History of Lyon

Mother Earth Travel > France > Lyon > History

Lyon is in an attractive setting with two hills, Fourvière, 'the one which prays? and La Croix-Rousse, 'the one which works?, and two rivers, the Rhône and the Saône. Its proximity to sunny Mediterranean beaches and the snowy Alps is a further plus for the town. Situated between northern and southern Europe, Lyon was the crossroads for travellers and the exchange of ideas - a fact, which is reflected today in the exceptional remains of its rich past. UNESCO classed its many historic sites as part of worldwide heritage in December 1998.

Prehistory & Antiquity
Lyon was a marshy, densely wooded place in 20 000 BC. Small tribes from northern Europe had already settled there and created the 'Condate? at the bottom of the Croix-Rousse. They built a shrine at Fourvière to honour their god, Lug (perhaps the origin of Lugdunum, the name which the town was given much later).

In his mission to conquer the Gauls, Julius Caesar erected his war camp on this hill in 58 BC and Canabae, a supply village sprang up at the bottom of the hill. On Julius Cesar's death, the general Lucas Muniatus Plancus founded Lugdunum (lug: god, light, crow, dunum: hill, strong town, sunrise, there are many interpretations of this heritage? the hill of lights? the hill of crows?) on the orders of Rome in order to welcome Romans who had been driven out of Vienna. The second town of the Roman Empire after Rome, Lugdunum was proclaimed the capital of the three Gauls by the Emperor Augustus. The Romans built a theatre, a forum, temples, the shrine which is said to be to Cybèle, baths, aqueducts and comfortable houses. On the slopes of the Croix Rousse the Amphithéâtre des 3 Gaules became the political centre, where every year representatives of 60 tribes from three provinces met. The Gauls adopted the pagan rites of their conquerors and when they were exposed to Christianity from the east there was harsh repression. The martyrs, deacon Sanctus, bishop Pothin and St Blandine, were fed to the lions in the same amphitheatre in the year 177.

The decadence of the Roman Empire and its fall in the year 273 left Lyon open to barbaric invasions. The aqueducts, sabotaged by the Germans, forced the population (deprived of water) to leave Fourvière in ruins and settle in the low town (the basse Vieux Lyon) around the Groupe cathédrale; some remains are still visible today around St Jean's cathedral. The Burgondes, the Sarrasins, the Francs as well as natural disasters, plague, fire and a huge flood in 580 stopped the town's evolution over the years.

Lyon in the Middle Ages
Lyon's dignity was restored for a short time under the reign of Charlemagne (742-814). Then, new conflicts weakened the town. Wars between noblemen meant the town's status changed frequently from being part of the kingdom of France, to belonging to Germany, or the kingdom of Provence, or Burgundy. Over the years Lugdunum became Lyon.

These battles did not abate until the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In 1079 Lyon became the seat of the Primate of the Gauls and therefore gained in importance and power. Houses, churches and abbeys were rebuilt (cf. Saint-Paul and Saint Martin d'Ainay) the quarters of Old Lyon became structured: in the centre the quarter of Saint Jean housed the ecclesiastic powers, craftsmen inhabited the south at St Georges whilst men of the law lived in the North.

In 1307 Philippe the Fair annexed Lyon to the kingdom of France. The town, which had a population of 20 000 inhabitants, was ruled by twelve councils. The Hundred Years war did not immediately affect the people of Lyon, but from 1360, the town suffered from the barbarism of the brigands and Grandes Compagnies.

