Utrecht was once the capital city of the Netherlands for over a thousand years, but today hardly anyone has heard of it. This is the type of history that gives treasure hunters the advantage of where to look if you want to make some really cool finds. In 2012 the Lonely Planet planet rated Utrecht in the top 10 of the worlds most unsung places. I had to find out more.
This year I did some metal detecting in Utrecht and learned a little more about the city’s history. Utrecht really has such amazing history and it’s buildings are incredible so it’s very surprising that hardly anyone has heard of it.
So I thought it would be a good idea help spread the world about the cool city of Utrecht by making a mini documentary about Utrecht’s history.
This was the first documentary style video I’ve ever made so it was a steep learning curve. Turning 2000 years of history into five minute video was difficult, but so much fun. I really hope you enjoy watching, and if you ever visit the Netherlands, make sure a visit to Utrecht it on top of your list.
Here is a link to the YouTube video I made about Utrecht and below is the transcript.
History of Utrecht: Transcript
(In the city)
When thinking about the Netherlands it’s common to picture images of windmills, clogs and tulips or maybe some the countries better known cities such as The Hague, Rotterdam or Amsterdam. But one city in the Netherlands that you probably haven’t heard of, might also be one of it’s best.
In the heart of the Netherlands lies it’s 4th largest city and what was for over a thousand years was it’s most prestigious; Utrecht.
In 2012 The Lonely Planet ranked Utrecht in the top 10 of the world’s unsung places. So I thought I might get to know Utrecht a little better by exploring what the city has to offer and why it fell out of popularity.
Let’s begin our exploration from its start.
The first people to inhabit the area of where Utrecht sits today were tribes moving west from Germany between 300 to 700AD. These people became known as the Friesians. The tribes that continued migrating west made it all the way to England became what are today known as the Anglo Saxons.
What’s interesting is that because the Friesian and the Anglo Saxons originated from the same Germanic tribes, their languages were very similar. In fact Old Friesian is the closest related language to Old English.
As the Friesian population grew so did its area of control, it became known as the Kingdom of the Friesians and it wasn’t until the Roman Empire came to their doorstep that their lands were challenged.
On the Rhine River
The name Utrecht originates from Traectum, which is roman for crossing, as in a good place to cross the river. Attacks from the Northern tribes, of which there were many, would come via these shallow crossings along the Rhine.
You can think of the river Rhine behind me as the North Wall like the one in the popular TV show Game of Thrones. The Rhine was the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. To the North of the Rhine were wild tribes ‘the wildlings’ and to the south, the civilized, controlled and vastly more powerful Roman Empire or ‘Westeroz’.
Although there was no great North wall built here, what the romans did have was a line of fortifications at strategic crossings along the river Rhine that stretched for over 300kms. This great northern defence system was called the Limes Germanicus.
When a roman fort on the limes Germanicus came under attack it would signal for help by lighting a fire, the forts to the east and west would see the fire signals and come to their aid. Of course a fire signal only works on sunny days when the smoke can be seen, and unfortunately for the Roman defence the Netherlands isn’t known for it’s sunny days.
But it would be here at the shallow crossing between the Vecht and the Rhine that the city of Utrecht would start out. It was a strategic place to defend for the Romans northern frontier so in the year 42AD this shallow crossing was turned into Roman defensive fort.
Remains of the original Roman walls
Utrecht started out as a simple wooden fortification structure housing 500 roman soldiers and their families. 150 years later it received its first upgrade with the wooden city walls being replaced with stronger, thicker stone walls. The city of Utrecht today has this mist walls set up on the lines of where the original roman walls once stood.
No matter how strong the roman defence, after continual attacks, the northern tribes made it impossible for the Romans to defend the fort. So around the year 300 it was abandoned altogether.
After the romans
Abandoned it would stay for a long time. It wasn’t for another 300 years that the old fort was again mentioned in history.
In the 7th century, monks came to the back to the area and built a church dedicated to St Martin within the ruins of the old roman fort. However, the tribes still continued to attack and the church was destroyed and rebuilt several times.
The biggest impact on Utrecht becoming a bigger city came when the leader of those monk missionaries, Willibrord, was made Bishop of the Friesians by the pope.
Having the seat of the Pope in Utrecht gave Willibrord and his Bishop successors not just religious power but also political power. The title of the Bishop gave ownership of the old roman fort and surrounding lands. This made being the Bishop like being the King and that’s why they are referred to as prince Bishops. Having the Bishopric would be the catalyst in turning Utrecht from a disused roman fort with a stone church into the religious capital of the Netherlands.
