Visit Zierikzee: a revolving door of strife, occupation, fires and legends

Zierikzee is a small port town with a dynamic, storied history and a few legends. There are 568 national monuments in and around the city centre, which places Zierikzee in the top ten Dutch cities with the greatest number of monuments. It is the most historically preserved town in the province of Zeeland.

Zierikzee received permanent city rights in 1248. It was an independent town until 1997 when it was incorporated by the municipality of Schouwen-Duiveland, which doubles as an island.

Legend has it that Zierikzee originated in 849. Ziringus or Zierik was an explorer driven from Pannonia, an ancient Roman province around present-day Hungary and Romania. It’s said that Zierik founded Zierikzee. Zierik is believed to have been a local ruler who established his settlement next to a creek called the Ee. So, Zierik and Ee became Zierikzee. The legend doesn’t mention where the “z” came from. Zierik was also thought to be the son of a King of the Huns called Lalalo who invented the salt business. We need to take this story from La-la-lo-land with a grain of salt. Archaeological finds in Zierikzee go no further back than the 11th century.

The more plausible story is that the sea deposited clay in the area creating a landscape of high-lying creek ridges with low-lying lakes in between. A hamlet of friendly fishermen and sheep farmers communed along one of the creeks. The sea kept flooding the region in the ninth and 10th centuries. The population that settled on the edge of the creek had enough of these intrusions and started defending themselves against the sea by constructing dams in the creeks. One dam was built beside a tide mill to control the sea’s fluctuating tides. The mill was mentioned in 1220 and is the oldest reference of a watermill in the Netherlands.

Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

A town in progress

The name Zierikzee (Old Dutch: Siricasha) appeared for the first time in a document from 1156. When the town obtained permanent city rights in 1248, it stimulated growth. At the end of the Middle Ages, Zierikzee was a strategically important place in Zeeland and the surrounding area. It had more big ships anchored than any other town in Holland. It even got its own castle. Sailors from the city could be seen throughout Europe. They sailed to destinations such as Archangel, Saint Petersburg, Malaga and Genoa. Some even set sail for the African west coast and the Caribbean. Unfortunately, many were involved in the slave trade.

Eying new converts, the religious orders moved into town. Monasteries sprung up and the Christian begging sects began with the Friars Minor, who settled in 1260, and by the Preachers, who came to Zierikzee in the 1270s. This period in 13th century Western European Church history was called the “mendicant” movement. A mendicant (Latin: mendicans, “begging”) is one who relies chiefly or exclusively on alms to survive. Until that time the monks of Europe toiled at their trades in their monasteries. They worked for a living, unlike the lazy next generation.  Many other religious orders came and went over the next 200 years. It’s amazing Zierikzee survived all the mendicants and still prospered.

A town of survival

Over the centuries resilient Zierikzee also survived regional wars, Spanish and French occupations, numerous fires, a plague, a WWI bomb attack, WWII German occupation and a major flood in 1953. In 1303 and 1304, the city was besieged several times by Flemish troops over a territorial dispute between the Count of Flanders and the Count of Holland going back to the 11th century. They couldn’t let bygones be bygones. The Flemish failed to take the town and were eventually defeated at the Battle of Zierikzee in August 1304. This two-day sea battle was a global clash. The winning side had 30 French and eight Spanish cogs and 11 Genoese galleys. (Cogs and galleys were Medieval merchant and warships). The Dutch contributed five ships from Schiedam. The losers had a fleet of 37 Flemish, English, Hanseatic, Spanish, and Swedish ships, as well as numerous smaller vessels from who knows where.

Zierikzee had six major fires from the 15th century to the 19th century; some burned down half the town. In 1466 a fire caused by lightning destroyed the largest church. The church had numerous reincarnations since its original wooden structure in 950. During the 12th century, it looked like a Holy Roman basilica. It was a Catholic church after all. Following the 1466 fire, a much bigger church was planned. It had to be larger and higher than all the other churches in the area. A church and a tower had to be built to symbolize the power of the town. Zierikzee was flush with money at the time. Work began on the church in the latter half of the 1400s and it took over 50 years to finish. This time it was a neo-gothic style structure.

