History of The Hague

ooievaarkleinerWebsite on the history of The Hague.


Short history of The Hague


Like many histories, the history of The Hague starts in Prehistory. That is the period before men could write and therefore we don’t have any written records. In one of the inland quarters, Ypenburg, archaeologists found the remains of an iron-age settlement, dated around 3500 BC. People lived here on dunes on the coastline, which was located much more inland in this period. The area of The Hague was part of the ‘North Sea’.

Prehistoric sandy ridges near The Hague

The four prehistoric sandy ridges in the region of The Hague.

Around 3500 C the coastline extended to an even more inland sandy ridge at Ypenburg. The dotted green line is the high moorland which grew later and then extended all the way to Utrecht. Between the ridges (in green) was marshy territory.


Just before the start of our era the Romans arrived in our region. The northern part of the Europee was sparsely inhabited by a few German tribes. The Romans did not succeed in conquering these Germans and they withdrew behind one of the large rivers in this region, the Rhine. The estuary of the Rhine then was near Katwijk, to the north of The Hague and so the region of The Hague became part of the Roman frontier fortifications. The Romans established their regional capital in the present city of Voorburg and called it Forum Hadriani, the marketplace of Hadrian. The Romans lived here for some centuries before they pulled back to the south. Presumably, only a handful of Germans remained in this region, though we do not have any information about them. We only know that centuries later some farmers lived in the centre of The Hague. Archaeologists found traces of old farmland near the Annastraat.

The region of The Hague in Roman times

The area around The Hague in Roman times.

In yellow the sandy ridges or dunes, in green the peat area. The northern frontier of the Roman Empire was the 'Oude Rijn'. The regional capital of the Romans was Forum Hadriani, near current Voorburg. A is the Scheveningseweg, the place were the remains of a Roman guard post was excavated.

Counts of Holland

The history of The Hague actually starts in the hamlet of Loosduinen where the counts of Holland built their first house in this region. Counts ruled here more than a thousand years ago when former civil servants of the German emperor gained some local independence, especially eccentric areas as Holland. Holland was only the western part of the country that now is The Netherlands. The independency of the counts was challenged by the German emperors, but also contested by other minor lords in this region. The counts had to travel around to rule the different parts of their county, to administer justice and collect taxes. In those early and unruly times they did not have one central residency, but they had houses all over their county.


In this region they had houses in ‘s-Gravenzande, Leiden en in Loosduinen they had their ‘villa Losdun’. There is not much information about this house. In 1186 count Dirk VII used it to marry Aleida van Kleef. Only some fifty years later another record mentions this house. In 1228 countess Machteld established a convent in Loosduinen and two years later count Floris IV gives his ‘villa’ in ‘Losdun’ to the nuns. It is evident that he did not live anymore in Loosduinen and we can presume that he moved from there to The Hague. Many historians believe that in 1229 he bought an estate at the location of the present Binnenhof. Around 1229 the count and his family then presumably moved to The Hague.

The region of The Hague in Roman times

The area around The Hague in Roman times.

In yellow the sandy ridges or dunes, in green the peat area. The northern frontier of the Roman Empire was the 'Oude Rijn'. The regional capital of the Romans was Forum Hadriani, near current Voorburg. A is the Scheveningseweg, the place were the remains of a Roman guard post was excavated.

A ‘royal’ palace

The year 1247 was an important year for count Willem II (William II). The county of Holland belonged to the German empire in which there was an enduring struggle for the imperial throne. The emperor was elected by the highest counts and in 1247 many of them found Willem II a suitable candidate. He was not meant to be a very powerful ruler in the German Empire, but the first year he had to fight his contender. In 1248 he could visit his county Holland for the first time. In that year legend has it that he decided to build a ‘regale palacium’, a royal palace, at the present location of the Binnenhof. A royal palace was a large building like a Hall of Knights with some surrounding buildings. Presumably, a large number of monks started building this house, but Willem did not live long enough to see his hall finished. On a campaign to ever-turbulent Western Frisia he died in an unfortunate way.

The famous Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights)

When his infant son Floris V came of age he continued with the castle. He did however put down the old hall of his father, and started on building a new and larger hall, the largest in Europe. This Hall of Knights was formidable and admired by foreigners, even centuries later. Floris’ Ridderzaal was build to show the ambitions of Floris of Holland. His ancestors were the legendary kings of Frisia, and his father had been a king of the empire. Floris did not succeed to become king of Scotland, as he is said to have aspired, but in his own county he had more power than before. Floris is said to have been popular with the common man. The English king Edward III tried to de-stabilise his government by inciting minor nobles against count Floris. The nobles kidnapped Floris V, but in the ensuing pursuit they killed the count.


In the time of Floris the castle in The Hague (the castle never had a specific name) was extended with other buildings and moats. It became a rather large castle with a large forecourt and an inner court with several gardens. The castle was surrounded with walls and moats, but it was not a heavy fortified castle. The walls and moats were only thereto provide some basic security.

Counts of Hainault

Floris V left a young and feeble son behind that died at a young age. By then the county of Holland was controlled by his uncle Jan, who had married his aunt. Jan was count of Hainault, a region on the border of France. Jan became the first part-time ruler of Holland. Their main interests lay in Hainault, but they came during the winter time to Holland. These counts also had to travel through their counties to maintain order and suppress any upcoming revolt. In time the administration became more elaborate and extensive so the court settled in one place. Their northern residency became the castle of The Hague.


There they kept their archives and there lived their household. The count was always traveling through his counties or in the German empire or neighboring countries. The counts of Holland tried to have good relations with the kings of England and France, and Willem III (William III) succeeded in marrying off his daughters to the emperor and two kings. He had the epithet ‘father-in-law of Europe’ and was very influential.


The household of counts of Hainault was not very large and consisted of a few dozen people. But they took most of their belongings with them in heavy carts and had to be in The Hague before winter closed in and they could not use the dirt roads.


The Binnenhof was not their most important residency, but the counts of Hainault still found it necessary to enlarge the castle. They extended the living accommodation.

Reconstruction of the Binnenhof in the days of count Floris V

The Binnenhof in the days of count Floris of Holland.

Reconstruction of the castle of The Hague in the days of count Floris V. The largest building is the Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights). It is the only building in the drawing that still exists. The reconstruction is not up-to-date with more recent research, but it still gives an idea of how The Hague looked like around 1400 or 1450 (Haags Gemeentearchief)

Village of The Hague

On the northern and western side of this extensive castle the village of The Hague developed. The castle attracted people who wanted to live near the castle or who worked for the count. In the first place they were noblemen or members of the gentry. They had their castles in the country, but also wanted a stately house near the court. Their houses looked like castles, with walls and merlons, but they did not have a military function. They were meant to impress the importance of the owner of the house. Large houses were built everywhere in The Hague, but especially in the area near the Gevangenpoort, which was the main entrance to the castle.


Most common people settled in the area around the Groenmarkt. There a village started to grow with a population of innkeepers, farmers and artisans. This village of The Hague got its own parish church in 1275, but a civil administration of its own was a different matter. The Hague was not allowed to have its own administration. Large towns were granted all sorts of judicial, economic and administrative rights so that a city could build walls and have their own civic guard. The count did not like the idea of nearby city walls or an independent minded civic guard close to his residency and he never granted The Hague its own charter. Also The Hague remained to have two distinct areas that were separated by the Beek (brook) and the moats of the castle. The part nearby the castle was mainly inhabitant by the courtiers, the other part was the village of the commoners. It was difficult to enter the castle grounds from the village. There was one main gate, the Gevangenpoort, which still exists, and a few minor gates which probably were not used so much.


In the beginning The Hague and its surrounding district was administered by the count or one of his officials, the ‘rentmeester’ (steward) of Noord-Holland, who also administered the castle and its surroundings. In 1306 the inhabitants of The Hague got some minor participation in the administration of their village. Seven inhabitants were selected as ‘schepen’, to help with some minor administrative duties.


We do not know much about The Hague in this period. The village probably had some thousand inhabitants. A small part of them were the courtiers who lived outside the castle, but most people were commoners. In a later period it is known that The Hague had a rather large number of inns, and presumably this was the case from the beginning. Visitors of the castle had to stay somewhere and not everyone could stay at the castle. As in later periods some of the inns were smart and were intended for rich and distinguished guests. That would especially so be under duke Albert of Bavaria. When he was count of Holland The Hague for the first time was a capital with a residing court.

Bavarian dukes

After the death of the last count of the House of Hainault the counties were inherited by the German emperor, who was married to the last member of the Hainault family. As most inheritances this one was disputed and there was much fighting before one of the Bavarian sons was established as the new count of Holland. After the French speaking Hainaults with their connections with the French court came the German speaking Bavarians with their connections with the imperial court. They brought their talent for organization and administration and their own brewery to The Hague. Duke Albert of Bavaria was the second Bavarian duke in Holland and the first ruler who established a more permanent court in The Hague. He probably thought that Holland gave him the best opportunity to expand his power. He had been duke of Bavaria-Straubing and their his ambitions were curbed by the emperor who had his court in nearby Prague. In far away The Hague there were more opportunities to be his own master. Under Albert the Binnenhof became one of the cultural centres of Europe, though one of the smaller. The village of The Hague benefited from this period. Albert founded several local institutions for welfare and education and appointed officers in these fields.

The murder of one of his mistresses, Aleid, is one of the best known stories of his period. Recent research showed that she was not his mistress when the murder happened and she was not the target of the murderers. The murderers probably wanted to kill the aide of the duke, Willem Cuser, and they happened to be on their way home, her home that is. The murderers had to flee the country and their houses in The Hague and elsewhere in Holland were demolished. Some of the perpetrators were killed by relatives of Cuser. They had legal permission to start this feud. They had obtained legal permission to start a feud and legally trace and kill murders.

