How the bishop butchered his goose with the golden eggs.
The Vecht is the main river in the region just southeast of Amsterdam. It runs south - north, from the river Rhine up to the lakes in the north. Lakes that ever expanded till finally becoming the Southern Sea after those horrific floods around 1200 AD ... But that's another story.
Once upon a time a Roman war fleet sailed down this river. A "thousand ships", the chronicler wrote, on their way to conquer mysterious Germania. Only, to the horror of emperor Augustus, his legions simply disappeared in the wilderness. Annihilated in what became known later as the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (9 AD). After that disaster, the Romans decided that the Rhine would be the northern border of their Empire.
This made the Utrecht settlement, where the river Vecht starts as a branch of the Rhine, an important site. In fact, the city of Utrecht was going to be the major town for over a 1000 years in these parts. Here, the bishop ruled, on behalf of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
A large part of the trade between Northern and Southern Europe passed along this river. Business and taxes made Utrecht thriving, and the bishop rich.
Naturally, this also attracted less welcome guests, like the Vikings. There's an interesting Viking saga, recounting a voyage and violent action along these shores. With descriptions of an already very recognisable Dutch landscape.
Image above : the river Vecht in Weesp. In the days of the Vikings there were no windmills yet, of course. They were invented some 500 years later.
So, the official ruler over the river and these lands were the bishops of Utrecht. They were so self-confident about this river being absolutely essential for trade, that they believed high tolls and trade taxes could be imposed. But that proved a mistake. Plus, there was danger coming from the west : Holland was on the move, and slowly expanding into Utrecht territory !
Holland was basically not existent in the early Middle Ages. What is now the heartland of Holland, between Amsterdam and Rotterdam, was a largely deserted peat wilderness.
Then, somewhere around the year 1000 AD a family of local noblemen stood up who proudly called themselves “counts of Holland”. They ruled over those very few spots in this miserable land where you did not get wet feet all the time. These counts were ambitious, and smart. Because, very unique, they did have a long term vision.
One of the first strongholds of Holland : an artificial hill in Leiden (11th century).
Sure, the counts of Holland also liked money and taxes, but their motto was different: “the sowing comes before the harvest“. They created what we today would call ”an investment friendly environment”. In that they were very different from the bishops of Utrecht, who thought in more traditional medieval terms as master and serf. Holland welcomed pioneers to settle new land. In fact, very often giving away large chunks of wilderness that belonged to Utrecht ...
Within a few generations these newcomers changed vast parts of the useless peat bog into fertile fields. The new independent farmers were allowed very low, almost symbolic taxes. But they were many, and also willing to take up arms for their property, and thus for Holland.
The count of Holland also granted trade privileges to early small settlements like Amsterdam. Places that originally belonged to Utrecht as well, where Holland had no jurisdiction !
But it worked, people sided with Holland. Trade and production grew. New trade routes were opened through Holland, avoiding the ancient river Vecht route.
All with all, the bishop of Utrecht saw his territory and revenue melting away.
That could only mean one thing : war !
And there would be war between Holland and Utrecht for more than 300 years !
Since the Netherlands today are also called Holland, and not Utrecht, you know who won in the end.
Both parties fought over the river Vecht. And towns on its shores like Weesp and Muiden were off and on destroyed by one or the other raiding army band. The region became a border area, and a lasting war zone. The river and this old trade route blocked, the economy perished. No problem at all for Holland, but a death blow for Utrecht !
Because not far away, just 15 km west of the river, trading was safe. And there, in what was now firmly Holland territory, the career of Amsterdam was about to start.
See also page Amsterdam history.
One of the castles Holland built during that period of expansion still stands proudly, guarding the strategic spot where the river Vecht flows into the former Southern Sea. More on the castle : Muiden castle.
Just a few years ago, the full length of the river was thoroughly dredged for the first time in history. Amazing objects of the past millennia were found. See Ancient river yields up secrets.
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