Leiden is a quite Dutch renaissance town situated on a tributary of the river Rhine. The river represented the Northern frontier of the Roman Empire and some old Roman fortifications have been excavated nearby. However, during the Roman occupation the land level began to drop and the main river began to change its course, which is why Leiden is Leiden and Rotterdam is Rotterdam. The fall in the land and the changed flow of the river, meant that salt water impregnated the land, making it unsuitable for agriculture, and for pretty much else. For the next four centuries, Leiden was a soggy, squelchy area of bog-land. Towards 800 AD, dykes were built on both sides of the river and a slow process of land reclamation in the area was begun, which continued until the mid-19th century when a nearby vast inland lake was drained (and the airport Schiphol is to be found there – 3.4 metres below sea-level). Even today, Leiden lies below sea-level, as does 25% of the rest of the country.
Leiden was one of the first places where one could actually bridge the Rhine and, from the turn of the millennium, it began to evolve into a (very small) market town. Then the Counts of Holland made the city its administrative centre, religious communities were formed and some local textile industry began to develop. By the early 15th century Leiden was a thriving little town of some 4000 inhabitants, with the resources to start building three massive churches (any one of which could have been a Cathedral) of which two still exist today. By the mid 1550’s the population had grown to 15,000.
At this point, history intervened. The Netherlands revolted against Spanish/catholic rule and, for a while, the fate of the revolt hinged on the city of Leiden, which was besieged by the Spanish in 1574. The city held out, the Spanish were repulsed and the rebel leader William of Orange founded a university in the city, in a confiscated ex-catholic convent (the building is still part of the university). Meanwhile, the brutal suppression of the revolt in the Southern Netherlands (present-day Belgium) brought a stream of refugees to the North, and those specialized in textiles settled in Leiden. Before long, the Leiden woolen industry was booming. The town became the largest single textile centre in Europe and it expanded rapidly to reach a population peak of 55,000 by the 1670s. This period of growth coincided with the Dutch ‘golden age’ and many of the magnificent mansions that line the main canals were built at that time. The Pilgrim fathers resided in the town, before embarking on their famous voyage and the painter, Rembrandt van Rijn, was born and brought here (his school building still exists).
But it was not to last. Protectionism abroad, high taxes, institutional failures and technological stagnation eroded Dutch competitiveness and the woolen industry (and many other throughout the Netherlands) slipped into decline. Over the next century output fell by 75%, population fell to 30,000 and about a quarter of the citizens in any none year had recourse to poor relief. It was only at the start of the 20th century that the population size returned to its 17th century peak. The one advantage for today was that there was little money to modernize and rebuild, so that the city retains many of the splendid buildings inherited from the golden age.
Many people describe Leiden as ‘Amsterdam without the hassle’. Others, less kindly, suggest that it is ‘Amsterdam without the excitement’. This does not do it justice. The city enjoys the typical life of a student town, with students societies, spots facilities, bars and restaurants. The city burst through its 17th century limits (which can still be traced in the canal-ring surrounding the centre) long ago and boasts a population of almost 120,000. Of these 16,000 are students at Leiden University. An historic city, a vibrant city…but if that is not enough, it is 10 minutes by train from the Hague and 25 minutes from Amsterdam. It is also a short bus/bike ride from the sea at Katwijk – a pleasant resort tone frozen in the 1960s/70s with some of the most beautiful dune scenery in the Netherlands.
After the siege of Leiden, William of Orange rewarded the brave citizens with the establishment of a university, based in a former convent on one of the main canals, the Rapenburg. Having escaped the repressive Spanish/Catholic regime, the Netherlands attracted religious and political (the two were inextricably linked) refugees and Leiden became a city of tolerance and intellectual excitement. Leiden, along with Edinburgh became the leading centres of enlightened thinking and research in Europe. It there had been Nobel prizes at the time, these two institutions would have scooped the lions share. The philosopher Justus Lipsius ( 1547-1606), the historian Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609), the international lawyer Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) the theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). It was here that Carolus Clusius (1526-1609) established the first botanical gardens in Europe, and here much later that Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) started his work on the classification of plants. Herman Boerhaeve (1668-1738) made pioneering contributions to the study and practice of medicine here in Leiden.
The university never entered a phase of decline, but it was caught up and sometimes overtaken by other centres of learning. Even so, at the start of the 20th century, the university managed to get its share of Noble prizes. Hendrik Lorentz and Pieter Zeeman received the 1902 Nobel prize for Physics for their work on electro-dynamics, Heink Kemerlingh Onnes received the 1913 Nobel prize for Physics for liquefying helium and his work on the ‘absolute zero’ and Willem Einthoven were awarded the 1924 Noble Prize for Medicine for the invention of the discovery of the electrocardiogram. It was in these years that Albert Einstein worked for a short time at the University.
Today, the university has six faculties (Archeology, Humanities, Law, Social Sciences, mathematics and natural Sciences and, most recently, the Hague Campus). It has a library of over 3,5 million volumes, and many collections are3 unique in the World. The university has the equivalent of over 1000 full-time teaching staff and 16,000 students. Last year slightly over 4000 undergraduates and 2600 masters students started their degrees. It remains one of the top-20 universities in Continental Europe.
Below you will find links to websites that offer information about the city of Leiden.