Archive of the place du Général de GaulleGrand Place Archive
©Grand Place Archive|Archives Départementales du Nord

The origins of Lille and its evolution to the present day

Founded, according to legend, around 640 AD by the giants Lyderic and Phinaert, Lille was in turn Flemish, Burgundian and under Spanish rule, before becoming French in 1668, following Louis XIV’s conquest of the city. Today, it is France’s third most populous metropolis.

Originally, water

The first written evidence of Lille’s existence can be found in a charter dated 1066, in which Baudouin V, Count of Flanders, endowed the collegiate church of Saint-Pierre with a chapter of canons and revenues. In this document, the town is referred to as “isla”, a word derived from the Latin “insula”, meaning “island”. Indeed, Lille was born from water, the Deûle, a secondary river with a modest flow but located on a major traffic route between the major Flemish cities and the Champagne fairs.

The town developed on a site where there was a break in the river’s course, requiring goods to be unloaded and transported to a more navigable section. From the outset, the town was a port, an infrastructure that foreshadowed its vocation as a trading city.

The era of the Counts of Flanders

In the Middle Ages, the city was organized around the forum, a trading area, and the castrum, a fortified site housing the count’s residence, known as the Palais de la Salle. At the time of Lille’s emergence and development, it was part of the County of Flanders, the Count being a vassal of the King of France.

In 1214, following the Battle of Bouvines, Ferrand de Portugal, husband of Countess Jeanne de Flandre, was taken prisoner. Jeanne then ruled alone, setting up charitable foundations throughout the count’s territory. In Lille, she founded the Notre-Dame Hospital in 1237, which quickly became known as the “Countess Hospice” in honor of its founder. The building, which has been rebuilt several times, is now a museum showcasing the city’s art and history collections.

The Dukes de Bourgogne

In 1369, Marguerite de Mâle, heiress to the county, married Philippe le Hardi, Duke of Burgundy. From then on, Lille came under the authority of the House of Burgundy, and enjoyed a period of prosperity. The dukes organized several memorable festivities: two chapters of the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1431 and 1436, and the Pheasant Banquet in 1454.

In 1453, Philip the Good ordered the construction of the imposing Palais Rihour to house his court, which followed his travels throughout the duchy. The palace’s former “guards’ room” is now home to the Lille Tourist Office.

The golden century

Lille’s fortunes changed again in 1477 when Marie de Bourgogne, heiress to the dukedom, married Maximilian, son of the Emperor of Austria. This alliance brought the city under the authority of the Habsburg family.

In 1598, Philip II, great-grandson of Mary of Burgundy and King of Spain, ceded the former county of Flanders, now known as the Spanish Netherlands, to his daughter Isabella. This marked the beginning of a period for Lille known as the “Golden Century”. Two successive expansions led to redevelopment and new construction. It was against this favorable backdrop that the Stock Exchange, now known as the Vieille Bourse, was built, designed by master builder Julien Destrée.

Conquest by Louis XIV

Lille became French in 1667, when it was conquered by Louis XIV during the War of Devolution. The face of the city underwent a gradual metamorphosis under the new French influence. Vauban directed the construction of the “Queen of Citadels”, which began soon after the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. A new district was laid out: the royal quarter, easily recognizable by the regularity of its streets and mansions, a type of housing not previously found in Lille.

In the city, the Magistrate ensured the coherence of construction and renovation, which explains the homogeneity of the facades of the rows of houses built during this period, blending the French style of the time with local architectural tradition. During the War of Spanish Succession, Lille was occupied by the Dutch from 1708 onwards, before becoming definitively French again in 1713 with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht.

Lille to Nineteenth century

The Revolution saw the rise to power of a liberal, dynamic and enterprising bourgeoisie. Under their impetus, Lille became a major industrial city in the 19th century, with its mainstays being metallurgy, chemicals and, above all, textiles.

In 1858, at the height of its industrial boom, the city underwent a major expansion with the annexation of the neighboring communes of Wazemmes, Esquermes, Moulins and Fives. Lille tripled its surface area and doubled its population. Large boulevards and squares were laid out in the Haussmannian style, for imposing buildings such as the prefecture, the Palais des Beaux-Arts and the faculties.

Metamorphoses of Lille

The 20th century did not spare the town, which was occupied during both world wars. In the 1980s, the industrial crisis hit the town hard: all sectors of activity were affected, particularly textiles. Unemployment rose from 3% in 1975 to 13% in 1990. Lille then embarked on a real transformation, focused on the development of the tertiary sector. Factories and workshops gave way to service-sector buildings. The Lille-Paris TGV link in 1993, the creation of the Euralille ZAC and the arrival of the Eurostar in 1994 enabled the city to regain its position as a stopover on the routes linking three European capitals.

France’s third-largest metropolis, an international crossroads and a dynamic economic hub, Lille was also classified as a “tourist resort” in 2001, designated European Capital of Culture in 2004 and awarded the “Ville d’art et d’histoire” label the same year. Today, Lille is a tourist destination that stands out at national and cross-border level, thanks to its many assets such as its sense of festivity and hospitality.

Book your activity among a multitude of experiences