History of Antwerp

Mother Earth Travel > Belgium > Antwerp > History

The question about the age of Antwerp is one that is debated. However, excavations have shown that there was certainly habitation on the bend in the river Scheldt as long ago as the Gallo-Roman period of the 2nd or 3rd century.

The old village was destroyed by Normans in 836 and the first traces of Antwerp as a fortified settelement date back to 980. In 1356 the city was annexed to the County of Flanders and as a result it lost many privileges, which was partly to Bruges' advantage. Fifty years later the political and economic tide turned again and the run-up to the Golden Age began, when Antwerp became a metropolis of world class.

A first economic boom followed in the first half of the fourteenth century and Antwerp became the most important trading and financial centre in Western Europe; its reputation was based largely on its seaport and wool market.

Around 1450, Antwerp had 20,000 inhabitants, and it had become the largest market town in Brabant. Some famous names from that age include the painters Quinten Metsys and Bruegel, as well as the printer Plantijn, and the humanists and scientists Lipsius, Mercator, Dodoens and Ortelius.

However, in the second half of that century the city was the focus of the politico-religious struggle between the protestant North and catholic Spain and as such it was stricken by a series of bad events. First there was the iconoclasm in 1566, then the Spanish Fury in 1576. Finally there was the Fall of Antwerp in 1585.

After the Fall, the city came under the rule of Philip II and the Northern Netherlands closed off the Scheldt. From an economic point of view this was a disaster. To make matters worse, it was not only the protestants who fled the city but also the commercial and intellectual elite.

Yet the city continued to flourish culturally until the mid-seventeenth century with painters like Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens and Teniers, and the sculptor families Quellin and Verbrugghen as well as printers.

From 1650 to the nineteenth century is a fairly uneventful period. The Scheldt remained closed to traffic and the metropolis became a provincial town. Under Austrian rule from 1715 to1792, Joseph II tried to free the river by military force. However, the plan failed. In 1795, under French occupation, it succeeded but this time the ships encountered an English blockade.

After the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, there followed a short-lived reunification with the Northern Netherlands and an equally short period of prosperity which ended with the Belgian Revolution in 1830: the river Scheldt was closed once again.

It was reopened permanently in 1863. Apart from interruptions during the two world wars, Antwerp had experienced steady economic growth in the twentieth century. Its importance as one of the major art cities of Europe was confirmed in 1993 when Antwerp was nominated Cultural Capital of Europe.

Today, the city thrives and the neighbourhoods with nationalities from far and near live in harmony.