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History of Liège

In the beginning was the river…

A daughter of the Meuse River, Liège progressively stretched out along the river whose waters it channelled, before boldly tackling the surrounding hills.

This thousand year old city has been carved out by its past and retains indelible traces. Consequently, more recent constructions and roads rub shoulders with older buildings.

Its layout, place names and most typical monuments give voice at every opportunity to its history.

From the first settlements on the banks of the Légia to the gigantic works required to dig a tunnel through the Cointe hill, there have been many changes!

During prehistoric times, a group of humans settled at the confluence of the Meuse and Légia rivers, on the site of the current Place Saint-Lambert. The first remains of settlement date back to the Middle Palaeolithic era.

Thousands of years later, it was also on this site that, in the 2nd century AD, a vast Roman villa was built; once again, a certain number of people came together, attracted by the site’s proximity to water. Once they had become Christianised, they built a place intended for worship and in the humble chapel, Lambert, the Bishop of Tongeren-Maastricht, was assassinated circa 705. This event was decisive for Liège’s future. The site soon became a much-visited place of pilgrimage; the village expanded and took on genuine importance when the holy seat of the bishopric was transferred there. A palace was soon built next to the church.

The calling of Liège was henceforth sealed for the entire Ancien Régime period: it was to be an episcopal city and soon bristled with the spires of many church towers.

Legia sive Leodium vulgo Liege 1649 - p02-Hollar-C2Ch2-4-web.jpg
Wenceslas Hollar
Legia sive Loedium vulgo Liege
Heritage funds, Ulysse Capitaine library


Section of a Diptych by Palude depicting the assassination of Saint Lambert
Oil on wood, circa 1488
Former Netherlands or Liège
Grand Curtius


The Principality of Liège

On becoming prince, as from 980, Bishop Notger (972-1008) made Liège the capital of an ecclesiastic principality whose territory, which was distinct from but complementary to the diocese, came within the remit of the Holy Roman Empire and covered two thirds of present day Wallonia. Consequently, the administrative and legal apparatus were based in Liège at the same time as the intellectual life and artistic scene of the city burgeoned.

Beforehand, Bishop Éracle (959-971) had with drawn to the Le Publémont hill and wanted to reinforce this naturally defensive site via an array of constructions. He commissioned the construction of the Saint-Martin collegiate church and saw it as a new cathedral. As for Notger, he returned to the valley, but had the city surrounded with fortifications in which he included the Saint-Denis collegiate church. He consecrated the cathedral of Notre-Dame and Saint-Lambert, had the Sainte-Croix collegiate church built and, on the isle surrounded by the branches of the Meuse River, he undertook the erection of the Saint-Paul and Saint-Jean-l'Évangéliste collegiate church.

His successor, Baldéric II (1008-1018), continued his work by founding the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Jacques and the Saint-Barthélemy collegiate church. These religious buildings acted as nuclei around which people settled in what were still underpopulated areas at the time. The Holy City thus gave rise to a bourgeois city; Bishop Albert de Cuyck (1194-1200) granted it its freedom and autonomy circa 1196. From the 12th century, in a unique manner in Europe, it was proclaimed in Liège that the poor man in his home is king.

Saint-Martin Collegiate Church


From the 14th century, the bishop’s authority was restricted through capitulations sworn on his accession and by peace treaties concluded following conflicts with his subjects. He had to take account of his electors, the cathedral chapter, but also with the nobles and the cities. In the latter, following a bitter struggle between the great and the good and the little people who had discovered a rallying call through their professions, corporatism prevailed.

This occurred not without dramatic events in Liège: in the night of 3rd and 4th August 1312, the little people set fire to the robust tower of the Saint-Martin collegiate church in which the great and the good had taken refuge. This tragic episode of Liège’s history is referred to under the moniker of Mal Saint-Martin (the evil of Saint Martin). The three states were established. The principality was no longer considered to be just a land, but was made up of all the intentions it comprised, and this led, on 18th June 1316, to imposition on the bishop of the first constitution of nation of Liège: the peace treaty of Fexhe.

