The composition of the political elites in sixteenth-century Ghent, one of the political and economic centres of the county of Flanders, changed from a relatively open elite group that included representatives from the craft guilds into a compact, aristocratic class. This article analyses the reasons for this transformation. First, the number of office-holders in the city council declined and power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of a smaller political elite because of interventions in the urban political framework by the Habsburg authorities in the wake of a fiscal rebellion (1537–40) and a Calvinist takeover of power (1578–84). Secondly, the once dominant position of the craft guilds on Ghent's two benches of aldermen was weakened by institutional reforms, a Catholic backlash against Calvinism and an economic recession. Thirdly, the growing wealth gap between rulers and the ruled, coupled with an influx of noblemen into Ghent City Council, gave urban politics a more aristocratic character. Consequently, a series of interconnected changes gave rise to a trend towards oligarchy and aristocracy on the city's benches of aldermen.