When Utrecht was founded, it was a simple Roman fort. During the Middle Ages, however, it evolved into a city, serving not only as the administrative centre of the Northern Netherlands, as well as the bishop’s see which it remained until well into the 16th century. However, the Dutch Revolt in 1568 would eventually bring an end to Utrecht as the bishop’s see. Initially, the authorities strove towards the peaceful co-existence of Catholicism and Protestantism. Responding to the tremendous pressure and terror exercised by strict Calvinists in the form of several outbreaks of iconoclasm, however, the city authorities banned the Catholic faith in 1580.
Following the Dutch Revolt and the Protestant Reformation, major spatial developments were carried out, as it became clear that the city needed more reinforcement. The Vredenburg stronghold, however, was demolished. The former grounds of monasteries and convents with their relatively open design were used to build housing and lay new roads. For example, Korte Nieuwstraat was laid on the site of the former Paulus abbey and the church of Oudmunster which was demolished in 1586. Several other Catholic sanctuaries also eventually made way for other roads.
A rather appealing cartographic depiction of the developments described above is the town plan of Utrecht engraved by Jan van Vianen and published by C. Specht in 1695. This is the later and unamended republication of the plan by the firm Ottens. Compared to other maps from the 16th century, this map shows the expanded fortifications at their most resplendent, the open space where the former Vredenburg stronghold once stood and the consolidation of the town.
Despite these changes, the town underwent no major spatial redevelopment in the 17th century, experiencing in fact a period of stagnation. However, functional changes were occurring within the city defences. The founding of the university in 1636 created a new, academic function for many of the abandoned churches, monasteries and convents. A paille-maille lawn game field was laid for the students’ recreation in 1637. The scroll on the upper right attests to this:
'De stad Utrecht is gesticht in ’t iaar 60. Bemuert tot de groote als jegenwoordig in ’t iaar 930. Groot in syn omgang binnen de wallen 1300 roeden. Bevat in sig 12 kercken, 13 gasthuysen, 120 straten, 50 stene bruggen en ontrent 6000 huysen. Vermaert door d’Academie. Heeft de schoonste Plantagien Maaljebaan van gants Nederland.' In short, the days of monasteries, convents or abbeys in Utrecht were over!
Specht’s plan is of superior cartographic quality. It is the first commercially printed map to faithfully reproduce the city’s layout. Older printed maps rely too heavily on a rectangular outline of the city, while Specht’s plan was the first to use a more realistic harp-shaped contours. In addition, the use of elevation in rendering the exceptional buildings reflects quite accurately the situation as it was then.
A notable feature of Specht’s map is the system of canals shown to the west of the town (along the bottom of the map in which east is oriented ‘up’), where market gardeners worked the muddy ‘gardening canals’ (moesgrachten). Created in 1664, this system of canals represented the first push in the expansion yet to be implemented by then-mayor of Utrecht, Hendrik Moreelse.
Utrecht’s population remained more or less stable from the start of the 16th century to the start of the 19th century at about 30,000. Although the town was experiencing a period of economic malaise, the city – following the example of Amsterdam – nonetheless pursued ambitious expansion plans during the Golden Age. Moreelse’s plan incorporated the newly excavated system of canals as part of a massive expansion drive, which included fortifications to the north, west and south of Utrecht. This expansion supposedly doubled the area of the town. The intention was to develop wealthy residential areas to compete with the old centre of Amsterdam. These districts, however, never materialised; only a few ditches were filled in. When Moreelse died in 1666, so, too, did the major driver behind the project.
Several years later, another Utrecht resident, Everard Meyster, began work on the town’s expansion plans. His even more ambitious plans, which never made it from the drawing board, featured an oval-shaped area of expansion encompassing the entire city, including the eastern side, and even a port. Utrecht would have to wait until 1879 for the publication of the first expansion plan of note, which was fully implemented by means of a series of subplans, some of which were modified.
A rather remarkable incident in 1674 illustrates well the relatively difficult position Utrecht found itself in during the 17th century. In that year, an intense tornado ravaged Utrecht, known also as the City of the Dom (Domstad) after the cathedral which stands in the centre. The winds caused the nave of the Domkerk cathedral to collapse, which has not been rebuilt to this day. The bishop would have never had let that occur a century earlier…