A Brief History of Bergen

The northwest coastline of the Netherlands as it is today, with tall, marram grass and pine-covered dunes, has been as it is for just a few hundred years.
Before that, the sea flowed in and out and the entire region was the swampy delta of the original rivers, such as the IJ and smaller ones like the Rekere. Over thousands of years starting at the end of the last ice age approximately 12,000 years ago, sea levels rose globally and as they did, the North Sea was formed where the European mainland and Britain were once joined together. As the sea came closer to where Bergen's beautiful beaches are today, it whipped up huge amounts of sand to form ridges that eventually became dry enough for human settlement. Bergen was built on a number of these ridges, beneath - and protected by - the broadest stretch of dunes in the Netherlands, maybe even Europe.

It is unknown when the first people settled in Bergen, but we know that the Romans were in the area, having built settlements at Castricum, De Woude and other places. Bergen's oldest artefact, a Frisian terracotta urn used to keep the ashes of a deceased person, suggests people lived here as early as the second century A.D. It was found along the Oostdijk on Zanegeest, the outermost edge of the old beach ridge, which is believed to be the original birthplace of the village.

The earliest recorded mention of a place called Bergen dates from the 8th-century annals of the Bishopric of Utrecht, the religious centre of this low-lying northern region of the Holy Roman Empire. This inventory of holdings and possessions details ownership of a mother church at Schoorl, which had a number of chapels in the region, including one at Bergen with four farmsteads.

In the 12th century, the village was awarded the status of Ambachtsheerlijkheid, or serjeanty, by the Count of Holland. The first lord of Bergen is believed to be Galo van Bergen, who is mentioned in records dating to 1105 and 1120, a member of the prominent and influential Van Haarlem family. His son IJsbrand Galenzone (aka Van Haarlem) is also mentioned as Lord of Bergen in a number of records dating between 1162 and 1174, so he more than likely succeeded his father.

Floris III, Count of Holland from 1159 until 1190 and depicted here by the hand of Hendrik van Heessel, rewarded the people of Bergen handsomely towards the end of his reign for their loyal support in his battles against the West Frisians. Bergen was given its coat of arms sporting six martlets, which has changed very little over the years, and the new rights and privileges of the lord included the authority to collect tolls and duties.

The lease, or fief, loosely translated, on the Heerlijkheid Bergen remained in the Van Haarlem family in some shape or form until 1328.  Jan van Haarlem, or Jan van Bergen as he called himself after he assumed the fief, died in 1318, leaving the estate to his wife Jutte Persijn, who became the first Lady of Bergen.

Upon Jutte's death in 1328, her daughter Goede inherited Bergen. The year before, she had married Floris I van Haemstede, and so it came to pass that Floris could add Lord of Bergen to his titles. Bergen would remain in the Van Haemstede lineage until 1450.

In 1428, Bergen became a Hoge Heerlijkheid, or Great Baronry, giving it a further degree of autonomy from the Holy Roman Empire and its lord the power to administer the death penalty.

The Miracle of Bergen

Seven years prior to Bergen becoming a Hoge Heelijkheid, the entire region was hit by a huge northwesterly storm and spring tide. Referred to as St Elizabeth's Flood, the cold, dark, early hours of 19 November 1421 saw a huge tidal surge inundate rivers and burst dikes throughout Holland. It remains one of the worst floods in recorded history, swallowing up whole villages and killing thousands. One such place that succumbed to the deluge was the fishing village of Petten about 20 kilometres north of Bergen. Petten was no more, but a little box containing sacramental bread from its church was found washed up at Zanegeest. When, during the weeks following the find, the colour of the seawater in the box turned red, people proclaimed it to be a miracle and soon the 'Miracle of Bergen' began to attract a steady stream of pilgrims. But Bergen's small chapel couldn't cater for the crowds and this prompted the erection between 1450 and 1520 of a sizable pilgrims church, the largest north of Amsterdam in what in 1468 had become Holland, the leading province of the Dutch Republic. The church was dedicated to Saints Paul and Peter, but for reasons you will read a little further down, only half remains as what we today call the Ruïnekerk (Church in Ruin). After the Reformation, the church became a Protestant place of worship.

