Reminding us of an illustrious past, as one of the most renowned garrison towns of the Dutch Republic, the city walls of ‘s-Hertogenbosch are still a sight for sore eyes. At the end of the 19th century, due to the change in warfare and the subsequent change in laws, many garrison towns in the Netherlands were slighted (dismantled). After 1874 the Dutch military relied heavily on inundation, the process of deliberately flooding strips of land in order to keep the enemy -in this case Prussia, and later on Germany- away from Amsterdam. No longer would the fortified city of Den Bosch have to protect the capital from a foreign invasion. The former arch-enemy of the Netherlands, the water, suddenly became an ally.
For the city of Den Bosch, it meant that the city walls, the fortresses and gates were no longer protected by law. Many cities in the Netherlands, happy with this new law, immediately moved to destroy all of these military objects. Most gates were crunbling down, most walls were a hotspot for muggins and other illegal practices, and all had a certain air of backwardness. ‘s-Hertogenbosch however, only tore down it’s gates and partly demolished it’s fortresses. The city wall remained untouched, as it also served as a dam for the inner city. Due to it’s proximity to the swamp, tearing down the walls would cause floodings. Therefore, as one of the only cities in the Netherlands, the Moerasdraak still looked like an impressive fortification. Many historians still rue the day the Netherlands ever decided to wipe out such in intrinsic part of Dutch history. Therefore, todays blog will pay an hommage to the blemished city, it’s fortresses and the lack of logic in the map of the city. As a French soldier put it in 1795: “I’m not going to try to explain the defensive system of ‘s-Hertogenbosch: there is no logic to it.”
The Expansion of the City
At the end of the 12th century, the city of Den Bosch was founded by Henry, Duke of Brabant. The city, close to his hunting lodge in Orthen, was but a speck on the map: the current Markt and it’s immediate surroundings. The city was primarily founded because the newly created Duchy of Brabant didn’t have any important trade cities in the northern part of the duchy. Also, the duchy of Gelre and the county of Holland, the biggest arch enemies of the duchy of Brabant, was just a few kilometers away from Den Bosch. The first city obviously also had city walls, of which none still stand today. On certain streets in the city center, you’ll find brass plates where the first gates used to be.
The first expansion of the city, and the first serious city wall was created in the 1318. Den Bosch grew from around 9 to roughly 100 hectares in size. This 14th century city wall obviously needed an impressive set of city gates, in order to allow townsfolk and tradesmen to enter and exit the city. City walls in the 14th century were tall and slim, their primary focus was keeping invaders out. In the 14th century, sieges were done with scaling ladders, broad and tall ladders (broad enough for two people to ascend the ladder next to each other, and around 20 meters tall). Therefore: the taller the wall, the safer you were. The first time a bombard or cannon was succesfully used in Europe was during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), and it took even longer before they were used in the low countries. Until 1520, Den Bosch was the 2nd most populous city in contemporary Netherlands, just after Utrecht.
After the fall of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the ramparts, gates and walls of the city were heavily damaged. Also, the walls themselves had proven to be too old to keep up with modern times. With gunpowder and cannons, thin city walls were a joke. In the 17th century, after the desastrous fall of both the city and catholicism in Brabant, the city needed new and modern city walls. Besides modern city walls, the entire defensive system of the Republic was changed: Den Bosch became a part of the so-called Southern Frontier (Zuiderfrontier), a defensive line stretching from the city of Sluis in the province of Zeeland, all the way to the city of Nijmegen in the province of Gelderland. Instead of defending just one city, the idea was that the entire southern border of the republic could be used as a barrier to keep the invading forces (Spanish, French, Austrian etc.) out.
Also, the southern frontier could keep anyone away from the harbour of Antwerp. The Southern Frontier protected the County of Holland, as well as dealt blows to the economical position of the Spanish Netherlands. In times of crisis, parts of the Southern Frontier could be inundated (i.e. flooded). Surrounding Den Bosch, Menno van Coehoorn, one of the most well-known military architect of this time, built several strongholds.
This blog will cover three gates from the first expansion of the city, mainly because a) I like them, 2) there are great 3D renderings of them and 3) because they are more diverse than any other city gates. I hope you’ll love it!
