Here is the history of Antwerp during it's Golden Age. At the end of the 15th century, Antwerp became more important then Bruges. Businesses were moved to Antwerp and the money followed. Bruges lost its direct connection to the see and would become a small provincial town.
In 1400, around 18000 people lived in Antwerp. Barely 100 years later this would be 100 000 and with that became the biggest city of its time after Paris. New economical systems were developed here as the stakeholder ship and the first stock market in the world was build in 1531. It would stand as a model for the ones in London and Amsterdam.
Business with England and the Italian city states flourished. The renaissance influenced the city and big architectural projects were started. Antwerp was seen as the most modern and exiting city of that time and I quote Lodovico Guicciardini, a famous Italian writer who moved to The City in the 1540 ies ‘Antwerp is the most beautiful city of the world’.
Other famous people that lived and worked here in that time were the printer Plantin, cartographer Mercator, humanists Lipsius and Ortelius, painters Quinten Matsijs and Breughel. The city was rich, its citizens avant-garde and self-aware. This was The City! They were the Senors. They ruled the world. What could go possibly wrong? Nothing!
They couldn’t be more wrong! In the second half of the 16th century the religious wars between Catholicism and Calvinism started. It can also been seen as a war between the low lands and Spain.
Anwerp was Calvinistic and found it self in the heart of the battle. In 1566 there was the iconoclasm that destroyed most of the original interiors of the churches and in 1567 a part of the city was burned by the Spanish troops during the Spanish fury. This all resulted in the Dutch Revolt.
In 1584 a big army under command of Duke Farnese was sent by the king Filips II of Spain to restore peace and orthodoxy. They captured Brussels, Leuven and most of the other revolting cities of the Southern Low Lands.
Isolated from Flanders, the Northern Low lands and England, Antwerp stood alone in this battle. Help was expected from the English crown and the Holland prince. But nobody showed up and after 18 months of starvation the city surrendered to the Spanish crown. The Calvinists left the city and mainly went to Amsterdam and Frankfurt. This was the end of the golden age. In 1600, only 45000 inhabitants still lived in Antwerp. The city found it self isolated from international trade because the northern low lands blocked the Scheldt in order to cripple the Spanish economy. That strategy would work because within a generation, Spain would loose all power and influence on the see and Amsterdam would rule the world economy for a century.
The result would be that the Southern provinces would reunite under Flanders and would become a part of Belgium some centuries later. The northern territories would stay independent and become the Netherlands.
Saying that Antwerp disappeared from the international scene is exaggerated. In the 17th century, the greatest artists of their time would work and live here. Rubens and Van Dyck are only two names of the painters that would become famous all over the world. Even today, paintings of Rubens are very often sold for the highest prices in history beating the younger colleagues as Van Gogh and Picasso.
It would be Napolean who reopened the Scheldt. He saw Antwerp as a gun pointing to London. Since the middle of the 19th century, Antwerp retook its place in the world economy and today it’s the second harbor of Europe after Rotterdam.