In 1566, Lord of Bergen Hendrik van Brederode and the Count of Egmont, Lamoraal van Gravere, drained the Bergermeer and Egmondermeer, the then often-submerged marshy wetlands between the dunes and Alkmaar. Holland wouldn't be Holland if there wasn't a constant threat from the sea, and in 1570 the polder was inundated during the All Saints' Flood disaster of 1 November. War with the Spanish and a protracted legal battle over the estate of Van Brederode meant that it took nine years before the lands were drained once more. Today, the polder is typical Dutch farmland used to graze cows and grow produce such as potatoes and cabbage. Of more interest to visitors to the area, of course, are the bulb fields that explode in bright colours each spring.

[Bulb Fields, Vincent Van Gogh, 1883]

The Dutch Revolt

These lords of Bergen and Egmond, incidentally, played prominent roles at the beginning of the Eighty Years' War, the revolt of the Seventeen Provinces of what today is Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands against the political and religious rule of Philip II of Spain. Both were leaders of the Geuzen, or Beggars, as they were called after petitioning to Margaret of Parma in 1566 against the introduction of a number of taxes and the Inquisition. Van Brederode, who earned himself the nickname 'Big Beggar', was sent into exile even before he and his compatriots Van Egmont, Van Hoorne and William of Orange were sentenced to death for treason in Brussels in 1568.

[Van Brederode presents the grievances of the Dutch to Margaret of Parma, Governor of the Netherlands]

William had sensed the danger and went into hiding just in time, but Van Egmont and Van Hoorne were beheaded. This event is considered to be the final straw, instigating the armed rebellion of the Dutch against the Spanish and culminating in the independence of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands in 1581. Had it not been for these brave leaders, world history might have taken a very different course.

By 1573, after their failed siege of Alkmaar, the Spanish were already being forced to retreat southwards. Fearing their return and occupation of strategic locations, Van Egmont's castle was razed to the ground by Diederik Sonoy on the orders of William of Orange. The ruins are freely accessible in Egmond aan de Hoef, just south of Bergen. Also set alight, and for the same reason, was the church in Bergen.

[Impression of Van Egmont's Castle by Claes Dircksz. van der Heck, 1638. The chapel on the left still stands, although it has been renovated on several occasions.]

The stone from its destroyed tower was used in 1594 to brick up the western wall of what remained, the choir and altar area, which would now serve as the new Protestant place of worship. Fear of Spanish return is the official story, but it seems very plausible given the dicey political and religious situation that these strategic landmarks were destroyed to intimidate Catholics and put them further on the back foot.

The Republic heralded a time of unprecedented prosperity across the nation. The Dutch Golden Age brought the whole world to Holland - trade expeditions exported the Dutch Empire to all four corners, and its liberalism offered a safe haven to refugees seeking freedom from Catholic oppression in the more southerly parts of Europe. Famous among them were painter Frans Hals, whose parents fled Antwerp and settled in Haarlem when he was a toddler, but also the likes of René Descartes, who was perhaps not a refugee in the strict sense of the word, but who did feel that Holland offered a safer climate in which to write and publish than much of the rest of Europe, where contemporary thinkers and scientists were being condemned and beheaded by the Catholic Church for heresy.

[Malle Babbe, Frans Hals, 1633-1635]

