The Great History of Utrecht – Part II

Utrecht, from the Atlas van Loon
Utrecht, from the Atlas van Loon

So, in the first part of this series (if you missed it check it out here) we left our friend, the British monk Willibrord who, other than converting the Frisians to Christianism, founded the original St Martin’s church, the predecessor of nowadays Dom Kerk. 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).

The Kerkenkruis
The Kerkenkruis

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…

Claudio Agnesa

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