History of Diest
Diest in Ancient Times
The oldest traces of human habitation in the Diest region date back to the Palaeolithic period (approx. 70,000 years before Christ). The actual foundations for present-day Diest were laid in the Frankish period. According to tradition, in the 7th century, Saint Remigius apparently founded a church in honour of his mentor, Saint Sulpitius.
The oldest reference to Diest dates back to 877. Back then, Diest was a Pagus or countship of the Carolingian Empire. In 1087, a certain Otto, Lord of Diest, is mentioned in a Sint-Truiden chronicle. His successors would rule the seigniory of Diest until 1499, when Diest came into the possession of Engelbert, Count of Nassau.
Diest in the Middle Ages
A trading centre had been developing along the Demer River since the 11th century, which reached its peak in the 14th and 15th century. This was primarily due to the excellent location: on a river, the Demer, and on the important trade route from Bruges to Cologne.
Between 1168 and 1190, the Lord of Diest became the vassal of the bishop of Cologne hoping this would protect him from the Duke of Brabant, who was always out to expand his territory.
Nonetheless, it was Hendrik I, Duke of Brabant, who granted the city a freedom charter in 1229. This increasingly aggravated relations between Diest and Cologne.
In the 14th and 15th centuries the city was at its most flourishing. This prosperity was generated by a thriving agricultural market, the interregional grain and cattle markets, but especially by the cloth industry and trade. Diest cloth was found at almost all major Western European markets.
Diest as an Orange City
Through an exchange, Engelbert, Count of Nassau, acquired Diest in 1499. From 1530, one of Engelbert's successors, René van Chàlon, also used the title 'Prince of Orange'. The princes of Orange-Nassau retained possession of Diest until 1795 when the Southern Netherlands were added to France.
On account of its strategic position in the Demer Valley bordering Brabant and Liege and its links with the house of Orange-Nassau, the city was regularly a target for siege, plunder and destruction. After Diest was alternately occupied by the French, Dutch and Spaniards between 1701 and 1705, the city was reconquered by the French.
Diest in the Austrian period
The Austrian period (1713-1790) then marked a new period of recovery, trade resumed and the beer industry flourished as never before. The reforms of the Austrian monarchs were not received with much enthusiasm, which is why the French were greeted as liberators in 1792. However, the new rulers went much further and abolished all the institutions of the Ancien Régime (French for old regime).
In 1798, the Peasants' War broke out in the region known as the 'Campines’. The peasant army occupied Diest for four days, while the city was encircled by the French. Nevertheless, most of the peasant army managed to escape leaving the undefended town to be plundered by the French.
The United Kingdom of the Netherlands did not seem destined for a very long life either (1814 the fall of Napoleon – the Belgian Revolution 1830). Between 1837 and 1853, Diest was equipped with new ramparts to protect it from any Dutch invasion. By the end of the 19th century these fortifications were already out of date and declassified.
Diest in the 20th century
During World War I, small sections of the ramparts were demolished and the city only gained control of the fortifications in 1929. During World War II, much of the remaining section was demolished. Fortunately, neither of the two world wars left any further deep marks in Diest.
Diest is currently a small, provincial Flemish-Brabant city with an obvious centre function and a flourishing trade centre. It is located along the main road to Cologne, Maastricht, Leuven and Brussels.