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Charleroi (Municipality, Province of Hainaut, Belgium)

Last modified: 2005-12-03 by ivan sache
Keywords: charleroi | rooster (red) | coq hardi | stars: 12 (yellow) | fleur-de-lis (red) |
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[Flag of Charleroi]

Municipal flag of Charleroi - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 26 May 2005

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Presentation of Charleroi

The municipality and town (Ville) of Charleroi (206,898 inhabitants, Carolorégiens, nicknamed Carolos; 20,211 ha) is the fourth biggest city in Belgium, after Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent. It is the biggest city in Wallonia, before Liège. Charleroi is located on the Sambre in north-eastearn Hainaut. It is made since 1976 of the former municipalities of Charleroi, Couillet, Dampremy, Gilly, Goutroux, Gosselies, Jumet, Lodelinsart, Marchienne-au-Pont, Marcinelle, Monceau-sur-Sambre, Montignies-sur-Sambre, Mont-sur-Marchienne, Ransart and Roux.

Charleroi is one of the most recent cities in Belgium. In 1666, the Spaniards built a fortress on a promontory watching the valley of Sambre; the fortress was named Charleroy after Infant-King Charles II (1661-1700, king in 1665), the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs. The fortress was seized in 1667 by the French, and Vauban increased and improved the fortifications. In order to boost the new city, Louis XIV granted privileges to its inhabitants. In 1678, the treaty of Nijmegen retroceded Charleroi to Spain.
Due to its strategical location, Charleroi was disputed among the great powers. The French army seized the city in 1693 and 1746. In 1794, Charleroi was seized on the eve of the battle of Fleurus, after which France invaded the Low Countries and stayed there for the next 20 years. The French revolutionaries renamed the city Libre-sur-Sambre (Free [city] on Sambre). Emperor Napoléon spent a night (he hardly slept) in Charleroi two days before the battle of Waterloo and on 16 June 1815, on the eve of his last victory in Ligny.
The Dutch built a new fortress, which was assaulted by the Belgian patriots in 1830. The last big battle of Charleroi took place in August 1914, in the beginning of the First World War. One of the Battles of the Frontiers, the battle of Charleroi was a major German success in the early months of the war. The battle comprised a major action fought between the French Fifth Army, commanded by General Lanrezac, advancing north to the Sambre, and the German Second and Third Armies, commanded by Von Bülow, moving southwest through Belgium.

Charleroi is the cradle of the industrial revolution in Belgium. The Celts already extracted iron in the Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse region more than 2,000 years ago; coal extraction started in the XIIIth century but the yields were very low until the invention of the "fire pumps" in the XVIIIth century. At the same time, German glass makers introduced in Belgium the cylindric glass-blowing process, which allowed the production of window glass. in the beginning of the XIXth century, the traditional metallurgical industry was drastically changed by the new techniques imported from England. Coke was used as fuel instead of charcoal and stem engines replaced hydraulic energy supplied by water mills. Industry moved from the forests of Ardenne to the coal basin of Charleroi.
The huge demand in energy, technical progress and the involvement of big financial companies such as the Société Générale de Belgique made of the collieries the metronome of the economical life in the basin of Charleroi, nicknamed Pays Noir (Black Country). The basin was the biggest producer of coal in Belgium, with some ten millions tons per year. The last colliery was closed in 1984 but the region has remained one of the main European centers for steel and glass production. The industrial redevelopment of Charleroi started in 1964.
The Brussels-Charleroi canal was built from 1827 to 1832 in order to transport coal to the north of Belgium and to connect Wallonia with the port of Antwerp. The builders of the canal had to connect the basins of Scheldt (Brussels) and Sambre (Charleroi), with two tunnels and the modern incline at Ronquières.
The industrial landscape of Charleroi at the end of the XIXth century has been "described" by Paul Verlaine in a poem named Charleroi, part of the Paysages belges (Belgian landscapes) section in the Romances sans paroles book. Verlaine gives in the poem his impressions from a night train travel made there with Arthur Rimbaud.

Social movements developed very early in Charleroi among the workers. There were cooperative and mutualist: the movements were Socialist, Christian or state-funded (Intercommunales des Oeuvres Sociales, 1935). Technological progress required more and more educated workers; Work University (Université du Travail) and the Work Chaplains (Aumôniers du Travail) were founded in 1901. Workers were hired from all over Europe: Walloons, Flemish, French, German, Polish, Italians... contributed to the Charleroi melting-pot. Following the Belgo-Italian agreement of 1946, Italian miners massively emigrated to Charleroi. The Italian immigration stopped after the disaster of the Bois du Cazier colliery in Marcinelle (8 August 1956), which killed 262 miners, including 156 Italians.
The Carolos also emigrated and exported their skills to very remote areas, up to Russia and the United States; there is a city called Charleroi in Pennsylvania.

Charleroi has been the birthplace of several cultural and technological innovations. In 1735, Marquis Desandrouin imported from England a fire pump Newcomen, the first to be used in continental Europe. The first Belgian smelting furnace fed with coke was built by Paul Huart-Chapel in 1827. The chemist and industrial Ernest Solvay opened his first soda plant in Charleroi in 1864. A few years later, in 1881, Julien Dulait, operated the first hydroelectric generator. Emile Fourcaut, in 1903, invented a mechanical process allowing the drawing out of window glasses.
In 1931, the mathematician George Lemaître (1894-1966) proposed his theory of the "primitive atom"; Lemaître claimed that the universe emerged via the "initial explosion" of an extremely condensed state and is still expanding. The theory was very controversial and the American astronom Fred Hoyle ironically called it in 1956 the "big bang" theory. Since then, experimental and theoretical evidence have backed up Lemaître's theory, which is widely accepted, even if alternative hypotheses for the formation of the universe are also plausible. Beforehand, Lemaître proposed in 1927 a relativist model of an expanding universe. Lemaître was His Grace Lemaître and the Roman Catholic Church eventually recognized his theory, claiming it was a kind of "scientific proof" of the creation of universe as described in the Bible.
In 1937, Jean Dupuis printed his first strip cartoons in Marcinelle. His weekly Spirou has presented since then famous characters such as Spirou and Fantasio, Boule and Bill, the Marsupilami, and, last but not least, Gaston Lagaffe.


