Gorinchem: the town that mastered flooding as a defence

Gorinchem and the Fortress Triangle had the capability to flood land around towns and fortresses, making a unique defence system that was effective until the development of modern artillery, the introduction of the railroad and the invention of the airplane.

Gorinchem is Netherland’s largest fortified city located along the Waal river, an extension of the Rhine, in the province of South Holland. This historic town together with the village of Woudrichem, Loevestein Castle and Fort Vuren form the Vestingdriehoek (The Fortress Triangle). The threesome was a critical part of the Old and the New Dutch Water Lines that defended Holland for centuries from invaders.

An Undiscovered Historical Nook

Still undiscovered by most tourists, Gorinchem, also known as Gorkum or Gorcum, is over a 1000 years old and worth a day trip before the hordes discover it. Gorinchem’s rich history is reflected in its many preserved heritage structures, warehouses, townhouses and other buildings.

The town was first mentioned in a document in 1224, which granted people from Gorinchem exemption of toll payments throughout Holland. That was quite a perk in those days.

In 1273 the town was purchased by the Lords of Arkel who were wealthy landowners. At the end of the 13th century, the town was fortified to protect against nasty neighbouring counties and dukedoms of Holland and Guelders, a historical county that later became a duchy of the Holy Roman Empire. This time also saw the construction of the first public buildings such as churches, inns, a city hall and a Holland casino.

Gorinchem Main Square from above
Gorinchem Main Square. Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

Halfway through the fourteenth century, the city’s ramparts were reinforced with stone walls with seven gates and 23 towers. The city gained city rights in 1382 and became a part of the County of Holland in 1417.

Martyrs of Gorcum

European history is complicated and the history of the Netherlands is confusing. Since the Middle Ages the Netherlands was part of the Holy Roman Empire. No matter who married whom and what family dynasty ruled the Empire throughout Western Europe, they were all Roman Catholics.

Holy Roman rule ended with the liberation of the Netherlands from the Spanish in 1648. But, in the meantime during the Dutch revolt against the Spanish, certain Dutch rebel Calvinists known at Watergeuzen (Sea Beggars) captured numerous towns along the rivers in the south, including Gorinchem. They went on a rampage against any catholic cleric in sight.

Although the leader of the Dutch Revolt, Prince of Orange, William I, sent a letter to this group to leave the priests alone, these nasty protestant privateers hanged 19 Catholic members of the clergy. This group came to be known as the “Martyrs of Gorcum.”

A permanent exhibition about the Martyrs and the history of Gorinchem can be seen in the Gorcums Museum, a former city hall on the Grote Markt. It also has a collection of art from Gorinchem, ranging from the 17th century to works by 20th-century artists who lived and worked in Gorinchem.

Notable Historic Figures of a Different Kind

Two of Gorinchem’s famous historical figures are Hugo de Groot and Hendrick Hamel.  Hugo de Groot, also known as Hugo Grotius, was a famous Dutch jurist who laid the foundation for international law based on natural law, which is independent of the laws imposed by political order, society or a nation-state.

Natural law is objective, universal and inalienable. Hugo was one of the first to define the concept of one society of states, governed not by force or warfare but by actual laws and mutual agreement to enforce those laws. It was known as a social contract.

He also advocated for freedom of the seas stating that the sea was international territory and all nations were free to use it for seafaring trade.

Born in 1583 in Delft, he was a child prodigy. By the age of eight, he was writing poems in Latin and translating books from Greek and Latin. He entered the University of Leiden at the age of eleven and publishing his first book at age sixteen, a scholarly work on the seven liberal arts essential for a free person to know in order to take an active part in civic and civil life. Heavy stuff for a teenager who was appointed a lawyer shortly thereafter in The Hague.

Hugo eventually got entangled in a dispute battling religious and civil authority over public matters, such as separation of church and state and religious tolerance. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Hugo supported local authorities to be given the power to organize their own troops. That undermined the authority of the current stadholder Captain-General of the republic, Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange.

The Hugo De Groot Poort. Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

Hugo was arrested in 1618 along with former Dutch patriot and freedom fighter Johan van Oldenbarnevelt who led the current insurrection. Johan lost his head and Hugo was sent to life imprisonment in Loevestein Castle.

While in prison, guards would sometimes deliver large trunks full of books between Hugo and his family in Gorinchem. On March 22, 1621, Hugo managed to stuff himself into the trunk.

His unsuspecting guards carried him outside to the home of a Gorinchem merchant on the town’s main square. Dressed as a bricklayer, Hugo emerged through a small portal and fled to Paris.

The portal in the town’s square, which can be seen today, is called the Hugo de Groot portal. De Groot’s concept of natural law had a strong impact on the political developments of the 17th and 18th centuries. His philosophy influenced the start of the American Revolution.

Hendrick Hamel was born in Gorinchem in 1630. In 1650, he sailed to the Dutch East Indies where he found work as a bookkeeper with the Dutch East India Company.  While sailing to Japan in 1653 on the ship “De Sperwer” (The Sparrowhawk), Hamel and thirty-five other crewmates survived a deadly shipwreck on Jeju Island in South Korea.

