Bruges History Facts and Timeline

(Bruges, West Flanders, Belgium)

This canal-laced European city is one of Belgium's most important ports, and for a time during its history, Bruges was known as the world's chief commercial city.

Textiles were the backbone of the city's early economic success, and due to its strategic location on the Zwin River, Bruges has always been a coveted possession by foreign powers.

A Fortified City

The history of Bruges stretches far back into the shadows of Europe. Julius Caesar was responsible for the construction of the earliest fortifications here in the 1st century BC. These were erected in an attempt to defend the Roman Empire against the very real threat of pirate attacks.

Centuries later, the Count of Flanders, Baldwin I (or Baldwin the Iron Arm), strengthened the already substantial Roman walls and built a castle to protect the area against Viking raids in the 9th century AD. The town of Bruges subsequently grew up around this castle.

The Textile Trade

Like most Flemish towns of the Middle Ages, textiles fuelled the prosperity and importance of Bruges. By the end of the 13th century, the history of Bruges was tethered to the wool trade. As an emerging market powerhouse, the Bourse made its appearance in 1309 and is thought by many to have been the world's earliest stock exchange.

With the massive rise in wealth came major social upheaval. When local guildsmen refused a new tax in the year of 1302, the French army was sent in to lock down the city. Two local guild leaders, Pieter de Coninck (a weaver) and Jan Breydel (a butcher), led a revolt that massacred the French garrison. This was to become known as the 'Bruges Matins'. Today, statues of these two men stand within the Markt (Market Square).

A Golden City

After the revolt settled, Bruges got back to business. In the 15th century, the Duke of Burgundy, Philip III, established one of his courts here, in addition to those of Lille and Brussels. This royalty lured a flood of artists, bankers and other notable people from all around Europe to Bruges.

The city's population soon topped 200,000 and its local weavers were considered to be the world's finest. The acclaimed Flemish school of painting known as the Flemish Primitives budded here. Also at this time in the city's history were a number of further impressive achievements, such as the printing of the first book in English by William Caxton. Even the English kings Richard III and Edward IV chose Bruges as the place to spend their days while living their lives in exile.

Death of a City

When the Zwin, the river that linked Bruges to the sea, silted up in the 15th century, the city's economic lifeline was effectively severed. The headquarters of the Hanseatic League packed up for Antwerp by the end of the century. Most merchants and bankers followed suit, leaving a city of deserted houses, empty streets and lifeless canals. For the next four centuries Bruges, once Europe's economic heart, went into a deep slumber.

A Reawakening

Touted as a beautiful city frozen in time, Bruges history got a second chance when tourists, writers and artists began passing through in the 19th century. Wealthy visitors injected much-needed cash into the local economy, and in 1907 a new canal was dredged. This canal linked the city to the new port of Zeebrugge and was called the Boudewijnkanaal (Baldwin Canal).

Although both World Wars rained heavy destruction onto the port of Zeebrugge, the city emerged quite unscathed. The preservation of the city's lovely historic centre sparked its modern economy based around tourism. In 2002, Bruges was named as a Capital of Culture in Europe. Striking buildings like the Concertgebouw concert hall and the Toyo Ito Pavilion were built for the occasion, bringing a touch of modern style to the historic heart of the city.