A History of Paris

By Tim Lambert

Ancient and Medieval Paris

The city of Paris began in the 3rd century BC when a Celtic tribe called the Parisii built a fortified settlement on the Ile de la Cite.

The Romans conquered the Parisii in 52 AD and they built a town on the River Seine. The Romans called Paris Lutetia. However, Roman Paris was not a particularly large or important town. It had a population of not more than 10,000.

In the late 3rd century Paris and the surrounding region were converted to Christianity. However, by then the Roman Empire was in decline. In 486 a race called the Franks captured Paris.

Under the Franks, Paris flourished. In 845 the Vikings raided Paris. The French king paid them 7,000 pounds of silver to leave. But from the 11th century onward Paris prospered again. In the Middle Ages, Paris grew rapidly and it became one of the largest towns in Europe. Its population probably reached 200,000 (that might seem small to us but it was huge by Medieval standards). King Philippe-Auguste (1180-1223) built a wall around Paris. He also built the Louvre fortress.

Medieval Paris was also a busy inland port with goods being brought to and from its wharves along the Seine. Paris was also noted for its scholars. Paris University became famous. Meanwhile, from the late 12th century onward the most famous cathedral in Paris, the Cathedral de Notre Dame was built.

However, in 1338, the Hundred Years War between France and England began and in 1348 Paris was devastated by the Black Death. In 1357 the mayor of Paris Etienne Marcel led a rebellion in Paris to try and gain more rights for Parisian merchants. However, Royalist forces captured Paris in 1358, and Marcel and his followers were executed. In 1420 the English captured Paris. However, the French recaptured the town in 1436.

Renaissance Paris

Paris gradually recovered from the Hundred Years War and in 1528 King Francois I moved his court to the town. Once again Paris flourished. Meanwhile, in the 16th century, the Reformation swept France. French Protestants were persecuted. The persecution reached a peak in 1572 with the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. About 2,000 Protestants in Paris were murdered by Catholics.

Then in 1589, King Henry III was assassinated leaving a Protestant, Henry of Navarre heir to the throne of France. Many Catholics refused to accept Henri, however, and he had to fight for his throne. Yet in 1593 he converted to Catholicism and in 1594 he entered Paris.

King Henry IV began building great public buildings in Paris. He also built the Pont Neuf in 1607. Henry was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic in 1610 but his widow built the Palais de Luxembourg. The Palais Royal was built in 1629 by Cardinal Richelieu.

Building great buildings in Paris continued under Louis XIV in the late 17th century (although he moved to the Palace of Versailles outside the city). However, there were two sides to Paris. Alongside the splendid buildings, there were many cafes and Paris was famous for its philosophers. However, there was also a great deal of severe poverty in Paris. The poor lived in squalor.

Paris After 1789

Paris was, of course, at the center of the French Revolution which broke out in 1789. On the morning of 14 July 1789 Parisians seized cannons and guns from the Invalides (a hospital for military veterans). They then surrounded a fortress and prison called the Bastille. The governor was forced to surrender. To the ordinary people, the Bastille was enormously important as a symbol of royal power and arbitrary government.

From September 1793 the Great Terror swept France. In the next 9 months, thousands of people were guillotined in Paris.

Meanwhile, in September 1793 a movement called De-Christianization began. Churches were vandalized and closed. The church of Notre Dame was renamed the ‘Temple of Reason’. However, the Terror ended in the late summer of 1794. Thousands of prisoners were released and life gradually returned to normal.

Napoleon became ruler of France in 1799. He built Pont des Arts. He also built the Arc de Triomphe and La Madeleine. However, allied armies occupied Paris in 1814.

In 1830 another revolution took place in Paris. Louis Philippe became a constitutional monarch of France. In the mid 19th century the Industrial Revolution began to transform France. Paris grew rapidly but many of its inhabitants lived in dire poverty. In 1832 cholera killed 20,000 people in the city.

In 1848 discontent in Paris resulted in another revolution and Napoleon III took power in France. During his reign, which lasted until 1870 parts of Paris were rebuilt. Baron Haussmann was responsible for demolishing much of Paris and building new streets. Economically Paris boomed and its population grew rapidly.

On 19 September 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War Prussian troops reached Paris and laid siege to the city. In the next 4 months, Parisians were reduced to near starvation and the city surrendered on 28 January. The French government made a formal peace treaty with the Prussians but the Parisians objected to its terms and they rose in revolt on 18 March 1871. A government called the Paris Commune was formed in the city. The French government sent troops and after weeks of street-by-street fighting, the rebellion was crushed. Afterward, thousands of Communards were executed.

Paris soon recovered and it prospered in the late 19th century. The Eiffel Tower was unveiled in 1889 and the Metro opened in 1900. n Modern Paris n

Paris escaped the First World War relatively unscathed. In the 1920s and 1930s, Paris again prospered. However, on 14 June 1940, Paris fell to the Germans. On 19 August 1944, Paris rose in rebellion and on 25 August allied forces entered the city.

In May 1968 Paris was rocked by student riots but stability soon returned. In the late 20th century new buildings were erected in Paris such as the Tour Montparnasse in 1973 and the Hotel Concorde Lafayette in 1974. The Pompidou Center was built in 1977. Today Paris is a flourishing city and tourism is booming. Les Quatre Temps Shopping Mall was founded in 1981. Beaugrenelle Shopping Mall opened in 2013.

Paris at night

In 2020 the population of Paris was 2.1 million.

Last revised 2024