The Heerlijkheid saw lords come and go at this time, and history steadily caught up with feudalism to replace it with something we're more familiar with today: the market economy. In 1641, the Heerlijkheid Bergen, which had come into German hands following the death of Hendrik van Brederode, was up for sale and for the sum of 21,000 rijksdaalders (54,000 guilders) the very rich and successful trader in shares of the Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.) Studler van Zurck took the first step in creating his own little kingdom by the sea. Having bought the Heerlijkheid, he soon commissioned the construction of a country estate to finally replace the old lords' manor house, which had been destroyed during the Revolt of 1573 and never rebuilt. Together with his good friend René Descartes, who wrote much of his famous work in the liberal Republic and lived for a while in Egmond Binnen, Van Zurck drew up grand plans for his new estate and manor house, which would include vast French-style landscaped gardens, all inspired by the then recently completed Palais and Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. Construction started in 1643 and although the gardens were completed, the main building and its central façade never were, only the east and west wings. What remains today is the east wing, which is known as the 'Oude Hof'.
Van Surck also commissioned this wonderful 1662 map of Bergen, which in addition to lots of interesting political and geographic information clearly shows the extent of the new estate gardens, stretching all the way north to what is now Duinvermaak. It is by the hand of Joan Blaeu, who, along with his father Willem, was the most famous publisher of maps in the world. In 1662 he also published the final version of his Atlas Maior. Boasting 594 maps and some 3,000 pages of text, this book was most comprehensive atlas hitherto made and the most expensive book 17th-century money could buy.

The Battle of Bergen

By the late 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte ruled much of Europe and the Dutch Republic had become the Batavian Republic, the first client state of the French Republic. Seeking to neutralise the powerful Batavian Fleet and facilitate an uprising by supporters of Stadholder William V, an Anglo-Russian expeditionary force of 24,000 troops landed at Groote Keeten and Den Helder in August and September of 1799.

Four contingents proceeded to fight their way south, one in the east, one in the west and two down the middle of the North Holland peninsula. Successful at first, they won battles at Callantsoog and Krabbendam, but in the early hours of the morning of September 19th, the western contingent of Russian troops met a sizable army of French and Batavian soldiers at Bergen. The Russians initially drove out the defenders and took Bergen, but the expected backup from English troops never materialised, the story goes because the English and Russian generals had failed to synchronise their clocks. Whether or not this anecdote is true, miscommunication will have most certainly been exasperated by bad weather and the tough, soggy terrain through which the British had to march to help their allies. In the resulting chaos, the Russians in Bergen were soon surrounded by the French and Batavians, attacked and forced to retreat to Schoorl, which lay in ruin with only its church still standing. Much of the fighting was concentrated around the Ruïnekerk, which was badly damaged once again. Cannonball impacts and bullet holes can still be seen in its walls. Many Russians perished in battle, and many others, including Generals Hermann and Zherebtsov were taken prisoner of war.

[Dramatised painting of the Battle of Bergen. I will find out who it's by, but I've seen three different names, so rather than getting it wrong, I'll leave it at 'artist unknown' for now.]

A memorial beneath which are buried more than 500 soldiers stands on the Russenweg to commemorate the battle and loss of life, and a large dune in Bergen aan Zee, where it took more than a week to bury the rest, is known to this day as the Russenduin (Russian Dune).

The Anglo-Russian campaign soon failed completely when the Battle of Castricum was lost on October 6th and forces abandoned North Holland altogether. No uprising was sparked, but a significant part of Batavian naval fleet, crewed for the most part by Orangists loyal to William, mutinied and was captured without a shot being fired.

The Van Reenens and Modern Bergen

The Heerlijkheid Bergen was hereditarily passed from generation to generation, but the lords didn't live here and rarely visited. If and when they did, it was merely to enjoy a hunt and entertain fellow nobles.

Up for auction in 1851, times were changing radically for Bergen and its population. Democratic reforms in the first half of the 19th century culminating in Thorbecke's constitution of 1848 meant a definitive end to the feudal powers, rights and privileges commuted to the country's lords and ladies, and the consequent Municipalities Act of 1851 decreed that each municipality be governed by a council chosen by the people and that a mayor and aldermen would be responsible for the implementation of policy within the framework of national law and local directives. As a result, the title of lord became an honorary one.

Nevertheless, when Jan Jacob van Reenen's winning bid of 172,000 guilders bought him the Heerlijkheid Bergen, it still consisted of approximately 40% of the land of Bergen, including the now almost derelict Hof, its French landscape gardens, an extensive area of dunes and a stretch of beach. The rights of the new lord were limited to hunting and fishing and the appointment of a pastor for the church from two candidates nominated by the church council.

