History of Luxembourg City

The fascinating story of a fortress city

The origins of the City


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.

Delve into Luxembourg's origins and discover the secrets of the city!

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 remparts 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 (that is to say 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 remparts 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 remparts 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

The political galaxy, in the same way as the increasing role played by artillery, was of great significance to the future of the city whose fate was a plaything of the major powers during the course of the 1540s. 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, that is to say 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 still remains of the impressive remparts, but they face another problem today - modern traffic.

After the dismantling of its fortress

For a period of almost nine centuries, Luxembourg was a fortified city, and a fortress of such a scale that it merited the title "Gibraltar of the North". Then, at the Treaty of London in 1867, the Grand Duchy was declared a perpetually neutral state, and the fortress itself was dismantled over the course of the next few years. It is not surprising that the city then experienced an identity crisis. How was it to ensure that it did not fall into the depths of anonymity of a small provincial city, set aside from the main-stream of prime movers?

The city had two trump-cards to play. The first was the dismantling of its fortress. Following initial fears, it soon became clear that the demolition of the fortifications offered great prospects for expansion and growth. After long centuries of having been stifled within walls which had been constructed in the 14th century, the city "burst it's banks". Our ancestors knew how to make the most sensible use of this new-found freedom, as is shown by the green belt now the Municipal Park which borders the old city to the West, the residential quarters of Limpertsberg and Belair, and above all the exemplary city planning on the Bourbon plateau, with its beautiful Avenue de la Liberté. The avenue is lined with an harmonious blend of houses, of several imposing edifices (The National Savings Bank, The Railways Administration, Arbed, and The Central Railway Station) as well as some charming squares such as the Place de Paris, unfortunately ravaged during the Sixties by developers and architects who had scant regard for the architectural beauties of the past.

The second trump-card was the location of the city, encompassed on three sides by the deep valleys of the River Petrusse and the River Alzette. There are a number of view points so extraordinary that Goethe had already acclaimed them with great enthusiasm back in 1792. They have beguiled so many painters, from Turner to the luxembourgish artist such as Selig, Fresez, Liez, Kutter and so on. Tourism in the 20th century depends for a great part on the exploitation of this location and the remains of the fortress ( for example The Casemates).

A European City


The politicians tried very quickly to attract international organisations to the city, but for a long time those attempts were without success. And then, suddenly, in 1952, came the great opportunity for which they had been waiting, the chance to complete their task after so long. The Foreign Ministers of the first European Community, the Coal and Steel Community, chose Luxembourg as their provisional headquarters. The proverb goes that it is only that which is provisional which is destined to last: today Luxembourg, alongside Strasbourg and Brussels, is one of the three headquarters of the European Union. (European Institutions established in Luxembourg are: The European Court of Justice, The European Investment Bank, The European Court of Auditors, The Secretariat of the European Parliament, certain Services of the Commission and The Office for Publications etc.)

The impact of all this upon the city has been considerable. From the beginning of the Sixties, a European quarter has developed, on the Kirchberg plateau, linked to the city by the Pont Charlotte. Almost 8,000 officials now work there. According to Jean Monnet, it can be said of Luxembourg that, "the small city has become a cross-roads of Europe".

The evolution of a financial centre in Luxembourg from the end of the Sixties further accentuates the international character of the city. In 1960 the number of banking establishments was 17. That number has grown to 218 by 1994. The effect of so many banks taking root has not always been favourable, mainly because a number of fine dwellings, which had once belonged to city folk, have now been replaced by modern constructions without charme.

In spite of its modest demographic dimensions (approximately 100,000), Luxembourg has become a metropolis, as much in these activities in the service of the international community as in the composition of its population (over 60 % of its inhabitants are foreigners, the great majority nationals of countries in the European Union). Today the city is a microcosm of the Europe of tomorrow.

City of Contrasts


Hardly any other European capital city serves up such an impressive array of contrasts as Luxembourg. In the course of its history, spanning more than a thousand years, the city has grown from “Lucilinburhuc”, the seat of Siegfried, the first Count of Luxembourg, to the prosperous metropolis it is today. In between lie centuries of turbulent history, reflected in the city’s silhouette that towers above the impressive remains of the historic fortress.

The city’s topography is characterised by green river valleys that can be crossed by well over a hundred bridges, providing links between the historic and modern parts of the city. Its population is polyglot and cosmopolitan. Of the approximately 128.000, over 70% are foreigners, a fact that is reflected not least in the wide range of multilingual and international cultural events on offer.

We wish to welcome you with a very warm “bonjour“, or “Moien” in luxembourgish!