Enkhuizen was one of the most prosperous cities in the Netherlands in the 17th century because of the Dutch East India Company and West East India Company, the world’s first multinational corporations, and the largest organizations of its size in history.

Visiting Enkhuizen you are reminded of the town’s enormous wealth and rich history with its many villas, canals, churches, city walls, harbours, museums, art galleries and a unique cultural centre built in 1540 called the Dom. Known as the ‘Haringstad’ (Herring City), within the old rampart are 366 national monuments, each with its own fascinating story.

Around the year 1000 there were two settlements, one hamlet was on a small island and the other was on land. Both had a scattering of poor farmers and fishermen. An early version of the name Enkhuizen was first mentioned in a crime blotter from 1283 that reported the robbery of two English merchants. The name Enkhuizen had several variations over time. The two hamlets merged and agreed on the name Enkhuizen, the house where Enk lived, whomever Enk was.

View of Enkhuizen with Drommedaris and Zuiderkerk. Image: Gouwenaar/Wikimedia

Enkhuizen is in West Friesland, a region encompassing the northeast portion of the province Noord (North) Holland. The area broke off from the rest of Friesland during the Sint-Luciavloed (St. Lucia’s flood) in the winter of 1287. It was one of the largest floods in recorded history. It devastated and shifted the landscape of Northern Netherlands and Northern Germany, killing between 50,000 to 80,000 people. What was once a freshwater lake connected to the North Sea by a river became the saltwater Zuiderzee (Southern Sea).

Royal Family Quarrels

For approximately 300 years West Frieslanders were autonomous and did not want anything to do authoritarian aristocrats from Holland. Although Floris V, Count of Holland, attempted and failed to unite Holland and West Friesland during his reign, their independence ended in 1297. After Floris was murdered, his successor, his 13-year-old son, John I, was victorious over the West Frisians. He was only 13! A snotnues (a brat). And the victory was right after the whippersnapper married England’s King Edward I daughter, Elizabeth, at St Peter’s Church in Ipswich, England, where the kid was educated. At age 15, John I was murdered in Haarlem, after some squabbling involving Flanders and the city of Dordrecht. This whole historic episode was like a scene out of Westside Story, even though John I wasn’t old enough to belong to the Sharks or the Jets.

Enkhuizen was granted city rights in April 1356 by Count of Holland William V. William V was an interesting character. He was insane or to be politically correct, he had mental issues, which apparently ran in the family. On one occasion he burned alive one of his clerks. Today certain despots would burn him on Twitter. According to a Dutch historian, “during the second half of the 14th-century mental illness seemed almost epidemic.” At the age of 25, while on a business trip to England, he was nudged out of power in 1358 by his 21-year-old younger brother, Albert, Duke of Bavaria, who seemed a little more stable. With his new authority, Albert eventually imprisoned number V in Quesnoy Castle in France. As the Count of Holland, Al’s domain included the counties of Holland, Zeeland and Hainaut, present-day Belgium and northern France. William V died in prison in 1389 and was still crazy after all those years.

In the Middle Ages Enkhuizen became one of the most important towns along the Zuiderzee, more important than Amsterdam. In the 14th century, the first harbour was dug and completed, after a major storm. The brand spanking new harbour motivated many businesses to settle in the town, including sailmakers, ropemaking, carpentry workshops for building ships, Mc Donald’s, and Starbucks. Enkhuizen prospered from shipping, fishing, and trade. In the 15th and 16th centuries the town started to expand its ports and fortifications. It was the center of all the action in North Holland.

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Adios Spanish Rule

In 1572, Enkhuizen was one of the first towns to support William I, Prince of Orange, the primary leader of the Dutch Revolt against the Spanish. Smart move. The backing of William in his revolutionary quest gave the city a lot of influence. As a reward, the town received the right in 1573 to charge a toll on any ship passing by the harbour. It always helps to have good connections. It was a Quid pro quo, so to speak.

The Enkhuizen town gate, de Koepoort. Image: Michiel Verbeek/Wikimedia

It was a rag-tag group of poor Protestant Dutch nobles, fishermen, craftsmen, scholars, merchants, adventurers, bandits, and the unemployed, known as the Geuzen or Watergeuzen (Sea Beggars), that initiated the overthrow of the Catholic Spaniards. They attacked mainly from the sea and helped liberate Enkhuizen in 1572. These tough-looking mercenaries came with carved wounds and scars from numerous battles. Many were missing a leg, an arm, an eye, or an ear. These privateers looked like those out of Pirates of The Caribbean. They were imposing and terrifying. Duke Alva of Spain, who ruled the Netherlands at the time, called them “crooks and pirates,” which they were. Besides beating up on the Spaniards, the Watergeuzen also ravaged peaceful villages along the coast, especially those that were Catholic. They were the original “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

William applauded some of the Sea Beggars exploits and thought it was a good idea to transform this unruly bunch into a regular navy. Enkhuizen was the perfect place for a naval training center and base. It was, after all, “Master of the Zuiderzee” and strategically located to defend Friesland and the rest of North Holland. Although most of the fighting was in the South, William of Orange wanted a quieter harbour to train the Watergeuzen. A few Dutch naval heroes began their careers as Sea Beggars. One even became an Admiral.

