Sep 052013

c1Once in a while I think it is a good idea to escape the confines of the Eighteenth Century (just not very often!) and with this in mind I have asked the author C J Underwood to do a guest blog, linking in to yesterday’s launch of her novel “An Army of Judiths”.

She sets the historical background to her book as follows:



Netherlands, 1572

Across the Low Countries, towns and cities had barricaded their gates against Phillip II’s invading army led by the bloodthirsty Duke of Alva and his tyrannical son, Toledo. With Amsterdam subjugated, and the ongoing merciless conquest of smaller towns, Spain’s mighty foothold in the Netherlands was gaining strength.

Discharged as governor of the Netherlands by Spain, Prince William of Orange had amassed a fleet of ‘Sea Beggars’, his unofficial navy of furious and vengeful noblemen, bent on defending their faith, land and fortunes. But they were losing. Holland was in the grip of Spain, and the grip was tightening.


The city of Haarlem, just ten miles west of Amsterdam, was in King Phillip’s way. Holland could not be conquered without Haarlem, and the Spanish army marched to take the city. As it neared Haarlem, the city was thrown into disorganised panic.

Mother, sister, widow and shipbuilder, Kenau Hasselaar was the sister-in-law of William of Orange’s physician. She had much to lose should Haarlem fall to Spain.

With a passion to rival King Phillip’s own, Kenau formed a troop of three hundred women, her Army of Judiths. Furious and driven, Kenau trained her troops to match the Spanish invaders blow for bloody blow. With these women, she launched a defence of the city in a desperate bid to protect her family, her way of life, and her beloved Haarlem.”

I vaguely remember learning about the siege of Haarlem in my school days, but had not heard of the extraordinary story of Kenau Hasselaar, so I asked the author for some more information about how her book came to be written. She tells me:

“When I moved to the Netherlands in the early 1990s to work on a novel, I discovered a much different nation to write about.

I first encountered the legend of Kenau Hasselaar when I overheard a professor and his students at the University of Leiden’s library, and was immediately captivated. The professor spoke about the savage sixteenth century Dutch Revolt against the invading Spanish King Phillip II, the revolt that inspired one woman’s fight to preserve the lifestyle that her family had nurtured for generations. Kenau’s battle was the seven-month Siege of Haarlem, 1572-1573. The professor recited the legend of this spirited aristocrat who had been driven to form an army of three hundred women soldiers. He said that Kenau had trained them to fight the Spanish back from the walls of Haarlem, but had refused to wear armour.

Kenau Hassellaar

Kenau Hasselaar

From the moment Kenau entered her consciousness, I determined to learn every possible detail about this inspirational female character, a woman that was grist to the mill of my own life story. Although I’d always written, I had spent my career at the time travelling a man’s world; I’d thought nothing of working as a chef in all-male brigades, and was the first woman in the British Merchant Navy to work in the North Sea.

My first surprise was that in the Netherlands the name Kenau was synonymous with the derogative, Bitch. If Kenau Hasselaar had indeed been a Dutch war heroine, I couldn’t understand why she was so maligned by modern Dutch society. After a thorough search of the Amsterdam women’s library, and various other institutions, I was baffled to find nothing more solid than a couple of cursory, albeit reliable, reference works and some old, unreliable stories of Kenau’s part in the siege. I found a tapestry of Kenau in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, but it wasn’t until some years later that paintings of Kenau Hasselaar were available online.

It seemed to me that legends have a lot to answer for, after all these years the fable that Kenau Hasselaar was a dedicated cutthroat for the sake of it should have morphed into something more honourable. She may indeed have been a hellcat, but she must have been so much more besides. Some legends just beg interrogation.

c5Having visited Haarlem many times to research Kenau Hasselaar’s role in the siege, I enlisted the help of a few eminent historians, one of whom explained that Kenau must have been a frequent visitor to the Cityhouse to meet with Haarlem’s magistrates in order to collect writs that she’d handed to her debtors, some whom lived as far afield as Delft.

Luckily, those official meetings were well documented; otherwise very little personal information would have survived about Kenau’s lifestyle. One historian suggested to me that Kenau might have been quite an unwelcome sight at the Cityhouse, just for that reason alone. I don’t think she’d have been too happy with anyone poking about in her affairs, however, which is why I was so keen to get my facts right.

