Utrecht – Holland

FROM Amsterdam it is usual to go to that famous city of Utrecht, whose name we have so often pronounced when as boys we tried to fix in our minds the date, of 1713 in our history lessons. One goes to Utrecht, which in itself offers nothing extraordinary after having seen other Dutch cities—not so much out of curiosity as to he able, in future, to refer to the spots when recalling the famous events which took place within its walls. You go to breathe the air of that place where was completed the most solemn act in the history of Holland, the alliance of the Netherland provinces against Philip II.; where the treaty was signed which gave restored peace to Europe after the formidable wars of the Spanish Succession; where the innocent head of the aged Van Dieman fell under the Duke of Alva’s axe ; where memories of Saint Boniface are still alive and speaking, and also those of Adrian IV., Charles V., and Louis XIV. ; and where still boils and bubbles the combative rage of the ancient bishops, transfused into the blood of orthodox Calvinists, and ultramontane Catholics.

The road, leaving Amsterdam, passes beside the Di mermeer, the polder (the drained lands are called polder) which is the deepest in Holland, and runs along the branch of the Rhine called Vecht, then winding among villas and kitchen-gardens, reaches Utrecht, which is seated in the midst of a most fertile country watered by the Rhine, crossed by canals, and sprinkled with houses and gardens.

Utrecht, like Leyden, has the solemn, sad aspect of a great city fallen into decadence : great deserted squares, broad silent streets, and wide canals, in which are mirrored houses of antique form and gloomy colors. But there is one thing new to the stranger. The canals are, like the Arno at Florence and the Seine at Paris, deeply sunken between the streets that flank them ; and below the streets there are shops, and workshops and stores, and habitations with their doors opening on the water, and the street-pavement for a roof. The town is encircled by beautiful shaded alleys, and has a famous promenade which Louis XIV. generously preserved from the vandalism of his soldiers—a street half a French league in length, shaded by eight rows of beautiful lindens.

The history of Utrecht is closely entwined with that of its cathedral, which is, perhaps, of all the churches in Holland, the one that has seen the strangest vicissitudes. It was founded, towards 720, by a bishop of Utrecht ; rebuilt from floor to roof towards the middle of the thirteenth century by another bishop ; in 1674, on the 1st of August, a hurricane carried off completely one great nave which has never been rebuilt; the iconoclasts of the sixteenth century devastated it; it was restored to Catholic worship by the French in the following century; the Protestant faith was re established in it by the Dutch after the invasion of Louis XIV.; and finally, its statues, its altars, and its crosses have been carried off and re-placed, raised and ruined, venerated and abused, by every change of the wind of opinion. It was certainly at one time one of the largest and finest of the Dutch churches ; now it is bare and mutilated, and encumbered in great part with benches, which give it the look of a chamber of deputies. The hurricane of 1674, which destroyed a nave, separated the church from its very lofty tower, from which can be seen, with a telescope, almost all the provinces of Holland, a part of Gueldres and Brabant, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Bois-le-Due, the. Leek, the gulf of Zuyder Zee, whilst a clock furnished with forty-two bells shakes out into the air, as it strikes the hours; the amorous strains of Count Almaviva’s romance, and the prayer of I Lombardi alla prima Croceata.

Near the church is the celebrated university, founded in 1636, which still gives life to the city, although declined, like that of Leyden, from its primitive importance. The University of Leyden has a literary and scientific character; that of Utrecht a religious character, which it both receives from and communicates to the city, the seat of Protestant orthodoxy. For this reason it is said that you see in the streets of Utrecht the pallid and attenuated Puritan visage which has disappeared else-where, and which seems a shade evoked from older times.

The people are graver of aspect than in the other cities, ladies affect a nun-like demeanor, and even among the students there is a certain air of penitence and reserve, which, however, does not exclude beer, or banquets, or scandal, or evil practices. Besides being the seat of orthodoxy, Utrecht is also one of the strongest citadels of Catholicism, professed by twenty-two thousand of its inhabitants ; and no one can have forgotten the tempest which broke out in Holland when the Pope wished to re-establish the bishopric of that city—a tempest which roused the hidden rancor of Protestants and Catholics, and overthrew the ministry of Zorbecke, the little Cavour of the United Provinces.

