History of The Hague

The Hague, from Founding to the 13th Century

There was no trace of Amsterdam, Rotterdam or The Hague in the first two centuries of the second millennium. Between AD 993 and 1299, the territory was known as the County of Holland, ruled by Frisian Counts. During the early 1200s, Count Floris IV of Holland purchased some land near Loosduinen and began building a house atop a dune adjacent to a small lake, called the ‘Court Pond’ today. The house was probably made of stone, but there were also wooden buildings nearby inhabited by servants, and stables for cattle, as well as defensive walls and probably a canal. The house and surroundings were called Haga (‘land surrounded by walls’), and later was renamed Haag.

The Middle Ages boasted a sport called ‘jousting’, which included martial competitions between two mounted knights using a variety of weapons. Count Floris IV lost his life in this sport, in France. He was succeeded by Willem II, who built a larger and impressive house on the land near Loosduinen, as his power and influence gradually rose. In 1256, weeks before his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor, Willem lost his life in a battle against the Frisian tribe, the same year his son Floris V was born. When Floris V was in his teens, he decided to sell his rights to the Scottish crown instead of going to war in Scotland. With the proceeds, he built part of the Royal Palace in Haga, which still stands today as the Hall of Knights, with a small fountain and statue of Willem II in front of the building.

Floris V pursued a peacekeeping policy. Instead of battling the Frisians, he chose to make peace and settle in Haga permanently, perhaps because the castle stood on its ‘own’ ground, and major cities, such as Delft and Leiden, could lay no claims to it. From then on the castle drew more and more settlers. Even though there were no rivers or major roads in the area, Haga developed into a village, with its inhabitants protected by the standing army of the count.

A myriad of small castles and wooden houses soon sprung up around the main edifice at Haga because powerful landlords from all over Holland wanted to own property there. The Hague then became the political centre of Holland. In 1296, Floris V was kidnapped by the Lords of Amstel, who were associated with the founding of Amsterdam. When the people demanded his return, the kidnappers were reluctant to turn him over for fear of their own lives, and they killed him. The last count was Willem III, who married Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of King Edward I of England. Willem only ruled for three years and died without an heir.

From the 14th to 16th Century
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Counts from other lineages came into power in The Hague, but not all lived in the castle of The Hague. One of the most significant counts of The Hague and Holland was Aalbrecht of Bavaria, who brought prosperity to Holland through his wise decisions. Aalbrecht waged a successful war against the city of Delft and ordered the people to raze its city walls and bring the stones back to The Hague castle to build an imposing wall. The Spui gate of this wall survived until 1861.

After Aalbrecht’s death, civil war erupted in Holland, with Holland becoming part of the Spanish Empire. During the late 13th Century, the castle looked about the same as it does today, with exception to the old castle’s thick walls, stables, gardens and a church. The large garden behind the castle became a public square in 1632. The Outer Court, today also a square, was located in front of the Inner Court. Before the 1920s, it was encircled by military buildings and stables, and could only be entered through the Prison Gate and the small street Halstreat.

Holland, with The Hague as its capital city, was ruled by foreign counts and kings between the 14th and 16th Centuries. King Philip II of Spain was the last foreign ruler. The locals were not too concerned about who ruled the city, evident from their saying ‘God is too high, and the king is too far’. Moreover, other cities, namely Dordrecht and Leiden, still wielded much power. Taxes were paid and there was peace. Representatives of the king lived in The Hague, as well as the administration.

Cities, such as Delft and Leiden, were in danger of potential rivalry with The Hague, so attempts were made to prevent it from building fortifications. Nevertheless, The Hague became rich from commerce, and in the 17th Century, the only European ships allowed to trade with Japan were Dutch.

The Hague, in the mid-16th Century, was attacked by an army from Gelre (present-day Gelderland province in the Netherlands) under the command of Maarten van Rossem, occupying and ransacking the city because of the lack of walls. Only the castle and the inner and outer courts, being surrounded by walls, water and gates, were not destroyed. After this, the people of The Hague saved enough money to build city walls, but instead, local authorities used it to build a new City Hall, modeled after the town hall of Antwerp.

The Spanish Inquisition then hit The Hague, through which the Spanish king tried to impose Catholicism. In response, Protestants in Holland and Belgium destroyed Catholic churches, in what was called the ‘Statue Storm’ because of the large number of religious statues that were damaged.

The war of independence between Holland and the Spanish crown broke out in 1568. Dutch cities revolted against the king under the leadership of Prince William of Orange, when the Spanish army and the liberation army both plundered The Hague. The rebel movement established its headquarters in Delft, where Prince William was assassinated in 1584. The Orange family returned to their castle in The Hague and William was succeeded by his son Maurits, the next leader of the rebellion.

