Town Exploration Amsterdam 3 Making sense of the Canals & Defenses

Plan of Amsterdam Wall Circuit

So, I have built up a story of a Medieval City Wall of Amsterdam with a moat around it and the Amstell flowing through the middle. In the 17th Century the defenses are developed and a set of concentric canals are built.

You can see the details in the schematic plan above. Defensive circuit around the outside, concentric circles of canals inside. The first doubt came to my mind when the pilot of the tourist boat we took around the canals said the concentric rings were built up outwards progressively from the 13th Century onwards.

So, this must mean the original circuit was small and the later circuits expanded the size of the City. Just have a look at a modern plan for a moment.

City plan

Therefore, the medieval circuit was the inner concentric ring and the latest 17th Century circuit was the outer ring. So at least two different defensive perimeters. Let’s look back at the earliest plan of Amsterdam.

The oldest view of Amsterdam by Cornelius Antonisz 1538

This shows the City wall, the port on the seafront at the bottom of the painting with the River Amstel running through the middle of the City, and canals running parallel. There is a moot running outside the wall circuit. This moat is not, as I previously thought, the outer circuit as shown on the modern plan, or on the grey plaque. It is, in fact, the inner circuit. I’ve just looked it up and the moat is called the Singel, originally called the Stedegracht (“City Canal”).

Look at the Google map. The inner blue circuit is the Singel, the original moat and medieval defensive wall. The word Amsterdam is written above where the Singel meets the Amstell. The outer circuit is the 17th Century defensive circuit. You’ll see the icon of Rijksmuseum on this outer canal.

Google Map of the Hiatoric Centre 0f Amsterdarm
Google Map of the Hiatoric Centre 0f Amsterdarm

Now, a bit of research shows that the Pilot on the boat was repeating an old tale that the canals were progressively expanded from the medieval period onwards. He suggested that as Amsterdam grew it built itself another circuit of canals. But wikipedia assures me this is wrong. What happened was that Amsterdam became so overcrowded in the 17th Century that the authorities had to do something and what they decided to do was to enlarge the City and built a grid of concentric canals linked by linear canals, with an outer circuit of defensive bastions. surrounded by a final concentric canal. The main engine of development was commercial success followed by massive immigration. Its an amazing story of foresight. It meant that Amsterdam’s merchants could all enjoy direct access to goods coming by river and sea, or to shipping if they were exporting.

Each merchant had a tall thin warehouse/workshop of 5 to 7 stories high with a gable with a pole built into it for a pulley to lift goods up from the barges moored outside the merchants house. These houses are mostly of brick although the richest have the trappings of classical columns, and staircases leading up to the first floor. And Amsterdam also had the foresight to keep these merchants houses, and not knock them down. So a large percentage of the centrum of the City is still made up of these brick merchants houses. In the prestigious areas they are banks and offices, elsewhere shops, and houses.

This is a defensive tower on the medieval circuit

Defensive tower on the Medieval Defensive Circuit
Defensive tower on the Medieval Defensive Circuit

I’m not sure if this insight into my working process is enjoyable or not. Its something I have always done because for many years I have enjoyed leading guided walks, and cultural study tours around historic towns in the UK and Europe. In order to feel confident about the tour I have to feel I know the City, and how it articulates, and developed through time. Often it isn’t just a case of reading a guide book or wikipedia. It needs quite a lot of work to understand what is happening are what are the structural elements that led to the City as we see it today. I doubt for example, I would have realised that the Pilot was wrong, had I not had an image of the 16th Century City in my mind to compare with what he was saying.

Another 16th Century view of the original core of the town (by Cornelis Antonisz
Another 16th Century view of the original core of the town (by Cornelis Antonisz

Town exploration: 4 Brussels

Modern map of central Brussels.  The Bourse is a red circle near the centre.

The map of the centre of Brussels shows the area where I have identified topographical evidence of an early Wall circuit. The two red lines coming from the top left point to a red rectangle which is on the curved road called ‘Vieux Marché aux Grains’. This road follows the curved line of the NE section of the wall and was confirmed by the discovery of a surviving section of the Wall on it (see previous posts).

So, on my 4th and last day in Brussels I want to find the rest of this circuit. If you look at the map you can convince yourself there is a circular route – Rue des Riches Clares (Street of the Clare nuns); Rue des Teinturies (Street of Dyers); Kolenmarkt (Coal Market) and to the Grand Place. But I can find nothing that proves it and its a bit weird to have the Town Square (Grand Place) of the town outside the circuit. Maybe this is because the Bourse was the original centre of gravity I wondered? Whatever the case, the roads have the irregularity of medieval town centre streets.

