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The city of Leuven, situated about 20 km east of Brussels on the river Dijle, is the capital of the province Vlaams-Brabant. Leuven is a very important cultural center, mostly known for its prestigious university.
The history of Leuven goes back to the year 884, as a settlement close to a fortress. In 896, King Arnulf of Carinthia of the Carolingian dynasty, defeated the Vikings close to this settlement. Around 1000, Count Lambert with the Beard constructs a new fortress on an island on the river Dijle. The number of people around the settlement increased. Between 1149 and 1169 ramparts were constructed around the settlement. The city had the advantage of being along the merchandise road Bruges – Aachen - Cologne. This road was also a connection to England. In the meantime the counts of the city had constructed a new fortress at the north side of the town on hill ‘Keizersberg’.
The city was ruled by a few people who called themselves the ‘Sint-Petermannen’. Since they had all power, soon social and political conflicts started. Because of these conflicts the Dukes of Brabant could increase their influence. But on the other hand due to the increase of the power and importance of Leuven itself, the Dukes of Brabant granted the city several privileges. The craftsmen were represented in the government of the city, though this could not avoid that social and political tensions continued.
New ramparts were built between 1357 and 1400. A period of prosperity started thanks to textile production in the city. But the city fell back in a dark period, because of continuous social conflicts and competition from the English textile industry.
A new period started during Bourgondic rule. John IV founded the University in 1426 (admitted by a papal bul in 1425). This gave fame to Leuven and brought again prosperity for the middle class. Very important is that in 1529, the ‘College of three languages’ was founded by Buysleden. This college had an important role in ‘humanism’ and was supported by Erasmus. The University of Leuven played an important role in the struggle against Lutheranism and Calvinism. Both city and university suffered from the war between Spain (Emperor Charles V) and France and the religious wars. Leuven succeeded in expelling its besiegers (French and Dutch) in 1635. The city could also escape any consequences of the attempts of the expansion of France under King Louis XIV.
A more positive period existed under rule of Emperor Charles VI and Maria Theresa. A lot of infrastructural work was done during this period: construction of a canal and new roads to Brussels.
The French revolution and occupation had a negative influence on the city of Leuven.
From 1835 and on, Leuven fully developed itself on both spiritual and industrial level, thanks to its university and new factories along the canal.
Today, Leuven is mostly known for its university: Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Leuven is of course also very popular for its beautiful old buildings. The city hall of Leuven is a beautiful example of high-gothic architecture from Brabant.