Antwerp History

The Flemish Antwerpen is very close to the word handwerpen, which means "hand throwing," and that, according to legend, is exactly what the Roman soldier Silvius Brabo did to the giant Druon Antigon. The giant would collect a toll from boatmen on the river and cut off the hands of those who refused, until Silvius confronted him, cut off the giant's own hand, and flung it into the River Scheldt. That's why there are severed hands on Antwerp's coat of arms.

Great prosperity came to Antwerp during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Born in Ghent and raised in Mechelen, he made Antwerp the principal port of his vast domain. It became Europe's most important commercial center in the 16th century, as well as a center of the new craft of printing. The Golden Age came to an end with the abdication of Charles V in 1555. He was succeeded by Philip II of Spain, whose ardent Roman Catholicism brought him into immediate conflict with the Protestants of the Netherlands. In 1566, when Calvinist iconoclasts destroyed paintings and sculptures in churches and monasteries, Philip II responded by sending in Spanish troops. In what became known as the Spanish Fury, they sacked the town and killed thousands of citizens.

The decline of Antwerp had already begun when its most illustrious painters, Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, and Anthony Van Dyck, reached the peak of their fame. Rubens's tie to the city is a genial, pervasive presence. The artist's house, his church, and the homes of his benefactors, friends, and disciples are all over the old city. His wife also seems to be everywhere, for she frequently posed as the model for his portraits of the Virgin Mary. Rubens and fellow Antwerper Van Dyck both dabbled in diplomacy and were knighted by the English monarch. Jordaens, less widely known, stayed close to Antwerp all his life.

The Treaty of Munster in 1648, which concluded the Thirty Years' War, further weakened Antwerp's position, for the River Scheldt was closed to shipping—it was not to be active again until 1863, when a treaty obliged the Dutch, who controlled the estuary, to reopen it.

The huge and splendid railway station, built at the close of the 19th century, remains a fitting monument to Antwerp's second age of prosperity, during which it hosted universal expositions in 1885 and 1894. In World War I, Antwerp held off German invaders long enough for the Belgian army to regroup south of the IJzer. In World War II, the Germans trained many V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets on the city, where Allied troops were debarking for the final push.

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