Towards Modernity
At the beginning of the fifteenth century Lyon saw a time of prosperity. It became the European trade capital. Its fairs (granted by Charles VII and then Louis XI) enjoyed an international influence. Merchandise and merchants came from afar, even from the East. Bankers and usurers flocked to the town and a trade centre came into being on the Place du change (the first credit note was born). Silk and weaving were introduced by the Venetians and the people from Piedmont. Printing revolutionised life in Lyon. La légende dorée was the first French book to be published in 1473. Lyon enjoyed a brilliant cultural life with the likes of Louise Labé, otherwise known as 'La Belle Cordière?, and Rabelais, who is famous for Gargantua and Pantagruel. The court came more frequently to this prosperous town. Feasts were sumptuous. Charles VIII and his entourage settled here in 1506. Magnificent Renaissance buildings beautified the town: Philibert Delorme's galery inHôtel Bullioud, Gadagne, la Loge du Change... Lyon's special Traboules, (shortcuts from one street to the next by going through the buildings) began to appear. The town had 50 000 inhabitants in 1550. Then dissent from the Protestants began to cause trouble. Religious wars ravaged the town. In 1562 the Terror began, churches were destroyed and people were burnt at the stake. The town was brought to its knees. Then Henry IV's troops brought order to Lyon. In 1600 he married Marie de Medici at the Cathédrale Saint Jean. Catholics and Protestants were reconciled. Four municipal magistrates ruled over the town. The Town Hall was built in 1646 and the services in Lyon were centralised.

A new phase of growth began in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The dazzling reign of Louis XIV benefited the people of Lyon and the town saw real changes. The Place Bellecour and Cordeliers were built. The town extended to the left bank of the Rhône. The Hôtel de Ville, the Loge du Change, the theatre, and the Hôtel Dieu were entrusted to the architect Soufflot. Elegant buildings were erected and the equestrian statue of Louis XIV was built on the Place Bellecour. The town became more structured: a fire brigade was formed, cab drivers began to appear and street names were put up. The silk industry employed 60 000 people. The enlightenment saw the birth of the first veterinary school in Europe, the creation of the Aérostat des Montgolfier and the discoveries of Ampère.

After this redemption, decadence took hold again, in the form of the 1789 revolution. Lyon and its 150 000 inhabitants did not accept the Convention. People were persecuted, guillotined and the retaliation was gruesome. All aristocratic symbols were destroyed. The town lost everything but its name.

Contemporary Lyon
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the town became an important industrial centre. The silk trade took off in the first Empire and the Restoration. The Emperor praised the arrival of the weaving loom invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1804. The silk workers began work with their new technique (one loom replaced six men) at the Croix-Rousse. There were no less than 400 companies, which exported as far as the US. However, this spectacular progress was not without repercussions and it led to the revolt of the silk workers in 1831 and again in 1834. At this time progress was fast being made in all areas - the Lumière brothers invented cinema and the Institut Lumière was established in 1895. The industrial era was well underway: in the chemical industry with Rhône Poulenc, in pharmaceuticals with Méieux and with the construction of the automobile Berliet. Urbanisation was also fast developing: the Opéra, the Palais de Justice, the stock exchange, the university the Préfecture, the Basilique de Fourvière were all under construction. The Parc de La Tête d'Or was developed. The main arteries of the town centre were complemented with rich buildings with beautiful facades.

Edourad Herriot, mayor from 1905 to 1957, continued and developed industry (metal, chemical , pharmaceutical, textile, photo), finished work on the town's facilities and strengthened the university centre. He entrusted the architect Tony Garnier with the construction of the Halle an arcade of the same name, a hospital, a stadium and housing.

During the Second World War, Lyon became the capital of the Resistance with three big movements: combat, Liberation and Francs Tireurs. The chief of police Jean Moulin, gave his life to the cause. The Red Army freed Edouard Herriot, who was brought to Germany.

After the war, town improvements continued with the development of communications (metro, Satolas airport, motorways and the fast train service the TGV). The town also went through a modernisation program with housing restoration (in the colours of the Renaissance) and the building of a conference centre, Euroexpo, exhibition park, auditorium, dance centre and theatre. The Opéra was redone by Jean Nouvel, the Place des Terreaux was renovated by Drevet and Buren, and it was the age of the Murs Peints and Plan Lumières. Quays, ports as well as historical sites were expanded. New quarters emerged, la Part?Dieu business and trade centre and its important Bibliothèque Municipale, the International city with its Hôtel Hilton and its Casino.

Today Lyon is focused on progress and the future, while at the same time valuing its heritage ' as it should - for UNESCO has classified 500 hectares as sites of historical interest.