A church waiting to be built

The church was dedicated to Sint Lievens (Eng: Saint Livinus). This saint had a murky past. According to legend, he was born in 580 in Ireland (some say Scotland), the son of a Scottish noble and an Irish princess. He was ordained in Canterbury, England, evangelized in and around Flanders, Belgium, and martyred in Brabant, the Netherlands, in 657. This 77-year-old Catholic bishop got around. Zierikzee was introduced to this saintly being by a religious order in Ghent in 1463 when the town received a piece of the saint’s arm. Armed with his donated arm, the town went to work and named the church and the tower after him.

Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

In 1454 the church tower’s foundation was begun. It was called Sint-Lievensmonstertoren (Saint Lievens Monster Tower). Delusions of grandeur demanded that it had to be big, really big. It was planned to be approximately 130 meters (426 feet) high after completion. Dreams were dashed when prosperity declined, disasters and other setbacks struck the town’s self-image. The builders got no higher than 50 meters (164 Feet) and construction stopped in 1510. For several centuries the tower’s temporary cap was made from wood that rotted away frequently. Sint Lievens Kerk burned down in an inferno in 1832, but the tower remained. The neo-gothic church was replaced by a neo-classic style church and renamed Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), since they couldn’t find the piece of the saint’s arm after the fire. Both the church and the tower can be visited today, although the monster tower is now called the Dikke Toren (Thick Tower).

Turbulent times

During the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) of independence from Spain, Dutch Watergeuzens took over Zierikzee in August 1572 from the Spanish. The Geuzens (Rebels) were a Calvinist Dutch guerrilla and privateering force that started the Netherlands’ revolt against Spanish rule. In September 1575, Spanish troops returned and the town surrendered on June 1576. It was called the “Siege of Zierikzee.” Three attempts to break the siege by the Dutch navy failed. The Spanish prevailed, but not for long. Four months later the Spanish soldiers mutinied over promised pay and late payments. They deserted and, in very unchristian like fashion, extorted money and goods from the population before abandoning Zierikzee. They headed for Brabant instead of Spain. I wonder why. The Protestants were back in control and the Dutch Republic was established.

Then came the turbulent 17th and 18th centuries. It was a mess. A plague killed off more than three-quarters of the region’s livestock. The Dutch Republic was in decline. Holland got caught up in the wars between the French and the English, which caused an economic crisis. The conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants was a bloody nuisance. The long-term rivalry between two main factions in Dutch society didn’t help. It diminished the strength and unity of the country. The two parties consisted of the Staatsgezinden (Patriots or Progessives) that wanted a democratic government and a more equal society, inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment, and the Prinsgezinden (Orangists or Royalists) that supported the old-world monarchy. Sound familiar?

This political rivalry in Dutch history spanned 20 years, of which three were under French occupation. Zierikzee supported the Patriots who embraced many of its political ideas – Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity – that the French brought but it didn’t benefit from the French occupation. In the meantime, the English had occupied parts of Zeeland due to the Fourth English War (1780-1784). After the French left in 1813, 200 English soldiers moved in. The English hijacked Zierikzee ships and left. Zierikzee couldn’t get a break from this revolving door of foreign interlopers. The town attempted to return to the glory days of prosperity and wealth, but it was in deep debt. It tried getting into the commercial fishing business. That didn’t work. The project was a failure because of disappointing catches, low prices, lack of bait and a shortage of skilled sailors and fishermen.

Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

Local industry had only local and regional importance. In 1822, Zierikzee had two breweries, two tanneries, four co-incinerators, two rope butchers, a soap factory, a salt refinery, a broom-making factory, a whale oil refinery, two gravel mills, two sawmills, a barley mill and four flour mills. These were not enough to create a lot of wealth for the town. It was a good thing in the long run. Other towns and cities that had more money destroyed most of their old buildings because they thought they were ugly or useless. Zierikzee couldn’t do that, simply because it lacked the money. Hence, it kept its historic heart.

