The Great History of Utrecht

Claudio Agnesa

dom plein

When you all faithful readers of ours chose Utrecht as the next city where to settle down, you probably did so charmed by its lovely canals, its dynamic students’ life and its prestigious universities. What you may be unaware of is that you also came to the ancient Trajectum ad Rhenum of Roman foundation, one of the oldest Dutch cities (the record probably still belongs to Nijmegen – Noviomagus), with a history which dates back to almost two millennia ago.

Trajectum ad Rhenum – the passage on the Rhine river – was founded by order of none other than emperor Claudius (oh, what a beautiful name) around 50 AD – or CE if you are agnostic as me. It was a time of turmoil in the Roman Northern provinces, and they needed an outpost to guard the barbarians (poor guys, just because they didn’t speak Latin!) over the Rhine: in that time the bed of the river laid way norther than nowadays, and it passed beyond the current city, approximately where today is the eastern side of the Stadsbuitengracht, the external canal ring which surrounds the Binnenstad – the city centre.

You have to imagine the city – or more correctly the Castellum – as far smaller than today, pretty much centered around what is today Domplein: the axis going roughly west-east through the current Servetstraat and under the Domtoren and then the navel of the Dom was once the via Principalis – the main street (literally) which was in turn intersected perpendicularly by the via Praetoria, which ran north-south along the Domplein proper. If you ever noticed the brass plates on the ground steaming at the entrance of this area, be aware that they are precisely in correspondence of where the original four gates of the city were.

Unfortunately the Batavians, the aboriginal inhabitants of what are today the nether lands, weren’t over-enthusiastic of the Roman presence in the region, and revolted against the latter in the year 69 burning the castellum to the ground: the fact that Utrecht back then was built only with wood and turf didn’t make it exactly resistent.

However the fort was rebuilt immediately after by the Legio IX Hispana, which as the name may suggest had been transferred there from Spain (yep guys, Spanish internationals were living here already some 19 centuries ago), and subsequently the first stone and concrete buildings appeared around the beginning of the III century.

With the general collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the fortifications along the limes  – the roman borders – were abandoned by the soldiers, but the space within the walls was soon to be re-occupied by a new species of tenants, the Christian monks. It was one of them who came from Britain, Willibrord, whose equestrian statue you can see in Janskerkhof, who closed three of the four existing gates, leaving only the western one open: that is to say that you could have entered the city only passing from the mentioned Servetstraat!

It is thanks to the initiative of Willibrord that it was founded the first version of what was to become – and indeed still is – the landmark of this city: St. Martin’s church, or the Dom.

However, this first incarnation of the church was razed by the Vikings during one of their incursions upstream the Rhine in the IX century.  Interesting enough, in 1936 more than a millennium after, to commemorate the third centennial of the founding of the University of Utrecht but also to somehow amend for their ancestors’ deeds, the Danish government posed a copy of one of the runic stones of Jelling just nearby the Dom, where you can still behold it today next to the entrance to the cloyster.

But there is more to say about the so called “Apostle to the Frisians”: our Willy was indeed the first bishop of Utrecht, a title which involved religious and secular powers. In facts he who ruled the holy see of Utrecht was also the head of the Bishopric of Utrecht, a distinct entity within the Holy Roman Empire which, with changing fortunes, stayed separated from the Netherlands as we know today till 1579.

However it is undeniable that Trajectum was the centre of Christianity in the Low Countries. A striking example of this can be found in the fact that in 1522 the Utrecht-born Adriaan Florenszoon Boeyens was elected as pope Adrian VI: no more non-Italian pope would have assumed the pontificate for more than four centuries.

This religious soul of the city was also represented by its architecture: the core of the medieval Trajectum developed on a cross-shaped formation of five churches, forming the so called Kerkenkruis (Churches’ cross).

Up north was Janskerk, that you may have noticed every day when you go to your classes in its yard, the Janskerkhof. Moving clockwise, on the east branch was, and indeed still is, Pieterskerk, behind which is nowadays the ESN Office, unsurprisingly in a street named Achter Sint Pieter (Behind Saint Peter). On the south corner of the cross was Pauluskerk with the adjacent Benedictine Paulusabdij (Saint Paul’s Abbey): unfortunately it was demolished during the XVIII century. Only the refined gate to its yard survives today: you may find it along the Nieuwegracht headed by two rampant lions holding a shield, and leading to an alley which conserves its ancient name: Hofpoort (the Yard’s Gate).

Second to last, approximately on the west side of the cross was Mariakerk, or Maria Maior. The latter name was in order to distinguish it from its smaller ‘sister’ just nearby, Maria Minor, which still exists today and you may also know as Café Olivier. The bigger Mariakerk however was demolished in 1811 by order of Napoleon, but its name still lives in the square that lies now where it once stood, Mariaplats.

Finally, at the very core of the cross was Domplein and the Dom Kerk: the building around which this city flourished, until its fate changed forever in 1674…

On the evening of August the 1st 1674 at half past seven, one of the most powerful and unexpected storm the city had ever witnessed hit her for more than an hour, and in particular did so with the Dom. If the choir of the building had been reinforced in a perfect Gothic style by flying buttresses

this was not the case for the central nave which for a lack of funds had been left sustained only by its columns – the position of which can be seen today by the hexagonal coloured areas on the pavement of Domplein. The central part of the Cathedral collapsed, taking with it allegedly up to 50 poor Utrechters who had looked for shelter under its roof.

This catastrophe marked significantly the spirit of the city: many believed it had been indeed an act of God’s wrath, and the nave was never rebuilt. For more than 150 years its ruins remained there where they had fallen, with no hands daring to remove them, leaving just a stark scenario between the remaining choir and the Domtoren. And so it must have appeared to the many nations and kingdoms representatives who gathered in the city in 1713 to sign a landmark agreement in European history: the Peace of Utrecht.

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