended to record a programme about the most famous carillon in the country. The one of Grimbergen is among them.
During World War Two, the bells were certainly not shielded from plunderings, even in Grimbergen. On August the 16th of 1943, the German command ordered all bells to be handed over. The then abbot, Father Delestré, was very worried about this situation. But fortunately, not a single bell was seized.
The fourth carillon (1964)
In 1949, Father Jan Feyen asked if the carillon could be expanded to play an octave lower. However, this idea was found too expensive. But Father Jan Feyen didn‘t admit defeat. As of 1951, he handed over a report, made out by Staf Nees, to the local authorities.
On January the 12th of 1956, Horacantus, a bellfoundry in Lokeren, recorded the timbre of all the bells. Of the 37 bells, only 2 were perfect, all the other ones left much to be desired. It was found easier to recast all the bells.
On February the 26th of 1959, Father Jan Feyen received the task to have a close look at the carillon. He did that with Staf Nees and Victor Geyseghem. This allowed the local authorities to take the right measures. According to Victor Geyseghem, the bells cast in the fifties weighed twice as much as those cast earlier. Those little bells had to be recast.
Moreover, at that time, the whole structure remained in a critical state. Horacantus stood up for Marcel Michiels. On April the 3th of 1959, another letter was sent to Father Jan Feyen : « isn‘t it a little bit exaggerated to assert that the current conception of this carillon is already outdated, even in 1928 ?»
Eventually, specifications were drawn up in order to replace the carillon. On June the 25th of 1963, candidates could register. Horacantus turned out to be the most attractive.
The new bells were cast in 1964. Then, this carillon was examined on April the 10th of 1964 and finally approved, but it wasn‘t until May the 20 th of 1964 for the definitive inspection in the presence of Victor Geyseghem, Father Jan Feyen and Mr Boon, the manager of Horacantus. The report mentioned the use of the so-called « easy system » for every bell lighter than 100 kg. The keyboard was in accordance with the Mechelen standards. So, Grimbergen could now be proud to have its fourth carillon.
On May the 22th and the 23th of 1964, it was solemnly inaugurated by famous carillonneurs such as Staf Nees, Elie Ryckelinck, Willem Harthoorn, Alfred Dubois, Eric Jordan, Jef Rottiers, Juul Verniers, Gustaaf Drossens and Father Jan Feyen. Even the papers were speaking very highly of the purest carillon in the whole of Europe. « Schoon Grimbergen » (« Beautiful Grimbergen ») is the title of a song composed in honour of the new carillon. The text by Marcel Steylemans was set to music by Father Jan Feyen personally.
The great bell
Thanks to the current carillonneur, Mr Rien Aarssen, a new great bell was ordered on May the 26 th of 1998 by Koninklijke Eijsbouts, a company located in Asten in the Netherlands. The decision of having a new great bell was certainly accelerated because the World Carillon Congress took place in Grimbergen on August the 11th of 1998.
In 2001, the decision was made to renovate the whole installation of the carillon. Rust and electrolyse had caused lot of damage. Furthermore, the great bell was linked to the swinging bells, in order to have 6 swinging bells for pealing out great (religious) feasts.
In 1756, the abbey bought a new drum. It had been in use till 1950. Then, the local authorities ordered a new drum with 50 measures (30 for the hour and 20 for the half-hour) and equiped with steel notes and 30 hammers. In 1983, this system was replaced by the Horomat 81 by Clock-o-matic to which the 36 bells are connected.
• Edmond Claessens from 1735 to 1764
• Pieter Claessens (grandson of Edmond Claessens) from 1764 to 1777
• From 1758 to 1793, Jan Schepens had to remove twice a year the automatic system. He earned 24 florins a year. He was paid for the last time on August the 23th of 1797.
• Lodewijk Mergaerts (1891- 1972) from 1931 to 1945
• Jan Feyen (1920-1993) priest-carilloneur from 1945 and appointed since 1952 to 1993
• Rien Aarssen (1943- ) carillonneur since 1991, appointed since 1993
• Twan Bearda (1973- ) appointed in 2009.