The Town  Hall Grand Place, Brussels
The Town Hall Grand Place, Brussels

It started to rain so decided to see about a guided tour of the Town Hall, but the attendant suggested I’d be better off at the free ‘House of the King’ across the square which I discover with rising excitement is subtitled ‘The Brussels City Museum.’ Initially I’m disappointed as it is full of fragments of Gothic statues, but upstairs, I strike pay dirt with not only maps, engravings and photographs of the Old Wall Circuit but also a massive model.

Model of 13th Century Wall Circuit of Brussels.
Model of 13th Century Wall Circuit of Brussels. (looking South West)

It takes me a lot of time to work out what is what and which direction we are looking. But the section of the wall at the bottom of the photo above is the wall I identified on the Vieux Marché aux Grains. St Catherine’s is the Church seen just inside the Wall, just to the left of the Gate at the middle bottom of the photo. Other evidence makes it clear that the present day St Catherine’s was moved a little to the left (east).

So, a confirmation of sorts, but also a revelation, in that a river is flowing just behind the wall, and the wall circuit is much bigger than I suspected.

The River is the Senne, it was navigable to an extent taking 8 days to take cargoes to the River Schelde. The River is completely gone, and I think the other part of the wall I pencilled in was actually not the wall but roads following the route of the River.

The River Senne, originally the reason for the foundation of Brussels, became a stinking sewer and was filled in leaving no trace, except the roads that ran alongside it or replaced it.

Detail labelled copy of panoramic painting of Brussels c1665 by Jean-Baptiste Bonnercroy.  Looking South West

The River was augmented and then replaced by a Canal, which reduced the journey time to the Schelde to one day. The Canal came into the expanded City at no 29 (above_ which is the River gate of the 2nd Wall circuit, and, you might just be able to see a wide street going diagonally from 29 towards no 26, which is St Catherine’s Church. This street used to be the new canal, now a dry linear park and market place.

Detail of Braun & Hogenberg map of 1572, showing the canal entering at Porte De Rivage.

At the end of the canal was a T-Junction so that boats could turn around. When this was filled in and reclaimed St Catherine’s was moved and rebuilt in this space. The Wall was just south of the t-Junction and No 30 in the panorama is the Black Tower, part of the original 13th Century Wall Circuit.

St Catherine’s, built over the old t-junction of the canal. The photo is taken from what was once the canal.

But back to my search for the 13th Century Walk circuit. Look below at the whole model you will see how wrong I was about a small roundish early wall circuit.

Model of 13th Century Wall Circuit of Brussels.

This view of the town is the opposite direction to the previous one, so the wall in the far distance was the section I correctly identified. But I had absolutely no idea that the walled area was so large. The bulge in the wall at the front of the picture was on high ground and was original the site of the Duke of Brabant’s Castle, on Coundenberg Hill and founded in the 11th Century. My exploration was not particularly successful, as far as the 13th Century circuit was concerned, as I had no idea where most of the wall circuit was. I was thinking that there must have been a castle on top of the Hill, but didn’t think the wall circuit would be that big.

Brussels itself began as a small trading town on the River Senne and in the marshy valley of the River. It collected grain from the rich area to export to Antwerp and other urban centres.

Braun and Hogenberg Plan of Brussels, 1572 showing both wall circuits. North east at the bottom of the plan

The map above shows the two wall circuits. The earliest built 1210 -1230 and the large circuit built in 1357 -1383. That later was extensively developed with the addition of demi-lunettes in 1578, and turned into full bastions in 1671 to cope with the increasing power of artillery. The letters on the plan refer to pictures of the wall that survive.

Panoramic painting of Brussels c1665 by Jean-Baptiste Bonnercroy.  Looking South West

The second wall circuit can clearly be seen in the picture above, with Porte de Flandres in the centre, and demi-lunettes in front of the 14th Century Wall.

I finished the exploration by finally getting into the 14th Century Gate – Porte de Halle which was wall worth the two trips.

Porte de Halles

This image below will give a good idea of the final form of the defences before they were almost totally demolished and replaced by a ring road.

The late 17th Century Defences of Brussels.

So all in all Brussels is a very interesting City with great museums, amazing pubs/bars, fabulous remains of Art Nouveau dotted around, and an interesting history. As to my exploration, very enjoyable, a little disappointed I didn’t find the River, or identify more of the 13th Century Circuit. With another day I would have walked the entire 13th and 14th Century circuits. But I suspect the surgeon who did my hernia operation would have thought I overdid it as it was.