The power of a Bishop in Utrecht brought in wealth to the city, enough wealth to build bigger Churches and the more they built the more the city’s economy grew and the bigger the city would grow. Utrecht’s future looked bright.
But, disaster struck in the year 857 when Vikings ransacked the city. The Vikings destroyed the city gates and walls, raided the surrounding villages and killed a lot of citizens including the church clergymen. The Bishop himself was lucky to escape with his life after fleeing quickly and narrowly avoiding the attackers.
After the Vikings left, the people returned and the city went on rebuilding. Being the religious heart of the country by having the seat of the bishop meant that wealth quickly returned to Utrecht. But the Bishop himself didn’t return for many years later.
In 1122 King Henry V of Germany visited and granted Utrecht city rights. Having city rights is a big deal. It meant that Utrecht could now become even wealthier by doing things like collecting it’s own taxes, charging tolls and minting it’s own coins. This and having the title of seat of the Bishop put Utrecht on the fast track to riches. The future of Utrecht was now looking even brighter.
And what would a wealthy Bishop do with all of this wealth? Of course, he would build the biggest and tallest cathedral possible, one to rival even the best throughout the all of Europe. This is St Martins Cathedral or the Dom to locals.
In 1253 the Dom church’s Romanesque predecessor caught fire and was heavily damaged, instead of repairing and renovating the Bishop decided to build this gigantic cathedral to confirm Utrecht as the religious heart of the country and the seat of the Bishop within it.
(Garden of the Dom)
This spot when the Dom is today located is the same spot that Willibrord built his first church dedicated to St Martin in the 7th century within the walls of the ruined roman fort. The Dom would be many in a line of churches built on this site, all dedicated to St Martin, but this one would be by far the grandest.
Interestingly enough is that the Dom wasn’t paid for by the Bishop or by the Pope, it was paid for by ‘believers’. Let’s say you committed a sin or you intended to commit one, you could go to the priest would tell you how much it would cost to have your sins forgiven. Or if you made a donation to help build the church, depending on the size of your donation, you could up to 1 year and 40 days less time spent in purgatory before going straight to heaven. The money poured in.
In 1254 the first stone was laid for the construction of the new St Martin Cathedral but it would take another 300 years before it was to be completed. Imagine the sound of construction literally lasting generations and generations. Australia for example is only 200 years old.
The word for Cathedral in Dutch is Domkerk, and this area is today known as Dom Square. Dom Square is literally the historical heart of Utrecht and it’s dominating 112-meter Dom tower that you can see behind me has been the Hallmark of the city for the last 632 years.
Can you imagine how for more than half millennia the townspeople must have felt returning home to see the silhouette of the Dom tower rising up over the horizon? It’s no wonder locals of Utrecht have such a sense of pride for their Dom tower. Artists for generations have featured it in paintings sometimes in obscure scenes.
Top of Dom Tower
Fortunately for the lack of tourists visiting Utrecht, you can still climb to the top for what has to be one of the best views in the whole of the Netherlands.
On a hot summers day in the year 1674 meteorologists believe a once in a thousand years storm stuck Utrecht. The force of the storm was so powerful that within just half hour the city of Utrecht had been reduced to ruins.
The damage was Enormous. The Dom Cathedral also sustained major damage. The nave had collapsed entirely
Miraculously though, the 112 meter Dom tower, although on its own and no longer connected to the cathedral, had survived unscathed. Even its weather vane on the towers peak was left untouched.
The city had to rebuild. And for that, Utrecht had god on it’s side.
Religious centre: Pope Adrian VI 1459-1523
Since the 8th century when the monk Willibrord first came to the ruined roman fort, built his church and became Bishop of the Friesians, Utrecht has been the religious centre in the Netherlands.
To give you an idea of Utrecht’s religious importance in the world, in 1522 the Utrecht Bishop Adriaan Florenszoon Boeyens was elected as pope.
Pope Adriaan was the first non-Italian person to ever be elected Pope and it wasn’t for another 400years that another non-Italian pope would be elected. That was pope John Paul 2nd in 1978.
Behind me is the house where Adriaan lived right here in the Heart of Utrecht in the shadow of Dom Cathedral. He was the first and only Dutch Pope.
