Sailors from a north Germanic Frisian tribe are believed to have settled in Antwerp as far back as the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. It later attracted the Franks, who were Roman mercenaries before gaining power following the Romans’ fall. During Charlemagne’s time (768–814) a fort was built, which was visited by such noted Christian missionaries as St Amand and St Bavo, but destroyed by the Vikings in 836.
With a prime spot on the Scheldt River (Schelde in Flemish), Antwerp rapidly came to the fore as Western Europe’s greatest economic centre. By the end of the reign of Charles V in 1555, the city was a trading, cultural and intellectual headquarters with a population of 100,000 and bustling docks and new mansions.
But the times of prosperity were ruthlessly cut short. When Protestants smashed up the city’s cathedral in 1566 as part of the Iconoclastic Fury, the fanatically Catholic Spanish ruler Philip II sent troops to take control. Ten years later the unpaid garrison mutinied, ransacking the city and massacring 8000 people in three nights in what has become known as the ‘Spanish fury’. Although the Spanish were driven out after the massacre, they besieged the city again in 1585. Antwerp held out for a year, but was finally forced to surrender and was incorporated into the Spanish Netherlands. As part of the peace deal, Philip II demanded that Antwerp become a Catholic city. Thousands of Protestants, including many skilled workers, headed north to the relative safety of the United Provinces (ie today’s Netherlands). By 1589 Antwerp’s population was more than halved to 42,000.
A second flush of prosperity came in 1609 with the Twelve Years’ Truce, signed by the rulers of the United Provinces and the Spanish Netherlands. No longer cut off from the rest of the world, trade and the arts flourished with new industries such as diamonds and master painters, including Rubens who had gained an international reputation. The city’s printing houses also became known throughout Europe.
But the final blow came in 1648 when, under the Treaty of Westphalia which concluded the Thirty Years’ War, the Scheldt was closed to all non-Dutch ships. Antwerp’s vital link to the sea was lost and the city ruined. Amsterdam rose as the region’s trade capital, and it wasn’t until Napoleon arrived in 1797 and the French rebuilt the docks that Antwerp got back on its feet.
By the second half of the 19th century Antwerp had become the world’s third-largest port after London and New York, due largely to new rail links connecting other parts of Europe. The city hosted the Olympic Games in 1920 and, in 1928, construction began on Europe’s first skyscraper, the 27-storey Torengebouw.
Immigration in the 1960s saw many Moroccans settle in Antwerp, but racial tensions have risen sharply in recent years. These days the city is a tight package of cultural diversity.