Jan Jacob van Reenen was a lawyer who became rich as a trader with Dutch East India. Lord of the Heerlijkheid at just 30 years old, he married Lady Wilhelmina Jacoba Rendorp van Marquette three years later and after extensive renovation work to the Hof manor house, the couple moved in. They raised six daughters and six sons.

Despite his lack of official authority, Van Reenen's status as largest landowner still afforded him much power and influence, which was compounded when he became councillor and in 1865 alderman, a position he would hold until his death in 1883.

His wife inherited all of her husband's land and property and because she deemed her eldest son Jacob too young and inexperienced to manage the Heerlijkheid, she did so herself for a time and remained at the Hof with her children, seven of which were yet to come of age.

Just before his death, Jan Jacob had built a new mansion for Jacob and his newly wed wife, the entrepreneurial Marie Amalie Dorothea Völter, and they moved into Villa Kranenburgh in 1883. Jacob van Reenen was appointed Mayor of Bergen two years later, and from then on, Kranenburgh would serve as the mayoral residence.

Both Lord and Mayor of Bergen, Jacob van Reenen played a major role in bringing Bergen into the modern age. This was very much a team effort, as his wife had all the grand plans, the most important of which was the founding of Bergen aan Zee and the extension in 1909 of the railway line from Alkmaar to this pioneering seaside resort. Upward mobility saw increasing numbers of 'ordinary folk' visit Bergen's woods, dunes and beaches, and guesthouse after guesthouse opened its doors to cater for the new influx of visitors.

[Picture postcard of the legendary (in Bergen) loc Bello bringing 'bathing guests' to Bergen aan Zee.]

To this day, incidentally, locals refer to people who visit Bergen not as tourists, but as 'bathing guests' (badgasten), although the guesthouses have all but disappeared and made way for hotels.

The Bergen School of Art

At around the same time, the beginning of the 20th century, Bergen started to attract artists, many of whom settled. Poets and novelists, but most notably painters came to the village. Precisely what charmed them is a matter of debate, but it most definitely had to do with Bergen's peace and quiet, the natural beauty of its dunes and woodlands, the pleasant, sleepy lanes and avenues with their old villas and farmhouses and, of course, the special play that light makes here of the trees and surrounding countryside; it is mentioned by quite a number of the artists who built houses here in which to live and work, with huge windows facing north to let in its illuminating qualities so conducive to putting oil on canvas. Also, of course, once a couple of influential artists had discovered the place and moved here, others were sure to follow and by 1915, Bergen was well and truly en vogue.

[Black Barn at 't Oude Hof in Bergen, Gerrit van Blaaderen, 1921-22. This wonderful example of Bergen-School painting can be admired at Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar.]

Expressionist artists found each other in what became known as the Bergen School of art, which was heavily influenced by cubism and characterised by broad swaths of paint and the use of predominantly dark hues. The Bergen School still enjoys international acclaim and Kranenburgh, now a modern art museum, regularly has exhibitions dedicated to the movement. Just down the road, Alkmaar's Stedelijk Museum has a permanent exhibition of Bergen School art on display that can't be missed by anyone interested in this understandably celebrated aspect of Bergen's heritage.

War!

The Netherlands was neutral during the Great War of 1914 - 1918, but that's not to say that the war passed the Dutch by without consequence. They were obliged by international treaties to take care of foreign troops, deserters and other refugees who for whatever reason ended up in the Netherlands. During the four years of war in Europe, some 1.3 million were housed in internment camps all over the country, guarded by the Dutch military, which was mobilised throughout.


Bergen hosted two such camps, one on the Breelaan housing German military refugees starting January 1915, and another that opened opposite the Russian Monument towards the end of the war to cater for the huge stream of deserters that fled to neutrality. Conditions in the camps were terrible. Lacking proper sanitation, they were infested with lice and rats, and with no privacy and little to do, tensions ran high. The camp for deserters was known as the 'Hell of Bergen'.