Charleroi is the capital city of the national Walloon movement, whose main member was Jules Destrée (1863-1936). Destrée was born in Marcinelle and studied law; he was graduated Doctor-in-Law aged 20 and became a famous lawyer, specialized in social and political cases. In 1886, he defended Falleur and Schmidt, two leaders of the Union verrière glass workers' union, tried for the blaze and the trashing of the glass factory Baudoux in Jumet during social riots; Falleur and Schmidt were sentenced in a famous case of miscarriage of justice. In 1889, 87 members of the Republican Socialist Party were tried in the grand Complot (big plot) affair, because they had required the universal suffrage and declared the general strike; the prosecution said the "plotters" had attempted to overthrow the regime but they were discharged. This was Destrée's first big victory. In 1923, Destrée defended Léon Lesoil, Secretary of the Communist Federation of Charleroi and his fellows, charged for the complot communiste, and won again.

When the language and community debate increased between Flanders and Wallonia, Destrée defended Wallonia in the Chamber and in the media. In 1912, he wrote his fmaous Letter to the King (Lettre au Roi), in which he asked for the separation of Flanders and Wallonia, the union of two independent people being better than a forced unity. On 20 October 1912, Destrée was elected President of the newly formed Walloon Assembly. The Assembly was a kind of "Walloon Parliament", with delegated from Wallonia and Brussels. In 1923, Destrée published his book Wallons et Flamands. La querelle linguistique en Belgique (Walloons and Flemish. The language quarrel in Belgium). He negociated with the Flemish regionalist leader Kamiel Huysmans a proposal of political agreement between the two communities, released in 1929 as the Compromis des Belges. In 1924, Destrée published with Max Hallet a Code du Travail (labour laws), which was an update of Napoléon's laws, adapted to the new industry.

After the First World War, Destrée was member of national unity governments, supported by the Liberal, Catholic and Socialist parties. In 1919, he was the first Socialist appointed Minister of Science and Arts, and also of State Education; he defended a state, free and non-religious school and extended the mandatory teaching from 12 up to 14 years. He founded the Royal Academy of French Language and Litterature in Belgium, inaugurated on 16 February 1921, and proposed a law on the public libraries. Destrée also founded in 1911 the Fine Arts Museum in Charleroi, inaugurated in 1936.

Destrée's wife died in 1942 and bequeathed their house to Georges and Martine Armand, their driver and cook, respectively. The Armand bequeathed all the stuff related to Destrée to the municipality of Charleroi, which opened in 1988 the Jules Destrée Museum. Destrée was nicknamed "the Awakener of Walloon consciousness" and his legacy is preserved by the Jules Destrée Institute, whose main aim is to promote the Walloon culture and identity.

Source: Institut Jules Destrée

Ivan Sache, 26 May 2005

Municipal flag of Charleroi

The municipal flag of Charleroi is white with a red rooster holding in its right foot the municipal coat of arms. According to Armoiries communales en Belgique. Communes wallonnes, bruxelloises et germanophones, the flag follows the proposal made by the Heraldry and Vexillology Council of the French Community:

Blanc chargé d'un coq rouge, la patte droite posée sur le bord supérieur de l'écu de la ville.

The rooster symbolizes the allegiance of Charleroi to the French Community; it is of course the Walloon coq hardi.

The municipal coat of arms of Charleroi is:

De sable à la silhouette d'une forteresse hexagonale d'argent, entourée de douze étoiles à cinq rais d'or rangées en cercle, le tout surmonté de quinze points d'échiquier alternativement de gueules et d'argent rangés en fasce huit et sept; au chef diminué d'argent à une fleur de lys de gueules.

The municipal website explains the coat of arms as follows:

  • the fleur-de-lys recalls that France increased the fortress built by the Spaniards
  • the 15 square pieces recall the 15 former municipalities merged into Charleroi
  • the 12 stars symbolize the flag of the Towns of Europe
  • Vauban's fortress is shown surrounded by the stars.

The chief of the current arms was already present in the arms of Charleroi before the administrative reform, which were:

Sable a forked-tailed lion or holding in dexter a sword of the same a chief argent a fleur de lys gules.

Servais says that these arms were granted on 28 August 1847. They were crowned and had a lion as a dexter supporter.
The oldest known arms of Charleroi date from 1680 and show a black shield with a silver chief. These arms were derived from the Isenghien family of Gent, at the time Lords of Charleroi. In 1697 the Spanish King granted the lion of Namur in the lower part of the shield. In 1847 the fleur-de-lys was added as a French symbol.
New arms were required after the administrative reform; they don't seem to have been officially adopted yet. However, the Municipal Council adopted on 3 May 1995 a municipal seal, confirmed by the Executive of the French Community on 28 March 1996. The shield is made of a circle surrounding the shield:

De sable au coq hardi d'or, au chef d'argent chargé d'une fleur de lys de gueules.

That is:
Sable a rooster or a chief argent a fleur-de-lis gules.

Arnaud Leroy, Pascal Vagnat & Ivan Sache, 4 June 2005