After a year on the island he and the others were taken to Seoul, the capital of Joseon Korea. Shortly after his arrival in Seoul, Hendrick met up with fellow Dutchman Jan Janse de Weltevree from De Rijp who, after having been shipwrecked on the Korean shore 27 years earlier, became an advisor to the King. The King assigned Jan to be Hendrick’s translator. Good idea.

Gorinchem Wilhelmina fountain C Jim Goyjer Photography
Wilhelmina fountain in Gorinchem. Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

Hendrick and a few crew members were then transferred to the city of Gangjin in 1656. Korean King Hyojong forbade all of them to leave the country, as was the custom with illegal aliens, but they were given the freedom to live relatively normal lives.

After thirteen years of confinement, Hendrick and seven crew mates escaped to Nagasaki, Japan, where there was a small Dutch trading post. Here Hendrick wrote his famous journal of living in Korea, which gave the Europeans their first glimpse of life in the Kingdom of Korea. “Hamel’s Journal and a Description of the Kingdom of Korea, 1653-1666,” was published in 1668.  Hendrick returned to the Netherlands in 1670 where he died in 1692. Jan was never heard from again.

To pay homage to its famous world traveler, the town of Gorinchem dedicated a statue of Hamel and established the Hendrick Hamel Museum.  A second, similar statue, was added to the Hamel Memorial Museum in the South Korean town of Gangjin, where he is regarded as a hero.

Waterlines’ Key Stronghold in the Netherlands

The Oude Hollandse Waterlinie was the backbone of Dutch defence in the 17th and 18th centuries and is closely linked to the Dutch hydraulic engineering tradition. This military line of defence lay from Amsterdam south to Gorinchem and beyond. When the enemy approached, extensive areas of low lying land could be flooded and submerged under water too deep for horses and humans to walk around and not deep enough for enemy ships.

The Oude Hollandse Waterlinie, like its successor Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie, was initially constructed to defend the economic and political power of Holland and Amsterdam against attacks from the east.

Gorinchem, located in the middle of the ‘Rivierenland’ (river land) region, was a key stronghold in both the old and new Dutch water lines. Together with the town of Woudrichem, the medieval Loevestein Castle, and the 19th-century Fort Vuren, known as the Vestingdriehoek (The Fortress Triangle), they were able to close off the Waal River from the enemy.

The Netherlands has numerous defensive waterlines, composed of fortifications, forts and bunkers, with an intricate system of locks, dikes and canals. Some waterlines date from the 1580s, while others were devised during World War II.

Gorinchem expanded over the centuries and benefitted from the prosperity of the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century.  The Industrial Revolution gave Gorinchem another boost due to modernized industry and the introduction of the railroad between Breda and Rotterdam. The Industrial Revolution also resulted in the city’s defence system no longer being needed and unusable. Tourists are now welcome to invade the town.

The Leaning Tower of Gorinchem

The Grote Sint-Janstoren (grand tower) is worth climbing the 256 stone steps, even though it leans a little. The original tower collapsed after a fire in 1361. The current tower is 67 m (219 ft) high and was built around 1450. The tippy-top was completed in 1517.

The Grote Toren of Gorinchem
The Grote Toren of Gorinchem. Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

The new, Grote Sint-Janstoren, as it is popularly called, was sinking during construction, causing a strange kink in the tower. The structure is more than a meter and a half off-center. The tower was extensively restored between 1941 and 1950.

At the top you have a beautiful view of downtown Gorinchem and the surrounding area. On a clear day you can see as far as the Cathedral Tower in Utrecht, 43 km (27 mi) away. If you’re short-sighted, bring your glasses.

Gorinchem is Worth a Daytrip

Gorinchem is very authentic. Because of the many historic buildings, the sixteenth-century city walls and the beautiful city gate, history is visible and felt everywhere in the city center.

The old Linge harbor is quaint with its numerous flower displays surrounding the quays. From several cafés you have a fantastic view of this lively little marina filled with yachts, boating enthusiasts, and a lock.  An Open Harbour Day is held every year in May and a Boat Show every September.

The 5km self-guided fortress walk (Vestingwandeling) takes you over the earthwork ramparts past barracks, artillery sheds, ye old tollhouse, Dalempoort gatehouse, the caponier, two flour mills and many other buildings with a military purpose.

The Dalempoort (Dalem Gate) is the only remaining city gate of the original four that fortified city after the improvements of the ramparts were completed in 1609. The Dalempoort dates from 1597 and has a turret with a timepiece that takes you a few centuries back in time

The best place to view the river is from the waterfront area, Buiten de Waterpoort. This is the spot where, for centuries, boats and ferries have departed. And still today, it’s the spot where you can catch the ferry to Woudrichem, Loevestein Castle, Fort Vuren and Biesbosch National Park.

The area also features a city beach, a must for those hot summer days that are more frequent due to global warming.

Have you visited beautiful and untouched-by-hordes-of-camera-wielding-tourists Gorichem? Planning to make the trip? Let us know in the comments below!

Feature Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

Jim Goyjer
Jim Goyjer
Jim Goyjer is a public relations consultant. Born in Amsterdam, he’s lived in California for most of his life. Currently living in the Netherlands with his wife, he looks forward to writing, photography, traveling throughout Europe and exploring more of the Netherlands and his Dutch family heritage going back to the 16th century in Noord Holland and in Amsterdam. He’s always been fascinated with how such a small country as the Netherlands has had such a large impact on the rest of the world.


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