07 August 2013

Thorn - The Smallest Principality

On Thursday the 1st of August we had secured Zonder Zorg in the marina in Wessum, across the Maas from the more industrial town of Maasbracht. In reply to our query about the most convenient supermarket, the havenmeester told us there was none worth looking at in Wessum, but that there was a good Spar in Thorn, a village about three kilometres away, next to the Belgique border. We pedalled over.

A few days earlier, Edi had mentioned Thorn to me, calling it The White Village. I had looked it up on the internet and was fascinated with what I found. First mentions of the area were as a marshy region near the Roman Road between Maastricht and Nijmegen. The marshes were later drained and around 975 Thorn Abbey, a Benedictine convent was built there by Count Ansfried and his wife Hilsondis. In 995, after the death of his wife, the count became the Bishop of Utrecht.

During the twelfth century, the abbey evolved from a religious to a secular order; it became a convent community for women without the strict laws of a religious order. At its peak twenty ladies of noble birth lived there as canons. Admission required the women to prove that they had sixteen ancestors of noble birth, eight on each their father’s and their mother’s side. The canons met in the Chapter Room under the leadership of the Abbess. Today on the walls of this room are hung portraits and pedigree documents of some of the twenty-nine Abbesses who led the community from 982 to 1795.

By the twelfth century, the abbey had developed into a complex of buildings covering an area of 250 by 250 metres. The Abdijkerk, the church in the background in this model is the only building remaining today from that era.

During the twelfth century Thorn Abbey was deemed to be a sovereign principality, and its Abbess was the Princess. It became the smallest independent state in the German Holy Roman Empire. Its imperial immediacy was confirmed in 1292 by King Adolf of Nassau and later it was under the imperial protection of Emperor Maximilian I. Thorn minted its own coins of gold silver and bronze.

The coiners were reputed to be somewhat corrupt. Many of the coins they produced were underweight and were not well received by surrounding territories. 

Following the French invasion in the winter of 1794–95, the formal abolition of the principality in 1797 meant the end of the abbey and Thorn became the first portion of the department of Meuse-Inférieure. With the Vienna Congress, Thorn became a municipality of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Now all that remains of the old principality is Abdijkerk, the Abbey Church, which had been enlarged and refined through the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Between 1780 and 1788 the interior of the abbey was radically altered, with all Romanesque and Gothic elements being removed and the walls fitted with neo-classical pillars and ornamentation. A marble floor was laid and the interior was completely painted in white. The crowning glory of the renovation was the altar. This Baroque masterpiece had been built for the Cartesian convent of Roermond, just downstream and across the Maas; however the Roermond convent went bankrupt and in 1785 the altar and other items were acquired by Thorn.

In the crypt under the altar, among the other relics, is a leaden coffin with the mortal remains of Hilsondis of Strijen, founder of the Abbey of Thorn. After her death, her husband, Count Ansfried of Teisterband became Boshop of Utrecht. Their daughter, Benedicta became the first Abbess of Thorn.

For more than eight hundred years the Abbey of Thorn, a community led by women, had been a tiny hub of calmness and peace surrounded by the strife, turmoil and warfare of the rest of Europe. 

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