Visit Holland - The Netherlands

Dutch cities and cityrights

City rights are a medieval phenomenon in the history of the Low Countries. A liegelord, usually a count, duke or similar member of high nobility, granted a settlement he owned certain town privileges that settlements without city rights did not have.

In Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, a settlement is, often proudly, called a city when it was granted (or collected) a complete package of city rights at one time of its history. As the current number of inhabitants has no relevance on this, there are very small cities. The smallest one is Staverden in the Netherlands, with 40 inhabitants. In Belgium, Durbuy is the smallest city, whilst the smallest in Luxembourg is Vianden.

Forced by financial problems, feudal landlords offered for sale privileges to settlements around the year A.D. 1000. The total package of these privileges are the city rights.
Selling a privilege was both a positive and a negative development for the feudal lords. The positive side was the (non-recurrent) revenue. The negative was the loss of power. Over time, the landlords sold more and more privileges. This resulted in a shift of power within the counties and duchies in the Low Countries from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, starting in Flanders. Some cities even managed to develop into city-states. The growing economical and military power concentrating in the cities led to a very powerful class of well-to-do merchants and traders.

Common City rights

*  City walls (the right to erect a defence wall around an inhabited area)
*  Market right (the right to hold a market and receive income from the markets)
*  Storage right (the right to store and exclusively trade particular goods, often only granted to a few cities)
*  Toll right (the right to charge toll)
*  Mint right (the right to mint city coinage)

*  Personal freedom (citizens had a relative degree of personal freedom in comparison to citizens of rural areas: they were not subject to the liegelord and had freedom of mobility) — Hence the old saying Stadslucht maakt vrij ('City air makes free').

*  City governance (Well-to-do citizens could sometimes elect local government officials)
*  Judiciary and law making (Within its boundaries the city could have a large degree of autonomy)
*  Taxation (the right to levy taxes)

Rights granted to the cities of the present-day Netherlands
The first community in the Netherlands to receive city rights was Deventer in 956. It can be argued that some cities have older rights such as Nijmegen that may already have received city rights during the Roman Empire. Another case is Voorburg, which is built on the site of the Roman settlement Forum Hadriani and was granted city rights in about 151. Forum Hadriani was abandoned however in the late third century, thus the current settlement is not considered an uninterrupted continuation of the Roman city. With the end of the Middle Ages, the number of city rights granted dropped dramatically. The strong role of merchants and traders allowed the Netherlands to become the first modern republic in the 16th century. When several important settlements (predominantly The Hague) wanted the right to call themselves cities, rather than towns, the old custom knew a short-lived Romantic revival in the early 19th century. The last community in the Netherlands to receive city rights was Delfshaven in 1825.

Granting of city rights, chronologically

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