Look for the grave of Cornelia Arents, the most famous beguine, at the edge of the chapel’s bleaching fields. She refused to be buried in what had become a Protestant place of worship, asking instead to be interred in the gutter.
Begijnhof was once a beguinage. This was a type of semi-monastic religious community for women known as beguines, a lay order who sought to serve God without retiring completely from the world. While they took a vow of chastity and attended Mass daily, they were free at any time to leave and get married. The last beguine here died in 1971 at the age of 84.
The group of houses that the beguines lived in were privately owned, which helped them survive the 1587 Alteration - although their chapel was closed, they were the only Roman Catholic institution allowed to remain in existence. The square that they surround was established in the Middle Ages, making it one of Amsterdam’s oldest courts.
The buildings are quite a sight: overlooking the well-kept green are 47 distinct façades, mostly built in the 17th and 18th centuries around older wooden frameworks, some of which date back to the Gothic era. Typical patrician courts in Amsterdam have dwellings adjoining one another in rows; the separate, tall townhouses here are all strikingly individual.
The most famous house here is the Houten Huys or Wooden House. It is one of only two wooden houses remaining in Amsterdam’s centre, and is the city’s oldest, dating to 1420 - timber houses were banned in 1521 after a series of terrible fires. The late 14th century Engelse Kerk (English Church) overlooks the southern end of the square, and the clandestine Begijnhof Chapel remains at Numbers 29 and 30, contributing to the sacred atmosphere of the court that persists to this day.
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