Lille (French pronunciation: [lil] ( listen); Dutch: Rijsel) is the largest city in French Flanders. It is the principal city of the Lille Métropole, the fourth-largest metropolitan area in France after those of Paris, Lyon and Marseille. Lille is situated on the Deûle River, near France’s border with Belgium. It is the capital of the Nord-Pas de Calais region and the prefecture of the Nord department.
The city of Lille, to which the previously independent town of Lomme was annexed on 27 February 2000, had a population of 226,014 as recorded by the 2006 census. However, Lille Métropole, which also includes Roubaix, Tourcoing and numerous suburban communities, had a population of 1,091,438. The eurodistrict of Lille-Kortrijk, which also includes the Belgian cities of Kortrijk, Tournai, Mouscron and Ypres, had 1,905,000 residents.
The legend of «Lydéric and Phinaert» puts the foundation of the city of «L’Isle» at 640. Although the first mention of the town appears in archives from the year 1066, some archeological digs seem to show the area as inhabited by as early as 2000 BC, most notably in the modern-day quartiers of Fives, Wazemmes, and Old Lille.
The original inhabitants of this region were the Gauls, such as the Menapians, the Morins, the Atrebates, and the Nervians, who were followed by Germanic peoples, the Saxons and the Frisians, and the Franks later.
From 830 until around 910, the Vikings invaded Flanders. After the destruction caused by Norman and Magyar invasion, the eastern part of the region was ruled by various local princes.
The name Lille comes from insula or l’Isla, i.e., «the island», since the area was at one time marshy. This name was used for the castle of the Counts of Flanders, built on dry land in the middle of the marsh. The Dutch name for the town, Rijsel, has the same meaning («Ryssel» in French Flemish, from «ter Yssel» meaning «to/at the island»).
The Count of Flanders controlled a number of old Roman cities (Boulogne, Arras, Cambrai) as well as some founded by the Carolingians (Valenciennes, Saint-Omer, Ghent, Bruges). The County of Flanders thus extended to the left bank of the Scheldt, one of the richest and most prosperous regions of Europe.
A local notable in this period was Évrard, who lived in the 9th century and participated in many of the day’s political and military affairs.
From the 12th century, the fame of the Lille cloth fair began to grow. In 1144 Saint-Sauveur parish was formed, which would give its name to the modern-day quartier Saint-Sauveur.
The counts of Flanders, Boulogne, and Hainaut came together with England and East Frankia and tried to regain territory taken by Philip II of France following Henry II of England’s death, a war that ended with the French victory at Bouvines in 1214. Infante Ferdinand, Count of Flanders was imprisoned and the county fell into dispute: it would be his wife, Jeanne, Countess of Flanders and Constantinople, who ruled the city. She was said to be well loved by the residents of Lille, who by that time numbered 10,000.
In 1225, the street performer and juggler Bertrand Cordel, doubtlessly encouraged by local lords, tried to pass himself off as Baldwin I of Constantinople (the father of Jeanne of Flanders), who had disappeared at the battle of Adrianople. He pushed the kingdoms of Flanders and Hainaut towards sedition against Jeanne in order to recover his land. She called her cousin, Louis VIII («The Lion»). He unmasked the imposter, whom Countess Jeanne quickly had hanged. In 1226 the King agreed to free Infante Ferdinand, Count of Flanders. Count Ferrand died in 1233, and his daughter Marie soon after. In 1235, Jeanne granted a city charter by which city governors would be chosen each All Saint’s Day by four commissioners chosen by the ruler. On 6 February 1236, she founded the Countess’s Hospital (Hospice Comtesse), which remains one of the most beautiful buildings in Old Lille. It was in her honour that the hospital of the Regional Medical University of Lille was named «Jeanne of Flanders Hospital» in the 20th century.
The Countess died in 1244 in the Abbey of Marquette, leaving no heirs. The rule of Flanders and Hainaut thus fell to her sister, Margaret II, Countess of Flanders, then to Margaret’s son, Guy of Dampierre. Lille fell under the rule of France from 1304 to 1369, after the Franco-Flemish War (1297-1305).
The county of Flanders fell to the Duchy of Burgundy next, after the 1369 marriage of Margaret III, Countess of Flanders, and Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Lille thus became one of the three capitals of said Duchy, along with Brussels and Dijon. By 1445, Lille counted some 25,000 residents. Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, was even more powerful than the King of France, and made Lille an administrative and financial capital.
On 17 February 1454, one year after the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, Philip the Good organised a Pantagruelian banquet at his Lille palace, the still-celebrated «Feast of the Pheasant». There the Duke and his court undertook an oath to Christianity.
In 1477, at the death of the last duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, Mary of Burgundy married Maximilian of Austria, who thus became Count of Flanders. At the end of the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Spanish Flanders fell to his eldest son, and thus under the rule of Philip II of Spain, King of Spain. The city remained under Spanish rule until the reign of Philip IV of Spain.
