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About the Cathedral

The birth and growth of Utrecht

At the beginning of the Christian era, the Romans dominated extensive parts of Europe. In north-west Europe, the Rhine had become the northern border of their empire. A further expansion into the north did not make sense. This explains why the Roman Emperor Claudius commissioned his general Corbulo to set up a line of fortresses along the Rhine in 47 A.D. One of these fortresses or 'castella' became the origin of the later city of Utrecht. It was built at a ford along the Rhine and, consequently, it was called 'Traiectum' , which means 'crossing'. In the local language this developed into Trecht, Uut-trecht (= lowet-Trecht) and, finally, Utrecht.

Castellum Utrecht

The castellum in Utrecht was originally made of wood and earth. It had to be rebuilt several times, e.g. after the rebellion of the Batavians in 69 A.D., when it had been destroyed by fire. At the beginning of the 3rd century, the then wooden fortress was replaced by a slightly bigger castellum made of (tuff)stone.

Domplein during the Roman period and Middle Ages

Even then, its size was only about 125 x 130 meters. It was situated on the site of the present Dom Square and tist surroundings. Santy remains of the stone walls are left. Excavations have shown that during the Roman period, people lived also to the east and to the west of the castellum. They fulfilled the needs of the soldiers who inhabited the fortress in various ways. Thus, they provided them with goods ranging from food to women.

In the 3rd century, the pressure of Germanic tribes from outside the Roman Empire on the fortified border increased. Consequently, the Romans had to withdraw from their line of defenses, thus also from Utrecht, in the second half of that century. We have little information about the following period. Probably, the castellum and its settlements remained inhabited by a small number of people. During excavations around the present Pieterskerk (St Peter's Church), remains were found of a burial ground dating from the early 5th century.


The name of Traiectum/Trecht appeared again in the 7th century. Then, new rulers, the Franks, had established themselves in this area. They wanted to enlarge their empire at the expense of the Frisians. Again, Utrecht was situated in a frontier region. The Frankish Empire had already been Christianized; the Frisians had not yet been converted. Missionaries accompanied the armies of the Franks. From this moment on, their national saint, Martin of Tours, was also honored in Utrecht: a wooden church was dedicated to him. In the middle of the 7th century, it was burnt during the Frisian reconquest of Utrecht.
After Utrecht had been retaken by the Franks around 695, the Anglo-Saxon monk Willibrord appeared. He rebuilt St Martin's Church, which had been destroyed, and, next to this church, he founded Saint Saviour's Church. Thus, a so-called double cathedral came into existence. Willibrord had been appointed archbishop of the Frisians by the Pope. From Utrecht, he carried out his missionary tasks among them. He also founded a school where the clergy were educated. The school was known far and wide for its high standard of education.

In the 9th century, Utrecht was terrorized by Viking invasions, as was the rest of Europe. The bishop fled to the city of Deventer. He returned only in 922 and rebuilt the churches that had been destroyed.
The Low Countries belonged to the German Empire, which was ruled by the Emperor. Utrecht was the capital city of a diocese of the same name. In this period, the Pope could hardly influence the appointment of bishops. They were appointed by the emperor, who also placed the government of large parts of his empire in their hands. An area in which the bishops had worldly power was called a 'Sticht' (bishopric). The Sticht of Utrecht consisted of the present Provinces of Utrecht, Overijssel, Drente and the town of Groningen. The Diocese of Utrecht was much larger. It covered the part of the present Netherlands north of the major rivers. Here, the bishop's authority was limited to ecclesiastical affairs.

At the beginning of the 11th century, the present Dom Square must have made a striking impression. There were two large Romanesque churches: St Martin's Cathedral and St Saviour's Church and, in between them, the Chapel of the Holy Cross. In the west the Episcopal palace was situated and so was the Palace called Lofen, in which the emperor stayed during his official visits to Utrecht. Furthermore, the houses of the clergy of both churches were there.

A Chapter was connected to the Cathedral as well as to St Saviour's. The Cathedral Chapter consisted of forty canons (canonici). They lived according to a certain rule or canon, which enforced chastity and obedience on them, as in the case of monks, but which did not impose poverty. As a consequence, the canons were generally well-off. The chapters were very affluent institutions, resulting from the revenues of landownership, among other things. Part of the money was spent on the construction and maintenance of their churches. The canons lived individually in large houses in a walled area or Close around their churches. In this area of ecclesiastical immunity, the civil authorities did not have any control. The main task of the canons consisted in the celebration of the liturgy and the chanting of the choral prayers seven times a day. Moreover, they were involved in the appointment of new bishops and in the government of the diocese. Furthermore, they managed their lands.