The Glory Days

By the 17th century, the town grew into a city. In 1622, Enkhuizen was the fifth largest city in Holland with around 22,000 inhabitants. During the so-called Golden Age, the city had more residents than today. Shipbuilding flourished and it had the largest herring fleet in the Netherlands, hence the name, Herring City. To affirm its prominence over all other herring fisheries, a coat of arms was designed and displayed throughout the city, including the city gate. The coat of arms is of a woman holding a shield with three herrings stamped on it. Each herring has a crown. The coat of arms boasted the city’s crowning achievement, herring dominance.

Enkhuizen’s growth was also largely due to having regional offices of the multinational, monopolistic, megacorporations, the Dutch East India Company and the West India Company. The expansion of trade with the far east, especially Japan and the Indies, as well the enormous slave trade, benefited the multinationals and Enkhuizen greatly. During this time West Frisian coins were also minted in Enkhuizen. When you can print your own money that is used as a legitimate currency, you know you’re a wealthy city.

Economic Decline and Disappointments

Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever. At the end of the 17th century, Enkhuizen was in decline, primarily due to increased foreign competition in international trade, the war with England, and a plague. The outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1636 claimed more than 2,600 victims in Enkhuizen alone. Overall, the plague in the western provinces of the Dutch Republic gave France, Spain, England, and other foreign governments a reason to embargo Dutch shipping. In addition, the “Act of Navigation” issued by the English dictator Oliver Cromwell in 1651 prohibited the Dutch and other countries from shipping goods from third parties to England. Tariffs had also become a problem. It was an early Brexit.

The international trade policy was a hot mess. Sound familiar? Many merchants left Enkhuizen for Amsterdam, causing Enkhuizen’s population to nosedive. Between 1650 and 1850 the population decreased from 22,000 to 5,400 inhabitants. Between 1750 and 1850 about 1600 houses disappeared. The city turned much of the land into pastures or vegetable gardens for the 2,000 to 5,400 mostly farmers that were left. It became known as one of the ‘dead’ cities around the Zuiderzee, an old West ghost town without the sagebrush.

The town hoped for some notoriety and an economic boost in 1811 with the prospect of a visit from Napoleon and his second wife, Maria Louise Leopoldina Francisca Theresia Josepha Lucia of Austria. The mayor of Enkhuizen wanted to show off the town and had the most beautiful arch of the Koepoortsbrug (Cow Gate Bridge) decorated. Although he was unable to fit the name of Napoleon’s wife on a banner, he still wanted to welcome the couple in a festive manner. Unfortunately, they never showed up. They stayed in Amsterdam and Haarlem instead. So much for Enkhuizen’s anticipated slogan, “Napoleon and his wife slept here.”

Public Transportation and Resurgence

Around 1885 Enkhuizen came alive again after the construction of a railway between the town and Amsterdam. A ferry service between Enkhuizen and Stavoren on the other side of the Zuiderzee in Friesland also helped the economy because of a railway that was laid from Stavoren to Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland. The emergence of seed cultivation and the flower seed and bulb trade gradually brought prosperity back to the city, as well as the cultivation of potatoes and vegetables. The seed companies became world-renowned, even today.

READ MORE | Leeuwarden: exploring the unmissable Dutch north

Between 1889 and 1918 there was also another form of public transportation installed. It was a horse tram line between Enkhuizen and the town of Hoorn 20 kilometres (12 miles) away. In 1890 the tram ran roughly once every two hours in both directions, and the ride lasted an hour and forty minutes. A roundtrip ticket cost 75 cents. No OV-chipcards allowed. The tram was discontinued during World War I because cavalries were still in use and the cost of feed became too expensive. Although the Netherlands was a neutral country, horse feed became hard to come by. The horses were very relieved and retired to greener pastures.

You would think that the closure of the Zuiderzee in 1932 with a 32 km (20 mi) long Afsluitdijk (Shut-off-dike) between Friesland and West Friesland would cause commercial fishing to decline. It did not. Herring was replaced by eel, pike, and perch.

Image: Ton van der Wal/Wikimedia

No Escaping World War II

In World War II, Enkhuizen was not spared by the German Occupation and by an allied bombing raid. Jews resided in Enkhuizen since the 17th century. In 1734, Jews were granted the right to hold religious services in homes; in 1738 they were granted land for a cemetery; in 1791 the community consecrated a synagogue. The Jews of Enkhuizen fared better than Jews elsewhere, during the war. During the occupation, the courageous mayor of Enkhuizen refused to cooperate with the Nazis in the expulsion of Jewish children from public schools. In 1943, faced with deportation to Amsterdam and beyond, most Jews went into hiding, enabling many to survive the war. After the war, only a few Jews continued to reside in Enkhuizen.