Liège become increasingly freer, but when it came up against a prince with powerful allies, catastrophe ensued. The 15th century, due to the ambitions of the Dukes of Burgundy whose dream was to recreate Lotharingia, was a century of calamity for the people of Liège. In addition to the Othe disaster (on 23rd September 1408) the sentence of Lille (on 24th October 1408) swept away national laws and gave the Prince-Bishop Jean de Bavière (1390-1455) absolute power. Following the reign of Jean de Heinsberg (1419-1455) who tried to reorganise the country, the noose tightened under Louis de Bourbon (1456-1482), the nephew of Duke Philippe le Bon.

On 30th October 1468, Charles the Bold captured Liège, pillaging, savagely devastating and setting fire to it on 3rd November, on Saint Hubert’s day. Gone were the days of the medieval city and the entire country was hit hard.

When Charles the Bold was no more, the people of Liège were quick to raise their heads and with Érard de la Marck (1505-1538), Liège regained its rank of religious, administrative and legal capital. To begin with, the city was rebuilt in a similar manner to its previous shape.

As a result, Gothic architecture was still in vogue for a while before the emergence of other influences. The imposing palace that Érard de la Marck had build pays witness to this new movement. Many canonical mansions, such as those of Torrentius or Bocholtz, took on the style of the Italian Renaissance, whilst the bourgeois townhouses adopted a simpler aspect which took on the name of the Mosan Renaissance. Fashions from Italy especially spread due to the Counter-Reformation which, within a century, fostered the construction of one hundred churches in the Principality of Liège.

Throughout the early modern period, two constants dominated politics in Liège: containing the forces of the people within and ensuring recognition of the country’s neutrality abroad. This dual task was carried out, with a varying degree of success, by the princes of the Bavarian Royal Family who ruled Liège almost without interruption from 1581 to 1763.

New fortunes, such as that of Jean Curtius (1628), developed in industries called upon by the wars that took place in particular in the Netherlands. Henceforth, on many occasions, protracted conflicts opposed the poor against the rich, or more precisely the factions of the Grignoux against those of the Chiroux. Brought to fever pitch, they led to the assassination of the mayor Sébastien Laruelle in 1637.

Furthermore, a series of unwise alliances entered into by the Bishops without their subjects led to the destruction of the citadel in 1676, and when Jean-Louis d'Elderen (1688-1694) declared war on Louis XIV, the French, under the command of Maréchal de Boufflers, bombarded Liège in 1691. The town hall and many other buildings were annihilated. They were rebuilt in the style of the time, as was the southern wing of the palace following devastation by fire in 1734.

In the 18th century, relative peace broke out and an aristocratic republic saw the light of day, enjoying at leisure the Delights of the region of Liège, which nonetheless were unevenly distributed. Velbruck (1772-1784), an enlightened prince, realised the situation and sought to rectify it, but the blunders of Hœnsbroekck (1784-1792) rallied the opposition.

The end of the Ancien Régime

Jean-Nicolas Ponsart
The cathedral in ruins as seen from Place Verte
after 1815
Grand Curtius


Charles Soubre
Departure of volunteers from Liège to Brussels, 1878
Museum of Walloon Art


On 18th August 1789, the revolution erupted in Liège. The days of the principality were numbered. From 1795, the little France of the Meuse, as it was called by Michelet, became part of Republican France and only existed in the hearts of the people of Liège. The Saint-Lambert Cathedral, as a symbol of the power of the clergy, was sacrificed on the revolutionary alter.

After its demolition, it left a big hole in the centre of the ancient city. To try and perpetuate its memory, a tall spire, similar to that which sat atop its biggest tower, was erected in 1810 on the Saint Paul collegiate church which had become the new cathedral. However, did the population really make such a connection?

Under French rule, Liège was chosen as the administrative centre of the Ourthe department. The prefecture was set up in a remarkable Louis XVI style mansion that the architect Barthélemy Digneffe had built for Hayme de Bomal in 1775.

Whilst the Outremeuse district was rebuilt having been devastated by the bombardment of 1794, the Napoleonic wars resulted in creation of the Canon Foundry on Rue Saint-Léonard.

Following Waterloo (1815), the territory of Liège was yielded to William of Orange, King of the Netherlands. The former capital thus became the administrative centre of the Province of Liège and so retained significant tertiary functions.

