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History of Liège

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Arms of the Principality, City or Province of Liege Arms of the Principality of Liege : clockwise from the top-left, the City of Liege, Duchy of Bouillon, County of Looz, County of Hornes and Marquisate of Franchimont.


Liège is has an exceptionally rich history, as well as prehistory, even by European standards. The oldest (pre-)human settlements in Belgium, dating from 800,000 years ago (Homo erectus),, were found in Hallembaye, 15km north of the modern city centre. The world's very first Neanderthal skull was found in the suburb of Engis in 1829, i.e. 27 years before the skeletons of the Neander Valley in North Rhine-Westphalia, after which the Homo species was named.

Origins of the name Liège

Belgian cities typically have different names in French and Dutch, and occasionnally in English and German too. Liège has the unique distinction of being translated in a dozen European languages - more even than Rome, Paris or London. Furthermore, Liège has various historical names in French too. In fact, the city's name in French doesn't seem to have stabilised yet. Liège was spelt Liége until 1946, which shows a slight evolution in the pronuciation.

Anybody can guess that the Italian Liegi, the Spanish Lieja and the Latvian Lježa derive directly from the French name. Confronted to the German Lüttich and the Dutch Luik, bearing so little resemblance with the French spelling or pronuciation, one could wonder why a city can be called by such different names by people living next to each others. To understand this, we have to go back to the original name of the place, before modern French, German or Dutch languages came into existence.

The original Frankish name of the place (=> see History of the Franks) seem to have been Leudico (mentioned in 718), or Leudicus in its Latinised form. It could come from the Old German Leudika, meaning "land of the people" (or villa leudica in Latin). It can be reasonably assumed that in Old Frankish the name must have sounded like "Leudik" or "Liudig" in the spoken form.

The "d" disappeared and the vowel sounds evolved, or even merged in most local Frankish dialects, like in Dutch (Luik), in Limburgish (Luuk), and in Luxembourgish (Léck). The same "d" became a "t", and the final "k/g" sound changed into a "ch/sh" in Ripuarian German (Lüttish) and in standard High German (Lüttich) - from where the Czech Lutych was derived.

The transition from Old Frankish to modern French is more radical, as it is with most Walloon place names (=> see Latinization of Frankish place names in Belgium). One common feature in the evolution of French is the inversion of the last vowel and consonant sounds. This is still visible when comparing English words which come from Medieval French with the modern French equivalent (e.g. vocabulary => vocabulaire ; repertory => repertoire ; Anthony => Antoine). Liudig probably evolved into something like Liedig in medieval patois, then Liedji by invertion of the final vowel and consonant, which eventually gave Lîdje in Walloon and Lié(d)ge, then Liège in standard French. Alternatively, the Latin form of Leudicus, evolved into Leudium, then Legium, Legia and finally Liège.

Ancient times & Frankish settlement

First mentioned under the Latin name of Vicus Leudicus in 558, Liège only took off as a city after St Lambert was murdered in 705 near a chapel on what it now St Lambert's Square, and became one of the greatest medieval cities of Lotharingia under Notger (see below).

Most importantly, Liège was the cradle of Caroligian dynasty. The following were all born in the vicinity of Liège: Pepin of Herstal (635-714), Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia and Neustria and Duke of the Franks; Charles Martel (686-741), who defeated the Ummayads at Poitiers in 732 and saved Europe from Islamisation; Pepin the Short (714-768), the first Carolingian king; and most importantly Charlemagne (742-814), who founded the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne was promptly declared a saint after his death. His saintliness, however, was never very widely acknowledged outside the bishopric of Liège, where he may still be venerated "by tradition".

The Carolingian dynasty
Statue of Pepin of Landen, Parc d'Avroy, Liège
Statue of Pepin of Herstal, Parc d'Avroy, Liège
Statue of Charles Martel, Parc d'Avroy, Liège

Statue of Pepin the Short, Parc d'Avroy, Liège
Statue of Bertrada of Laon, Parc d'Avroy, Liège
Statue of Charlemagne, Parc d'Avroy, Liège

Liège became the capital of the independent Principality of Liège in the late 10th century and remained part of the Empire until the annexation of the Low Countries to France in 1792. The Principality of Liège therefore never belonged to the Burgundian, Spanish or Austrian Netherlands like the rest of Belgium. The main reason is that the counties and duchies of the Low Counties passed to the Habsburgs by marriage, and that just was not possible for a prince-bhisphoric like Liège, with an elected prince-bishop.