Vughterpoort (a.k.a. the 3rd Vughterpoort or Pieckepoort)
The gate was first mentioned in 1399, as the Pieckepoort (gate of peaks) because the gate had seven peaks. The gate must have been incredibly impressive, as a Dutch chronicler once wrote: ‘soo groot ende schoon, dat dergelyke in heel Nerderlant niet en was; daer waeren 365 schietgaten in, dat is soo veel schietgaten als er dagen in het jaar comen’, which roughly translates to: “So vast and beautiful, that none in the Netherlands can compare; it has 365 blasting holes, one for every day of the year.” Although it didn’t have that many gun-ports, it must have been one hell of a gate. In 1629, when the city was under siege, the Pieckepoort became heavily damaged. Since the Dutch States Army (Staatse Leger) lay siege on the southeast side of the city, the Pieckepoort was in the middle of all it.
After the conquest of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and the subsequent expansion of the bastion surrounding the city, the medieval Pieckepoort lost its importance. In th 18th century, parts of the gate were reconstructed, but the impressive towers the buildings once had, were torn down. The seven peaks that once gave name to the gate, never came back. At the end of the 19th century, the once impressive tower looked more like an abandoned military bunker than an beautiful gate. In 1890, the gate was removed. In 2017, the city excavated the foundation of the Pieckepoort. Archeologists were able to uncover parts of one of the tower and the floor. They also disovered that another gate used to be in front of the Pieckepoort (gate-ception?). Several politicians opted for the reconstruction of the Pieckepoort. Unfortunately for them, the inhabitants of that part of town (Wilhelminaplein, commonly known Heetmanplein) didn’t agree with this idea. At the end of last year, the ruins of the Pieckepoort were once more covered in dirt.
The Hekellaan is one of the most well-known streets in Den Bosch. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the upper-middle class of the city used this street for strolling and gallivanting; unmarried women would slowly pass by, in a silent quest to find a suitable match, men would walk around discussing business (and secretly paying attention to these girls).. it was a street of luxury. In the middle of the 20th century, it became the prime location of the liberation of ‘s-Hertogenbosch by the British Allied Forces. Today, the Hekellaan is but a fraction of what it was: many have forgotten it’s history, only few know if the importance of this part of town. Ironically, most people don’t even know what a hekel is, thinking it comes from the verb to hackle. The Hekellaan was named after one of the water gates of the city, de Groote Hekel (The big heckle), named after a hekel (a heckle comb) a device that was used to prepare flax to be spun.
The Groote Hekel was first mentioned in 1399, as De Drie Heeckelen, the Three Heckles. As the name implies, the water gate used to have 3 gates, all 3 water ways into the city could be shut off by a big heckle. As you can imagine, bumping into these things with your boat meant leaving a little piece of your heart in this beautiful city, literally. In the 17th century, after the siege of Den Bosch, one of the three entrances was closed off. In the 19th century, the heckles were replaced by control locks, in order to keep the water regulated. A few years ago, the gate was in part restored to it’s mediaeval look.
Boompoort/Waterpoort aan den Boom
Another impressive water gate that no longer graces the city with its presence is the Boompoort or tree gate, which derived it’s name from the big tree log that shut the gate. The log was covered in iron spikes, a bit similar to the heckle at the Groote Hekel. The Boompoort, as the image shows, was an incredibly impressive gate: it was so tall, that seaworthy ships could sail right through it. Unfortunately, in the middle of the 15th century, due to sediment dropped of by the river Dieze, the Boompoort became less and less accesible. The stream was moved, and the once so impressive Boompoort lost all importance. At the end of the 16th century, the city tore down the two impressive horse-shoe towers. In the 17th century, after the construction of the Citadel, the Boompoort was a part of ancient history. Still, as one of the tallest structures in the city in mediaeval times, it must have been a sight to remember.
As the maps above have shown, the city has had numerous city walls, gates and water gates, all impressive in their own right. Unfortunately, if we were to cover them all, the only person finishing the entire article would be my mother. Therefore, we’ll leave it at this, with (at least according to me) some of the most unique, impressive and beautiful gates of Den Bosch.
All these beautiful 3D renderings of the city walls of ‘s-Hertogenbosch were made by Erfgoed ‘s-Hertogenbosch, who provide a beautiful historical reconstruction of our every so beautiful city. If you’re interested in more, please check out this awesome video: