Around 50 AD, the Romans built a wide commercial road from Cologne in Germany to Boulogne in France. Alongside this road, in an agricultural area on the left bank of the Escault, a settlement developed, which became known as Civitas Turnacensium. The town became a provincial capital and was protected by large walls.
Tournai did not escape the fate that numerous other European cities had to suffer during the decline of the Western Roman Empire. It was often plundered by the various tribes that gradually took over the Roman territories.
Around 432 AD, the Franks seized the city and made it their capital. The Merovingian kings Chlodio, Merovech, Childerik and Clovis transformed Tournai into a royal city, and their Christian beliefs led to the appointment of a Bishop of Tournai, with his seat in a cathedral.
From the eleventh century onwards, Tournai benefitted from the spectacular economic development of Northern Europe. Tournai was a sort of religious centre and a very important commercial centre, visited by many pilgrims and merchants. During the fifteenth century, the city became famous for the production of splendid wall tapestries, and architecture and painting flourished. Some of the most famous Low Countries painters of the fifteenth century came from Tournai, including Jacques Daret, Robert Campin (who taught Flémalle) and, above all, Roger de la Pasture, who went on to gain fame as the city artist of Brussels under the Dutch version of his name Roger van der Weyden.
For five years, from 1513 to 1518, Tournai was ruled by King Henry VIII. Nowadays, the Henry VIII Tower proudly stands in the city as a reminiscence of this fascinating past.
During the French Revolution and in its aftermath, the city lost a considerable part of its cultural heritage to plundering French troops. In 1830, Tournai became part of the newly-proclaimed independent kingdom of Belgium. In the twentieth century, the city, which had fallen victim to so much destruction and plundering in the past, was once again severely damaged during the Nazi invasion in May 1940. Today, carefully rebuilt, Tournai once again ranks among the most important historic cities of Belgium.