The Hague between the 17th to 19th Centuries

Prince Maurits was a Stadtholder, a post resembling that of commander-in-chief, and had great powers in times of war, but in peace time he was subject to numerous checks and balances. In the 17th Century, the seven northern provinces of Holland (the Netherlands) were declared a Republic, while the southern provinces (Belgium today) remained under Spanish rule. The Hague was the centre of government and was made capital of the Republic.

However, the other Dutch cities refused to pay for Maurits’ city walls, and The Hague itself was ravaged by war and poverty; the defensive canals were all the city had. The Hague had practically been leveled to the ground during the war, and the castle, the church and City Hall were the only buildings left standing. The Hague had to be reconstructed within the defensive canals. There were plans to erect houses directly behind the palace of the prince, but Maurits thwarted them. The Outer Court was redesigned as a square instead, where a statue of William of Orange with his dog stands. It has been claimed that his dog saved his life in battle once.

The Netherlands and the Orange dynasty nurtured a close relationship in The Hague’s historical scheme, hence the Dutch national anthem praising William of Orange and the country’s national color, orange. Before Napoleon’s invasion, the Netherlands was a republic, but members of the Orange family served as heads of state.

All the buildings around the Outer Court, except the Prison Gate, were torn down between the 17th and early 20th Centuries. Johan de Witt was among the few Stadtholders not associated with the Orange family. But in 1672, the Year of Disaster, the Netherlands entered a war against four great European nations and De Witt was murdered by the people of The Hague from desperation of poverty and hunger. The Oranges returned to power until the time of Napoleon and the seat of the princes of Orange was in The Hague, which officially was still not a city. Delft and Leiden continued to deny The Hague city rights, until the French armies occupied the Netherlands and put an end to the rule of these major cities. The heritage of these powers lies in the embassies (Logementen) in The Hague.

The Kingdom of Holland was proclaimed during the French occupation. Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother became the first king and established a royal residence in The Hague, but the surroundings were too pastoral for his taste, so he granted city rights. However, he soon moved to Amsterdam, which was the largest city in the country. Napoleon had visited The Hague only once and found that his brother was incapable of ruling and ordered him to go back to France. Holland then became a French province.

Independence was restored to the Netherlands after the Battle of Waterloo and it became a kingdom again. The first king was (predictably) a member of the Orange dynasty, who also held the title Duke of Luxembourg. The Southern Netherlands achieved independence in the 19th Century as a part of Belgium, and The Hague became the capital of South Holland.

Most of the city canals of The Hague were closed between 1645 and 1905. Today, many impressive buildings in The Hague date from the 19th Century, which span a wide variety of epochs in architecture, such as Art Nouveau, Neo-Renaissance and Eclecticism. These are located in the areas of Statenkwartier, Archipelbuurt, Benoordenhout and Bezuidenhout. After Napoleon lost power, Amsterdam remained the capital city, but only formally. The headquarters of the Dutch government are in The Hague, as well as almost all the foreign embassies.

The Hague in the 20th and 21st Centuries

The Netherlands stayed neutral in the First World War, but the Dutch government maintained a standing army on the Dutch coast to prevent potential invasions from England. In 1918, an unsuccessful socialist revolution took place in The Hague headed by Troelstra, an MP who wanted to establish a socialist republic. During this time, the powerful monarchies Russia, Germany and Austria had disintegrated, and there were indications that this could happen also in the Netherlands. The revolution was followed by a mass demonstration of supporters of the monarchy in The Hague.

The Second World War had far more disastrous consequences for The Hague. The Netherlands hoped to remain neutral again, but Germany attacked the country in 1940. The Dutch still relied on water as a mean of blocking foreign entry, but the Germans simply flew over the country. There were four airfields around The Hague, and the Germans captured all of them on the very first day of war. Later, The Hague was retaken, and the Queen and the government, whose members had been held hostage, escaped. Many German planes were destroyed and the Nazis retaliated by incessantly bombing Rotterdam, and threatened to do the same to The Hague if the Netherlands didn't capitulate. The country did not have sufficient air defenses and soon surrendered.

Both the Germans and the Allies did extensive damage to the city. The Germans destroyed many 19th- Century buildings near the Scheveningen. Many houses and forest areas were bombed beyond recognition, as well as the zoo, built in 1863. In March 1945, the Allies accidentally bombed the 19th-Century Bezuidenhout, as well as some 17th-Century buildings, such as the elegant American and French embassies.

The Hague’s population increased significantly after the war, largely due to the Dutch colonies of Indonesia and Suriname becoming independent people, consequently arriving in the Netherlands. The Old Town of The Hague today has very few canals left, but still attracts tourists with multicultural festivals and annual events commemorating historical dates, such as April 30, when the Dutch celebrate Queen's Day in memory of their former queen Juliana. There is also a free open-air festival, Parkpop, held since 1981 on the last Sunday in June, attracting some 350,000 fans.