Last modified: 2008-09-06 by ivan sache
Keywords: spa | fountain | pouhon |
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Municipal flag of Spa - Images by Arnaud Leroy, 1 June 2008
Left, flag in use
Middle, flag communicated by the municipal administration, not in wide use Right, reported flag, not in use
The municipality of Spa (10,472 inhabitants; 3,985 ha) is located 25 km south-east of Liège and 15 km south of Verviers.
Built on the foothills of the massif of Ardenne, far from the main roads and watercourses, Spa should have remained a small village. However, the local geological context causes the sources that gush forth in Spa to have a high therapeutic value, probably already known by the Romans. The increased, international reputation of these sources favoured the growth of Spa as a famous place where people could take the waters in a quiet and cosy environment, a kind of place today known in English as a "spa".
There is very little data available on the early history of Spa, whose
sources are not mentioned in written document before the XVth century.
The neighbouring villages (Spixhe, Hestroumont, La Reid, Polleur,
Jalhay, Sart) have developed much earlier than Spa. The fact that Duke of Burgundy Charles the Bold did not plunder Spa during his punitive expedition against the Principality of Liège in 1468 is an indirect evidence of the low importance of the place at that time. The oldest known mention of Spa are a document dated 20 September 1302, listing Nicolas Collin, from "Spas", as a notary at the Court of Liège, and, most important, chart #744, folio 408v, dated 24 July 1335, from the St. Lambert chapter of Lièège, listing the "town of Spas". These old documents definitively ruin the popular etymology of the name of the town, allegely named after spassiba, in Russian, "thank you", recalling that Tsar Peter the Great took the waters there as a detox.
Rather, Spa was named after either a Latin word meaning "to gush forth"
or a Germanic word meaning "to spit". The village probably developed
around a fountain: in the XV-XVIth centuries, the plots were still
defined according to their distance to Spa, a name still used only for
The ancient historians all agree that the town of Spa was founded by the Leloup family, from Breda (later, some of his members signed "Bredar"); some claim that there was a "new" Spa, as opposed to an "old" Spa, originally built on the hillside of brook Barisart. The local historian Albin Body claims that the origin of Spa is legendary and that Collin Leloup, the founder recognized by most historian, did not come from Breda and might have never existed.
Forges developed in the town, which became in the XIVth century the capital of the fifth ban (administrative division) forming the domain of Franchimont. In the beginning of the XVth century, the ban included two settlements (vilhes), the town proper built around the pouhon (the local name for a source) and the former village of Creppe.
Another famous Leloup, probably also from Spa, is Remacle Le Loup (1708-1746), whose Délices du Pays de Liège, published in 1738-1744, are a very rich iconographic source (including coat of arms).
In the XVIth century, the sources of Spa, also famous for their very
peaceful environment, attracted wealthy people having to take the
waters from all over Europe, especially princes and princesses
attempting to "retire" for a while. Visiting Spa in 1781, Emperor
Joseph II was fascinated by the international (high) society living in
the town, which he nicknamed le Café de l'Europe. Every year, some 600 to 1,200 visitors registered on the Liste des Seigneurs et Dames, together with their suite. All these idle, important people took the opportunity to set up in Spa diplomatic negotiations, which were
facilitated by the status of neutrality granted to the Principality of
In 1760, the Redoute (from Italian, ridotto, "a café where you can gamble") was set up as the first modern casino in Europe, followed in 1770 by the Waux-Hall. The first gilded age of Spa ended with the French Revolution; the spa had less and lesss customers, and a blaze destroyed in August 1807 more than 300 houses in the heart of the town. Spa reemerged in the late XIXth century with a huge urbanism program, including the building of the Thermes (1862), of the Leopold II Gallery and the Pavilions (1878), of the Pouhon-Pierre-le-Grand (1880), of the Villa Marie-Henriette (1885), of the Lake Waarfaz (1892) and of the St. Remacle church (1896). The municipality revamped the Thermes in 1905 and built a new Kursaal in 1908.
During the First World War, Spa was used as a giant field hospital by the German Army; in 1917, a blaze destroyed the casino and its XVIIIth-century theater. In March 1918, Kaiser William II set up his headquarters at Spa, where he signed the German capitulation on 10 November 1918 before leaving for the Netherlands. Spa was also the place of the Peace Conference of July 1920, held in the castle of Fraineuse.