Canals aren’t just in Amsterdam, that’s right Utrecht has it’s own ancient canals too. Boats have sailed through these canals for well over 1000 years.
Rivers were the main form of transport throughout the swampy wetlands of the Netherlands. Canals made it possible for those goods to come directly into the city. Goods would come in all the way from Colone and Maine in Germany and back out via this old canal.
The reason why Utrecht prospered so much from boat trade was due to it being located on the intersection of the major Rhine and Vecht rivers, two rivers that connected across Europe from East to West.
The construction work for the canals was carried out from around the year 1000 until 1275 and allowed goods to be dropped right at the doorstep of the warehouses.
The unique part about these canals, which you don’t see in the Canals of Amsterdam, is the lower level platform. This made it even easier to load and unload cargo. Things have changed and these days they are popular places for people to have a drink with a view.
Ever since Utrecht first started out in the year 42, the city has always been under constant under threat of invasion. As part of the work on the canals a defensive moat was dug around the entire city to help make it even more secure, but this would not stop Utrecht from being invaded many times.
In 1528 Charles V of Spain took power away from the Utrecht Bishops and the surrounding provinces claiming it under his own kingdom. The people evoked by the Bishops who were not very happy to loose their power and wealth to their new King began to rebel.
Trouble ensued and so Charles built the heavily fortified Vrendenburg castle in the heart of Utrecht garrisoned with Spanish soldiers to help control the rebelling people.
However, Utrecht formed an alliance with its surrounding provinces to help fight off Spanish rule and gain independence. This alliance is known as the Union of Utrecht and it was to be the very beginning of the Dutch Republic…that is the very start of the Nation of the Netherlands as it is today.
The first leader of the alliance was William I of Orange (It’s his ancestors that are the Royals of the Netherlands and that why the Dutch national colour is orange by the way).
This Dutch revolt against the Spanish that started in Utrecht became known as the 80 years war of 1568- 1648. Although the Spanish fled the newly built Vrendenburg castle, the Dutch rebels fearing the Spanish may return destroyed it.
The good news for the Dutch is that they won their independence. Sadly for Utrecht though the new republic didn’t like the independence the city of Utrech had and took away its unique bishopric powers. This would be the start of the decline of the city Utrecht from prominence into obscurity.
More bad news came in 1672 when the French took Utrecht with an army of 130,000 men headed by King Luis XIV. Luis demanded over 600,000 guilders in exchange for not plundering and looting the city. Payment of this ransom put Utrecht on the verge of financial ruin.
Unfortunately for Utrecht, the storm of a Millennium would hit the city 2 years later destroying many of the buildings including Nave of its famous Dom cathedral. After paying off the French, there was no money left for repairs so for years rubble just lay in the streets.
100 years later and again the French would invade Utrecht this time at the hands of Napoleon who would take the city as part of the French Kingdom. Napoleon made his brother Luis Bonaparte King of Holland and it was here in Utrecht that Luis made his home.
It wasn’t until Napoleon was defeated in 1813 that Utrecht was taken back under the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The city walls were knocked down to cope with the growth of the city as it expanded.
However Utrecht wasn’t done with invasion. Next of course came the Germans who occupied the city throughout World War 2 only leaving after surrender in 1945.
You would think with all it’s history, it’s museums medieval churches and roman ruins. The Picture postcard streets and canals with alfresco bars and cafes sitting along them. A city with the magnificent Dom Tower at it’s heart, the tallest in the country. Having been the capitol city for over 1000 years, would make Utrecht high on any visitors must see list for the Netherlands.
Instead, you wouldn’t be alone if you hadn’t even heard of it. And the reason for that is the Dutch Golden Age of the 1600’s
It was during this period in history that the prominence of the city of Utrecht was put well in the shadows of its Neighbouring seaside city of Amsterdam.
Amsterdam was at the heart of the Dutch Golden Age where unimaginable wealth poured in via ships carrying spices and materials from all four corners of the world.
The vast amounts of wealth and power put the Netherlands on the world map and Amsterdam, as it’s new capital with it. Amsterdam became the most important trade port as well as the financial capital of the world. Amsterdam fame and fortune
That’s why Utrecht, like yesterdays hero, once the countries most well known and most powerful city for over 1000 years is today, all but forgotten.
That is until you come and rediscover Utrecht, it’s beauty and fantastic history for yourself.
Bondi Treasure Hunter