The Great History of Utrecht – Part IV

Picture this: you have lived all of your life as a Spanish. You consider yourself part of that specific national/social entity, speaking accordingly the Castellan language and having completed your study path at the university in Spanish – after all, it is the sole available language for the courses. But, coup de theatre! From a day to another you discover that you have become Austrian, and so has your nationality. Your new capital is Vienna, and next time you want to speak with a public clerk, you will have to do it in German! Well as odd as it may sound, this is precisely what happened, together with other several switch of nationalities, for millions of people after the historical treaty which was signed in Utrecht in 1713.

“Allegory of the Peace of Utrecht”, by Antoine Rivalz – Yep, that’s more or less the way it went

Just so, had you happened to be in our beloved city in the spring of 1713, at the end of the Spanish War of Succession, you could have witnessed probably the first world peace talks in History. Utrecht had been in facts decided on as the place of the general gathering of all the warring parties to set peace due to its somehow neutral status. Albeit by now part of the Seven United Province, (as mentioned here) which were indeed a part in the conflict, it was not considered as “partisan” as the capitals, the de facto one Amsterdam, and the ex lege one The Hague. Besides, the city, much smaller than today, and comprising pretty much the three miles in circumference of the Binnenstad enclosed by its canal, was surrounded just beyond this by garden, groves and plantations, whose memory today we may perceive only by those streets which still carry the name –plantsoen.

Imagine the city as an incredible melting pot during those 15 months in which the congress of the diplomats was in session. The little city hosted other than the representatives from the mentioned Seven Provinces, plenipotentiaries and ambassadors  from Great Britain, Austria, France, Hannover, Poland, Saxony, the Holy Roman Empire, Portugal, Prussia, Duchy of Savoy, the Swedish Empire, Switzerland, Duchy of Tuscany, Bavaria, the Republic of Venice, the Palatinate, Cologne, and even more smaller European entities, each one with their families, valets and lackeys.

The chosen venue was the Great Hall of Convention, in what is today the old city hall in front of the municipal Bibliotheek. A brass plate still commemorates the event.

Other than settling the proper succession to the Spanish throne from the house of Habsburg to that of Bourbon – the current ruling one, the Peace saw many significant territorial changes.

In what is nowadays Canada, the bay of Hudson, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland passed from France to the United Kingdom, which was granted as well the stronghold of Gibraltar, still today a cause of controversy between Her Majesty and his Spanish counterpart. In reverse, the Duchy of Catalonia was not recognised as an independent entity, and was absorbed in the newly formed Bourbon Spain, where it still is referenda permitting . The city of Dunkirk passed from the United Kingdom to France, while the so called Spanish Netherlands (approximately today Belgium and Luxembourg) were ceded to Habsburg Austria, which received so also Sardinia, while to Duchy of Savoy was to be conceded Sicily.

Now on this last exchange I would like to spend few more words, for I think it is pretty funny how after having inspected its new insular domain, the Austrian king was reported how it was not of great value, and forcedly switched it with Savoy for Sicily. And this is the reason why in my island, in the range of less than a year, the official language switched from Spanish to German to Italian: go figure it out!

Academiegebouw Utrecht
Academiegebouw – by Mark Ahsmann

As it can be imagined, the Peace of Utrecht was met with tepid enthusiasm, if a German chronicler commented it as “blown into existence […] by the most simple of all imbeciles”! Nevertheless, it was a great international event, which brought the name of our city into the stardom of the historical places: the University of Utrecht, already founded in 1636, became seat of part of the negotiations in its Academiegebouw, and attracted more and more scholars and professors from all around the continent. The city however was still due to go through some last epochal changes…

To be continued (and finished!)…

Claudio Agnesa

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