Zutphen, on the Berkel and IJssel rivers, is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands and has one of the best-preserved medieval town centres in northwestern Europe.
Nicknamed the Torenstad because of its large, historic buildings and variety of towers that form the city’s skyline, this Hanzestad has a rich and storied history going back to the days of the Romans 1,700 years ago.
Around 300 AD it was a Germanic settlement, and it has been inhabited continuously ever since. Stepping into the old city centre today is like walking back into the Middle Ages. In addition to towers, it has historic warehouses, stately merchant houses, churches, courtyards, squares, streets, alleys and remnants of ancient fortifications. This medieval city also offers a popular mix of speciality shops, boutiques, lunchrooms, restaurants and cafes. There are several museums, numerous galleries and workshops to satisfy anyone’s cultural proclivity. And there is the “Librije,” one of Europe’s most unique 16th century public libraries and the infamous Wijnhuis (Wine House).
Days of yore
The name Zutphen may have been derived from Zuidveen (Eng. South-Fen). Fen means a low, marshy, frequently flooded area of boggy, soggy meadowland. This area of the Netherlands was very inhospitable during the heyday of the Roman Empire. Although they conquered most of Western Europe, they stayed away from this vicinity in 12 BC. The Romans didn’t want to deal with the waterlogged terrain, the cold weather and the pesky Germanic tribes who occupied the area for centuries. Conditions were so bad that even many of the original settlements were abandoned in the early Middle Ages. But because Zutphen was on a strategic junction of the IJssel and the Berkel, it stayed put on its own sand dune and turf.
A series of quibbles and conquests between different northern Germanic tribes ensued for several hundred years. In the fifth century these tribes united and called themselves the Franks. Although the Franks loved pork, they did not invent the frankfurter. They did boot the Romans out of the Netherlands and the rest of old Gaul, which included present-day France, Belgium, Luxemburg and any land west of the Rhine. The gall! But paganistic Rome was in decline anyway due to economic troubles, overreliance on cheap slave labour, military overspending, government corruption, political instability, mass migration, the loss of traditional values and Christianity. Déjà vu all over again.
Three centuries later the Roman pagans became pious and the Franks joined the Catholic congregation. Around 800, Charlemagne, aka Charles I, King of the Franks and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, turned Zutphen into a local centre of governance under a Count who was appointed by Charles. You’ve got to have a Count to count on for legitimacy. Scandinavian Vikings weren’t impressed. They raided and ravaged Zutphen in 882. Afterwards, a circular fortress with a 20-meter wide moat was built to protect the budding town against future Viking attacks. The Groenmarkt, Houtmarkt and Zaadmarkt markets are still part of that former ring wall and moat.
In the 11th century, Zutphen briefly became a residence of German emperors. They had a commanding 54-meter-long Romanesque palace built on the current s’ Gravenhof square. The Counts of Zutphen moved in after the Germans left. A later Count moved out because the wife wanted a newer palace with more conveniences. The old palace fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1634. In 1046 German Emperor Henry III donated Zutphen to Bishop Bernold of Utrecht who coronated himself Governor of the County of Zutphen. Next to the old palace, Bernold built Saint Walburgis church, along with a monastery. The church became known for its famous “Librije,” a public chain library and reading room established in 1564.
The Haseanic high life
During the late 11th and early 12th centuries, the Counts of Zutphen succeeded in steadily gaining more influence and power. Between 1191 and 1196, one of them granted Zutphen city rights. These rights were usually given by a Count, Duke or similar member of the high nobility who owned the town and the region around it. The town was given certain privileges that other towns without city rights did not have. City rights allowed it to self-govern and have a judicial court, annual and weekly markets, free trade and numerous other benefits. It could even mint its own coins, which had no value outside the city. Because of its strategic location on the IJssel, and because of its trading privileges, Zutphen attracted numerous German merchants downriver along the Rhine. The IJssel is a tributary of the Rhine and was a shortcut to the Baltic trading routes.
Zutphen became a Hanseatic town in the 13th century, trading with England, Flanders, Denmark and the Baltic cities. It mainly transported herring, butter, wine and beer. The town had 40 breweries, so selling beer was good business. Today, only one brewery is left, the Stadsbrouwerij Cambrinus, in the heart of the city. The 14th century was Zutphen’s Golden Age. The city even had its own settlement in Schonen, on the Baltic sea, a right that the King of Denmark had given to the Count of Zutphen. The wealth that Zutphen acquired as a Hanseatic city can still be seen in the beautiful and impressive buildings in the city centre.
Being a member of the Hanseatic League was a big deal. The League was formed by a group of German merchants and it dominated commercial activity in northern Europe from the 13th to the 16th century. At the League’s peak, in the middle of the 14th century, 195 seaports and river towns comprised this commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds. Their influence ranged from Portugal to Russia and from the Scandinavian countries to Italy, an area that now includes 20 European states. It was a Medieval European Union.
Then came the 16th century. It brought harder times to Zutphen, primarily due to the ongoing Eighty Years’ War with Spain. Zutphen suffered badly. In June 1572, Catholic Zutphen was taken by the Protestants, who immediately committed an iconoclasm. Religious idols were not their forte. Five months later Zutphen turned back to being Catholic because Spanish troops occupied the Netherlands. This invasion accompanied a massacre, whereby some 800 residents of Zutphen were murdered.
