Utrecht, city (1994 pop. 234,106), capital of Utrecht prov., central Netherlands, on a branch of the Lower Rhine (Neder Rijn) River. It is a transportation, financial, and industrial center. Manufactures include machinery, cement, and food products. It is also the site of a major trade fair.
Utrecht was founded by the Romans as Trajectum ad Rhenum [Lat., = ford of the Rhine]. In the late 7th cent. it was made an episcopal center for St. Willibrord, the Apostle to the Frisians. The bishops of Utrecht, as princes of the Holy Roman Empire, later ruled the area around the city and the lordship (now province) of Overijssel. There was a recurring power struggle between the bishops and the city's merchants. Utrecht received a liberal charter in 1122, but its difficulties with the bishops continued sporadically until 1527, when the bishop was forced to transfer his territorial rights to Emperor Charles V.
One of the most important commercial centers of the Netherlands in the Middle Ages, Utrecht was incorporated with the rest of the Hapsburg-held Netherlands by Charles V. Utrecht joined (1577) in the rebellion against Philip II of Spain, and on Jan. 23, 1579, the seven provinces of the N Netherlands, from then on known as the United Provinces, the nucleus of the Dutch republic, drew together for their common defense in the Union of Utrecht. In the 17th cent., Utrecht became a center of Jansenism (see under Jansen, Cornelis). In 1713 several treaties forming part of the Peace of Utrecht were signed there.
The old inner city is picturesque, crossed by numerous sunken canals. Utrecht is the site of a 14th-century cathedral and a famous university (founded 1636) with a quaint old campus and vibrant new one. It also is the center of the Roman Catholic authority of the Netherlands.