Redeeming the woods of The Hague

When you leave the central railway station of The Hague you will see the Malieveld, a part of the Haagse Bos, the wood of The Hague. The Malieveld is one of the main Dutch places for major demonstrations. The connection with demonstrations on large squares readily explains my interest in the Malieveld. In fact the story goes back to 2006 when the burgomaster of The Hague suggested the Malieveld as the building location for a new Dutch national museum. Five years ago historians showed evidence of an act from 1576 issued by William of Orange forbidding the sale of the Malieveld and the adjacent wood with the objective to cut down its trees. The website of VPRO television´s history channel has a very useful notice on this princely act, with links to the original text and a modern transcription of it, and this forms the starting point of my post.

The Malieveld in The Hague

A part of the Malieveld in The Hague

On February 21, 2011 the Dutch newspaper Trouw brought this again to the attentions of its readers. The article was accompanied by a photograph showing a horsed man dressed as William of Orange addressing people at the Malieveld before a debate on natural conservation in the province of South Holland. The debate on February 19 was organized by the Dutch Society for Natural Monuments, the National Forest Service which owns the Haagse Bos, and the Foundation for the Landscapes of South Holland. I will not touch upon this debate concerning the possibilities for new policies that cuts in the budgets might bring.

Jaap Buis started his majestic study Historia forestis. Nederlandse bosgeschiedenis (2 vol., Wageningen-Utrecht 1985) – available online at the E-depot of Wageningen University – with a short history of Dutch woods and forests. The woods around The Hague were not mentioned as woods in the late Middle Ages, but still as wilderness. The Haagse Bos was created in the fifteenth century. Its maintenance and use as a hunting ground costed lots of money. In 1574, during the early phase of the Dutch Revolt, The Hague was briefly captured by Spanish forces. William of Orange, himself one of the richest aristocrats of the Low Countries, needed money for the continuation of his struggle against the king of Spain, and he proposed the States of Holland to sell the Haagse Bos. Protests by the citizens of The Hague lead on April 16, 1576 to the signing of the Acte van redemptie.

The Institute for Dutch History has created an online database with the correspondance of William of Orange. The Dutch pater patriae got his nickname, William the Silent, not because of his abundant correspondence – some thirteen thousand letters have been tracked down! – but because of his skill in saying almost nothing with much words. In this act the prince of Orange made the citizens of The Hague promise to pay 1500 guilders from the sale of melted down church bells, and 1000 guilders from waiving the right to get back this sum which they had loaned to the prince. William promised in return that the bosch ende warande, the woods and park, would be forever geredimeert ende affecteert, reclaimed and looked after, and that these grounds will never be sold or put to sale for the purpose of cutting down its trees. All this would have to be maintained in full accordance with the old uses and servitudes known to the auditor and bailiff of North Holland.

A point initially missed by journalists and politicians was the fact that this act does not forbid any sale of the woods, but only a sale aiming to get rid of the woods, supposedly to sell the tress as timber and rent out the grounds as building parcels. Buis notes that in 1795 the National Convention was close to selling the Haagse Bos, but the proposal did not get a majority vote (see Buis, I, 14-15 and 328-333).

The Institute for Dutch History shows on its website only the text in a register of the Court of Holland (Hof van Holland, 44, fol. 112r-113v). The original letter has not been traced. The municipal archives of The Hague present the story on their website with a photograph of a copy from 1593 and a translation in modern Dutch. The year 1593 is no coincidence because Maurice of Orange issued in 1593 a new ordinance for the Haagse Bos. William’s act from 1579, the ordinance from 1593 and subsequent relevant documents can be found in the Groot placaet-boek (..) Staten Generael (9 vol., The Hague 1658-1796), the major collection of the acts and statutes issued by the Dutch General Estates, starting in the eight volume, page 654. The set can be consulted online in the section with old printed sources for Dutch history in the Digital Special Collections of Utrecht University Library. Using the website Archieven, an online database for searching in many Dutch archival collections, I found another item at the municipal archives in The Hague, a dossier of the municipal council from the period 1947 to 1953 concerning building plans on the Malieveld and the Koekamp (Gemeentebestuur 1953-1990, no. 5348) which mentions the 1576 Acte van redemptie. Nil novi sub sole! Among the digitized materials in these archives is the Jaarboek “Die Haghe“, the yearbook of the Society for The Hague’s history, and thus you can also check online the 1905 edition of the act from 1576.

The word redemptie sounds very much like the religious word redemption, and indeed its meaning is not far from the religious concept. In legal texts redemption means buying off or reclaiming something. I could check the meaning of the Dutch legal term in a reprint of a small legal dictionary from the eighteenth century, Franciscus Lievens Kersteman’s Practisyns woordenboekje of verzameling van meest alle de woorden in de rechtskunde gebruikelijk (Dordrecht: Blussé, 1785; reprint Groningen 1988), edited with an introduction by J.E. Ennik and Paul Brood. This “Practicioner’s Dictionary or Collection of Almost All Words Used in Jurisprudence” is really useful for understanding older Dutch legal texts. The Institute for Dutch Lexicography in Leiden makes available online not only the Woordenboek der Nederlandse Taal but also dictionaries for Middle Dutch and Early Middle Dutch, and even a dictionary of yiddish words in Dutch. The Woordenboek der Nederlandse Taal confirms and expands the meaning given by Kersteman.

The old name of The Hague, Den Haag, is actually an abbreviated form of ‘s-Gravenhage, literally “the hedge of the count”. In the thirteenth century count Floris (Florence) IV of Holland had bought grounds near the village Van der Hage. The counts clearly liked this spot next to a lake, nowadays the Hofvijver. Count Floris V built a large hall, now the Ridderzaal of the Dutch parliament. Since the fifteenth century the county tribunal, too, resided at The Hague. The main pastime of the counts was hunting on the grounds around The Hague. When the dukes of Bavaria came to reign over Holland in 1358 and decided to stay in The Hague all signs were positive for creating a real court like surrounding in which the old sport of hunting was not forgotten.  The court was both hunting lodge and a place to hold court, including attention to literature as shown by Frits van Oostrom in his acclaimed study Court and culture: Dutch literature, 1350-1450 (Berkeley, Ca., etc., 1992).

Living near a princely hunting ground was not easy for the citizens of The Hague. Today the Malieveld and the Haagse Bos form a much-needed green area in the city which houses the Dutch parliament and government and a number of international institutions. The Hague is the residence, too, of Queen Beatrix. As long as the 1576 act is not contested in court the fields and woods near the centre of The Hague are ready to receive people for a demonstration or just for a walk to muse over the amazingly long impact of William’s act.

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