Another particularity of the prince-bishopric is that it was the only permanent part of the Holy Roman Empire, from its foundation in 800 to its dismantlement in 1806, to remain predominantly Francophone (apart from the vassal Counties of Loon and Horn, which were Dutch-speaking). French language itself is thought to have originated in Wallonia and Northern France as the Frankish version of Latin spoken by the Frankish nobility (=> see main article).

Principality of Liège (blue & purple) compared to the province of Liège (red and purple)

The Prince-Bishopric of Liège : Middles Ages

Liège was ruled by an elected prince-bishop for some 800 years. Their sumptuous palace still stands in the city centre.

The young king Clovis IV (682-695) had granted to Lambert of Maastricht, first bishop of Liège, temporal as well as spiritual powers over his church's domain. There lies the origins of the princely authority later conferred to the bishops of Liège.

Notger, first Prince-Bishop of Liège

The first true prince-bishop was Notger (940-1008). This Benedictine monk from a Swabian noble family was made bishop of Liège in 972 by Emperor Otto II. In 980, he received the countship of Huy and obtained simultaneously secular power for his see, thus becoming the first prince-bishop of Liège. He built a new cathedral, six collegiate churches, 2 churches, numerous schools, a hospice, a city wall, and completed the Benedictine abbey of St Lawrence started by his predecessor. The city was granted a series of privileges and regalian rights from the Holy Roman Emperors, such as the right of market, the right of minting coins, or the right to withhold some taxes. During this first golden age, Liège quickly became the greatest city in Lotharingia, and was even called "the Athens of the three Gauls". It was said at the time "Liège owes Notger to Christ, and everything else to Notger".

The city of Liège was ruled by a council, first composed of noblemen, then by elected citizens form any social class from 1384 (a marvellous example of early democracy). From 1424, the system changed, and a permanent commission of 22 bourgeois was established to elect 32 members of the Council each year.

The Prince-Bishopric of Liège : Renaissance to Enlightenment

The ambition of the Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good (1396-1467) resulted in a war with the principality of Liege, and a humiliating defeat of the Liegeois through the Treaty of Mechelen in 1431. Philip then coerced Pope Callixtus III to grant the bishopric of Liège to his nephew, Louis of Bourbon (1438-1482). Louis was made prince-bishop at the young age of 18, and became one of the most hated ruler Liège had known. During his 26 years of reign, wars tore the country apart, and saw the destruction and massacre of the populations of Dinant (in 1466) and Liège (in 1467 and 1468) by the Burgundians.

In 1482, Louis of Bourbon was killed by his one-time ally William of La Marck, a harsh, cruel and unscrupulous man. William attempted to place his son John on the throne of the principality, but during that time John of Hornes was elected in his stead by the Chapter in Leuven, and confirmed by the Pope and the Emperor. William contested the election, and was supported by the King of France, Louis XI. William finally accepted to recognise John of Hornes on 21 May 1484, but he was murdered the next year in Maastricht by the new prince-bishop, with the help of the Archduke Maximilian of Austria, governor of the Netherlands (and future Holy Roman Emperor). A terrible civil war ensued, opposing the Le Marck (William's brothers, Everard and Robert, and his nephew Erard) to the Hornes.

Erard of La Marck (1472-1538) besieged and took Liège three times, then signed the Peace of Doncchery (5 May 1492) with John of Hornes, who publicly apologised for his crime in Maastricht (July 1492). The King of France and the Emperor, who were behind each party, made peace too, and recognised the neutrality of the Principality Liège.

In 1505, Erard of La Marck replaced John of Hornes as prince-bishop. Thanks to his vast personal fortune acquired through money-lending and various privileges, Erard's power was solid and steady. This allowed him to make a defensive alliance with Emperor Charles V, and assure peace during the whole length of his 32-year reign. Under his rule, the public finances were cleaned up, and Liège became a major center for arms manufacture and early coal mining. It is also to Erard of La Marck that Liège owes the present palace of the prince-bishops, as well as the collegiate churches of St Paul (since then elevated to the rank of cathedral) and St Martin. Erard's works earned him the nickname of "Notger of the Renaissance".

