Antwerp – the world’s major seaport

ANTWERP is one of the most important cities in Northern Europe. It is a great commercial port; a great fortress; and a great center of industry; as well as a great storehouse of Mediaeval and Renaissance Art and Architecture.

Antwerp was a morass on the edge of a forest full of game when it was first settled by a Germanic tribe. Its first industry was salting and smoking fish, which it bartered in English ports for wool, which was woven into cloth that was soon in demand throughout Northern Europe. The town progressed with astonishing rapidity, as is noted by contemporary writers. In 837, Eulda calls Antwerp a great city; Heda says it is an old and celebrated city; and, at the end of the eleventh century, Sigisbert of Gembloux proclaims it a noble metropolis. At this period its present name first appears.

During the seventh century, the people were converted to Christianity by St. Amand. In the ninth century, the place was overrun by the Normans, who fortified it, and made it the headquarters of a dominion bounded by Ghent, Courtrai, Louvain, and Antwerp. They built the Borgt, the ruins of which are still visible, in 885; but abandoned it when Hollo made peace with Charles the Simple, King of France.

Church of St. Charles Borromeo in Antwerp.

Antwerp flourished again under various Counts of the Empire, the most famous of whom was Godfrey de Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade, and first King of Jerusalem. About this time Tankelm, a predecessor of Wycliffe and Luther preached reform doctrines and gained a considerable following in Antwerp. He was finally assassinated in a boat in the middle of the Scheldt. His heresy is a favorite subject for pictures by Flemish artists.

Trade and municipal privileges were extended continuously by the Dukes of Brabant during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. When Edward III of England resided there with his court in 1340, its commerce was very important, and he made it his principal wool mart.

When the Brabant Dukes became extinct, the province fell to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. It was then so flourishing that the historian De Cornmines designated it ” The Garden of the Land of Promise.”

Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp.

The decline of Bruges, by the shoaling of its river, benefited Antwerp. By 1515, the principal traders had all emigrated there,—first the Portuguese Jews, then the Hanseatic firms, and lastly the English. In the day of her highest prosperity, during the reign of Charles V., Antwerp’s commercial prosperity was based on banking and manufacture.

The day of the Reformation and Persecution had now arrived. In the public squares of the city, there were daily scenes of horror on the scaffold and at stake. Finally, the nobles banded together; and the ” Compromise ” gave the signal for resistance, of which the preachers took advantage to excite the crowd. The result was that the Cathedral and churches were pillaged.

Frescos of the temptation of Jesus Christ at Saint George’s Church Antwerp.

On August 18, 1566, there was the annual procession through the city of the great image of the Virgin, gorgeously arrayed, and accompanied by civil, military and ecclesiastical pomp and music. As the procession passed, disturbances arose in the streets, fomented by fanatical sectaries. When the image reached the Cathedral and was placed behind the grille for safety, it was followed by a howling mob that continually increased in numbers and turbulence. The spirit of riot soon led to the work of destruction. The abolition of all imagery and carving as works of idolatry was favored. Hammers, axes, and crow-bars were procured, the monuments were defaced, statues were overthrown, painted windows smashed, pictures mutilated and torn to tatters, and delicate carvings demolished. The beautiful handiwork of the pious devotion of centuries was destroyed in a few hours of mob violence. The rage of iconoclasm immediately spread, and the other churches in Antwerp and neighboring cities were sacked by bands of fanatical puritans. Strange to say, however, there was no looting. Not a single act of personal violence or appropriation of the treasures scattered by the mob was recorded in any of the works of desecration. The scarcity of Mediaeval remains in Belgian churches is to be attributed to this St. Bartholomew massacre of Christian art.

Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem. Saint George’s Church in Antwerp.

The administration of the cruel Duke of Alva added to Antwerp’s woe, but worse was to follow. In 1576, the city was sacked by the Spanish soldiery, under secret orders, it is said, of Philip II. This disaster, called the ” Spanish Fury ” cost seven thousand lives, and ruined the city for the time. The pillage lasted for eight days, and the loss of property was estimated at what would amount to more than five hundred million dollars today. The result was that the surviving merchants and bankers decided to emigrate.

Antwerp’s sufferings were not yet at an end. In order to deliver the provinces from Spanish tyranny, William the Silent persuaded the States of Brabant to offer the sovereignty to the Duke of Alencon, brother of Henry III of France. The offer was accepted; the Duke arrived with an army, but he wanted to dispense with the guidance of the States and reign as absolute master. The first step was to seize Antwerp by force. Therefore, on January 16, 1583, he made a pretense of reviewing his troops outside the Borgerhout gate. He went out, and immediately returned at the head of his troops, and massacred the city guard, and all who offered any resistance. The citizens though momentarily surprised, quickly recovered and assumed the offensive. Catholics and Protestants alike combined against the treacherous enemy, and soon drove the French out of the city, leaving four thousand dead behind, and with a loss to themselves of only eighty.

Statue Pieter Paul Rubens.

Farnese, Duke of Parma, came to re-establish the Spanish authority. Antwerp was the last refuge of the defeated Confederates and was blockaded for a year. Finally (1585), it capitulated on honorable conditions. In 1589, the population had fallen to 55,000, a loss of 75,000 in about a century.

With commerce destroyed and energies exhausted, Antwerp now entered upon two centuries of inactivity, but the once-flourishing metropolis shone gloriously in the Arts, under the encouragement of Albert and Isabella. Rubens, whose memory haunts every church and square, conferred a more glorious renown upon his adopted city than she had ever yet attained. Many great masters made his School famous.

The Dutch, who had long been jealous of the commercial supremacy of Antwerp, dreaded a renewal of her activities; and at the close of the Thirty Years’ War (1648) they achieved their aim by the Peace of Minister, which consummated the ruin of the commerce of Antwerp by closing the Scheldt to navigation, thus diverting shipping to Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

The Cathedral of Our Lady.

Antwerp was wakened from her lethargy by the French Revolution, being captured by Labourdonnaye in 1792, and again by Pichegru in 1794.

Under the Empire, it became the capital of the Department of the Two Netherlands; and then recovered part of its former splendor. Napoleon had great works constructed there that were to make it one of the great dockyards of the Empire. In 1815 Antwerp constituted a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. A statue of General Carnot evinces the gratitude of the inhabitants of Borgerhout for having spared their suburb from demolition in the interest of military defense.

Het Steen, a medieval fortress in Antwerp.

The Revolution of 1830 brought separation from Holland. Leopold, first King of the Belgians, made his inaugural entry on July 28, 1831. The next year, the Dutch, under General Chasse, who had shut themselves up in the citadel, were besieged by a French army under Marshal Gerard and forced to capitulate. Since then, Antwerp has steadily increased in size and prosperity.

Today, Antwerp is one of the world’s major seaports and the international center of the diamond industry.

Top Attractions

  1. Grand Place (Grote Markt)
  2. St. Paul’s Church (Sint-Pauluskerk)
  3. Cathedral of Our LadyButcher’s Hall (Vleeshuis)
  4. Plantin-Moretus Museum
  5. Havenroute (Port Tour)
  6. St. James’ Church (Sint-Jacobskerk)
  7. Antwerp Zoo
  8. Diamond Museum (Diamantmuseum)
  9. Rubens’ House (Rubenshuis)
  10. Museum Mayer van den Bergh
  11. Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten)
  12. The Brabo Fountain
  13. Het Steen
  14. Central Station

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