A Pocket-Sized Country

If you have the patience to travel 200 km. away from Amsterdam, to the area of Roermond, you will have a very pleasant surprise. In a beautiful region with plenty of lakes and small villages lies the pretty town of Thorn, which has a very interesting history: until 1795, it was an independent country, with its own government, laws, and currency!

In the late Middle Ages, Western Europe was a patchwork of small political entities with various degrees of autonomy, under the nominal authority of larger countries or empires. While most of them gradually lost their independence, some managed to maintain it well into the modern period. Thorn is one of these exceptional cases.

It all started with a Benedictine abbey, founded in 975 by Ansfried of Utrecht. The territory where it was founded (and the whole Netherlands at that time) was part of the Holy Roman Empire, the German successor state of Charlemagne’s empire. A small settlement grew around the abbey in the following centuries, and gradually obtained more and more privileges from the emperors. The convent turned in the 12th century into a secular stift, a more liberal religious organization where vows were not required, and the members had a less restrictive life than in a normal convent. The nuns came from the high nobility: the aristocracy from the region found in Thorn a suitable place to send their unmarried daughters, so that family heritages would not be divided too much. They lived in relative luxury, attended by servants, and were allowed to keep their own property.

Thorn received eventually the Imperial immediacy status (reichsunmittelbarkeit). This meant it was free from the authority of any local lord and placed under the direct (‘immediate’) authority of the Emperor himself. As the Holy Roman Empire grew weaker, its territories became more and more independent: by 1648, at the end of the 30 Years’ War, the emperors had only nominal authority over a network of around 1,800 entities, from the larger imperial states and free cities to small estates, sometimes no larger than a village.

Thorn was ruled at that time by the abbesses of the local convent, who had authority also in secular matters. In 1790, the state’s territory covered about 1.5 square kilometers and contained 3400 inhabitants. Besides Thorn itself, it also owned the villages of Ittervoort, Grathem, Baexem, Stramproy, Ell, Haler and Molenbeersel. As mentioned, the small country had its own laws and currency. The abbess held the title of princess in the Holy Roman Empire, and lived in a small palace.

This miniature state managed to resist all attempts made at restricting its autonomy until 1794, when it was conquered by the French Revolutionary troops. It was formally annexed by France in 1795, and then passed to the Netherlands at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Thorn can be added easily to the list with the most beautiful villages in the world (while it is officially a town, it has only 2,000 inhabitants, so let’s be serious about it). It is one of the prettiest places I have seen in the Netherlands, with whitewashed buildings and a perfectly decorated baroque church, something quite rate even in the Catholic part of the country. A few good restaurants and plenty of opportunities for biking and hiking are additional attraction points.




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