The Hague administrator, composer, scholar, poet and designer Constantijn Huygens once wrote about The Hague ‘A village of cities, where every street is a city’.


During a visit to the ‘grande dame’ of our family, she accidentally gave me the topic for this month. To a question to her and to my wife about the ‘little village’ of Nieuwpoort where they had both had such a pleasant childhood, she came up with a completely unexpected answer. ‘This village, as you probably mean to call it, is a city with city rights.’

‘The wonderful The Hague of yours, sorry Peter, is simply a village that calls itself a city but never has city rights has got’. The only thing I could answer with surprise in my voice was: ‘I’ll look into it and get back to it’.

The website of the municipality of The Hague confirmed her story, only slightly more nuanced. I got curious and that’s why, dear sister-in-law and other readers, here’s the true story about ‘The Hague, formerly a village with urban allure’.

Source: The Hague Municipal Archives Collection, Sketch of the Count’s Castle of Floris V

The Hague village with the allure of a city

While Delft, Leiden, ‘s-Gravenzande and Dordrecht in the had received city rights from the count in the th century, The Hague was still a farming settlement (village), with, admittedly, a count’s castle that we now know as the Binnenhof. In the In the th century, The Hague received a number of privileges from the then Count of Holland Aelbrecht van Beieren, such as its own court , own citizenship, permission to hold weekly and annual markets and to have associations of craftsmen (guilds). The boundary of the settlement (village) was precisely established. The village became more and more important and took on the allure of a city.

In the 15th century people spoke of ‘ville de la Haye’ or ‘stede van den Haghe’, which indicated that The Hague was seen as a city. The Hague was also allowed to appoint city officials and to participate in the count’s council on a number of occasions. Despite the fact that the count gave The Hague all these city-like rights, he still did not recognize The Hague as a city.

Staten van Holland

In this same century the count council was replaced by the States of Holland (Treaty of Delft). Precisely because The Hague itself was not a city, the cities agreed that the administrative center remained in The Hague. The cities and nobles were given more say, the village of The Hague was still not among them. In the beginning of the In the th century, there is even regular talk of the ‘vlecke van Den Haige’, as if it were a place without any meaning.

Things could have been even worse, because in that period the notorious robber baron Maarten Rossum and his army led a veritable plundering campaign through the Netherlands and also in and around the non-walled ‘village’ of The Hague. In the years that followed, the village fell into further decline due to fires and epidemics.

Spanish rule

Halfway through the 16 th century (1556), all regions including Holland had to deal with Spanish rule and the Spanish King became the Count of Holland. Twelve years later, the 51 Years’ War in which the Oranges revolted against the King of Spain. The Hague was invited to form the new national government together with all the reconquered cities. But at that time, The Hague was still in very bad shape. They had no money to send anyone and no money to pay for the expenses of the new administration. Four years later there was the first free meeting of the States of Holland. The nobles were represented by one noble, the cities each had one vote. Amsterdam was not there because it was still Spanish-minded. The Hague was not invited for financial reasons and the count was sidelined.
Two years later, The Hague was financially ready to participate. Power was then in the hands of the richest cities and Delft in particular was against The Hague as a city to govern. So again it didn’t work!
The war against the Spanish rulers was still going on. The Hague was not protected by fortress walls. That is why stadtholder William of Orange (stadholder William I) decided to move to the walled Delft together with his administration.

This was bad for The Hague in all respects and a year later the city Delft proposed to level the impoverished The Hague to the ground. William of Orange did not want that and when the rebels were winning a year later, he settled in The Hague again. The Binnenhof in The Hague thus once again became the administrative centre: meeting place of the States of Holland and the States General. The village of The Hague then slowly blossomed again.

Subsequent attempts to become a member of the States of Holland and the national government as a city failed. The nobles did not want to lose the village of The Hague. The eighteen Dutch cities were also against it because The Hague would then have its own voice in the Assembly of States. In addition, the village of The Hague had nothing to say about the Binnenhof, but as a city that could well change.

Around The Hague 1556 with the Binnenhof within the blue Source: collection Municipal Archives of The Hague, engraver Jacques de Gheyn (cutout)

French rule

End The French fell army entered the Republic of the Netherlands and the government was expelled. The Netherlands became a province of France. The French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte made the Netherlands the Kingdom of Holland and appointed his brother, Lodewijk Napoleon as king. The city charter was completely abolished. Following the French example, villages and towns were equated in a new form of government called municipalities.

Municipal Law

After the French after thirty years of occupation in 1795 were finally defeated, the concept of city was reintroduced by King Willem I. The Hague was then also called a city, but the cities no longer had any influence on the national government. In the new constitution of 1825 and Municipal Act of 1851 of Thorbecke, the concept of ‘town’ and ‘village’ no longer exists. The laws are about municipalities. Of course people still often speak of cities and villages in the vernacular. The Hague is generally referred to as a city.

My cautious conclusion is (not all sources are unequivocal):

Until 1825 The Netherlands was governed by regions in which cities had a say. The Hague was not among them. Then there was a central government in which cities were sidelined. From 1825 until 1825 The Hague was seen as a city by the country’s administrators, but in the meantime the city rights had been abolished and cities no longer had national political power. From 1848 all places in the Netherlands were called municipalities.

The story about The Hague has been written with great care, yet there may be factual inaccuracies. If there are readers who need to add to or correct the story, please contact me

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