Twenty years later, Maurice, Prince of Orange, regained Zutphen for the Protestants and the Dutch. Prince Maurice made Zutphen a garrison town and provided it with the latest defences. Around 1670, Zutphen had about 5000 citizens and 2500 garrison soldiers. It was occupied by the French army a couple of times, in 1672 and during the French Revolution. They were short-lived. No joie de vivre. Until the dismantling of the town’s fortifications in 1874, Dutch soldiers were regulars in the life of Zutphen. Industry played a profound role in the development of the city in the 19th century, when railway links were established between Zutphen and Amsterdam and Arnhem.
Jews settled in Zutphen as early as the 1330s because it was an important commercial centre. Unfortunately, persecution of the Jews was not far behind. Following the Black Plague in 1348-1349, the Jewish settlement in Zutphen disappeared. Alt-right conspiracy theorists held the Jews responsible for the epidemic, for some ridiculous reason. Except for a lone Jewish doctor who resided in Zutphen from 1567 until 1569, no other Jews lived in the town until 1796, following the emancipation. The new residents of the burgeoning community came from Germany. In 1797 they established a synagogue and a cemetery. They were mostly poor merchants and butchers who lived in peace, until 1940 when the Germans invaded the Netherlands.
During the German occupation in World War II, the Jews of Zutphen were subjected to the same draconian anti-Jewish actions as throughout the Netherlands. Deportation of Jews from Zutphen to the detention and transit camp at Westerbork in the Dutch province of Drenthe started in November 1942 and continued until April 1943. The Zutphen synagogue was pillaged by local Dutch Nazis in 1944 and the members of the Dutch collaborationist NSB party also vandalized the Jewish cemetery. Almost all the deportees were murdered in Nazi death camps. Jewish life was reestablished in Zutphen after the war. A monument to the murdered Jews of Zutphen was erected in the Jewish cemetery in 1949. The cemetery is presently maintained by the municipality. Of the nearly pre-war 500 Jewish residents, less than 50 survived and eventually returned after the liberation.
World War II and resurgence
In World War II, the bridges over the IJssel river were the scenes of heavy fighting in 1940 and 1945. The city centre suffered considerable damage from both the Germans and the Allies. In the afternoon of October 14, 1944, three British bomber squadrons bombed the IJssel Bridge, just outside the city. Destroying the IJssel Bridge would block the German’s from supplying troops and weapons to Arnhem where a major operation was being conducted. Aside from obliterating the IJssel Bridge, the nearby urban district was also destroyed. This caused 100 civilian casualties. The city was liberated on April 14, 1945. After the war, a renovation program was started to rebuild and preserve whatever was left. As a result, Zutphen still has one of the best-preserved medieval town centres in the Netherlands.
The ‘s Gravenhof is the oldest square in Zutphen. This was the centre of power and religion in the Middle Ages. The large medieval Gothic Church of St. Walburgis on the square contains the Librije that houses a collection of 750 historical books from 1450 to 1600. The library has valuable manuscripts and incunabula from before the Reformation. The monks believed that reading the right books would keep people away from the temptations of Protestantism. The Librije is considered one of only five remaining medieval libraries in Europe. The others are in England and Italy. The library’s books are still chained to their ancient wooden desks. This was a custom centuries ago when the “public library” used chains to prevent theft. Not a bad idea. On the floor of the library is said to be the devil’s footprints. It is believed that the devil stalked a wayward monk who dared to eat KFC chicken during Lent and was condemned to a tormented evening locked in the Librije. He deserved it.
The city has two museums. On ‘s Gravenhof square is the Stedelijk Museum Zutphen and Museum Henriette Polak. The Stedelijk Museum has several historical collections about Zutphen and its turbulent history. Most notable are some objects that are among the oldest in the Netherlands, such as the “oldest watch” from 1300, the “oldest comic strip” from 1493 and the “oldest photo” from 1839. The Museum Henriette Polak has a collection of modern art.
Wine house, museums and books in shackles
The Wijnhuis (Winehouse) and its attached tower in Zutphen was the economic heart of the city. The tower was built between 1616 and 1642 and is connected to an inn, “to Vreden”, which dates to 1326. The oldest part of the foundation is from around 1300. The Wijnhuis was sort of a town hall as well as a tavern. Here’s where coach drivers came to eat and drink. The city guard or police station was also located here. That’s logical. The inn also functioned as lodging for inebriated city guards, a place where the city council made public announcements and a meeting point for civilians who had to go to battle for the elite. It was a Middle Ages recruitment centre. As a citizen, it was compulsory to participate in the battle that the duke was going to wage against his enemy.
In addition, outside the Wijnhuis was also the venue for executions, which was very popular entertainment in those days. It was an early reality show. The Wijnhuis was demolished in 1863 and replaced by a building that also served as the Stedelijk Museum. The Wijnhuis Tower burned down on January 27, 1920, because a resident next to the Wijnhuis set his house on fire. Probably for the insurance.
Lastly, the Wijnhuis was a weigh house. Excise duties were levied and collected in here on goods transported through the city and for the use of the roads. It was an excellent good source of income for the city. A road tax was a common practice throughout the country, just like today. The location of a weigh house in the country was always close to a taproom or a brewery. Zutphen was no exception.
Come and visit
Like many historic towns and cities in the Netherlands, Zutphen survived invasions, occupations, fires, plagues, poverty, prosperity, contractions, expansions, the Holy Inquisition and the Protestant Reformation. More impressive is that Zutphen survived the inhospitable harsh terrain and climate for which this part of the Netherlands is known. Zutphen is worth a visit if you love unique historic towns with charm.
Have you visited Zutphen or are planning to? Tell us in the comments below!
Feature Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied