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Eleven centuries-old Woudrichem celebrates its 650 years of city charter

Fortress protected access to rivers

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

WOUDRICHEM – At 650 years of age this year, Woudrichem is a relative newcomer among Dutch cities of which the vast majority was granted a city charter in medieval times. The North Brabant city is fairly unique among these historic places because it is one of a small group of cities, which has been preserved fairly well. Located in the river-logged region known as 'The Land of Heusden and Altena,' Woudrichem is across the river from the famed castle Loevestein.

Woudrichem is one of the most beautifully preserved medieval towns in the heart of the Netherlands. A river harbour city, it is practically in its original state, and also enjoys a rich cultural and historic past. Although the earliest records - naming it as 'Walrichsheim' - date from the year 866, the community very likely predates it by more years still. The name Woudrichem already was in use in 1290, when it already had a sheriff, aldermen and a council. It was granted a charter in 1356.

Strategically located, Woudrichem is one of the eleven official Dutch Fortress Towns: a series of strongholds that for centuries formed the so-called Holland Water Defence Line, which was a continuous strip of low-lying land, stretching from the Zuider Zee (now the IJsselmeer) to the river Merwede. The authorities evacuated the people living in this strip and cut the dikes to inundate the land, creating a physical obstacle to invaders (the Spanish during the Eighty Years' War, 1568-1648, and the French, in 1672 when the Dutch chased the invaders off the ice.)


The preservation of the city’s history is best appreciated when visiting its ramparts. They were designed to protect Woudrichem in time of armed conflicts, which in medieval times could involve local warlords (Arkel who fought with local countess Jacoba van Beieren) and regional counts (Gelre). The fortress sits at the confluence of the famous Dutch rivers the Maas and the Waal and also forms a so-called fortified triangle with the town of Gorinchem (Gorcum) and Loevestein Castle, together controlling access to inland waterways. This triangle is one of the Netherlands' most impressive defensive strongholds of that era.

The city bills itself as an ideal base from which to explore the cultural heritage of other Dutch cities like Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Den Bosch and Breda. Those visitors wanting to enjoy the cultural and historic scenery of the immediate surroundings on foot or bicycle will not be disappointed.

The principal town of the region, it has been part of the Province of North Brabant since 1815, when a border realignment took it out of Holland which itself then was divided into North Holland and South Holland. In and around the region, there are other historic cities such as Heusden and Geertruidenberg and, within the Woudrichem borough, eight villages that have been well-preserved as well. Visitors easily can imagine themselves back into the 19th century.

Fishing trade

In recent years, Woudrichem’s historic harbour was given back its original 1650s look, through a very unique restoration project. It has been designated a National Monument, and only is intended for historic ships like clipper barges, Dutch Stijlstevens and Frisian Maatkasten. In addition to the river Merwede harbour, Woudrichem has two picturesque, yet comfortable marinas at the Maas.

For centuries the inhabitants of Woudrichem were entitled to fish on large stretches of the Maas and the Merwede. This was a special privilege, because the ordinary people held the rights, instead of a knight, baron or town council. It was granted in 1362. When in 1877 Woudrichem’s municipal council interfered with this centuries-old entitlement, the whole town rose up in a genuine 'Fishing Revolt,' organised by hard-pressed fishermen who with their large families faced an uncertain livelihood. The local constabulary and infantry units from Loevestein and Gorcum were called in to quell the uprising.

Woudrichem’s cruciform church at the old town square dates back to the 15th century. The massive square tower used to be higher and much more conical. The tower lost its spire in 1574 during hostilities with the Spanish. Since then, it has been known locally as 'The Mustard Pot.' Except a small section, the church burned down at the end of the 16th century. The edifice was rebuilt and today belongs to the Protestant Church.

The municipality only covers 52 square kilometers and is home to over 14,000 people. The city of Woudrichem is its civic center. The eight villages are Almkerk, Andel, Giessen, Oudendijk, Rijswijk, Uitwijk, Uppel, and Waardhuizen.