Dukes of Burgundy

The last Bavarian was the well known and unfortunate duchess Jacqueline of Wittelsbach. She lost her inheritance after a long struggle to the Burgundian duke Philip the Good. These dukes formed a branch of the French royal family and ruled a much larger empire than the Bavarians did. Their lands, like the counties of Holland and Flanders were not united, but where separate states. It would simplify their administration if institutions and laws in their lands had some sort of uniformity. Also they introduced a centralised government in Brussels. The civil service of the county of Holland in The Hague gradually expanded. There were the Hof van Holland, the highest law court in the county, the Auditor’s Office and the Treasury. The duke appointed stadtholders to rule his lands. These were members of the highest nobility of his lands and they were changed after a few years so that they did not became to involved with local interests. The stadtholder of Holland lived at the Binnenhof. Most of the new governing agencies were also accommodated at the Binnenhof.


The civil service of the government expanded, and likewise The Hague grew with it. The village benefited from the influx of highly educated and well paid civil servants. The economy developed and a few decades a profitable woolen industry came into existence in The Hague. With a population of around 8000 in 1450 about a thousand people worked in this industry. At the end of this 15th century this industry entered into a recession which affected The Hague enormously.

Complex adminstration of The Hague

Because the territory of The Hague was divided in two jurisdictions, it was a complex town to govern. The area around the castle was administered by the count or by his court, the Hof van Holland. On the other side of the Beek, the ‘Brook’ (though in fact a canal), was the village proper. This part of The Hague had the status of village, but in time it obtained more rights and almost obtained the status of a city with a charter. The village had its own administration consisting of schout and schepenen (‘judge and jury’1). They made local regulations for their part of The Hague and administered law in the village and for the commoners. The Hof van Holland made regulations for the castle area and administered law. The main problem for the village administration was that all servants of the state were exempted from local taxes, even if they lived in the territory of the village. There were many conflicts between state court and local court because their jurisdiction was not clearly marked out. This situation remained till the French invaded Holland in 1795 and introduced a constitution which cancelled the distinction between cities and villages. From then on The Hague had the same rights as other towns in Holland.


Large castle-like houses were build everywhere in The Hague, but the wealthy part of The Hague became the castle area, around Kneuterdijk and Lange Voorhout. Having no city walls had one big advantage. There were no city walls to confine the expansion of the city. It was not necessary to build narrow houses as happened in the walled towns of Holland. In the Voorhout area spacious houses were erected with extensive gardens.


The Hague, with all its palaces, was often called the prettiest ‘village’ of Europe, but the village had many elements of a large town. It had markets, it had officials like a burgomaster, it had ‘burghers’ (people with certain legal rights), it had a citizen’s militia and it was larger than many towns. Because it did not had a charter They Hague could not build city walls and so was defenceless against foreign armies.


There were many conflicts between state court and local court because their jurisdiction was not clearly marked out. This situation remained till the French invaded Holland in 1795 and introduced a constitution which cancelled the distinction between cities and villages. From then on, The Hague had the same rights as other towns in Holland.

The Habsburgs

The last dynasty that ruled the county of Holland were the Habsburg family. They were also king in Spain and emperor in Germany and they were fervently Catholic. In the Netherlands they tried to extend their power. Their wars caused unrest in The Netherlands and The Hague, indefensible without walls and moats, was sacked by an army from Gelderland. This was only one of the setbacks The Hague experienced in the beginning of the 16th century. The economy was in decline, so there was unemployment, the town was struck by a disease called “English sweat disease” and a large fire destroyed part of the city centre.

Religious prosecution

There was more social unrest to come, because Protestantism was on the rise. Many people were disaffected with the Catholic Church and went over to Lutheranism or in a later stage, Calvinism. The Catholic authorities, pressed by the very Catholic ruler of The Netherlands, Philips of Spain acted with violent suppression of the heretics. The highest court of the county of Holland, the Hof van Holland, sentenced many people to death. The first heretic to die on a stake between Lange Vijverberg and Plaats was ‘Jan de Backer’ (John the Baker or in Latin Johannes Pistorius). Many were to follow.

Dutch Revolt

Unrest grew and soon The Hague became a dangerous place for the authorities too. Elsewhere Calvinist bands gained a foothold in Holland and open war started between the Catholic armies of Philips and the Dutch Calvinists. The Hague, indefensible, suffered heavily. It was occupied several times by armies of both sides, so most people fled to walled cities like Delft or Rotterdam. The government of the insurgents, headed by Prince William of Orange, found safety in the city of Delft.

(work in progress, January 2010)



1. There is no proper translation of these officials. The schout was a district judge and prosecutor, appointed by the count. The schepenen were seven locals who served as jury in the district court. Both schout and schepenen also had some administrative duties. The first schepenen probably werd elected by the citizens, but later on they themselves choose new members of their board.