Like many European cities, at one time Utrecht was a Roman fortress. In 47 AD, Emperor Claudius built various fortresses along the river Rhine. One of these castellums was Trajectum, the modern city of Utrecht. Due to the elevated sandy soil the river was easily fordable and Trajectum quickly developed into a busy trading post.
Around 275, the Romans gave up the castellum and left the settlement. The period until about 650 is shrouded in mystery. When around 695 the Frankish king assigned the ancient castellum to Willibrord, Utrecht’s fate as an ecclesiastical centre was sealed. Willibrord restored the dilapidated walls of the old castellum and built a church he consecrated to Saint Martin. However, in the ninth century, the Vikings raged through Europe and Wilibrord’s successors fled to Deventer.
Around 920, bishop Balderik was able to safely return to Utrecht after which he rebuilt the church. Utrecht became a wealthy settlement and the eleventh century was characterised by major building projects. Bishop Adelbold constructed a new and very large Sint Maarten cathedral in Roman round arch style. In addition, the highest worldly authority, the German emperor, built a residence here: the Lofen Palace.
After a fire damaged the Roman Dom church in 1253, the Dom chapter seized the opportunity to gradually rebuild the church. In France, the Gothic style was the new prevailing architectural
style and Utrecht followed this trend by building the new church in Gothic pointed arch style. They started with the choir in 1254, after which they constructed the tower, the transept and the nave. Due to lack of money, construction ceased in 1517, as a result of which important buttresses and flying buttresses for the support of the nave were lacking.
Doen men screef MCCCXX en een
Leijt men van mij den eerste steen
Daer na MCCC twe en tachtich
Was ic wolmact so men siet waerachti[ch]
These are the verses on the 'last stone' of the Dom Tower. The tower was the highest point of the Dom complex and the symbol of the worldly and ecclesiastical power of the bishop. Jan van Henegouwen was the main master builder. The vane was 106.75 m high and depicted Saint Martin, the ever popular city patron saint of Utrecht.
The bells are the voice of the tower and their ringing constantly reminds the people of Utrecht of the presence of the church and the interest of faith. Halfway up the tower are the fourteen bells Geert van Wou founded in 1505. They can still be heard on Sundays and holidays. Since 1664, the tower also has a Hemony carillon, the fifty bells of which are manually played every Friday and Saturday. It also has mechanical chimes which play a melody every fifteen minutes.
In the sixteenth century, the Reformation advanced and Utrecht became Protestant in 1577. There was little eagerness to maintain the church and tower. When a tornado swept through the city on 1 August 1674, the weakened construction of the nave collapsed. Decay continued and the ruins were not cleared until 150 years later.
In the nineteenth century, the history and national monuments were re-evaluated. From 1875, the Dom complex was thoroughly renovated and famous architect Pierre Cuypers played an important role. In 1901, he ascertained that the roof of the tower was not high enough and (probably unjustly) had a new roof built. The tower became 112.32 metres high. In addition to the tower, a reception building with a stylish landing in the direction of the tower was constructed. The building was now ready for modern tourism.