Next time you’re in Spui Square peer behind the mysterious wooden door, venture down the tiled hallway, and be prepared to transported back in time. Amid the hustle and bustle of Centrum you can find a moment of quiet in Begijnhof, one of the oldest hofjes in the Netherlands.
What is a hofje you ask? Well for all of you non-Dutch people, a hofje is a Dutch term to describe a typically enclosed courtyard surrounded by dwellings called almshouses inhabited by a collection of mostly elderly women who depend on private charity as a sort of social security. Begijnhof, unlike normal hofjes, specifically housed a community of self-supporting, unmarried semi-monastic women known as Beguines. Though it is not known the exactly when Begijnhof was founded, records suggest it was around the 14th century.
During the Protestant Reformation, the Dutch government confiscated most buildings owned by the Catholic church. Because the Beguines' property was privately owned, Begijnhof was the only Catholic institution withheld from the clutches of the Protestants who had taken over the city. The commune’s chapel did not meet with the same fate. In 1578 it was seized from the Beguines and handed over to the Protestants, who then recast it into what is now known as the The English Reformed Church.
However, an architect by the name of Philip Vingboons converted two dwellings opposite The English Reformed Church entrance into a schuilkerk in 1671. This clandestine place of worship for Catholics, christened Begijnhof Chapel of Saint John and Ursula, was tolerated on condition that gatherings were held discreetly, and a Catholic façade would not be identifiable from the outside.
In the courtyard you’ll notice a memorial next to the former English Reformed Church. The story goes that Sister Cornelia Arens, a faithful Beguines, famously requested to be buried in the gutter of the courtyard as either penance for her parent’s conversion to Protestants or because she rather be buried in the gutter of than the Chapel she considered to be defiled by the Protestants. She died on 14 October 1654 and her memorial remains in the Begijnhof courtyard “gutter” to this day.
The Begijnhof complex also boasts the oldest house in Amsterdam built around 1425 known as Houten Huys.
You can access Begijnhof via two entrances. The southern entrance can be found behind the wooden door on the left side wall of The American Bookstore in Spui Square. The popular historic site is open to the public daily between 8 am to 5pm.
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Til next time!