Summer holiday on a Frisian island

It is summertime, and the living is easy! Time to leave my home town, and to spend a few weeks without e-mail or internet, even without any major library, archive or museum within train, biking or walking distance. The Frisian island of Terschelling is my holiday destination for the third successive year. Legal history will not be on my mind, but a couple of days ago I realized there is a connection between Terschelling and legal history which I have mentioned several times on my blog. Is there no escape possible from Staatsbosbeheer, the Dutch National Forest Service?! You can check my March posts on the fortifications around Utrecht and the Breukeleveen duck decoy for it. Looking at the history of Terschelling yields some interesting facts on legal history, and the National Forest Service, founded in 1899 and since 1998 an independent service formerly part of the Ministry for Agriculture, is just a new element in it.

Arriving at Terschelling

The Frisian islands form a part of the fifty islands in the North Sea from the Dutch navy port of Den Helder up to Denmark. Nowadays five islands belong to the Dutch Waddeneilanden, Texel, Vlieland, Terschelling, Ameland and Schiermonnikoog. At some moments in history several Dutch islands have been abandoned because they changed into sand plates. The most eastern Dutch island in the Wadden Sea, Rottumeroog near the estuary of the river Ems, was the last abandoned island, now reserved for bird life.

Until the Saint Hubert Flood of 1287 Terschelling was not an island at all: one could reach it on foot from Frisia. Soon the island became important for the Hanseatic fleets. For centuries the city of Zwolle was in charge of keeping the sea route of the Koggediep. In 1322 count William III of Holland gave Terschelling as a fief, including the low and high jurisdiction, to Klaas Popma, a scion from a mighty Frisian family. From 1322 to 1615 Terschelling remained a fief of Holland; its archive is kept at the Dutch National Archives in The Hague. An inventory of it was made in 1976 by C.E. Schabbing, now available also online. Terschelling was ruled as a grietenij, a Frisian district. In 1482 Rienck Popma concluded a commercial treaty with the English king Edward IV. The Popma family was not the only claimant to the jurisdiction of Terschelling: the provost of the Saint Donatus at Brugge and Cornelis van Bergen competed with them in the early sixteenth century. The final possessor at the end of the sixteenth century, Charles of Aremberg, discovered he owned an impoverished island. In 1499 troops of a Frisian warlord had plundered the island, and in 1569 the castle of the Arembergs had been burnt down. In 1615 he sold it to the States of Holland. In 1666 English troops devastated Terschelling during Holmes’ Bonfire. They left only the Brandaris light house undamaged and captured a Dutch commercial fleet. For this the Dutch took their vengeance with the Raid on the Medway, the famous 1667 raid on the Thames. In the eighteenth century whaling helped the islanders to gain some prosperity.

In 1612 Terschelling had been divided into two separate municipalities. During the reign of the Dutch Patriot government, in 1805, Terschelling – Skylge in Frisian – became again a Frisian island, but in 1814 it was added to the new province North-Holland, and the island was united into one municipality. The archive of the two nedergerechten is kept at Tresoar – Frisian for treasury -, the Frisian provincial archive and library in Leeuwarden. In 1942, during the German occupation of the Netherlands, it was decided to add Terschelling again to the province of Friesland, a decision confirmed by Dutch law in 1951.

In 2009 UNESCO added the Dutch and German part of the Wadden Sea to the World Heritage List, thus acknowledging the natural beauty and ecological quality of this natural area. This surely crowns the efforts of the Dutch Waddenvereniging, the society for the protection of the Wadden Sea. Schiermonnikoog is even owned by Natuurmonumenten, the Dutch Society for Natural Monuments. Lots of tourists visit the islands to enjoy all this, and this puts a serious threat to nature. The Dutch National Forest Service takes the main responsibility to protect the rich variety of landscapes, not just the dunes, beaches, moors, woods and polders, but also the shallows, the archetypical Wadden, a wetland environment altering eternally with the tides. Pliny the Elder wrote you cannot decide what belongs here to the sea and what is definitely land. The Boschplaat, formerly a sand plate, became from 1866 onwards factually part of Terschelling, formally confirmed by the building of a nine kilometer dike between 1931 and 1937. It is now the largest natural reserve, a third part of the island.

On Texel, Vlieland and Terschelling the Dutch Forest Service leases most houses and plots (in long lease); in fact even the use of dunes for water supply is leased this way by Staatsbosbeheer. Last year they announced a very substantial increase for the rents due to them which had not been changed in fifteen years. This enormous increase threats the local economy which centers around tourism. No wonder the inhabitants and municipalities of these isles protest vehemently against this proposal. Next year the Dutch Forest Service which runs also a number of camping sites, will raise its prices there drastically, too. Complaints have been expressed in the Dutch Parliament and even at the level of the European Commission, also about the alleged policy of forcing house owners to raise the official tax value of their properties.

Ameland dimly visible from the beach of Terschelling

Terschelling is not the only Frisian island with an interesting legal history. Schiermonnikoog – literally “Island of the Grey Monks” – belonged to the Cistercian abbey of Klaarkamp near Rinsumageest. After 1580 the States of Friesland held this island as confiscated ecclesiastical property, but between 1638 and 1945 it was a privately owned island. The lords of Ameland claimed from 1424 even the status of an independent principality, a status preserved by the Frisian States in 1704 when they became the lords. Only in 1814 Ameland became fully integrated in the Dutch administration. On Amelands legal history F.A.J. van der Ven has published  ‘”It takes three generations to make a gentleman”, oftewel enige opmerkingen en mededelingen over de rechtsgeschiedenis van Ameland’, Groninger Opmerkingen en Mededelingen 25 (2008) 51-74; earlier she wrote Een omstreden eiland. De eigendom van het eiland Schiermonnikoog in geding (Ph.D. thesis, Groningen 1993).

I have skipped the period in which Jacoba of Bavaria – to English readers better known as Jacqueline, countess of Hainaut – held Terschelling as a fief, but I would like to mention the fine new biography on her by Antheun Janse, Een pion voor een dame. Jacoba van Beieren (1401-1436) (Amsterdam, 2009). I could have pointed to the longevity of the particular Terschelling form of customary rights, the nabuurschap, of which some forms still exist. The variety of small museums on Terschelling can give you a vivid image of this and much more. Archival records concerning Terschelling are present not only in The Hague and Leeuwarden. The municipal archive from 1811 on is in West-Terschelling. Thanks to the Dutch archival search portal, a website with a multilingual interface, one can search at home for many records. Medieval charters from Frisia published in the Groot placaat en charter-boek…van Friesland (5 vol., Leeuwarden 1768-1793) and also the Ostfriesisches Urkundenbuch (2 vol., Emden 1878-1881) can be found at the website Cartago. Tresoar, the Frisian archive at Leeuwarden, has its own digital treasury, with for example an incunable of the Freeska Landriucht, and you can use the Digitale Historische Bibliotheek Friesland. More Frisian archives are present on Fries Archiefnet. Enough is enough for now! I am sure I will enjoy Terschelling even more than before, and I am happy that during the coming weeks I will not escape completely from legal history. I hope you have enjoyed this long post, but much more can be said about Frisia and legal history.

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