The 16th century was marked by the outbreak of the Plague, a boom in the regional textile industry, and the Protestant revolts.
Calvinism first appeared in the area in 1542; by 1555 the authorities were taking steps to suppress this form of Protestantism. In 1578, the Hurlus, a group of Protestant rebels, stormed the castle of the Counts of Mouscron. They were removed four months later by a Catholic Wallon regiment, after which they tried several times between 1581 and 1582 to take the city of Lille, all in vain. The Hurlus were notably held back by the legendary Jeanne Maillotte. At the same time (1581), at the call of Elizabeth I of England, the north of the Seventeen Provinces, having gained a Protestant majority, successfully revolted and formed the United Provinces.
In 1667, Louis XIV of France (the Sun-King) successfully laid siege to Lille, resulting in it becoming French in 1668 under the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, provoking discontent among the citizens of the prosperous city. A number of important public works undertaken between 1667 and 1670, such as the Citadel (erected by Vauban), or the creation of the quartiers of Saint-André and la Madeleine, enabled the King to gradually gain the confidence of his new subjects in Lille, some of whom continued to feel Flemish, though they had always spoken the Romance Picard language.
For five years, from 1708 to 1713, the city was occupied by the Dutch, during the War of the Spanish Succession. Throughout the 18th century, Lille remained profoundly Catholic. It took little part in the French Revolution, though there were riots and the destruction of churches. In 1790, the city held its first municipal elections.
After the French Revolution
In 1792, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Austrians, then in the United Provinces, laid siege to Lille. The «Column of the Goddess», erected in 1842 in the «Grand-Place» (officially named Place du Général-de-Gaulle), is a tribute to the city’s resistance, led by Mayor François André-Bonte. Although Austrian artillery destroyed many houses and the main church of the city, the city did not surrender and the Austrian army left after eight days.
The black dots around the windows (not the decorative cartouches) are Austrian cannonballs lodged in the façade.
The city continued to grow, and by 1800 held some 53,000 residents, leading to Lille becoming the county seat of the Nord départment in 1804. In 1846, a rail line connecting Paris and Lille was built.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon I’s continental blockade against the United Kingdom led to Lille’s textile industry developing itself even more fully. The city was known for its cotton, and the nearby towns of Roubaix and Tourcoing worked wool.
In 1853, Alexandre Desrousseaux composed his famous lullaby P’tit quinquin. In 1858, an imperial decree led to the annexation of the adjacent towns of Fives, Wazemmes, and Moulins. Lille’s population was 158,000 in 1872, growing to over 200,000 by 1891. In 1896 Lille became the first city in France to be led by a socialist, Gustave Delory.
By 1912, Lille’s population was at 217,000: the city profited from the Industrial Revolution, particularly via coal and the steam engine. The entire region had grown wealthy thanks to the mines and to the textile industry.
First World War
Between 4–13 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. The general was made an honorary citizen of the city of Lille on 28 October of that year.
In July 1921, at the Pasteur Institute in Lille, Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin discovered 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 1936, the city’s mayor, Roger Salengro, became Minister of the Interior of the Popular Front, eventually killing himself after right-wing groups led a slanderous campaign against him.
Second World War
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, still marked by the events of the First World War, began to flee the city in large numbers. Lille was part of the zone under control of the German commander in Brussels, and was never controlled by the Vichy government in France. The départments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais (with the exception of the coast, notably Dunkirk) were, for the most part, liberated in five days, from the 1 to 5 September 1944 by British, American, Canadian, and Polish troops. On 3 September, the German troops began to leave Lille, fearing the British, who were on their way from Brussels. The city was retaken with little resistance when the British tanks arrived. Rationing came to an end in 1947, and by 1948 normality had returned to Lille.
Post-war to the present
In 1967, the Chambers of Commerce of Lille, Roubaix and Tourcoing were joined, and in 1969 the Communauté urbaine de Lille (Lille urban community) was created, linking 87 communes with Lille.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the region was faced with some problems after the decline of the coal, mining and textile industries. From the start of the 1980s, the city began to turn itself more towards the service sector.
In 1983, the VAL, the world’s first automated rapid transit underground network, was opened. In 1993, a high-speed TGV train line was opened, connecting Paris with Lille in one hour. This, with the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 and the arrival of the Eurostar train, put Lille at the centre of a triangle connecting Paris, London and Brussels.
Work on Euralille, an urban remodelling project, began in 1991. The Euralille Centre was opened in 1994, and the remodeled district is now full of parks and modern buildings containing offices, shops and apartments. In 1994 the «Grand Palais» was also opened.
Lille was elected European Capital of Culture in 2004, along with the Italian city of Genoa.
Lille and Roubaix were impacted by the 2005 Riots which affected all of France’s urban centers.