Antwerp History Facts and Timeline

(Antwerp, Antwerpen, Flanders, Belgium)

Ever since the first settlement sprung up along the banks of the Scheldt River at this site, Antwerp has been an important economic and cultural centre in the Low Countries.

The history of Antwerp is defined by the river, which is linked by an estuary to the North Sea. This has helped the city develop into one of Europe's largest seaports.

How Antwerp Got its Name

The debate over the history of the city's name is somewhat divided into two camps. Many locals believe in the folklore myth of a giant named Druon Antigoon, who once lived by the Scheldt River. This giant demanded a toll from anyone crossing the river. Those who did not pay had a hand cut off, until Antigoon was slain by Roman soldier Silvius Brabo. One of Ant's hands was subsequently thrown ('werpen' in Dutch) into the river. The statue in front of the Town Hall portrays this event. However, practical minds insist that the city is named after the Roman term for a mound of earth.

Rising Importance

As the neighbouring city of Bruges fell into decline, Antwerp took over as the centre of trade and commerce in the region. By the end of the 15th century, the international trading houses of Bruges were moved here. The history of Antwerp in this era is linked to sugar, which was imported from Spanish and Portuguese plantations and then refined for export. During this time, the city also emerged as a major banking force.

The Golden Era

In the first part of the 16th century, Antwerp grew into one of Europe's largest and richest cities. This rise was a result of the global Age of Exploration in the 1500s. Many foreign merchants lived and did business in the city, which processed hundreds of ships and their cargo every day at its thriving port.

There were three notable peaks during the Golden Era of Antwerp's history. The first was very much centred around the pepper market in the early 1500s, being followed by the profitable importing of silver from the Americas. The third boom was related to the textile industry, and by the start of the 16th century the city was responsible for around 40 percent of world trade in this market. This successful global trade and affluence saw a huge population increase and ultimately created the cosmopolitan society that remains today.

The Dutch Revolt

The second half of the 1500s was not as kind to the city. It became the centre of the religious-political struggle between Catholic Spain and the Protestant North of the Low Countries. Within 30 years, the history of Antwerp was devastated by the Iconoclasm in 1566, the Spanish Fury in 1576 and also by the Fall of Antwerp in 1585.

The Spanish Fury claimed some 6,000 lives and burned close to 1,000 homes in the city. The Scheldt River was closed to trade for the next 200 years, ruining the city's economy. When Antwerp fell, intellectuals, merchants and Protestants all fled the city. Most of them went north to the United Provinces, sparking the Dutch Golden Age centred around Amsterdam.

Slow Revival to Modern Times

The city was effectively stifled until the Scheldt River was reopened for trade in 1863. Apart from the interruptions of WWI and WWII, the city slowly expanded its economy again. The Germans destroyed much of historic Antwerp with their bombing raids during WWII, resulting in the modern architecture that dominates areas of the city today.

In the year of 1993, Antwerp was nominated as a European Cultural Capital, heralding its return to international recognition. Today, the city is a respected fashion hub, cultural event host and world-class travel destination.