In 1039, Emperor Conrad II died in Utrecht. His heart and intestines were buried in the crossing of the Cathedral. Shortly afterwards, Bishop Bernulfus (Bernold) commissioned a cross of churches to be built around the Cathedral. These were the collegiate churches of St Peter in the east, of St John to the north and the church of St Paul's Abbey to the south of the Cathedral. The collegiate church of St. Mary to the west of the Cathedral was built about half a century later by one of Bernold's successors. Thus, Utrecht acquired four new patron saints and four new places of ongoing prayer.
The common people went to church in their parish church, the Buurkerk (church of the Neighbours). These people, merchants and craftsmen, lived in three settlements along the water. There were situated in between the Steenweg (Paved Road) and the Oude Gracht (Old Canal) along the then river Rhine, and to the north and to the south of the present town centre, where the river Vecht flowed at that time. When these settlements gradually began to grow, on parish church did not suffice. Shortly after 1122, the parishes of St Jame', St Nicholas'- and St Gertrude's Churches were separated from the parish of the Buurkerk.                                                                                                              

Around 1100, reforms in the Church of Rome had extended the power of the Pope. A long-standing conflict between the Pope and the emperor concerning the right of appoint bishops, among other things, was settled in 1122 by the Concordat of Worms, through which the emperor lost this right. Thus, the bishops did not get strong political support from the emperor any longer. Consequently, the worldly power of the bishops declined, which manifested itself, among other things, through the fact that the inhabitants of Utrecht acquired their town charter in 1122. In 1125, the Emperor Henry V died during a visit to Utrecht. His heart and intestines were also buried in the Cathedral. A number of 15th-century tiles in the sanctuary still remind us of the Emperors Conrad II and Henry V who both died in Utrecht.
Commemorative tiles in the sanctuary for the Emperors Conrad II and Henry V.
In 1253, the greater part of Utrecht was destroyed by fire. For more than a week, the town was scourged by this fire. St. Martin's Cathedral was also severely damaged. When the reconstruction of the church was started, a new kind of architecture was chosen: the (North French) Gothic. Probably, the Cathedral of Cologne served as an example for the new Utrecht Cathedral.

The Gothic Cathedral

The construction of the Gothic St Martin's Cathedral was officially started in 1254, but is actually began in 1284 and was stopped in 1520. The Romanesque Cathedral was replaced piece by piece. The ambulatory, the rest of the choir, the tower, the transept and the nave were built in succession. But by the beginning of the 16th century, both money and enthusiasm had run out: influences of the Renaissance and of the Reformation made themselves felt. This explains why the nave was never completely finished: it did not have brick vaults, but a flat wooden ceiling, neither buttresses of sufficient height, nor any flying buttresses. Therefore, when, in 1674, town and country were hit by a tornado, the nave of the Cathedral collapsed. It was only in 1826 that the last debris were cleared away. Then, pulling down the entire church was even considered.

During the 16th century, the influence of the Reformation was growing. To oppose its spread a reorganization of the Church was realized: Utrecht became an archbishopric in 1559, among other things. But the tide could not be turned. The dissatisfaction at the abuses of the Church had become so strong that it resulted in a revolt during which statues and furniture in the churches were destroyed.
In 1566, the parish churches in Utrecht were affected by this so-called iconoclasm. It was only in 1580 that the iconoclasts turned to the collegiate churches. Then, the Cathedral was also severely damaged. In this year, Utrecht officially joined the Reformation: from an Episcopal city it was transformed into a stronghold of the Reformation. Even though approximately one third of the people remained Roman Catholic and in spite of a relatively great tolerance, public practice of the Roman Catholic faith was forbidden. The Cathedral was turned into a Protestant church, but the chapter remained. It still managed its lands and formed part of the provincial government of Utrecht. The newly appointed canons, however, were always Protestants.

During the French occupation from 1672-1673, the Dom Church was again used for Roman Catholic services, after the soldiers of Louis XIV had removed everything that was reminiscent of Protestantism. In 1673, the reverse happened. In 1811, the French again brought about a change. The Emperor Napoleon abolished the chapters and separated the tower from the church as to ownership: the tower was given to the civil authorities, the church remained in the possession of the church congregation.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, church and tower were restored several times. The most recent restoration of the church took place between 1979 and 1988. On the outside, among other things, all the decorations which had disappeared were newly mad, e.g. the pinacles with a height of 7 meters. Inside, the position of the furniture was drastically changed. The pews were placed into former choir arrangement: facing each other and not any longer behind each other and directed towards the pulpit. This arrangement is functional with regard to the celebration of the liturgy.