Sometimes in life you come across a place that exerts a pull on your emotions that can be wondrous and unexpected.
For me it was the discovery of Naarden Vesting – a small visually delightful town in the Het Gooi region of Holland that has an atmosphere of tranquillity totally in contrast to its profoundly dramatic history.
Canals around Naarden viewed from a boat trip. Wild waterlilies, flag irises – blissfully peaceful -the only sound is birdsong.
Naarden, dates back to 887 but over the centuries storms caused flooding which resulted in the village being re-built in a new location on higher ground where it remains until today. It was designated as a city around 1300.
Naarden Vesting is a jewel, situated in beautiful wooded countryside and in the centre of one of the few remaining star shaped forts, surrounded by water. The town has narrow cobblestone streets, pavements of red brick and historic buildings that are architectural gems. Overlooking all of this is the magnificent St. Vitus Church. Climb the tower for a panoramic view as far as Amsterdam and Utrecht. ( A treat still in store for me).
Whilst researching this story I soon realised how little I knew about the history of the Netherlands, having assumed that it had always been there. How wrong could I be!
In ancient times it was a difficult place to live, being covered with wetlands, rivers, lakes and woods, however on the plus side this made it almost impossible for enemies to invade. The Romans succeeded in the 1st century, but only in the south. As the Roman Empire declined, the Franks arrived bringing Christianity and by the 9th century Naarden was part of Charlemagne’s empire. After his death the country was divided into smaller states ruled by nobles and by then had already developed strong trade links with Asia and Africa.
Later the Dukes of Burgundy took over, followed by the Habsburgs. In 1555 the Habsburg emperor Charles V granted the Netherlands to his son Philip 11, King of Spain.(He who married Mary, daughter of King Henry V111 and later sent the doomed Spanish Armada to England) He was a devout Catholic, saying “I would rather lose all my lands and a hundred lives than be king over heretics”. He had “a smile that cuts like a sword’ and it was he who started the 80 Years War which proved catastrophic for the Netherlands.
The Dutch, now mainly Protestants (aka heretics) rebelled and protested against his cruel regime and harsh taxes, so his army began a relentless campaign to punish them. They looted the city of Mechelen, until “no nail was left in any wall”, killing several hundred citizens. Zutphen suffered a similar fate. Hearing this, a delegation from Naarden attempted to negotiate with the Spanish, offering supplies and promising to swear an oath to the King. The army arrived, the residents assembled in the Town Hall to welcome them. Instead 400 were locked inside and murdered, while another were 400 killed in the street. The soldiers then proceeded to kill all remaining inhabitants of Naarden, burning many to death in their homes. Only 60 of the 3,000 residents escaped.
Etching of the Massacre at Naarden
This massacre, including the murder of his son, was witnessed and recorded by Lambertus Hortensius a priest and sympathiser of the Reformers. Two years later he was buried in the Great Church in Naarden where his tombstone reads: ‘A man of great scholarship, an excellent man of letters, an ingenious historian and an astute leader of Naarden youth.
Contrary to the intent of the Spanish, the destruction of Naarden became a rallying symbol for the Dutch rebels who eventually proclaimed their independence in 1581 with the Union of Utrecht.
One of the few buildings in Naarden to survive was St Vitus’ Church, built by Catholics (1380 – 1445) before the Reformation. When I entered I was dazzled by the magnificent interior and was fortunate to meet Frans, a dedicated guide, with a passion for his local history that was infectious.
The walls were brilliant white and the barrel vault ceiling, 65 metres (214 ft) high, was covered with 39 glorious paintings of scenes from the Old and the New Testaments. Whitewashing was a key strategy in the Protestants’ alteration of churches, when all former ornamentation was obliterated. However for some reason these paintings were untouched. It seems that they were so high no one could reach them, hence this magnificent art remains for us to enjoy. I had to lay down flat on my back to take photos but Frans brought me a magnified mirror with which I could get a close up view more easily.He then produced an hour glass (sand timer) explaining how this was essential in earlier times when preachers were only allowed to speak for twenty minutes. If this was exceeded, they had to pay a fine to the State. A wonderful idea! I can think of many public speakers today who could usefully adopt this rule. Charles was so enthused by this notion that, back in London, he bought one and presented it to our Rabbi. I wonder if he will adopt the tradition?The church can hold 1,000 people but nowadays only 100 attend Sunday services. They have regular organ recitals, the church reputedly having the best acoustics in Holland. I tested this myself with a rendition of a Spanish Zarzuela and confirm that it is true! my voice easily reached the heavens. (fortunately no one else was there at the time.)
I next visited the Spanish House – the Town Hall at the time of the massacre. I was warmly welcomed by Han, who related its history. The building was partially restored in the 16th century, serving as a weighing house prior to the establishment of standard weights. The house is now a fine museum covering every aspect of Weights and Measures.
This depiction of the massacre is above the doorway of the Spanish House.
I was invited for drinks in the garden with Han’s neighbours, one of whom was celebrating his birthday. Another example of the warm welcome I received everywhere on my trip.
But no story about this place can be complete without writing about the Vesting Fortress Museum. I was lucky enough to be guided by Goos, (his real name, not a typo) who was charming, patient and very knowledgeable. He was also a gunner which was an added bonus.
Bastion forts evolved when gunpowder and cannons dominated the battlefield. They were first seen in 15th century Italy where star forts were designed by Michelangelo to defend Florence. Naarden was established to protect Amsterdam from the East and is listed as Europe’s only standing fortification with double walls and moats. Cannons were placed prominently on two levels of the hillocks – the higher for long range and the lower for short range fire. Underground is a gunpowder room, and brick and mortar bomb proof buildings covered with earth (casemates). Soldiers worked and slept here, patrolling a 61 metre ‘listening’ corridor from where they could hear enemy movements. They wore soft footwear (no hobnailed boots) to ensure that no sparks ignited the gunpowder.
I watched some fascinating films, including one about the unique history of Dutch waterlines. It was remarkable learning how this small country, constantly threatened by the sea, has harnessed it in ingenious and positive ways. ‘Netherlands’ means ‘low countries’ and 50% of its land is barely 1 metre above sea level. Since the 16th century 17% more land has been reclaimed from both sea and lakes. Great for cycling, but more impressive is how it was used for defence.
As far back as 1629 during times of conflict, areas were flooded with water maintained at a level deep enough to make advance on foot precarious, especially after the addition of underwater obstacles such as pits, or barbed wire and land mines in later years. The water was too shallow for enemy boats but locals could still use their flat bottomed boats to move around easily. Their ingenuity was boundless.photo courtesy Goos Van Gorkum.
For me the visit was an eye opener. I learned so much, most of which, owing to lack of space, I cannot include here. This small country that was at the pinnacle of world trading in the 17th century, now ranks fifth place worldwide with regard to prosperity; is the sixth largest economy in the EU and is the second largest exporter of agri-food products after the USA. Add to this their brilliant football team. They have played in more Cup Finals than any other country and are affectionately referred to as “the best team never to have won the World Cup”.
I came away with a deep admiration and love for the Dutch and lasting memories of the 19 new friends I met on my brief stay – hopefully all by now reading my stories – I only hope they approve of my observations about their very special nation.