The ancient capital of French Flanders, Lille is situated on the canalized Deûle River, 14 km from the Belgian border. The capital of the Nord department in Nord-Pas-de Calais, Lille is a commercial and industrial centre and is one of France’s largest conurbations.
Little is known of Lille’s history before the eleventh century, although it originated as an island between the canals of the Deûle River. Thus, its name evolved from the Latin insula to the Old French lisle, island, which is also the name of the thread originally manufactured in Lille (e.g. lisle stockings). By the ninth century Lille had become the seat of the Count of Flanders and during the eleventh century was fortified by Count Baldwin IV. The town developed around the Palais Comtal and began to flourish. It was a strategic point on trade routes between northern Europe and southern France and Italy, and coupled with the fertility of the region, became the capital of Flanders. The wool trade attracted many international merchants.
Conquered by Philip II of France at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214, Lille was subsequently governed by Joanna of Flanders who founded the Hospice Comtesse in 1237. The building was restored in the seventeenth century and now houses a museum. In 1369, when Marguerite of Flanders married Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, Flanders was incorporated into the Kingdom of Burgundy. In 1477, Lille, along with the rest of Flanders, came under Habsburg rule. The city was capital of the southern Netherlands in the sixteenth century.
In the seventeenth century Lille prospered economically and culturally. Louis XIV seized the city in 1667 and incorporated it into France. The Duke of Marlborough captured Lille in 1708, but only held the city for 5 years until the Treaty of Utrecht forced the English to cede Lille. Lille was made a departmental prefecture by Napoléon in 1803. The nineteenth-century industrial revolution brought prosperity and considerable expansion to the city. In 1864 the first rail link between Lille and Paris was built. Lille was occupied by the Germans in World Wars I and II, and suffered structural damage.
In 1982 Lille introduced the world’s first automatic metro system. In 1997 the high speed Eurostar link between Lille and Brussels was opened. Consequently, the city is an increasingly important centre for business and tourism.
Major industries include iron, steel, chemical plants and manufacturing. Traditionally, Lille is the most important centre of textiles in France. The city is a key transport crossing with rail connections to Paris, Brussels and London as well as an airport 8 km from the city centre. Lille hosts an annual international commercial fair. Lille has a large student population at two Universities and at various commercial and technical schools. The city was one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2004.
Places of Interest
The medieval streets of the old town have many restored houses and shops with elaborate ornamentation. Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) is Lille’s most famous son. There is a museum at his birthplace just north of Vieux Lille, the old district. Other museums in Lille include the Musée de l’Art Moderne—containing works by cubist and post-modern artists such as Braque, Picasso, Miro and Léger—and the Musée des Beaux-Arts. One of Lille’s most famous landmarks is the seventeenth century Citadel. After the city was taken by Louis XIV, the town was expanded and the King commissioned the royal engineer Sébastien Leprestre de Vauban (1633–1707) to build the fortress. The pentagonal structure, which became a garrison, was built between 1667–70. The citadel is still a military base. The Vieille Bourse is found at the centre of Lille. The Flemish Renaissance-style buildings, built by Julien Vestré in 1652, encompass a courtyard once containing the stock exchange.