Modern wars

During the First World War on April 30, 1917 a lost British pilot dropped six bombs on the town, causing three casualties. The Netherlands was a neutral country. The pilot confused Zierikzee for Zeebrugge, Belgium that was occupied by German troops belonging to Kaiser Wilhelm II who started the war. The Kaiser was a bellicose Trump-like character who wanted to be seen as a respected world leader but frequently undermined this effort by making thoughtless, alarming public statements without consulting his ministers. Sound familiar? When Germany lost the war in 1918, Wilhelm abdicated and fled in exile to the Netherlands. He died in 1941 in the house he bought from Baroness Ella van Heemstra, the mother of American film star Audrey Hepburn. Wilhelm was a distant cousin of the Netherland’s Queen Wilhelmina, who persuaded him not to invade her country in the war. She was family, after all.

Hitler was not family. In World War II, Schouwen-Duiveland was the only island in the province of Zeeland that remained under German occupation until May 1945. In December 1944, the Germans declared their intent to deport all men in Zierikzee and on the island between the ages of 17 and 40. The local resistance fighters stole all the registers on the island with help from the Allies, who were preparing to liberate the island. Consequently, ten local men were still captured and executed.

Beginning late in the 18th century a small group of Jews moved to Zierikzee. They held regular prayer meetings and established a Jewish cemetery. To accommodate the town’s Jewish population, starting in 1809, market day was held on Thursday instead of Saturday. In 1825, the community consecrated a synagogue. Most local Jews were involved in trade or manufacturing. By the early 20th century many moved away to larger towns and cities. During WWII the remaining Jews of Zierikzee were taken and deported to Nazi concentration camps in Poland where they were murdered. Today, few Jewish families live in Zierikzee. The Jewish cemetery is maintained by the municipality. A monument dedicated to the memory of the deported and murdered Jews of Zierikzee stands not far from the cemetery.

Modern issues

Zierikzee was severely damaged by the catastrophic North Sea flood of 1953. Houses collapsed and streets were continually flooded for several months. 24 residents drowned. Most of the population had to evacuate. Great compassion was shown by other European communities. Zierikzee received help from the towns of St. Hilaire-du-Harcouet, France and Hatfield, England, with which Zierikzee has maintained relationships. Since the flood, most of the town was restored and beautified.

Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

In 2015, Zierikzee’s last surviving defensive cannon, cast in 1552, was donated to the town by the British coastguard. The coastguard recovered it from a commercial diver in Kent, during a criminal investigation. The diver was charged with fraud relating to other Dutch cannons. Who knew there was a black market for Dutch cannons? The bronze minion cannon, which weighed one ton and is nine feet long, was transported back to Zierikzee using the Dutch Royal Navy minesweeper named Zierikzee. Coincidence? The minion cannon was the only one left in existence and was intended to be used for the town’s defences. Legend has it that the cannon was loaned to a ship in the Spanish Armada during the Anglo-Dutch war when the Spanish tried to invade England. She ship sunk off the English coast and since 1588 the cannon laid on the seafloor. The cannon finally found a permanent home in the Zierikzee city museum.

Zierikzee today

Although Zierikzee is the island’s largest town, you can easily wander around for a few hours and explore the squares, alleys, narrow streets, old ports, canals and view the town’s numerous monuments and remarkable facades. The historical centre hasn’t lost its distinctive character. Here and there are still some remains of the old city wall, along with its three still existing medieval city gates: Nobelpoort, Zuidhavenpoort and Noordhavenpoort.

The former town hall, built in the years 1550-1554, is one of the most important buildings. The Stadhuismuseum (City Museum) is in this imposing structure. The history of the town is told in the permanent exhibition. The oldest house in Zierikzee is De Haan or De Haene House, formerly known as the Templar’s House. The building dates from the first half of the 14th century. It was originally the house of a merchant. Why it was once called the Templar’s House, no one knows. Legend has it that a Knight Templar was killed there in 1312. Marketers will do anything to attract tourists.

Combined with shopping at local boutiques, eating and drinking in cosy restaurants and terraces makes visiting Zierikzee a wonderful day trip. In fact, legend has it that you will fall in love with the town and its history.

Have you visited Zierikzee? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!

Feature Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

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. 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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