Living in Leiden

In the heart of Leiden

In the heart of Leiden

We lived in Leiden for a year and began to understand a little of the history of that non-conformist city. Historically a site of tolerance and diversity, from whence the “Founding Fathers” sailed to establish their version of freedom in America. There are several monuments to and reminders of the Mayflower connection at various points around the city, including the ruins of the Vrouwekerk (Our Lady’s Church) where children now play and locals meet for a quiet evening drink.

Leiden occupies a central space in the emergence of the Netherlands as an independent and modern nation, for it was here that William of Orange won a great victory over Spanish Imperialism with the “Leiden Ontzet” in 1574.


Erwin Olaf’s re-enactment of the Leiden Ontzet in the Pieterskerk, 2011

That was the “Relief of Leiden”, enabled by breaching the dykes and flooding the countryside. A defence strategy the Dutch developed and adhered to until the Nazi invasion. The photo at right shows a dramatic interpretation of Leiden during the siege, held in the Pieterskerk back in 2011 and photographed by Erwin Olaf.

There’s a lot of history here, much of it “official” and just as much generated by people and groups in the community. For example, Leiden was known as Lugdunum Batavorum in Roman times and was the Empire’s northern-most outpost on the Rijn, with a canal dug from their fortress at Matilo to what is now Rotterdam. Not much building remains because stone had to be shipped down the Rhine, so most construction was wood, now rotted away.

For hundreds of years this was the river’s only crossing point, the spot today marked by the junction of the “Old” and “New” Rhine with markets and cafes and Rondvaart (“roundtrips” or river cruises). No wonder it was the seat of the Counts of Holland for centuries, and you can visit their Gravensteen, or Count’s stone, ie castle, with its pretty forecourt – once the execution square. And across the square is the Latin School attended by Rembrandt, because Leiden was the artist’s birthplace and hometown until he moved to Amsterdam as a young man.


The gallery of the Counts of Holland, overlooking the execution square

Shortly after the Relief from the Spanish Siege, Willem van Oranje established Leiden University, the oldest in the Netherlands (1575) which includes amongst its alumni and academic staff – Descartes, Hugo Grotius (progenitor of the Law of the Sea), Spinoza, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 2014’s Fields Medal winner Manjul Bhargava, mathematician Paul Ehrenfest, and his wife Tatyana Afanasyeva, the physicist Lorenz and Einstein.

In 1590 the University had set up the Hortus Botanicus, the oldest Botanic Garden in Europe, within the original university grounds. It soon came to host and cultivate plants from around the world, especially from the growing Dutch empire in the Caribbean and the East Indies.

All through this old city are hofjes or almshouses established by nobles, merchants and the Gemeente (city community) for looking after old people, especially widows. And the Graan Magasyn which stored grain for the poor. Like the Netherlands generally, Leiden has a rich legacy of community-mindedness.

Holocaust memorial: Jewish case at Gestapo HQ, Leiden

Holocaust memorial: Jewish case at Gestapo HQ, Leiden

But now, today you’ll find a series of sculptured stone suitcases scattered at various points in the inner city. During the Nazi occupation, these were places where Jews were apprehended and just left their luggage behind them. The first case sits outside the old Police Station, used by the Gestapo as their HQ.

As well, Leiden was the hometown of Marinus van der Lubbe. Who? you may well ask.

Van Der Lubbe memorial at the Morspoort, Leiden

Van Der Lubbe memorial at the Morspoort, Leiden

Well, van der Lubbe was the communist drifter who set fire to the Reichstag in Berlin, giving Hitler the excuse to stage a coup and jail most of his leftist and liberal opponents. Marinus has variously been regarded as a stooge, hapless victim, idiot or pawn, but the full story is much more complex and interesting. He is one of the misunderstood figures of the last century, and to Leiden he is worth remembering.

There’s a modest but prideful monument to him next to the Morspoort, or “swamp gate” also known as the “gallows gate” which matches similar stones in Berlin and Leipzig (where he was executed). The second photo shows him with his mother and two older brothers. Pinterest has a Marinus page here (in Dutch) and a nice retelling of his life from Joep in Berlin, in English, here.

Van Der Lubbe

Marinus Van Der Lubbe, his mother and brothers

Lots more photos of Leiden here on iPernity and here on 500px (open in new windows).

And if you want more . . . read my longer Reflection from Leiden.

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