- FRANCE AND BELGIUM -

LILLE Part 2

LINKS to pages in the France and Belgium site and to the Colin Day Travelling Days series:

     1 : Lille
     2 : Ghent
     3 : Ypres
     4 : Bruges

HOME PAGE : France and Belgium

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The City of Lille was created in the Middle Ages. Traditionally, historians link the foundation of the city with the creation of the Saint Peter's Chapter in 1055-1065. The first document - the Great Charter - dates from 1066.

Lille was founded by Baldwin V, Count of Flanders. The name Lille comes from 'insula' or 'l'Isla' (the island) since the area around was at one time marshy. The name was also used for the castle of the Counts of Flanders, built on dry land in the middle of the marsh. Together with Dijon and Brussels, the city became one of the capitals of the Burgundy states, which, at the peak of their glory, stretched from Holland to the Mâconnais and the Franche-Comté.

In 1667 the French king Louis XIV annexed the entire region to France (against the will of the inhabitants). During the Spanish succession war, Lille briefly returned to the Netherlands, but was given back to France in the Treaty of Utrecht. The city suffered heavily during the French revolution : St. Peter's Church was demolished.

During the 19th century a new basilica was built and Lille became a major industrial capital. The city expanded rapidly by annexing five towns (Wazemmes, Esquermes, Moulins, Fives and Fbg. Saint Maurice). The area of Lille tripled and the number of its inhabitants doubled to 120,000.

Between 4th and 13th October 1914, the troops in Lille were able to trick the enemy by convincing them that Lille possessed more artillery than was the case; in reality, the city had only a single cannon. Despite the deception, the German bombardments destroyed over 2,200 buildings and homes. When the Germans realised they had been tricked, they burned down an entire section of town, subsequently occupying the city.

Lille was liberated by the British on 17 October 1918, when General Sir William Birdwood and his troops were welcomed by joyous crowds.

In July 1921, at the Pasteur Institute in Lille, Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin produced the first anti-tuberculosis vaccine, known as BCG ("Bacille de Calmette et Guérin").

The Opéra de Lille, designed by Lille architect Louis M. Cordonnier, was dedicated in 1923.

From 1931 Lille felt the repercussions of the Great Depression, and by 1935 a third of the city's population lived in poverty.

In WWII during the Battle of France, Lille was besieged by German forces for several days. Due to the prolonged French defense, many Allied troops were able to escape to Dunkirk. When Belgium was invaded, the citizens of Lille began to flee the city in large numbers. Lille became part of the zone under control of the German commander in Brussels.

On 3 September 1944 the German troops began to leave Lille, fearing the British, who were on their way from Brussels. The Lille resistance movement managed to retake part of the city before the British tanks arrived. Rationing came to an end in 1947, and by 1948, some normality had returned to Lille.

In the 1950s the decline of the textile industry posed serious economic problems for the city, which decided to turn resolutely towards the tertiary sector (banking, insurance, universities, leading schools and administrations).

The brand new district of the city, Euralille, which was inaugurated in 1994, is the living example of a highly successful conversion. High speed trains now leave for Brussels, London and Paris - placing Lille at the centre of north western Europe.


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'The Column of the Goddess' in the centre of the Grand Place (now also called the place du Général de Gaulle) is the popular name given by the citizens of Lille to the memorial built to commemorate the siege of 1792. The siege was one of the many battles fought during the French Revolutionary Wars and considered a major event in the city's history by its inhabitants, despite its relatively low military significance on a wider scale.

A few months earlier, in April 1792, French forces in the same area did not conduct themselves well - fleeing after a skirmish with Austrian forces and afterwards killing their own commander, Théobald Dillon. This might have made the Austrians expect an easy victory, which as it turned out was not the case. For nine days and nights, the Austrians bombarded the city without intermission, but had ultimately to raise the siege, faced with the determined resistance of the citizens, led by Mayor Francois André. The Austrians did destroy many houses and the main church of the city situated in the Grand Place.

Some fifty years later, the local authorities became aware that nothing had been made to commemorate the 50th birthday of this event. They decided on the building of a memorial, just in time to lay the first stone in September 1842, but it was not before 1845 that the memorial was finished.

The memorial consists of a column topped by a statue. The column was designed by the architect Charles Benvignat and the statue was sculpted by Théophile Bra as an allegory of the besieged city wearing a crown. It was nicknamed 'The Goddess' by the inhabitants of Lille soon after its erection.

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When speaking of the belfry in Lille, France, care must be taken not to confuse the enormous City Hall belfry with the ornate belfry of the Chamber of Commerce of Lille pictured below.

Given its height of 76 metres, the belfry is a major landmark in the Downtown area of the city. (The City Hall belfry is, however, taller.) A particular feature of the tower is the four-faced clock.



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The building's architect was Louis-Marie Cordonnier (1854-1940). He began the work on the Chamber of Commerce building but World War One and the occupation of the German army intervened to slow its progess. The work was eventually completed in 1921. Architect Cordonnier drew from 17th century Flemish style, in vogue in Lille. Although completed after World War One, the style seems reminiscent of an age when gracious, ornate architecture had not been replaced by more functional styles.



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We take a walk from the main square through the surrounding streets (above, left and below).

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We return to the Grand Place.




Designed by architect Julien Destrée, the Old Stock Exchange (circa 1653) is a magnificent example of the Flemish baroque style (right).

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