In 1559, the Pope allowed the creation of three new archbishoprics and fourteen new bishoprics in the Low Countries. This had for consequence the loss of all spiritual jurisdiction of the Bishopric of Liège on the Marquisate of Namur and on the Duchies of Brabant and Guelders.

In the second half of the 16th century, the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants ravaged the Low Countries. In 1568 William the Silent falsely accused Liège of siding with the Spanish troops of Philip II, and launched an attack on the the city. The new prince-bishop, Gerard of Groesbeeck, harshly repelled the aggressor with his militia. The next year he tried to revive the alliance of Erard of La Marck with the Habsburgs, but was soon forced by his people to declare the neutrality of Liège. Gerard also became prince-abbey of Stavelot from 1576.

Prince-Bishop Erard of La Marck (1472-1538) St Lambert Cathedral & Palace of the Prince-Bishops, Liège Prince-Bishop Joseph Clemens of Bavaria (1671-1723)

Like in other electorates in the Empire, some families managed to keep the power mostly to themselves for several generations. Without considering the La Marck, who controlled the principality for a total of 86 years, the House of Bavaria stands out as the most influential. It monopolised no less than 184 years of rule between 1581 and 1763 (or until 1771 if we include Charles-Nicolas d'Oultremont as a member of the family through his mother). In fact, from the rule of Ernest of Bavaria (1581-1612) the succession was from the uncle to his nephew coadjutor. Several prince-bishops of the House of Bavaria combined other prestigious titles, such as archbishop-elector of Cologne, bishop of Munster or bishop of Hildesheim.

It is interesting to note that a few prince-electors of Liège were never ordained bishops at all, and were therefore not technically speaking "prince-bishops", but just princes. This was the case of John of Bavaria (who ruled from 1390 to 1417), who continually refused to become bishop. At the contrary, Erard of La Marck and Gerard of Groesbeeck both managed to rise to the rank of prince-cardinals.

Liège since the French Revolution

In 1789, a few weeks after the start of the French Revolution, Liège experienced a revolution of its own during the absence of the prince-bishop. In 1792, the principality was dissolved and annexed to France until 1815. Liège then became part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, then of the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830.

Liege grew into one of the earliest modern coal mining and steel making centers in the 19th century. The Belgian Coal Federation began to recruit Italians workers from 1922 and, after WWII, tens of thousands of southern Italian immigrants came to work in Belgian mines, mostly in Liège and Charleroi. It is estimated that there are 300,000 people of Italian origin living in Belgium today, making up the largest foreign community in Belgium (22%). Pizzerias and trattorias are nowadays Liège's most conspicuous restaurants.

In 1905, Liège hosted the 17th World Fair.

Liège is the only Belgian province where German is an official language, along with French. The city has developed into a major transport hub thanks to its strategic location at the crossroads of Europe, being only within 30 min by car from Maastricht in the Netherlands, Aachen in Germany or Luxembourg.

As of 2016, Liège-Bierset Airport was the 8th biggest cargo airport in Europe and the 22nd in the world. Liège has managed to attract important foreign investors, such as Colgate-Palmolive, which has its main manufacturing plant and research centre for continental Europe in the Walloon city.

Famous Liegeois

Apart from the Carolingian monarchs and the aforementioned (prince-)bishops, notable people from Liège include:

  • Lambert Lombard (1505-1566), a Renaissance painter.
  • André Ernest Modeste Grétry (1741-1813), classical music composer, and inventor of the comic opera.
  • Walthère Frère-Orban (1812-1896), a Belgian statesman, founder of the national bank of Belgium.
  • César Franck (1822-1890), a classical music composer.
  • Georges Simenon (1903-1989), one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century.
  • Dardenne brothers (born 1951 and 1954), filmmaking duo who won twice the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival (1999 and 2005).
  • Jean-Michel Saive (1969-), table tennis champion and UNESCO World Award of Fair Play in 1989.
  • Marie Gillain (1975-), an actress and official model for Lancôme.
  • Justine Henin (1982-), tennis champion, multiple Grand Slam winner and gold medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics.

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