17 Nijmegen reduced to ruins
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In the autumn of 1591 Nijmegen was besieged by the troops of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange. They bombarded the city from Fort Knodsenburg on the other side of the river Waal causing the tower of St. Stevens church to collapse. The attack was part of Maurice’s march against the Spanish troops in the southern Low Countries. In the meantime the cities and provinces in the north united, first as the Union of Utrecht, then later as the Dutch Republic. Nijmegen was hesitant to take sides, because the city had already joined the Union of Utrecht in 1579, but when the Spanish-minded Catholics came to power five years later this was immediately dissolved.
On October 21, 1591, the city decided to surrender to stadtholder (steward) Maurice. The destruction is often seen as the end of the ‘Gelders’ era of Nijmegen and the beginning of the ‘Dutch period’; during which the autonomy of the city would disappear for good.
Nijmegen lay on the border region of the Dutch Republic and as it was strategically important garrisons were stationed there. As the new central government wanted a loyal, obedient city, the influence of the local elite in the city council was diminished. From then on the stadtholder appointed councillors. The Medieval Sinter Claes guild that had controlled the council was abolished and replaced by a panel of ‘common people’. These people were appointed by the stadtholder and did not carry as much power as the former masters of the Sinter Claes guild. The new councillors were not allowed to nominate candidates for the council or to attend council meetings. Immediately after 1591 the introduction of the reformed religion began. Formally Nijmegen became a Protestant city and only Protestants were eligible for public office. Practising the Catholic Mass was forbidden and Catholics were forced to hand over their churches, starting with the St. Stevens church which was stripped of its Catholic statues and decorations.
The changes in religion were not as extensive as often has been suggested. The protestant councillors could not ignore the influence of the Catholics as they still constituted the largest part of the population. Together, Protestants and Catholics remained committed to the city. Despite the destruction of 1591 Nijmegen kept some of its political privileges, such as taxes, citizenship and justice. Manymedieval tasks and functions remained in existence, thus allowing Nijmegen to continue developing and executing its own policy.