Middelburg and the terrible glories of the past

Middelburg is an extraordinarily attractive town. Beautiful medieval buildings compete for your attention with ancient narrow cobbled streets, flanked by merchant houses with brightly painted shutters. Wander out of the centre and the remains of Middelburg’s star-shaped fortifications are today picturesque parkland, offering views back to the town and a couple of stately looking windmills.

This is a town that could easily verge on cliché, and yet it’s a modern, vibrant city with a lively student population. There’s no denying that history seems to seep out of the very fabric of the town though…it’s a long and glorious history, but one that conceals a terrible secret.

Abbey, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Abbey, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Stadhuis, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Stadhuis, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Middelburg’s charter granting it city rights dates back to 1217, a full 83 years before Amsterdam received city rights. The town though was on the map as early as the 8th Century, when it was fortified against Viking raids. By the time it became a city it was already an important trading centre, made wealthy through trade, including wool from Scotland, and fishing.

This wealth led Middelburg to remain firmly in favour of the status quo during the Eighty Years’ War against Spain. The town was strongly Catholic – it had one of only two pre-Reformation cathedrals in the Netherlands – and refused to support Dutch independence. Staying loyal to the Catholic Spanish Monarchy had a price though.

Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

IMG_7522

The Cathedral, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

The Cathedral, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

In 1572 Protestant Dutch forces and their English allies laid siege to Middelburg. Two years later a starving population surrendered, the Spanish garrison was allowed to retreat but its failure to hold Middelburg meant the whole of Zeeland was in Dutch hands. An odd side notes to the siege is that one of Elizabethan England’s most famous poets, George Gascoigne, took part in the siege. Gascoigne was a soldier-poet who also attended the court of Elizabeth I.

Middelburg’s greatest years were to come after Dutch independence from Spain in 1648. Ships of the Dutch East Indian Company roamed the globe, bringing spices, gold and silk back from the Far East, and sparking the Dutch Golden Age, which made the Netherlands hugely wealthy and brought about an incredible cultural blossoming.

Windmill, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Windmill, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Windmill, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Windmill, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Old harbour, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Old harbour, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Old harbour, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Old harbour, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Middelburg was one of the founding cities of the Dutch East India Company, and the company’s second most important port after Amsterdam. Vast wealth flowed through Middelburg and much of the town’s superb historic architecture dates from that period. Not all Middelburg’s wealth came from spices however. You’d not guess it today, but this beautiful place was the epicentre of the Dutch slave trade.

Slavery, illegal in the Netherlands itself, fuelled the Dutch Empire in the Caribbean and the East Indies. Dutch ships also carried hundreds of thousands of African slaves to countries like Brazil. The Netherlands was the pre-eminent European slave trading nation up until the 1730s, and the Middelburg Commercial Company was the biggest Dutch slave trader. You don’t have to look far in Europe to uncover unsavoury truths about its history.

Old harbour, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Old harbour, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Old harbour, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Old harbour, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Old harbour, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Old harbour, Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Statue in Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Statue in Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands

My meanderings around the town eventually brought me to the lovely old port, where traditional Dutch barges nestled alongside more modern vessels. On a lovely sunny day it was a beautiful sight, although it was hard to shake the idea of boats sailing from here to the coast of West Africa to barter for slaves who would fuel the sugar plantations of the Caribbean.

Exploring Zeeland, Magical Middelburg

There may come a time when I no longer get a thrill out of visiting beautiful and historic Dutch towns, but that time is not the extraordinary medieval city of Middelburg, capital of the equally beautiful Zeeland region. The Netherlands sets the bar high when it comes to ‘picture-postcard-perfect’ towns, but Middelburg is special even for someone who has visited more than their fare share of picturesque places.

I travelled with my bike, intending to leisurely explore the coastline and historic communities of the region. Zeeland is a chain of low lying islands that until recently have been at the mercy of the North Sea. The character of this region and it’s people has been forged by its love-hate relationship with the ocean. Simultaneously economic lifeline and fearsome enemy, and all too often bringing devastation.

Lange Jan and Middelburg Cathedral, Netherlands

Lange Jan and Middelburg Cathedral, Netherlands

Harbour, Middelburg, Netherlands

Harbour, Middelburg, Netherlands

Harbour, Middelburg, Netherlands

Harbour, Middelburg, Netherlands

The sea regularly caused destruction, but it was German bombers (some claim French artillery) that destroyed much of Middelburg’s medieval centre during the Second World War. In May 1940, the German advance on France met stiff resistance from French and Dutch forces in Zeeland. It was a one-sided affair, the German’s swept all before them in a ferocious eight day battle.

As the struggle for Zeeland drew to a conclusion the German airforce bombed Middelburg, destroying more than 600 buildings in its historic centre. A day later Dutch forces surrendered while French troops retreated south. The good news for modern-day visitors is that the entire city centre was reconstructed after the war, retaining its medieval core.

Stadhuis, Middelburg, Netherlands

Stadhuis, Middelburg, Netherlands

Statue outside the Stadhuis, Middelburg, Netherlands

Statue outside the Stadhuis, Middelburg, Netherlands

Stadhuis, Middelburg, Netherlands

Stadhuis, Middelburg, Netherlands

Stadhuis, Middelburg, Netherlands

Stadhuis, Middelburg, Netherlands

Despite a history dating back to the 8th Century, and its role as one of the most important trading centres during the Dutch Golden Age, when it was second only to Amsterdam, Middelburg is small place. Around 50,000 people live in the city today and, were it not for the massive 90 metre tower of ‘Lange Jan’ looming over the town, arriving at the small train station might be a bit underwhelming.

Lange Jan acts as a marker to guide you into the centre. I’d set off early from The Hague and cycled to the central Markt square to get a coffee and some breakfast before exploring the town on foot. The wide open space of the Markt is ringed by cafes and restaurants, but at one end is the wonderfully ornate gothic architectural delight of the Stadhuis.

Stadhuis, Middelburg, Netherlands

Stadhuis, Middelburg, Netherlands

Stadhuis, Middelburg, Netherlands

Stadhuis, Middelburg, Netherlands

Poetry on a wall, Middelburg, Netherlands

Poetry on a wall, Middelburg, Netherlands

Statue, Middelburg, Netherlands

Statue, Middelburg, Netherlands

Poetry on a wall, Middelburg, Netherlands

Poetry on a wall, Middelburg, Netherlands

Construction of the Stadhuis started in 1452 and was only finished 70 years later. The building is decorated with numerous statues of the Counts and Countesses of Zeeland. Most of the facade survived the German bombing but the interior was gutted by fire. Restoration work started immediately after the war and the building was reopened in 1950.

The building’s grandeur is slightly undermined by a more contemporary statue in front of it: a miniature of the Markt and Stadhuis between two seats. Nothing unusual you might think. But sit on one of the seats and water pours from underneath it, making it seem as if the sitter has had an ‘accident’. It kept plenty of children happy the day I was there.

Lange Jan and Middelburg Cathedral, Netherlands

Lange Jan and Middelburg Cathedral, Netherlands

Choir, Middelburg Cathedral, Netherlands

Choir, Middelburg Cathedral, Netherlands

Middelburg Cathedral, Netherlands

Middelburg Cathedral, Netherlands

Middelburg Cathedral, Netherlands

Middelburg Cathedral, Netherlands

Middelburg, Netherlands

Middelburg, Netherlands

The Stadhuis is the perfect place to start an exploration of the town. After a reviving coffee it was time to find out why Middelburg is considered one of the most attractive towns in the Netherlands…