Delft is a glorious place to stroll around. Almost every street reveals yet more wonderful architecture, another small canal with quaint bridges or a site of historical significance. Quite often you get all three at the same time, and I have to admit to finding myself slightly beguiled by its wonderful and tranquil atmosphere. I imagine that my impression would have been different if it had been summer and the height of the tourist season. It is a small and compact city where the two or three tour groups I saw were very conspicuous.
It is pretty easy to lose your way amongst the narrow streets and canals of the historic centre; luckily there are a couple of giant landmarks which serve to orient you when you catch sight of them. The truly enormous spire of Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) can probably be seen from space – in fact, at 108.75 m (356.79 ft) high, surprisingly it is only the second tallest church in the Netherlands. Nieuwe Kerk dates from the 14th Century, proving that ‘new’ is relative in a city as old as Delft. It is also the burial place for generations of the Dutch monarchy.
By comparison, at 75 metres in height the Oude Kerk (Old Church) can’t compete on size, but as the current building dates from the 13th Century and stands on the site of even earlier churches, it wins hands down on age. How much longer Oude Kerk, or Oude Jan (Old John) as it is affectionately known, stands is a matter of debate. It’s hulking tower leans at an angle which should give homeowners living across the road sleepless nights. It isn’t quite the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but it tilts at a very alarming angle away from the rest of the church.
Delft has several important historical connections beyond Dutch Master, Johannes Vermeer, and Delft Pottery. This is a Royal city, home to the House of Orange. William of Orange, or William the Silent as he became known to posterity, took up residence in Delft in the 1570s. As one of the main leaders of Dutch resistance against Spanish control of the Netherlands, the large and solid city walls of Delft made it a good choice as a base.
It was in Delft that Dutch leaders met to declare their rejection of Spanish control and sought foreign assistance against the Spanish armies roaming the country. The Eighty Years’ War against Spain, which would determine the future course of Dutch history, started in 1568, only ending in 1648. Which must have been a relief to everyone concerned. Dutch independence is bound up with the Protestant Reformation and a rejection, not just of Spanish control, but of Catholic Spain.
In this the Dutch were allied to newly Protestant England. After initial successes against the Spanish, by the 1580s Spain was reasserting control over the Netherlands. The assassination of William of Orange in 1584 was a major blow to Dutch aspirations and led to one of the more extraordinary acts during this period: the Dutch offered sovereignty over the country to Elizabeth I of England. Elizabeth refused, instead sending a poorly equipped, and even more poorly led (by her favourite Robert Dudley), army to support the Dutch.
Despite this bungling, England probably did assist Dutch independence when, in 1588, the English navy defeated the Spanish Armada. This defeat was a real setback to Spanish power in Northern Europe, although the Dutch still had to contend with a large Spanish army which was marauding around modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands.
There were still 60 years of fighting left before the Dutch finally defeated the Spanish and, once and for all, banished tapas from their borders in favour of raw herring and bitterballen. A fact some modern residents of the Netherlands daily regret.