Back in 2021, two lion bones were unearthed during excavation work on the Buitenhof in The Hague. The bones have only just been revealed to the public, and city officials have provided an explanation for the unexpected discovery.

How lion bones were discovered at the Buitenhof in The Hague

When you think of The Hague, or the Netherlands in general, chances are that lions aren’t the first thing that comes to mind. Yet, a recent discovery has revealed that The Hague was once home to lions, and actually represents an interesting period in the history of the Dutch city.

The Hague is widely known as the Netherlands’ administrative capital, and is home to the Binnenhof, the parliamentary complex which houses the Dutch Senate (Eerste Kamer) and House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer). Adjacent to the Binnenhof is the Buitenhof square, and it is at this square that two lion bones were unearthed last year.

This is the first time that lion bones have been discovered in the Netherlands during archaeological research. One of the bones has already been identified as the left foreleg of a young lioness (believed to be a Berber lion; an extinct species native to North Africa). The discovery prompted officials to dive into the city archives, and the story of The Hague lions was revealed.

Lions in the Netherlands: A royal gift

On Wednesday, city officials gave a press conference explaining the history behind the lions of The Hague. They were kept in a small zoo located on the Buitenhof between the years 1344 and 1358. City archives and excavations in 2005 revealed that this zoo was also home to a dromedary camel, a leopard, birds of prey and hunting dogs.

The lions were gifted to the Count of Holland, Willem IV in 1344 by the Duchy of Gelre (Guelders in English) in the hope that the young Duke of Gelre, Reinoud III, would marry Willem’s younger sister. In the Middle Ages, it was a somewhat normal practice for nobles to gift exotic animals to other nobles in an attempt to curry favour. However, despite the lions remaining in The Hague, nothing came of the marriage proposal.

The archives also revealed the lions’ feeding schedule; in 1347 the zoo needed about 187 sheep and 43 calves to feed the lions. This information was actually gleaned from the accounts of the court under Margaret of Hainaut, sister of Willem and wife of the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis IV, who became Countess of Holland after Willem died heirless in 1345.

Where did the lions really come from?

The Duke of Gelre probably bought the lions from traders in Genoa or Venice, who in turn probably bought the animals from Africa. Despite the zoo closing in 1358, lions and their associated symbolism evidently struck a chord with the folk from The Hague and Dutch in general, as lions can be found not just on The Hague’s coat of arms, but also on the coat of arms of the Netherlands and the House of Orange-Nassau (the Dutch royal family)

The lion bones will be on display from October 17 until November 18 at the Atrium in the City Hall of The Hague. They are to be part of an exhibition that celebrates 40 years of archaeology in the city.

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