One of Belgium's oldest cities, Tournai was the fortified capital of a Roman province and in the 5th cent. became a seat of the Merovingian kings of Austrasia. The city was destroyed by the Normans in 881. It belonged to France from 1187 to 1521, when Emperor Charles V captured it and attached it to the Spanish (from 1714, Austrian) Netherlands. Tournai joined in the rebellion of the Spanish Netherlands and was a Calvinist stronghold until its capture (1581) by Alessandro Farnese. It was taken several times by the French in the wars of the 17th-18th cent.
Tournai has been a cultural center since the 12th cent. Of note are the Cathedral of Notre Dame (11th-12th cent.), with many art treasures; a 15th-century tower named for Henry VIII of England (who took the city in 1513 and made Cardinal Wolsey bishop of Tournai); the clothworkers hall (17th cent.); and a well-known art museum.
It (along with Tongeren) is the oldest city in Belgium and it has played an important role in the country's cultural history.
Tournai is located in the lowlands of Belgium, at the southern limit of the Flemish plain, in the basin of the Scheldt. Administratively, the town is part of the Province of Hainaut, itself part of the Walloon Region of the country. It is also a commune that is part of the French-speaking Community of Belgium. Tournai has its own arrondissements, both administrative and judicial.
Its area of 213.75 km² makes it the largest commune in size in Belgium; it is also the largest in population in Western Hainaut. The municipality of Tournai consists of the former municipalities of Ere, Saint-Maur, Orcq, Esplechin, Froyennes, Froidmont, Willemeau, Ramegnies-Chin, Templeuve, Chercq, Blandain, Hertain, Lamain, Marquain, Gaurain-Ramecroix, Havinnes, Beclers, Thimougies, Barry, Maulde, Vaulx, Vezon, Kain, Melles, Quartes, Rumillies, Mont-Saint-Aubert, Mourcourt and Warchin.
Rocks from the Tournai area date from the Carboniferous Period and have been used to define the Tournaisian Age, a subdivision of the Carboniferous lasting from 359 to 345 million years ago. Tournai stone is a dark limestone which takes a polish and was used particularly in the Romanesque period for sculpted items such as baptismal fonts. It is also hard enough to have been used locally for pavements and kerb-stones. It is sometimes called Tournai marble, though this is geologically inaccurate.
After the partition of the Frankish empire by the Treaties of Verdun (843) and of Meerssen (870), Tournai remained in the western part of the empire, which in 987 became France. The city participated in eleventh-century rise of towns in the Low Countries, with a woollen cloth industry based on English wool, which soon made it attractive to wealthy merchants. Its drive for independence from the local counts succeeded in 1187, and the city was henceforth directly subordinated to the French Crown.
During the 15th century, the city's textile trade boomed and it became an important supplier of tapestry. the art of painting flourished too: Jacques Daret, Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden all came from Tournai. It was conquered in 1513 by Henry VIII of England, making it the only Belgian city ever to have been ruled by England. It was also represented in the Parliament of England. The city was handed back to French rule in 1519.
In 1521, Emperor Charles V added the city to his possessions in the Low Countries, leading to a period of religious strife and economic decline. During the 16th century, Tournai was a bulwark of Calvinism, but eventually it was conquered by the Spanish governor of the Low Countries, the Duke of Parma, following a prolonged siege in 1581. After the fall of the city, its Protestant inhabitants were given one year to sell their possessions and emigrate, a policy that was at the time considered relatively humane, since very often religious opponents were simply massacred.
One century later, in 1668, the city briefly returned to France under Louis XIV in the Treaty of Aachen. After the end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1713, under terms of the Treaty of Utrecht the former Spanish Netherlands, including Tournai, became Austrian Hapsburg possessions. From 1815 on, following the Napoleonic Wars, Tournai formed part of the United Netherlands and after 1830 of newly independent Belgium. Badly damaged in 1940, Tournai has since been carefully restored.
Tournai is considered to be one of the most important cultural sites in Belgium. The mixed Romanesque- and Gothic-style cathedral of Notre Dame de Tournai and the belfry, the oldest in Belgium, have been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Inside the cathedral, the Châsse de Notre-Dame flamande, a beautifully ornated 12th-century reliquary, gives witness to Tournai's wealth in the Middle Ages. Other places of interest are the 13th-century Scheldt bridge (Pont-des-Trous) and the main square (Grand'Place), as well as several old city gates, historic warehouses, and a variety of museums.
Tournai is a French-speaking town of Belgium. The local language is tournaisien, a Picard dialect similar to that of other communes of Hainaut and Northern France.
Tournai belongs to Romance Flanders, like Lille, Douai, Tourcoing, and Mouscron. Those towns, bilingual or not, are part of the Flemish cultural area and therefore possess several Flemish characteristics in their artistic heritage (architecture, painting, sculpture...). The city of Tournai was one of the greatest cultural and economic centers of Flanders. Some traces can still be seen today:
Although Tournai is in the Flemish cultural area, it also possesses some treasures of the Mosan style. Indeed, the two most beautiful shrines of the Cathedral, commissioned by the Bishop of Tournai, were made in the region of Liège by the artist Nicholas of Verdun: the shrines of Saint-Eleutherius and of Our Lady of Flanders (13th century). Those shrines testify to the opulence of the towns of Tournai and Liège during the Middle-Ages. The shrine of Our Lady of Flanders has been called one of the seven wonders of Belgium.