Béthune (pop. 26,000, with suburbs 260,000) is the chef-lieu of one of the six subprefectures of the Pas-de-Calais department. Founded on a low hill (42m) in the Artois, it lies at the gate of the French Flanders. Béthune was nominated regional capital of culture for France in 2011.
The medieval lords of Béthune evolved into one of France's most powerful aristocratic families, spawning numerous branches of princes, dukes, counts and archbishops as well as a cardinal.
Settled around the 6th or 7th century (Merovingian period) around of St Vaast Church, Béthune was first mentioned as a seigneury around 940, with its first castle errected around 970.
From the 12th century, the burghers fortified the town with 3 walls. In 1297, the war opposing the King of France to his vassal the Count of Flanders give an opportunity to the citizens of Béthune to revolt against their Flemish lord and to support the king. Béthune will suffer many attacks from Flanders until the end of the 15th century.
In 1500, the town becomes part of the Habsburgian Netherlands under Charles V, who orders St Vaast Church to be moved within the city walls. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a new prosperity is brought by cereal trade and the cloth industry, such as dying and tannery.
In 1659, Béthune passes to France by the Treaty of the Pyrenees. This doesn't prevent the Dutch from occupying the city from 1710 to 1713.
Let's also note that Béthune gave its name to one of the most illustrious noble families in Northern France and Belgium, including the Barons of Béthune, and the Counts and Princes of Béthune-Hesdigneul. One of its most famous member was Maximilien de Béthune (1560-1641), Duke of Sully, minister and marshal of France, who was also a staunch Protestant and supporter of King Henry IV.
The most famous sight in Béthune is its 33m-tall stone belfry, built in 1388, and its famous carillon (35 bells). The quaint Grand Place is reminiscent of the Flemish style of Belgium, but with its own peculiar style (note the very narrow houses with very steep roofs). The town hall is perhaps the weirdest in the former Habsburgian Netherlands.
St.Vaast Church was rebuilt after being destroyed during WWI based on the original commissioned by Emperor Charles V of Habsburg.
Apart from that, there are a few buildings listed as national heritage, such as the Hôtel de Beaulaincourt, or the 15th-century St. Ignacius Tower.
How to get there
Béthune lies 20 km away from Arras and 30 km from Lille. It is connected to both cities through the E15 motorway running between Arras and Calais.
Béthune is about 35 minutes by train from Arras, and 45 minutes from Lille.
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