For many hundreds of years, Utrecht lay concealed behind its gates, walls and towers. The rhythm of the gates dictated day and night. When the bell in the Buurtoren rang in the evening to signal the closing of the gates, people would hurry to either leave or enter the city.

After Utrecht was granted city rights in 1122, the citizens were permitted to build city defences. Impressive fortifications were already in place by the end of the century, including a broad defensive moat (the ‘singel’). By the 15th century, the city’s fortifications consisted of 10-metre high brick walls, some 50 stone towers and 5 large gates.

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Under siege!   ———

Utrecht’s fortifications were seriously put to the test for the first time in 1345, when Count William IV of Holland arrived with an army of 30,000 soldiers. The people of Utrecht had assumed their positions on the high walls and towers well in time. From their vantage point they could clearly see the many tents and proud banners of the Holland regiments. Despite being well-trained, the Utrecht citizen militia was forced to surrender after seven weeks – but not before negotiating an acceptable peace treaty.

The city walls formed the largest construction in medieval Utrecht. The five-kilometre long defensive works had to be modified regularly, which was obviously a huge undertaking..

For example, the walls had to be lowered and reinforced to permit the installation of cannons with iron cannon balls in the 15th century.

This renewal effort largely coincided with Emperor Charles V’s take-over in 1528. As an outpost of the immense Habsburg Empire, Utrecht had to have strong defences.


Nightwatch ———

The city was guarded mainly by the citizens. For centuries this was organised through the guilds, but after Charles V ejected the guilds from the city government, the night watch fell entirely to the citizens themselves. It was a dangerous job, with always the risk of not returning home unscathed.

Hundreds of artists were inspired by Utrecht’s fortifications. Herman Saftleven was so fascinated by the walls that he spent many hours drawing them, in great detail. His drawings form a marvellous period document, giving us a wonderful sense of what it was like to stroll along the walls some 400 years ago.

Virtually no images remain of what the Utrecht fortifications looked like before 1600. New 3D reconstructions give an accurate idea of the late medieval situation. The impressive height of the walls and towers is clear at a glance.

Imagine how hard it must have been to take such a city with just boats, battering rams and ladders! Utrecht was a safe place to be.

The Utrecht fortifications began to fall into decay after 1600. The attention (and money) increasingly went out to the State army of the Republic to which Utrecht now belonged. When the armies of the French King Louis XIV amassed outside the gates in 1672, Utrecht surrendered almost immediately. Also in the years thereafter, not a single cannon would ever fire again from atop the walls of Utrecht.

Practical information

The fortified city

History of a city's defences

How do you protect a city? How do you make sure everyone can feel safe? The fortified city. History of a City’s Defenses explores the age-old quest for safety and the defensive role of city walls. 

In addition to many remarkable paintings (including some loan pieces never exhibited before by Herman Saftleven, Joost Cornelisz Droochsloot and Salomon van Ruysdael), as well as medieval miniatures, drawings and age-old weaponry, the exhibition also presents a number of specially made 3D reconstructions and animations.

How they were built, how they were manned, the sieges that took place and the impact on citizens’ lives: all this and more is explored in the fascinating story of Utrecht’s defensive works, which existed from 1122 to around 1830. The story of course includes the changes that were made to the works, especially in the sixteenth century, their demolition in the nineteenth century, and their continued significance today.

A number of specialists have been asked to link the past to the present, including historian Beatrice de Graaf, the Nation's Philosopher Daan Roovers, and the Dutch Chief of Defence, Rob Bauer. Urban planner Zef Hemel explores the relationship between the number of women that live and work in a modern city, and the levels of prosperity and safety.

Women breaking down walls
Inspired by Trijn van Leemput who, in 1577, took the lead to demolish the hated Vredenburg Castle, the exhibition includes the portraits and stories of ten Utrecht women who are each devoted to breaking down walls today, albeit metaphorically. The photographs are by Silver Camera Award winner Ilvy Njiokiktjien (Utrecht, 1984). After the exhibition, the portraits will travel to various neighbourhoods of Utrecht.


Image: Natalja, Centraal Museum Utrecht / © Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Films in the exhibition
In four short films, our four specialists as mentioned above, respond to the various themes addressed in the exhibition and discuss their relevance for today.

You want to see more? Click here for an overview of the films

Catapult in the museum garden
An enormous medieval catapult (or ‘trebuchet’) is mounted in the museum garden.
These massive devices were used during sieges to hurl heavy stones and burning bundles of wood into the city, to force the city to surrender. The catapult on display broke a world record in 2004, when it shot a bowling ball over a distance of 412 metres. For a timelapse movie, click here

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Image trebuchet: Centraal Museum Utrecht/ © Herman de Kuijer

Halt! What’s the password?
Children’s book author Linda Dielemans created a scavenger hunt for children aged 7 to 12 in which they must find the right password to enter the city tower.
Those who can present the right password are given a special treat in the museum café.

Exhibition design: De Vrijer Van Dongen

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Lesley Moore


  • Adel en ridderschap in Utrecht, Renger E. de Bruin, WBOOKS (Zwolle, 2023), 544 p.
  • Centraal Museum Utrecht [topstukken; 2020], Voorw. Bart Rutten, Marco Grob, Jacqueline Rutten (prod.), Hans Schopping, Sheila Stafleu, Lotte Bont, Thomas de Bruin (red.), Centraal Museum (Utrecht, 2020), 208 p.
  • De ommuurde stad : Geschiedenis van een stadsverdediging, René de Kam, Het Spectrum, Centraal Museum Utrecht (Utrecht, 2020), 299 p.

Collection in this exhibition

  • No objects from the Centraal Museum collection were shown in this exhibition

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