But in the matter of religion, Utrecht possesses a precious rarity, a curious archeological relic, worthy of a museum, the principal seat of the Jansenist sect, which is no more found in the condition of a constituted church, except in the Low Countries, where it counts still thirty communities and some thousands of believers. The church, decorated with the simple inscription Deo, rises in the midst of a group of small houses disposed in the form of a cloister, and joined together by small alleys shaded by fruit-trees ; and in this silent and sad retreat, to which, not many years ago, there was but one entrance, which was closed at night and barred like the gate of a fortress, the decrepit doctrine of Jansen languishes, and his last devotees doze. To this day at each new nomination of a bishop it is regularly announced to the Sovereign Pontiff, who responds as regularly with a bull of excommunication, which is read from the pulpit and then buried and forgotten. Thus this little Port-Royal, which already feels the silence and solitude of the tomb, still continues to prolong its last resistance against death.

Of notable public institutions Utrecht has none but the mint and a college for military surgeons for the kingdom and colonies. The antique factories, for the making of that beautiful velvet once famous in Europe, have disappeared. Except the cathedral there are no public monuments. The City Hall, which preserves some ancient keys and some old standards, together with the table on which the peace of Utrecht was signed, was built in 1830. The Royal Palace, which I did not see, must be one of the most modest of palaces, for the guides, who are not apt to overlook anything, did not point it out to me.

This palace, however, if tradition does not lie, was the scene of a comic adventure that befell Napoleon the Great. During his very brief sojourn at Utrecht he occupied the bedroom of his brother Louis, which was contiguous to the bath-room. It is known that, wherever he went, he took with him one servant whose exclusive duty it was to have a bath in readiness for him at any hour of the day or night. On the evening of his arrival at Utrecht, in a bad humor, as was usual with him in Holland, he went to bed early, and, whether by inadvertence or design the story does not tell, left the door of his chamber open. The bath-servant, who was a good-natured Breton, after having prepared the bath, went to bed also in a small room not far from the imperial chamber. Towards midnight, awakened by sudden pain, and obliged to leave his bed in a hurry, half asleep and in his shirt, he began feeling about for the door of his room. He found it, but, for his evil fortune, instead of going where he wished, he found the door of the Emperor’s room and went in, overturning a chair in the darkness. A terrible voice—that voice !—called out, ” Who’s there?” The poor fellow, frozen with fear, tried to answer, but the words died in his throat ; he attempted to get out by the way he had come, but the door was not to he found; bewildered and terrified he sought it on the other side. ” Who’s there?” thundered the Emperor, jumping out of bed. The servant, now completely out of his wits, tumbled over chairs and tables, and vainly tried to escape Then Napoleon, no longer doubting that treason was at work, seized his large silver watch, threw it at the head of the intruder, and seizing him by the throat, and shouting with what voice be had left, pounded the man’s head with formidable blows. Then came running the valets, the chamberlains, the aides-de-camp, the ‘prefect of the palace, with weapons and lights, and saw the great Napoleon and the poor serving-man, both in their shirts, in the midst of the most infernal disorder, and looking in each other’s faces, the one in profound amazement, the other in humble supplication, as in a pantomime. The news of the event ran all over Europe ; as is usual, it grew as it spread; there, was talk of an attempt on the Emperor’s life, a conspiracy, an assassination accomplished, Napoleon in his grave, the universe convulsed—and all this to-do was caused by a poor servant’s bad supper.

But the prince who has left the most memories in. Utrecht is Louis XIV. The French say, you must go to Utrecht to see the reverse of the medal of the great king; and this reverse of the medal is the war of 1670, during which he made a long sojourn in that city.

