Delft – The Making of a Nation

Netherlands

Delft conjures up images of blue and white, pretty Delft pottery. Not murder in the castle, looting of Portugese ships and 80 years of fighting the Spanish. But that’s exactly what I find in the first half of my day trip here.

  • Start of Day Trip: Den Haag Spoor Station, Netherlands
  • Cost of Day Out: Expensive (£££)
  • Historical Content: High

Despite Delft being only 20 minutes away from the Hague, the tram journey yields some unexpected, but enjoyable, scenery. Once the tram crosses over the Zuidvliet canal, everything is suddenly greener, more spacious and tranquil as the tram ditches the road and hugs the canal to Delft Train Station, where I disembark.

My Tram Journey to Delft

My first impression of Delft is of a laid back unhurried town, criss crossed by many canals, forded by pretty little bridges. The fairly recent decision to run the trains underground into the modern train station has contributed greatly to its general sense of serenity. The town itself hardly has any traffic either.

One of Delft’s Beautiful Canals

My story of Delft starts in 1246. Delft is the 40th village in the Netherlands to be granted City status. With this new found position, it transforms from a rural village to a flourishing town. By the 15th century, it has defensive walls, eight gates and a surrounding moat. Today [1] Oostport (Eastern Gate) is the solitary gate standing from those days. It has been painted and sketched much in its lifetime.

The Oostport, Delft

In the [2] Grote Markt, I find the Renaissance style [2] Stadhuis (more about this building, originally built in 1618). Back in the 1300s only its belfry stands in the square. So does the beggar Symons, in 1351, in his usual spot. Suddenly he gets a vision of the Madonna and a church, which results in a wooden chapel dedicated to St Ursula built in 1381 in the alleged spot of his vision. Today it’s the [3] Nieuwe Kerk, across the square from the Stadhuis.

The Grote Markt and Stadhuis (Town Hall)

[4] Nieuwe Kerk’s tower is completed in 1496. At 376 steps, it’s the second tallest in the Netherlands, which I climb for some great views of Delft. An obvious lightning magnet, it’s suspected of causing the devastating 1536 fire. As shown by this map, the fire destroys much of Delft, including the church.

Nieuwe Kerk and Its Tall Tower which I Climb

In 1555, Prince Phillip the II of Spain inherits the 17 Provinces of the Lowlands i.e. Holland and Belgium. It’s a terribly long tale of how the Netherlands transfers from the rule of the Duchy of Burgundy when Count William builds his castle in the Hague in 1248, (my Hague blog), to being Provinces under the rule of  Spain. A fair summary would be that most of the European Royal Family are related to each other. Entire or part of fiefdoms are passed on through marriage or death.

Delft, Viewed from the Nieuwe Kerk Tower, is under Spanish Rule at This Point of My Story

In 1566 iconoclasm (what is it?) erupts in Flanders. It’s the climax of the Protestant Reformation which started in 1517. This Beeldenstorm, as the Dutch refer to it, leaves a trail of destruction in the summer of 1566. All bar one Catholic sculpture in the Nieuwe Kerk are destroyed. This explains why churches in the Netherlands have very plain interiors today.

The Plain Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk

Philip the II takes his Catholic responsibilities seriously. His agent, the Count of Alba, sets up the Council of Troubles that unlawfully and brutally deals with the Protestant heretics. It’s also an opportunity to remove any landed gentry who stood in the way of Phillip’s absolute power.

Painting of Count Alba at the Prinsenhof, Symbolically Showing   17 Maidens from Each Province Chained to the Count

One such landed gentry is William from the House of Orange. When his properties are seized, he resolves to free Holland from the Spanish. Thus begins the 80 Years War with Spain in 1568. With various initial successes, including the capture of Brielle in 1572 with the help of the Sea Beggars, he bases himself in the well defended city of Delft in the same year.

The Heart of Delft, Now Home to William of Orange from 1572

The palace where William lived and worked in Delft is today the [5] Museum Prinsenhof.  William works to unite the Low Countries behind him in his quest against the Spanish. There is a price on his head. In 1584, he is shot by a Spaniard, Balthasar Gerards, in the stairway of his palace. The bullet holes in the wall are still preserved.

The Gardens of the Princenhof

Balthasar Gerards is caught and tortured barbarically, even in the inhumane standard of those days. William, in the meantime has to be buried in the Nieuwe Kerk, as Breda, where his family crypt is, is under Spanish control. And from that day, it’s traditional for the Dutch Royal family to be buried in the Nieuwe Kerk.

Mausoleum of William of Orange

Royal portrait galleries are wonderful for instilling in me the order of succession. The gallery in the Prinsenhof is no exception. Maurits, William’s son, becomes stadtholder on his father’s death. It’s during Maurits’ rule that the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) is formed in 1602, primarily by the efforts of Johan van Oldervanbelt. The story of Johan and Maurits unfolds in my Amersfoot visit.

The Royal Portrait Gallery in the Prinsenhof is a Great Aide Memoire

The VOC begins a trade war with the current East Indies trading powerhouse, the Portugese. In 1603, the treasure laden Portugese ship, Santa Catarina, is captured and looted by the VOC.  The high quality, beautiful blue and white Ming ceramics are auctioned off at considerable prices to appreciative Dutch audiences. The death of the Chinese emperor in 1620 disrupts supplies. This provides the impetus for the infant Dutch ceramic industry to step up to meet local demand.

The Dutch Ceramics Industry Starts with the Looting of a Portugese Ship

Despite havng left the Nieuwe Kerk ages ago and its 16 awesome stained glass windows, I can still see its most famous mechanical clock (a scientific legacy of the Dutch to the world) from the cafe I’m sat at. I think it’s carillon practice day today because all through my coffee break I am entertained by a continuous medley of songs, including the Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel.

Listening to the Carillon whilst Having Coffee at the Stads-Koffyhuis

The tranquility of Delft certainly belies the fact that Delft, and the Hague next door, are centres from which so many wars are being waged in the 16th and 17th century. Does it ever end ? I wait to see this afternoon (my other Delft blog).

Some General Information

  • Train tickets in Holland can be purchased at stations or by using the prepaid OV Chipcard. From the Hague, the daily travel pass can be used on Tram #1 to Delft
  • Oostport (Eastern Gate) – open 24/7
  • Stadhuis (City Hall) (website) – closed weekends, free to enter public areas
  • Oude Kerk / Nieuwe Kerk (websites) – closed to the public on Sundays, combined entrance fee, including the Nieuwe Kerk Tower climb, applies
  • The Nieuwe Kerk Tower climb, whilst perfectly safe, can be nerve-wracking for those who suffer from vertigo. The climb up is on wooden planks on a spiral staircase. And the balconies are very narrow.
  • Museum Prinsenhof (website) – open daily, free with the Dutch Museumcard.
My Route Around Delft

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