History of Zutphen

The origins of Zutphen go back to Roman times as many as 1,700 years ago when it was established as a Germanic settlement on a complex of river dunes. It has been continuously inhabited ever since, thus making it one of the oldest urban settlements of the Netherlands.

The name Zutphen is derived from Zuid-venne (or South-Fen in English), a marshy river dune complex between soggy meadows.In around AD 800, Zutphen became an administrative centre of the Counts of Hamaland. Late 9th century Zutphen was raided and subsequently destroyed when it came under Viking attacks. As a consequence, a round earth ring wall together with a 20 m wide U-shaped moat were built shortly afterwards.

Ringwal The Bishop of Utrecht became governor of both the County of Zutphen and the settlement in the year 1046. During the late 11th and early 12th centuries the Counts of Zutphen succeeded in steadily gaining and further expanding influence and power.
Under the Counts of Guelders (Gelre) the town had grown, thus becoming more important economically.  It was Count Henry I of Guelders and Zutphen (1138 – 1181) who, after a new settlement for craftsmen and merchants had been established next to the original ring wall, permitted the construction of its own ring wall. The Count established his own Court here that was subsequently donated to the Dominicans in 1293.

Zutphen rapidly expanded and became a Hanseatic town in the 13th century. Between 1191 and 1196, Zutphen was granted city rights by Count Otto of Guelders. The city was walled in the 13th century, and the Nieuwstad that had been established by the Count earlier was added to the city. Large city fires struck Zutphen in 1136 and 1284, inflicting heavy damage. It was with financial support from the City that many damaged or destroyed houses could be reconstructed by using bricks as the main building material. And many dozens of such houses dating back to the 14th Century from cellar to rooftop still remain.

The 14th century was Zutphen’s Golden Age. It became the capital city of the County of Zutphen. As a member of the Hanseatic League, Zutphen operated several trading posts on the Sound (Sont) between Sweden and Denmark. And various toll exemptions allowed Zutphen to be very actively involved in trade with other cities situated on the river Rhine.

The 16th century, however, brought harder times for Zutphen by the rise of other cities as well as the ongoing Eighty Years’ War with Spain.
After the turbulent Guelders (Gelderland) Wars during the first decades of the 16th century, Zutphen’s  fortifications had been modernized, however this could not prevent the city from being taken by Count Willem van den Berg, a brother-in-law of William of Orange on 10 June 1572. He drove away the Spaniards who, on 17 November 1572 re-conquered the city under Don Frederick, the son of the Duke of Alva, executing hundreds of inhabitants in what became known as the ‘Zutphen massacre’.

Many years of varying occupation and sieges followed. Between 1582 and 1591 the majority of the population had moved away or was murdered. In 1591 the city was recaptured by Maurice of Nassau after the siege of Zutphen. This was the beginning of a long period of Zutphen as a fortified city and a garrison town. In 1672 (also known as the Year of Disaster in The Netherlands), Zutphen was conquered by the French army.

Shortly after 1700 the Zutphen fortress was extended, based on a plan made by Menno van Coehoorn. For hundreds of years, Zutphen had been wedged in its fortifications. Its population had grown steadily from 7,500 inhabitants in 1795 to more than 15,000 in 1860 on just 40 acres of land within the city walls.


During the Second World War, the city was severely hit by several allied bombing raids. The bombardment of 14 October 1944 alone made over 100 civilian casualties. Of the nearly pre-War 500 Jewish residents, less than 50 survivors had eventually returned after the liberation.

Zutphen 1945

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