If Bergen has an icon, then is must be the Ruïnekerk (literally ‘Ruin Church’), to which all the old streets, roads and lanes of the village lead. As with most churches, the Ruïnekerk has witnessed rather a lot over the centuries and being a partial ruin, the remnants of Bergen’s sometimes violent history are eerily plain to see to this day.

Erected in the 15th century on the site of a smaller chapel, which is known to have existed since at least 977 and was itself probably built there because it was the highest spot on the dry and habitable beach ridges of Oostdorp, Saenegeest, Oudtburgh and Westdorp that formed Berghen, the Ruïnekerk is Bergen’s oldest building. The chapel that formerly graced the land had become too small to cater for the steady stream of pilgrims attracted to the village by the Miracle of Bergen, and was replaced in 1422 by a larger, single-nave place of worship, which was soon extended (again, probably due to popular, pilgrim demand) to become a large triple-nave church that incorporated a mighty western tower. To give you an idea of its size and importance in the context of the late Middle Ages, St. Peter and Paul’s Church – as it was ordained – was one of the largest in all of Holland, surpassing the churches at the time even of important towns such Haarlem and Alkmaar.

And there it stood proud, home to the relic of the Miracle of Bergen, which had been set in silver, until the widespread Calvinist Iconoclasm of 1566 threw a spanner in the works. There are different stories and theories about what happened to the relic – Van Brederode, Lord of Bergen, is said to have confiscated it for safekeeping; other sources say it was taken and destroyed by the iconoclasts – but we do know that the Chapter of Haarlem (a committee of ‘secular’ clerics) ordered an investigation into its whereabouts in 1631. To no avail.

[Pictured left you see the 1568 map of Bergen by the hand of Adriaen Anthonisz.]

Alkmaar, the heavily fortified town just south of Bergen, played a pivotal role at the beginning of the Eighty Years’ War (Dutch War of Independence), by being the first town to withstand Spanish dominance. For 47 days starting 21 August, 1573, the citizens of Alkmaar were besieged by a Spanish army that had set up camp in the Oudorp polder just outside its walls. The siege was finally broken when William of Orange (aka William the Silent) ordered numerous dikes around Alkmaar to be breached, flooding the Spanish encampment and forcing the soldiers to retreat southwards on 8 October.

Clearly, the Catholics were now on the back foot. The Spanish army representing them was a force to be reckoned with, however, and for fear that it might return, many places of strategic importance in the Alkmaar area were swiftly sacked. The castle and abbey at Egmond were among them, and, again on the orders of William of Orange, Diederik van Sonoy (pictured right on the gable stone of the old ‘Geuzengesticht Wilhelmus van Nassauen’ on Voorstraat 80 in Brielle, South Holland (photograph by Marcel Tettero)) set fire to and for the most part destroyed the magnificent Catholic church in Bergen. Gone was the mighty tower, gone was the impressive triple-nave; all that remained were the choir, sanctuary and altar in the eastern part of the building. And even these remains were taken from the Catholics, who were effectively outlawed and driven underground into clandestine churches following the Reformation.

(Typically of the secular nature of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (aka Dutch Republic), which was created upon   gaining independence from Spain, such clandestine churches were tolerated and generally left to go about their business as long as they didn’t in any way force themselves upon others. Having said that, anyone who was openly Catholic was excluded from positions of government or (local) authority in the country until the Batavian Revolution of 1795.)

So, the year was 1574 and Bergen’s church was the ruin that has been its namesake until today. A time of turmoil, the church was only rebuilt at a relatively slow pace, with bricks of the destroyed tower used to erect a western wall for the old choir, sealing the building from the elements once more. The majority of the work was completed by 1594, the date inscribed in a beam above the pulpit and when the church started to be used once again as a place of worship – a protestant place of worship.

Liberation from life under the yoke of Spanish rule and taking destiny into their own hands is something the Dutch will never regret. The time heralded the Dutch Golden Age, spanning roughly a century from the 1570s, during which Dutch trade, science, art and military prowess were the most revered in the world. It was a time of peace in the country, and with it came great prosperity. The 18th century, however, was a different kettle of fish. To cut a long story short, the never-before-seen wealth in which the Dutch lived led to complacency, laziness and political corruption so rife that by 1795, ordinary Dutch citizens were so sick and tired of the ruling fat cats that they all but invited Napoleon Bonaparte to remove them and take power, which he duly did, creating the first de facto client state in the world: the Batavian Republic.

The Ango-Russian Invasion

So far so good for Bergen. The village fared well, lived in peace and developed much like any village of the time. Not amused by Napoleon’s grip on Europe, however, his enemies made attempts left, right and centre to loosen it. One such attempt was an Anglo-Russian invasion of the North Holland peninsula in 1799 that aimed to capture the (Franco-)Dutch naval fleet and incite a popular revolt against the French. Initially making strides south from Den Helder, the invading armies made some mistakes when they reached Bergen. The popular anecdote goes that the English and Russian generals forgot to synchronise their clocks and as a consequence, the English arrived in Bergen too late to provide backup to the Russians, who were under heavy attack from French troops trying to retake the village. Much of the fighting took place around the Ruïnekerk, which didn’t survive unscathed. If you wander around the Ruin Church today, it won’t take you long to find bullet and cannonball holes from that fateful September day, especially in the south wall.

That’s the story of the ruin, but there’s more to tell you about the Ruin Church, which will appear here in the near future.