On the reverse side of the medal of Louis XIV. is written one of the most glorious and pathetic pages of the history of Holland.

France and England entered into an alliance for the conquest of Holland. For what reason ? There was no reason. To the States-General demanding the wherefor, the ministers of the King of France replied alleging impertinences in the gazettes, and. a medal struck in Holland with an inscription wanting in reverence towards Louis XIV. The King of England, on his side, adduced as pretexts a picture in which English vessels were represented as captured and burned, and the failure of the Dutch fleet to salute an English ship. They spent fifty millions of francs in getting ready for the war. France sent out thirty vessels loaded with cannon, and England added a fleet of one hundred sail. To the French army, one hundred thousand strong, men disciplined and accustomed to war, and accompanied by a formidable artillery, were joined the army of the Bishop of Munster and the Elector of Cologne, numbering twenty thousand swords. The generals were Condé, Turenne, Vauban, and Luxembourg; Minister Louvois presided over the staff; the historian Pélisson followed with the task of writing down the actions; Louis XIV., the greatest king of the century, surrounded by a splendid court, escorted, like an Asiatic monarch, by a phalanx of gentlemen, cadets of noble houses, and plumed and gilded Swiss, accompanied the army. All this force and this greatness, enough to crush an empire, threatened a little country abandoned to itself, defended only by twenty-five thousand soldiers and by a Prince only twenty-two years of age, unprovided with munitions of war, torn by factions, infested by spies and traitors. War is declared ; the splendid army of the great king begins its triumphal march; Europe looks on. Louis XIV., at the head of thirty thousand soldiers commanded by Turenne, scatters gold and favors all along the way, like a god. Four cities fall at once into his hands. All the fortresses of the Rhine and the Yssei fall also. At the approach of the pompous royal van-guard, the enemy melts away before it. The invading army crosses the Rhine almost without encountering resistance, and the passage is celebrated as a marvellous event, with the army, at Paris, and all over France. Does-burg, Zutphen, Arnhem, Nosemburg, Nimegnen, Shenk, Bommel fall. Utrecht sends the keys of her gates to the victorious king. Every hour of the day and night brings news of a victory. The provinces of Gueldres and Over-Yssel submit. Narden, near Amsterdam, is taken. Four French cavaliers advance even to the gates of Muiden, which is only two miles from the capital. The country is a prey to despair, Amsterdam is preparing to open her gates to the invaders, the States-General sends four deputies to implore the clemency of the king. To such a pass is reduced the country that was once the arbitrator of monarchs ! The deputies arriving at the enemy’s camp, the king will not admit them to his presence, and Louvois receives them with derision.

Finally, the conditions of peace are intimated to them. Holland is to cede all the provinces beyond the Rhine, and all roads by land or sea by which the enemy can penetrate into her heart ; to pay twenty millions of francs; to embrace the Catholic religion; to send every year to the King of France a gold medal, upon which it shall be inscribed that Holland owes her liberty to Louis XIV.; and to accept conditions imposed by the King of England and the Princes of Munster and Cologne. The announcement of these outrageous and insupportable pretensions produces in Amsterdam an outburst of despair and fury. The States-General, the nobles, and the people, resolve to defend themselves to the very last. The dykes of Muiden, which restrain the sea, are cut, and the sea, breaking in upon the land, is received with shouts of joy, as an ally and a saviour; the country around Amsterdam, the innumerable villas and flourishing villages, Delft, Leyden, and all the neighbouring cities, are inundated ; everything is changed ; Amsterdam is a fortress encircled by the sea and de-fended by a bulwark of ships; Holland is no longer a State, it is a fleet, which, when every other hope of safety shall have perished, will carry the wealth, the magistrates, and the honor of the country to the remote ports of the colonies. Admiral de Ruyter scatters the French and English fleets, makes secure the coasts of Holland, and introduces the Indian mercantile fleet into the port of the island of Texel. The Prince of Orange gives up his property to the State, inundates more lands, startles Spain; moves the Governor of Flanders, who sends him some regiments; wins the heart of the Emperor of Germany, who sends to his help Montecuccoli at the head of twenty thousand men; gets aid from the Elector of Brandenburg, and persuades England to peace. Thus he holds front against the French until the winter, which covers Holland with ice and snow, and cheeks the invading army. But at the approach of spring the fight begins once more on sea and land. Sometimes fortune smiles on the French arms ; but neither the care of the great king, nor the genius of his famous generals, nor the efforts of his powerful army avail to wrest victory from the Republic. Condé in vain attempts to penetrate into the heart of the submerged country; Turenne cannot prevent the Prince of Orange from making a junction with the army of Montecuccoli ; the Dutch take Bonn and invest the Bishop of Munster; the King of England with-draws from the league ; the French army is constrained to retire from the enterprise. The invasion had been a triumphal march : the retreat was a precipitous flight. The triumphal arches which were being built at Paris to celebrate the victory were not yet completed when the vanguard of the discomfited army arrived there; and Louis XIV., upon whom Europe smiled at the beginning of the war, found himself opposed by all. Such a triumph did little Holland carry off over the Grande Monarque; love of country over the rage for conquest, despair over arrogance, justice over force.

