The Begijnhof is one of the oldest hofjes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. A group of historic buildings, mostly private dwellings, center on it. As the name suggests, it was originally the Béguinage. Today is also the site of two churches, the Catholic Houten Huys and the English Reformed Church.
The Begijnhof is the only inner court in Amsterdam which was founded during the Middle Ages, and therefore lies within the Singel – the innermost canal of Amsterdam’s circular canal system. The Begijnhof is at the medieval street level, which means to get below the rest of the old city center.
It is unclear when exactly the Begijnhof (Beguines’ court) was founded. In 1346, the beguines still lived in a house (a document of that time mentioned one beghynhuys). A courtyard was only first mentioned in 1389, probably after the religious status of the city rose due to the Amsterdam Eucharistic Miracle of 1345.
Originally the Begijnhof was entirely encircled by water (the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, the Spui and the Begijnensloot or “Beguines ‘Ditch”), with the sole entrance located at the Begijnensteeg (“Beguines’ Alley”), which had a bridge across the Begijnensloot. The back facades are therefore water-locked. The Spui entrance dates back to the 19th century.
The Begijnhof differs from the usual Amsterdam patricians’ court in that this old people’s home was not founded by private persons. It bore closer resemblance to a convent, although the beguines enjoyed greater freedom than nuns in a convent. While beguines took a vow of chastity, and while they considered themselves obliged to attend Holy Mass every day and pray various official prayers, they were free to leave the court at any time in order to get married.
The buildings in the court are tall, characteristically Amsterdam-style town-houses, emphasizing the court’s relatively private character. The Begijnhof is the only court whose houses are bearing the name of the court itself. Unlike most courts, the houses here do not form rows joining one dwelling with another; instead, there are 47 regular town houses, each with its individual aspect, and most of them with facades from the 17th and 18th century. However, the buildings themselves are usually of a later date, eighteen of them still possessing the Gothic wooden framework.