My novel rigorously follows the historical details of the siege itself, which was also well documented. It is a remarkable history that needs no embellishment, and the more I discovered, the deeper went my respect for Kenau Hasselaar, and indeed all the courageous citizens of Haarlem, particularly the women who withstood the brutality of sixteenth century warfare.

c4My second big surprise was that in Northern Europe at the time, when a city was under attack, women had always fought. Towns and cities were built with ramparts, they were formed as citadels, or bastions, and when attacked everyone defended their home.

Women were probably more vicious in battle than we’ve ever given them credit for, as a woman I feel particularly touched by accounts of man’s inhumanity towards women. I immediately put myself in Kenau’s shoes, as a mature Dutch woman, mother, and no fool, Kenau must have known that once those marauding Spaniards broke through the bulwarks and gates of Haarlem, she and her daughters, sisters and nieces would lose their lives in ways too terrible to contemplate. So Kenau wasted no time in contemplating the obvious; she rounded up three hundred of Haarlem’s toughest, most formidable women, and taught them how to defend themselves; to fight off the enemy, and to protect their beloved city. But first they rebuilt the decrepit walls of Haarlem.

Then they waited.

Apart from her noble lineage, Kenau had a sister who was married to the Prince of Orange’s physician, which suggests that she may have been privy to the intricacies of the political turmoil of the day.

c8The first report of Kenau’s role in the siege, written before it had even ended in 1573 by a Friesian scholar named Arcerius, was a published account of Kenau’s contemptuous baiting of the enemy. This might have been sixteenth century Dutch propaganda, of course, but the marvellous image of this woman at the walls of Haarlem taunting the Spanish with icons, relics and at times of hardship, bread and beer, has never left me.

I discovered that historians have disagreed for generations about Kenau’s role, both as a war heroine, and as a business woman. Kenau was the widow of a Haarlem shipbuilder, and instead of marrying again after his death, it is entirely possible that she built ships in her own right. Her shipyard no longer exists, but had faced onto the Spaarne River, which runs through Haarlem, next to the Adriaan Windmill (Molen De Adriaan), which was built in 1778. I learned that she had indeed traded in timber, so even if she hadn’t built ships, for a woman to be in such a strong business position in the sixteenth century shows a remarkably hardy sort of personality. However, I learned that after she was widowed, Kenau’s shipyard took multiple orders for ships that were suitable for the Dutch inland waterways. It is also documented that not only had Kenau bought property, but supplied timber for Haarlem to build a single-decked sailing galley. This ship would have been fitted with guns, and was big enough to hold 1,000 men. The city owed her money for the timber, and Kenau’s daughters continued fighting for this debt to be paid long after their mother’s death.”

c7Thanks for that! As the strap-line says ‘She brought Haarlem to the edge of victory, and the enemy to its knees’.

For more information about the history behind this fascinating Dutch Revolt, and the siege of Haarlem, see the author’s website here.

“An army of Judiths” is available in hardback and eBook, and paperback in 2014. You can find the link to Amazon  here. It is an inspiring story – go read!




  3 Responses to “The Siege of Haarlem 1572-3 and “An Army of Judiths””


    What a heroine! I’ve never heard of her before!


    The siege of Haarlem is really a story to be told, im even writing a romance about it.
    And thanks a lot for the information you provided here, its so important to me, you dont even know!
    From Brazil.


    Use this as you will. Generally speaking, there is a measure of honor and mercy that is given by men to the vanquished that is typically not found in victorious women. I am not suggesting that horrific slaughters did not take place between armies of men nor am I ignoring the brutalisation that armies of men inflicted upon non combatants. What I am noting is the absence of women warriors who displayed mercy to those they conquered. Kenau was never known for kind treatment of prisoners. As a resident of Haarlem, I would have been grateful to Kenau as a capable ally. I most certainly would NOT have wanted her for a wife. Joan of Arc (complicated story) is not referred to in the manner that Kenau is. Their dispositions are notably different. What one simple word would be appropriate for a mean, aggressive, contentious, violent, woman who is comfortable killing people with an axe? Kenau is who she was. For good or bad, as a kenau is how she lived.

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