Founded sometime in the 14th century for the Beguines, members of a lay Catholic sisterhood, the Begijnhof is one of Amsterdam’s oldest inner courtyards — and one of the city’s best known landmarks.
It consists of a collection of historic houses, a chapel — nowadays home to ‘The English Church’ (English Reformed) — and a hidden Catholic church. There are two greens (in the past used for bleaching clothes) and a handful of shade trees.
The front facades of the houses look out upon this courtyard. With one exception (see ‘Oldest House’ below) the facades of the city houses date from the 17th and 18th centuries, though the houses themselves tend to be older. Eighteen of the houses still have a gothic, wooden skeleton.
Though its situated steps away from the busy Kalverstraat shopping street, the Begijnhof is a remarkable oasis of tranquility.
Originally built in the Middle Ages, the Begijnhof is at medieval street level — about a meter below the rest of the old city center.
At first it was encircled by water — the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal canal in the west, the Spui — at the time part of the locks — in the south and the Begijnensloot (Beguines’ Ditch) north and east.
The sole entrance was located at the Begijnensteeg (“Beguines’ Alley”) with a small bridge across the ditch. In the 19th century, long after the canals and ditches were filled in, an entrance at the Spui — now a lively square — was added.
The official website of the Begijnhof says that in about 1150 a group of Amsterdam women came together to form and live in a religious community. These were, in effect, the first beguines — although the name was not yet used.
The women were not nuns and nor did they live in the seclusion of a convent. They had no founders nor did they make lifelong vows. They did have to be unmarried, to make a vow of chastity and to promise obedience to the parish priest, but since they were not expected to make a vow of poverty, they were free to dispose of their own possessions.
They could renounce their vows at any moment and leave the Beguinage, for instance, to get married, the site says.
In the 13th and 14th centuries there were in fact groups of Beguines — and Beghards, their male counterparts — to be found in what are now France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Western and North-Western Germany. Consequently, the Begijnhof in Amsterdam is not the only inner courtyard that bears that name.
At number 34 at the southwest edge of the Begijnhof — in the area accessible to all — is what most tourist guides still describe as the oldest house of Amsterdam. Until recently its facade was thought to date back to the 1470s. It was also believed to be the oldest wooden house in the Netherlands.
However, research done in 2010 brought to light evidence that the house was build in, or shortly after, 1528.
Even then the ‘Houten Huys’ (old Dutch spelling for ‘wooden home’) remained the city’s oldest.
But in June, 2012 the city announced that an even older house has been located.
The English Church and a Hidden Catholic Church
After the Alteration — a takeover in which the Catholic city turned Protestant in a bloodless revolution — the Begijnhof was the only Catholic institution to remain in existence because the houses were the beguines’ private property. In addition the beguines were, strictly speaking, not part of a religious order.
However the beguines were forced to surrender their Chapel which, two decades later in 1607, was handed to English worshippers. To date, this English Reformed Church of Amsterdam still has its services at this location. To Amsterdammers it is known simply as “The English Church.”
The beguines meanwhile first continued their worship in the sacristy, until that, too, was appropriated. They then worshiped in one of the houses in the yard — using a different house from Sunday to Sunday.
At the initiative of the parish priest, in 1665 two of the houses — at numbers 29 and 30 — were bought and joined together, and in 1671 the first stone was laid for a new chapel inside the resulting property.
The chapel — for which the city had approved the building plans, as long as the building did not look as a church on the outside — opened for its first service in 1682.
That the city approved the building of a hidden church is not surprising. Tolerance, the pragmatic Amsterdammers knew, is a good for trade.
The last of the Beguines died in May, 1971 so strictly speaking the Begijnhof is no longer a beguinage.
However, it is still private property, and like back in the old days, the courtyard’s bylaws prescribe that only single women are allowed to live there.
Until a few years ago one used to be able to roam the entire courtyard. Nowadays the largest section, a path around the biggest of the two greens, is closed off — accessible only to occupants, though the section can still be observed.
This change was necessary to preserve some measure of privacy. Many of the women did not appreciate having a constant stream of tourists — at one point counting 800.000 visitors a year — saunter up to their living room windows in order to stare inside (or even film and take photos).
Too, organized tours became increasingly disruptive with tour guides shouting, sometimes through megaphones, their verson of the Begijnhof’s history over the heads of large groups of noisy tourists.
A few years ago extensive discussions took place between the organization that operates the Begijnhof (and wanted to close the courtyard to all visitors) and City Hall, which wanted to make sure that tourists continued to have access.
Visitors to the courtyard are requested to keep noise down to a minimum: no loud talking, no playing children
Tour groups and excursions are not allowed inside, and even a lonely couple reading to each other from a guidebook is sometimes met with a loud ‘ssssshhhh!’ And there is one obnoxious woman who, much to the embarrassment of her neighbors, loudly attacks ‘intruders’ with a stream of verbal abuse.
In February 2002 the Begijnhof Foundation announced plans to charge an access fee in order to minimize nuisance. However, Amsterdam city authorities made clear that while the courtyard is largely private property the paths and public space belong to the City of Amsterdam. By law access to public areas and public institutions — in this case the churches — must be unhindered.
In subsequent court cases the City was deemed to be incorrect in her assertion that the paths were to be considered public space. Since the courtyard has always been locked at night, the paths must be considered private property.
Despite the legal pronouncements Els Iping, the controversial chairwoman of the city’s Center borough, vowed to continue her fight against the Begijnhof Foundation. But eventually cooler heads prevailed and the current situation — in which the foundation does allow access to individual tourists, though with restrictions — is a result of compromise and common sense.
A sign posted at the entrance states that the Begijnhof is a spiritual center, as well as private property. It tells visitors to respect the peace, silence and privacy of its inhabitants. Groups, tours, filming, photography, bicycles and dogs are not allowed.
However, in practice, non-intrusive filming and photography by private individuals is tolerated.
Meanwhile the foundation must not impede access to the English Church on its property, and therefore the gate must be open half and hour before and up till half an hour after each service or event at the church.
In the end, one thing is clear — and we’ll state in here in the plain, direct language Amsterdammers are known for: tourists must behave in such a way that they don’t screw things up for others.
Begijnhof Address and Information
The Beguinage and its chapel are open every day from 9.00 — 17.00 (9am — 5pm) via the gateway at Gedempte Begijnensloot.
After 17.00 (5pm) you can reach the chapel — only if your are attending a church service or event there — via the gate at the Spui.
Roman Catholic Church ‘Begijnhofkapel’
Monday: 13.00 – 18.30 (1pm – 6:30pm)
Tueasday to Friday: 09.00 – 18.30 hour (9am – 6:30pm)
Saturday and Sunday: 09.00 – 18.00 hour (9am – 6pm)
English Reformed Church
Sunday: 10:30am (English language)
Website: English Reformed Church, Amsterdam
View Begijnhof in a larger map
Blue marker = Begijnhof
Yellow marker = day entrance
Green marker = night entrance
Red marker = Dam square, included for orientation
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