A few miles from Utrecht, near a beautiful wood, is the village of Zeist, which is approached by a road bordered with the parks and country houses of the rich merchants of Rotterdam. In this village there is a colony of those renowned brothers of Bohemia, or Moravian brothers, a religious sect derived from those founded by Valdus and John Huss, which turned Europe upside down. I had a desire to see the direct descendants of those Waldensians and Hussites ” who were burned on all the piles, hanged on all the gallows, nailed on all the crosses, broken on all the wheels, torn in pieces by all the horses,” and I made an excursion to Zeist. This Moravian house was founded towards the middle of the last century, and contains about two hundred and fifty men, women, and children. The aspect of the place is as austere as the lives of its in-habitants. There are two spacious courtyards, separated by a wide street, each one of which is enclosed on three sides by a great building as bare as a barrack. In one of these buildings are the married couples and unmarried men, and the schools ; in the other, the widows and girls, the church, the pastor, and the head of the community. The ground-floor is occupied by shops, containing merchandise, partly the work of the Moravians, such as gloves, soap, candles, &c., partly purchased to be sold again at fixed and very moderate prices. The church is nothing but a great hall, with two tribunes for strangers, and some rough benches for the brothers. The interior of the two buildings is like that of a convent, with long corridors bordered by small cells in which each brother lives in profound meditation, working and praying. Their lives are of the strictest. They profess, at least ostensibly, the Augsburg Confession. They admit original sin, but in the faith that the death of Jesus Christ has absolutely purified humanity. They believe that the unity of the Church consists more in the charity which should unite all the disciples of Christ in one single mind and one single heart, than in uniformity of faith. They practise, in a certain sense, community of goods, and bring voluntary offerings to the common fund. All necessary professions are exercised among themselves : doctors, nurses, teachers, &c. The Superior can punish by a reproof, by excommunication, or by expulsion from the community. The occupations of the day are regulated as in a college : prayer, private meeting, reading, work, religious exercises, at certain fixed hours, and among the brethren of the classes named. To give an idea of the order which reigns among them, I may point out, among many other peculiar customs, that the different conditions of the women are indicated by differently colored ribbons worn upon the head. Girls wear a bright rose-colored ribbon until the age of ten, a red ribbon until eighteen, and a pale red one until their marriage; married women wear a blue ribbon, and widows a white one. Thus in that society everything is classed, established, measured; life goes on with the regularity of a machine ; man moves like an automaton; rules take the place of will, and the clock governs thought. When I entered the building I saw no one but two servants standing at the threshold, and one girl with a red ribbon at a window. The courtyards were deserted, no sign of life was there, not even a fly buzzed. I looked here and there, as one looks at a cemetery through the bars of a gate, and went thoughtfully back to Utrecht.