The bombing of Enkhuizen happened on March 15, 1945 by planes of the Royal Air Force (RAF). According to British reports, 12 river police boats (Ger: Wasserschutzpolizei) were moored in the port. These small boats had been stationed by the Germans to prevent Dutch residents from escaping to the liberated other side of Ijsselmeer, formerly the Zuiderzee. It was also feared that the small boats could be used for a German attack on the liberated east of the Netherlands.

On that Sunday afternoon in March, four RAF Spitfires started their attack on the small German boats. The bombs hit the surrounding area but missed the boats. The planes turned around and tried again and missed again. One of the planes was hit during the attack and crashed near the coastal village of Katwoude about 60 km (40 mi) south. The pilot survived and was rescued by the Dutch resistance. He was hidden from the Germans for the remainder of the war. The failed action lasted about two minutes and killed 23 people.

Museums, Monuments and Dom Action

Traces of Enkhuizen’s history can easily be explored by bicycle or on foot. There are several noteworthy and important sights to visit. The town has museums, a unique library, historic buildings, defense walls and gates and of course an old church. You got to have a church to know where the city center is.

The Zuiderzee Museum is one of the most important museums in the region and one of finest indoor/outdoor museums in the country. There, the history of Enkhuizen and the maritime history around the former Zuiderzee are on exhibit. Inside is the largest collection of wooden ships in the Netherlands, which can be viewed year-round. The outdoor area has more than 130 historic houses, shops, and workshops and is open from March to October and where you learn about daily life around the Zuiderzee between 1880 and 1930.

The Flessenscheepsjes Museum (Bottle Ships Museum) has the world’s largest collection of rigged sailing ships in bottles. It has an armada of more than 1000 old and modern ships from all over the world. The collection is housed in the Spui House next to the Spuisluis, a lock that connects the Zuider Havendijk harbour with the Ijsselmeer.

Image: Werner Willmann/Wikimedia

The city has several defense gates and towers. The most interesting is the Drommedaris, or Chain Gate, that was built in 1540 and was part of the city wall that surrounded Enkhuizen. It was a tower housing soldiers and canons to protect the harbour. Over the centuries the building has also been used to store gunpowder and to house prisoners. Later, it served as a tax office, a spinning/weaving mill, a telegraph office, and a post office.

Also known as the Dom, it has been used as a cultural center, café, and youth hostel since 1959. Students, including a Dutch Princess (later known as Queen Beatrix, mother of the current king, Willem-Alexander), slept in the prison cells in the attic. In the sixties, a small commune lived in the attic and the building was the center for everything hip and cool. The hippies left, but the fun remained. Today, the Drommedaris is a cultural center, and where the action is for music, theater, film and more. It even has an elevator for those elderly hippies with fragile hips.

The Waag (Weigh) built in 1559 is a Renaissance-style building, where goods were weighed and taxed. It still contains the original scale from the weighing hall. In 1636 the doctor’s and surgeon’s room was located on the first floor. It was also a meeting room and lecture hall for the surgeon’s guild. The stained-glass windows of this room bear the names of the surgeons and doctors who worked in Enkhuizen between 1639 and 1654. On the floor in the waiting room is a painting of a skeleton with the inscription: “Spill ultima linea rerum”: Death is the final boundary of everything. That’s not very inspiring while waiting to be treated for an ailment.

The Flessenscheepjesmuseum. Image: Erik Baas/Wikimedia

The Westerkerk (Western Church) is considered one of the Netherlands’ 100 most beautiful monuments. Built in 1470, it houses the Librije van Enkhuizen, one of the two surviving 16th-century city libraries in the Netherlands. The collection has been preserved in its original location. The librije has retained its own unique character since its inception. In the nineteenth century, the librije fell into obscurity, but around the turn of the twentieth century, it was rediscovered as a tribute to science and history. It contains about 600 parchment or leather-bound books. In addition to theological works by philosophers Augustine and Erasmus, among others, the famous herbal books of Dodonaeus and Clusius are stored. Works by cartographers such as Mercator and Blaeu are also included in the library. The church is on Unesco’s list as among the “top 100” of the Dutch monuments. It’s an A-lister.

The Birth of Action

There has been a lot of action during Enkhuizen’s history but since 1993, the most recognized action has come from Action, the one small store, founded by a couple of entrepreneurs, that became an international retail organization with more than 1,500 stores, nearly 40,000 employees in seven countries: Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, and Poland. A small town’s claim to fame in a modern world.

Enkhuizen has an attractive shopping district and a cozy, well-preserved city center with numerous unique small and large shops. Many of these are located in beautiful historic buildings with characteristic details and stories. The historic streets are lined with intimate terraces, galleries, local markets, and various boutiques. Enkhuizen is worth a visit, besides, it’s where the original Action started.

Have you visited Enkhuizen? What did you think? Tell us in the comments below!

Feature Image: David Mark/Pixabay

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