A university was inaugurated in 1817 and a vast theatre was built between 1818 and 1820. The arrival, at the same time, of John Cockerill (1790-1840) in Seraing ensured that the entire region enjoyed an economic boom. Expansion of the coal industry encouraged the development of armoury and glass-working. In this sector, the foundation of Val-Saint-Lambert in 1825, marked the start of unparalleled growth.

Despite the positive aspects of the Dutch regime, the people of Liège, led by Charles Rogier, played a decisive role in the revolution of 1830 which resulted in the establishment of the Kingdom of Belgium. As regards the province, whose role was defined by the law of 30th April 1836, Liège evidently retained its position.

Industrial revolution and urbanisation

In the 19th century, Europe entered the era of mechanisation and Liège, already leaning in such a direction thanks to its previous activities, became a powerful industrial centre whose growth was linked to mining and the metallurgical industry. In 1837, the Vieille-Montagne company was created, whilst during a five year period from 1835 to 1840, the main headquarters of modern steel-making were set up upstream of Liège. Growth spread to downstream of the city when industrialisation took place around the Fabrique Nationale d'armes de guerre weapons factory (1889).

At this point in time, Liège waved goodbye to its original appearance; the town planners looked to sanitise the city whilst making it better adapted to traffic movement and the imperatives of modern life.

The advent of the railway thus transformed the urban landscape.

The Guillemins railway station dates back to 1842, while Longdoz station originated in 1861. They gave rise to new districts. Enormous work was also undertaken to fill in or divert the various branches of the Meuse and Ourthe rivers. From these works sprang streets such as Rue de l'Université and Rue de la Régence, Boulevard d'Avroy and Boulevard de la Sauvenière, among others. They went onto become the heart of the new conurbation.

Many constructions were started. On 11th June 1849, the first stone of the Provincial Palace was laid. Built in a neo-Gothic style under the direction of the Delsaux architecture firm, it occupies the site of the stables at the former residence of the Prince-Bishops. A new Pont des Arches bridge, the fourth of this name, was inaugurated in 1860. To order to try and protect against risks of serious flooding, a derivation of the Ourthe River was undertaken in 1863. Lastly, large artery roads were built in straight lines through the former urban fabric. As a result, Rue Léopold, which opened in 1876, profoundly changed the old Madeleine district. Furthermore, the île du Commerce isle and its surroundings were transformed: a harbour was built before the construction of the vast Esplanade des Terrasses, Parc d'Avroy and Boulevard Piercot with its monumental music academy (called the Conservatoire), completed in 1886. This new district, with its bourgeois inhabitants as well as its homogenous and prestigious architecture, perfectly illustrated the liberal administration and opulence of the era.

Auguste Donnay
Poster for the World Fair of 1905
City of Liège Archives


Emile Berchmans
View of the World Fair of 1905
City of Liège Archives


However, true to its status as being at the vanguard of rebellion, in 1886, Liège experienced its first social riots. Three traits can be used to sum up the 19th century in Liège: a home to ideological conflicts between liberals and Catholics in a secular bastion on the lands of a former episcopal principality, the second industrial power in the world, the hotbed of a vanguard of socialist and Walloon militants.

The 20th century

The World Fair and International Exhibition were the reflection of local industrial capacities and the desire to approach the forthcoming century as a figurehead of future development. They in turn, led to different appropriations.

The World Fair of 1905 gave rise to the districts of Vennes and Fétinne. Lasting witnesses to this point in time are the elegant Pont de Fragnée bridge built in the style of the Pont Alexandre II bridge in Paris by the Demany architecture firm and the building that today houses the Boverie Museum in the grounds of Parc de la Boverie. The former central post office, designed in neo-Gothic style by the architect Edmond Jamar dates from the same era.

Surrounded by twelve forts built between 1887 and 1892, Liège was deemed to be shielded from any German intentions, but events proved this not to be true. The resistance surprised the enemy and the Battle of Liège lasted from 4th to 16th August 1914. This great feat of arms won the Ardent City the French Legion of Honour, awarded in 1919 by the President of the French Republic Raymond Poincaré. Yet, the First World War applied the brakes to the rise of Liège for a certain amount of time.

However, from 1919, the economy started to recover and continued to grow until the crises of the 1930’s. The stock market crash and unemployment hit the metallurgical and coal industries. Another sombre event, the great flood of the Meuse River in January 1926, threw a spanner in the works of solving war-related problems.

Completion of the Albert Canal linking Liège to Antwerp inspired a new uptake in activity.

In 1938, the autonomous port was created and the International Exhibition on Water in 1939 was intended to focus on the potential of Liège as a river port. The previously underused district of Droixhe and the area around Coronmeuse were revamped, but the Second World War brought a brutal halt to this momentum.

As a garrison city, with worker and union movements, as well as a university and intellectual hub, Liège naturally became a significant cradle for resistance via the clandestine press, spying on the enemy and industrial sabotage. From September 1944 onwards, it became a logistics centre for the American army and therefore a major target for the Germans. This situation led to many bombardments and Liège emerged from the war deeply scarred.

With the return of peace, it displayed exemplary dynamism and its recovery was only equalled by its courage. The factories worked at full capacity and the 1950’s were especially prosperous. However, recession came when the coal mines were forced to close, one after another.

Over a twenty year period, between 1960 and 1980, Liège lost two thirds of its jobs in traditional industry. The service economy progressively replaced it, whilst the steel-making and metallurgical industries, following the merger of several companies, such as Cockerill, Espérance-Longdoz and Arcelor, headed towards the closure in 2009 of its furnaces.

During this same period, the city underwent the modernisation of its buildings, the fever for rejuvenation and the penetration of major roads into the heart of the city. Many apartment blocks rose up high into the Liège skyline, especially along the Meuse River, such as the buildings in the Droixhe plain, for example.

With the aim of becoming a city offering a wide range of services and in order to attract as many people as possible, a huge Convention Centre was inaugurated in 1958.

In the heart of the city, several streets were pedestrianised. Lined with shops, they are today very lively.

The renovation of the Féronstrée district witnessed the installation of the city’s administrative centre (in 1967), which dominates the îlot Saint-Georges, since 1977, along with several of the City of Liège’s municipal departments and the Museum of Walloon Art.

Place Saint-Lambert underwent in-depth and gradual renovation. The work, which lasted twenty-five years, returned it to its initial purpose: to act as the beating heart of the city. It reunites the past, through the Archéoforum and depiction of the Saint-Lambert Cathedral, with the present, via the Saint-Lambert and Saint-Michel shopping galleries, the bus station and the law courts.

The years between 1975 and 1990 witnessed a period of downturn. The financial difficulties of the city authorities and the economic crisis in the industrial heartland of the Liège region obliged the city to function on stand-by.

Today and tomorrow



Liège-Guillemins Railway Station
Project owner: Euro Liège TGV
Engineering and Architecture:
Santiago Calatrava
© eltgv-alainjanssens


The economic and therefore social redeployment of the city can be seen in four domains: the transformation of metal (cold-casting), new technology (aerospace, micro-technology and biotechnology), multi-modal activities and logistics (thanks to the second biggest river port in Europe, the new Guillemins HST railway station and Bierset airport), as well as the sectors of services for individuals and the environment.

At the turn of the 21st century, new life was breathed into the Vertbois district by installation of the Walloon Region’s economic services. The attractive infrastructures of Belle-Île and Médiacité, the radiant renovations of the gems of local architecture – such as the Grand Curtius, the Museum of Walloon Life and the Treasure House of the Cathedral – as well as the new Liège Guillemins railway station offer a very promising outlook for the future.

A prime point of convergence of economic flows and major events of civilisation on which it has often been able to leave the mark of its specific spirit, at present Liège is seeking its true calling. Nevertheless, it seems destined, in Europe, to play the role of a crossroads between the German-speaking and French-speaking communities. It therefore is duty bound to develop how to optimally highlight its rich cultural heritage.

Source: 'History of Liège', Micheline Josse. Second edition expanded and reviewed by Claudine Schloss @ City of Liège - 2009. Modern photographs: Marc Verpoorten