Antwerp through the ages – a brief history

Excavations have shown that Antwerp was inhabited as long ago as the Gallo-Roman period. Unfortunately, we know very little about Antwerp in Roman times.

We only have good sources to reconstruct the history of Antwerp starting from the 9th century, when Vikings attacked the city, and inhabitants started reinforcing the boundaries of their territory with an earthen wall. As the city experienced the first economic boom in the 12th century, Antwerp’s residents built Het Steen (with a stone fortress wall) to defend themselves better.

By the first half of the 14th century, Antwerp had become Western Europe’s most important trading and financial centre, its reputation based mainly on its seaport and wool market.

In 1356, the city, which had been part of the Holy Roman Empire, was annexed to the County of Flanders and lost lots of its privileges, partly to Bruges’ advantage. Fifty years later, the political and economic tide turned again. Antwerp became a world-class metropolis. Antwerp reached a peak in both commercial and artistic terms in the 16th century. That period is referred to as ‘the Golden Age’.

By the second half of the 16th century, the city was experiencing politico-religious struggles between the Protestant North and Catholic South. In 1585, the city and port of Antwerp were recaptured by Philip II’s Spanish army. The Dutch then closed off the river Scheldt. From an economic point of view, this was a disaster. Yet the city flourished culturally until the mid-seventeenth century thanks to painters like Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, Jordaens and Teniers, printers such as Plantin and Moretus, and the famous Antwerp harpsichord builders.

But from 1650 till the 19th century, Antwerp went into severe decline. The Scheldt remained closed, and the city became little more than a provincial town. The river was reopened in 1863, paving the way for Antwerp to return to its former glory.

Today, Antwerp is back to being a global city. In 2018, it was nominated as a top 10 city to visit by Lonely Planet. They called Antwerp “laden with historic riches and home to world-class arts and design”. Lonely Planet considered Rubens and the baroque arts a significant asset of Antwerp. But Antwerp is more than its baroque art. Antwerp is a fashion city, a culture city, a diamond city, and a port city – full of beautiful old and new buildings.

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