The History of Lille through the Canonniers: En defense de Lille

Le musée des Cannoniers Sédentaires de Lille

Lille is one of the most beautiful cities in the north of France. It used to belong to Flanders, a region which historically included parts of Belgium, France and the Netherlands. It has a lovely old town with many historic buildings, cobbled streets and enchanting cafes and restaurants. Especially beautiful are the Opera House and the Chambre de Commerce.

In 1667, French troops under Louis XIV besieged Lille. Despite the best efforts of the Canonniers, Lille had to surrender and present the Sun King with the keys to the city. (A specimen is on display at le Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse, a museum we also visited on the day.) Lille became a French town the following year and has remained with France since then.

We visited the museum of Le Canonniers Sédantaires de Lille on a warm spring day. We had the pleasure of a guided tour for only the two of us! Our guide, Henri, a former reserve officer in an artillery unit of the French army, was clearly very passionate and knowledgeable. He told us about the rich history of the Canonniers, founded in 1483 and protectors of Lille ever since.

Louis XIV wanted to build a new fortress to defend his new possession against the Spanish. He chose Marshall Vauban’s design and soon after Vauban built the first of his famous citadels, an incredibly striking pentagonal structure described as “the strongest Citadel in Europe, if not the world”.

During the War of Spanish Succession, Austrian and English forces besieged Lille from August to December 1708. The Canonniers defended Lille and its Citadel. Although the defenders were outnumbered and the enemy managed to breach the city walls, the Citadel was not taken. Lille had to surrender when provisions and ammunition were running out. It was occupied for five years but returned to France with the peace of Utrecht in 1713. Still, by resisting the siege and the bombardment by 180 enemy cannons, Lille and its Canonniers immobilised two enemy armies and revented them from moving deeper into France and consequently threatening Paris.

The Canonniers fought particularly bravely when an Austrian army bombarded Lille in 1792. Lille’s heroic resistance led to the retreat of the Austrian and contributed to stop of the Prussian army at the famous battle of Valmy. Lille was later awarded a special honour by the National Assembly of France, which passed a decree declaring “Lille a bien mérité de la Patrie”. Napoleon later gave two honoury Gribeauval cannons to the Canonniers. 8,000 of these cannons had been produced in France but all of them were destroyed in wars, lost or scrapped. The two which are on display in the museum – “notre trésor” as Henri put it – are the only two pieces left in the world!

The Canonniers also fought in the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries, including the First and Second World Wars.

The museum displays a vast array of cannons and their original prototypes, guns, uniforms, paintings, regimental standards and flags. It also contains the official flag of the regiment. Also on display are musical instruments of the former orchestra of the Canonniers. This military band was disbanded and became the official orchestra of the town of Lille.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the museum and especially our guided tour. The museum relies entirely on entry fees and donations for its funding. Unfortunately, Henri worries that not many locals visit or appreciate the museum’s importance and that most visitors are foreigners. This is a pity as the inhabitants of Lille could learn a lot about their own rich and fascinating history. We would like to encourage everyone to take a short break when in the area and support their conservation work.

By Philipp Müller & Patricia C. Prada Jimenez

For more information about Lille and its museums you can visit:

Lille – (in French, English and Dutch)

Musée des Cannoniers Sédentaires de Lille –

Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse –