Working in the shadow of history

After shamelessly having praised my home-town of Nijmegen in my previous blog, I think it’s time to give you a short introduction to an even smaller place in the beautiful country of the Netherlands, but one with quite a rich history for such a relatively small city. It’s also the city where we from Medieval Warfare magazine are working on delivering a proper magazine every two months. I’m talking, of course, about the city of Zutphen. 

If you’re looking at a map of the Netherlands, one might state it doesn’t look very impressive, and one would be right. It’s home to less than 50.000 people, is located in a somewhat provincial region of the Netherlands (i.e. not even close to Amsterdam, at least for Dutch standards), and while the centre is quite charming, with quite a few very good restaurants, one would be hard-pressed to find a proper bar to have a drink with some friends. That said, it’s still quite a popular destination for tourists. The reason for this is, as I said above, the role it played in history and the fact that World War II didn’t cause as much destruction compared to Nijmegen or Rotterdam (even though the city was bombed several times and was only liberated by the Canadians after 2 weeks of battle).

The ‘Berkelpoort’

Let’s start at the beginning. According to the sources, Zutphen has been inhabited for more than 1700 years, making it one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands (in comparison: Amsterdam is only first mentioned in the sources in the late 13th century). It started as a German settlement sometime in the 3rd century, and remained inhabited during the great migrations of the Early Middle Ages. It became part of Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire around AD 800, but it was destroyed by Vikings in the late 9th century. However, the city was rebuilt quickly, including (at first) somewhat rudimentary defences. 

The 11th and 12th centuries witnessed a rise of the power of the counts of Zutphen and Guelders, which was accompanied by the building of stronger defences. Around the 14th century, Zutphen experienced a ‘golden age’, during which time it was the major political and commercial player in the area. This was also a direct result of their role in the lucrative trade to and from the Baltic Sea. From the 13th century onwards, Zutphen became a member of the Hanseatic League, and they held several trade factories on the Sound, between Denmark and Sweden. 

City walls as part of an office.

Being part of the county of Guelders, Zutphen became involved in the Guelderian Wars at the start of the 16th century. The count of Guelders was defeated, and all of the Low Countries came under the control of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. This, in turn, led to the Eighty Years war, during which Zutphen was repeatedly besieged by both the Spanish and Dutch forces, trading hands several times. In the centuries thereafter, Zutphen was part of a Dutch defensive network, but aside from that, it ceased to play a major role within the context of European history.

The cities rich medieval history is still clearly visible in and around the centre. There are several historic buildings, some even from the 14th century, which are completely preserved, several of them housing shops. The 15th century city hall is still standing (and is still used for certain official events, I believe; if not, then there are some rather loud and musical ghost wandering its halls). The current Romano-Gothic Saint Walburgis Church dates back to the 13th century, though it has been expanded in later centuries. And, most importantly for us as military historians, large parts of the original 15th century city walls and several of its gates are still intact around the center, which, combined with the fact that centre of Zutphen doesn’t contain high flats, sometimes gives you the feeling that you’re actually entering a medieval city (though the cars and mobile phones often quickly put an end to such feelings). And, whether by fortune or design, it just so happens that our office is located directly on front one such parts of the city walls, near the ‘Bourgonjetoren’, a tower built in 1457 during a war between Guelders and Burgundy in order to keep the Burgundians (‘Bourgondiers’ in Dutch) out of the city. 

The ‘Bourgonjetoren’

Of course, to some of you such history might seem quite irrelevant if compared with the major wars and battles of the Crusades, the Hundred Years War, or the War of the Roses. Still, it never hurts to admire the beauty of those less grand events in history, especially if you’re working amongst its remnants. 

That said, I’m sure that all of you will agree that the most important legacy of Zutphen lies in the fact that it’s the place where we, at Karwansaray Publishers, drink our coffee, crack the occasional bad Schwarzenegger-joke, communicate with all our readers and contributors, and where we’re making those magazines you love so much in the process. Next time you’re reading an issue of Medieval Warfare, just remember that it’s literally being made in the shadow of a type of structure which played such an important part in medieval military history (well, it is at times, when the sun is positioned at the right angle, and when we’re not being bothered by those pesky clouds we see so often).

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