Luxembourg: an incredible story of a fortress city

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The origins and the name of Luxembourg are intimately linked with one person, and with one place.

In the year 963, a Count by the name of Siegfried, a Carolingian by blood – and on his mother’s side he was descended from Charlemagne, acquired from the St. Maximin Abbey in Trier a rocky promontory overhanging the valley of the River Alzette. According to the deed recording the transaction, a small stronghold called “Lucilinburhuc” was situated there at that time. It was probably of Roman origin. It was there that the name of Luxembourg first appeared in history. The name would pass to the city which took shape all about, and then be handed on to the country which developed around that city. Nowadays, the city and the country carry the same name.

According to legend, Count Siegfried would be married to Melusina, a mermaid who became a part of European folklore and who was to disappear beneath the waves of the Alzette. Be that legend or not, Siegfried was present at the very birth of the House of Luxembourg, a dynasty which, during the 14th century and the first half of the 15th century, was to provide four Emperors to the Empire and four Kings to Bohemia.

A medieval city

The word “Lucilinburhuc” is synonymous with small fortress. The expression denotes two features which characterised the city for an extremely long time.

First of all, the rocky promontory obtained by Siegfried was of obvious strategic interest and gave itself admirably to fortification. The city of Luxembourg was to be a fortress city for almost a thousand years until being dismantled in 1867.

Secondly, it would never be a large city: there were 5,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the 14th century, 8,500 by the end of the 18th century, 46,500 immediately after the First World War, and today there are 100,000 at the present day.
Siegfried was to build a veritable fortress on the promontory. Knights and soldiers were billeted there, while artisans and traders settled all around, the first group on top of the rocky outcrop and the others beneath it. Thus was created the distinction between the upper and the lower city. One is not able to talk of a proper city until the second half of the 12th century, when it became surrounded by ramparts of stone.

Certain cities owe their origins to a religious sanctuary, to an abbey, to the passage of a river, or to a crossing of the ways. Luxembourg owes its origins to its precipitous location and to the military interest which it thus provoked.

A fortress city

Since the year 963, when Count Siegfried acquired the rocky promontory overhanging the valley of the River Alzette which since the end of the Middle Ages has been called “The Bock”, it has without doubt set strategic criteria. The location gave itself admirably to fortification. The Count had a fortress built there, around which there took shape little by little a built-up area which only came to merit being called a city some two centuries later. It was towards the middle of the 12th century that it became surrounded by substantial ramparts (to the extent of the Rue du Fossé today).

Demographic pressures led in the 14th century to an extension of the city towards the West, with the construction of new ramparts (to the extent of the Boulevard Royal today). The urban area went from 5 to 23 hectares (12.5 to 57.5 acres). But it would be necessary to wait until the last third of the 19th century to see the city finally pass beyond this “barrier” of ramparts created in the 14th century.

Just like so many cities in the Middle Ages, Luxembourg also became fortified. In this case on three sides – to the South, to the East, and to the North-east – it was surrounded by the deep valleys of the River Petrusse and the River Alzette. Augmented by the appropriate works, these heights were utterly invincible. On the side opening out to the plain, to the West and North-west, mighty ramparts were a barrier to access.

The city did not succumb as a rule to siege prior to 1443, the date when Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, seized it by surprise. A new era was beginning for Luxembourg, which had been elevated to the status of Duchy in 1354. It was integrated into the territory of the Netherlands and drawn with them into the duel which the Valois-Bourbons and the Habsburgs indulged in during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

Gibraltar of the North

In the strife which took place between Francis I and Charles V, the city changed hands four times before finally resting in those of the Habsburgs. The latter decided to review the entire defensive system. After long and seemingly interminable works, which were drawn out over almost a century and a half, the fortified city had been transformed into a complete fortress.

At the end of a memorable siege, led by Vauban, the forces of the French King Louis XIV conquered Luxembourg in 1684. Vauban entirely redesigned the defences of the city and made it into a formidable entity – formidable in the first meaning of the word, inspiring great fear and apprehension. Luxembourg returned to the Habsburgs in 1697, the city took on the nickname of “Gibraltar of the North” during the 18th century.

After a long blockade, the city of Luxembourg was conquered, in 1795, by the French Revolutionary troops. In 1815, after the creation of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which became a member of the German Confederation, the city was made a federal fortress with a Prussian garrison.

During the 19th century the conflict between the Bourbons and the Habsburgs had Luxembourg at the very front line between France and Germany. In fact, a war over it almost broke out between Napoleon III and Bismarck in 1867. It was only possible to avoid it at the last moment. Thanks to the Treaty of London: The Grand Duchy was declared a neutral state, and the fortifications of the Capital were ordered to be dismantled. Nine centuries after Siegfried, Luxembourg had ceased to be a fortress. There are remains of the impressive ramparts, but they face another problem today – modern traffic.

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