Shaken but physically undamaged by the war, normal life soon resumed in Bergen post 1918 and during the interbellum the tourist sector in the village continued to flourish and bring in revenues benefitting many in the otherwise rural farming community. Barring a number of small building contractors and a long-since shut down brick factory, there was and is very little industry in Bergen, although significant numbers will have made a daily bicycle journey to Alkmaar to work in the factories there.

Bergen Airfield and WWII

Somewhat naively, perhaps, there was a widely held belief in the Netherlands, even among its leaders, that the country could remain neutral in a second European war, this time involving a Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, the Dutch government bolstered its military defences during the 1930s and as a part of this effort, a military airfield was built just south of Bergen on the north-western edge of the Bergermeer polder.

But the land was soggy, money short and the special pumping station that was built inside an adjacent dike to camouflage it didn't function properly. The airfield could cater only for relatively light aircraft like the Fokker G.1, and even these were too heavy. 4th Jachtvliegtuig Afdeling (squadron) operated 12 such fighters and because of their weight, they had to be parked very close together on the only small concrete platforms airfield had, in front of two hangars, lest they sink into the mire. This would be their nemesis.

The airfield meant that Bergen was among the first places to see action when Hitler invaded the Netherlands on 10 May, 1940. At 04:00, the Luftwaffe bombed the airfield and all but one of the 12 Fokker G.1s were put out of action.

[The morning after. One Fokker G.1 managed to get off the ground and escape. The damaged 310 on the left was probably repaired and used by the German Luftwaffe.]

The occupying Germans soon rebuilt and upgraded the airfield and stationed a squadron of their impressive Messerschmitt 109s here. A fighter at the same time feared and respected by allied airmen, the Messerschmitts of Bergen flew coastal defence sorties, escorted bombers on missions to England and shot down British, American and Canadian bombers returning from bombing raids over north German cities like Bremen, Hamburg and Hannover.

The Dutch coast would become an integral part of Germany's Atlantikwal, the extensive system of coastal defences and fortifications along the coast of continental Europe in anticipation of an allied invasion. Consequently, Bergen saw a heavy presence of German military personnel and buildings and roads in Bergen aan Zee, which had already grown into quite a little village by that time, were largely dismantled to provide construction materials for the network of bunkers. Among the buildings that fell victim to the Atlantic Wall in 1943 was Hotel Nassau-Bergen by the hand of famous Amsterdam School architect H. P. Berlage (who incidentally also designed other buildings here, including Bergen's post-office building, which still stands today next to the Sterkenhuis opposite the Ruïnekerk).

Numbers of Germans in Bergen were also high due to a training camp set up here for new army recruits. Eighteen, nineteen years old, they'd arrive as civilians in trucks after curfew (20:00), and after a week's intensive training in the woods and dunes, they'd leave again, off to fight who knows where in Europe.

As the war progressed, life for ordinary Bergen citizens became harder. The dunes, woods and Bergen aan Zee were no-go zones, minefields were laid, able young men were sent to work in German factories and in 1943, 75% of the population was forcibly relocated. Only those who were of use to the occupier were allowed to remain. Fortunately, most of the evacuees were able to return to their homes soon after the liberation in May 1945, although many returned to houses that had been plundered and stripped.

Bergen aan Zee took longer to recover, as virtually the entire village had to be rebuilt. But it was, and soon Bergen's bathing-guest industry was fully operational again. Ironically, the majority of foreign guests visiting Bergen was (and still is) German, causing understandable friction and resentment. The general sentiment during these years of reconstruction, however, can be summed up by the Dutch expression 'zand erover' (sand over it), which means, 'Ah, let's forget about it, let's not talk about it anymore', and Bergen flourished once more as a seaside resort.

1945 - Now

Bergen expanded rapidly in the post-war decades, with new housing estates built to the north, west and south of the centre. The population grew steadily from 8,646 in 1950 to 12,311 in 2016 and in the same period, the number of guests grew almost exponentially.

To be continued...