In April 1921, Chevalier de Thier founded the Spa Monopole company, reestablishing the once very successful trade of mineral water; the automobile circuit of Spa-Francorchamps (indeed located on the municipal territory of Stavelot) was created the same year. Between the two World Wars, Spa was also famous for golf competitions, air shows and horse shows, giving the name of the town to the obstacles known as "Spa bars".
How the town of Spa gave (or did not gave) its name to the "spas" we all known is explained by Dr. Bruce E. Osborne, Spa Research Fellowship (June 2002):
The first town in England to be called a spa was Harrogate and others like Tunbridge Wells quickly followed. Mary Kershaw of Harrogate Museum takes up the story:
"In 1571, one Mr William Slingsby discovered a spring in the then wild moorlands that were Harrogate. He recognised the medicinal properties of these waters from his experience of the wells in Spa(w) in the Ardennes. Mr Slingsby enclosed and paved the well, and recommended its waters to any medical practitioners in the Yorkshire area. These appear to have been the first waters to be taken internally for their medicinal purposes in England, as opposed to the use of springs for bathing. In 1596, Harrogate was dubbed 'The English Spaw' by Dr Timothy Bright, (sometime rector of both Methley and Barwick in Elmet, near Leeds), based on the similarity of the waters to the Continental Spa(w). This appears to be the beginning of the use of the word 'Spa' as a generic description, rather than the place name of the town on the Continent. In 1626, Edmund Deane MD, a physician from York, published 'Spadacrene Anglica', which is the earliest published source for the history of Harrogate's waters, and which promoted their beneficial qualities for medicinal purposes."
Another body of opinion proposes that the word "spa" itself had even more ancient origins than XVIth century Harrogate, when Emperor Nero applied it to the Baths of the ancient Romans. The word SPA it is argued, is an acronym for one or more Latin expressions. The Spas Research Fellowship use Sanitas Per Aquas (health through water) on their logo, which comes from Croutier A.L/, "Taking the Waters" (1992), page 136. The British Spas Federation, on their web site, say spa came from Senare Per Aqua but give no source for this view. Dr Jeffrey Rosenberg has come up with a third option of Salus Per Aquam. This version came from a newspaper article some years ago. A fourth variant comes from the paper published by Thornton and Brutscher, "What is a Spa?" (2001). They state that the root is Sanus Per Aquam meaning "health through water". Judith Lazarus in her book" The Spa Source Book" (2000), page 165, adds a fifth version to the list with Solus Per Aqua meaning "water in itself". Another suggestion is that it comes from the Latin spagere ("to scatter, sprinkle or moisten")."
Ivan Sache, 18 November 2007
The municipal flag of Spa, as communicated by the municipal
administration, is square, vertically divided white-blue with the
municipal coat of arms in the middle.
Armoiries communales en Belgique. Communes wallonnes, bruxelloises et germanophones describes another flag, probably not in use, as horizontally divided white-blue with the municipal seal, in full colours, in the middle.
However, the only flag seen in Spa in May 2008, on the town hall, the casino, the main square, etc., was a rectangular, vertically divided blue-white flag.
The municipal seal is a roundish version of the municipal arms, Sur écu d'argent, la niche du Pouhon, tournée vers la droite, maçonnée au naturel sur un carrelage de même, avec une banderole d'azur posée au-dessus en exergue et portant les mots "SPA POUHON" en lettres d'or (Argent, the Pouhon fountain masoned proper on a tiled floor of the same, above the fountain a scroll azure charged with SPA POUHON in letters or).
A pouhon is in the region of Ardenne a source of
chalybeate, naturally gazeous water. The Walloon word pouhon is cognate to the French verb puiser, "to draw water".
This kind of sources was described by Pliny the Ancient (Naturalis
Historia, XXXI, VIII) in Tungri, Civitas Galliae, that is, in the region of Tongeren, Gaul.
A detailed presentation of the pouhons of Spa and of the neighborhood is available on a website dedicated to the pouhons.
Arnaud Leroy, Pascal Vagnat & Ivan Sache, 1 June 2008