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Meet Willem van Oranje

Willem van Oranje valued the centuries-old dyke village of Ruigenhil greatly, now known as Willemstad. He turned the village into a fortified town and ordered the construction of canals, ramparts and the first five bastions. Was it the fascination for its strategic interest, or was it love at first sight? Meet the Father of our country and discover it for yourself!

Father of our country

While Willem van Oranje fought a fierce battle against the Spaniards, the ambitious prince had ‘De Ruigenhil’ reinforced in 1583 to become the fortified city we now know as Willemstad. Located on the banks of the river Hollands Diep, between The Hague and the battlefield in West Brabant, this proved to be the perfect place to control the shipping between Holland, Zeeland and Antwerp.

Dorp Ruigenhil door J. Kuyper, 1865

Village Ruigenhil by J. Kuyper, 1865


That the Father of our country chose the dyke village Ruigenhil as a new fortress was no coincidence. Only shortly before that, the fortified town of Steenbergen had fallen into enemy hands, and the rebellious seven northern provinces had lost control of the country road between the islands of Zeeland and Holland. The control over the water towards Zeeland and Antwerp offered perspective.

Defence of the rivers Hollandsch Diep and Volkerak

Willemstad_NL_1586 Dueren, S.D. van© Rijksarchief in Noord-Brabant

Willemstad bySymon Damass van Dueren, 1586


Van Oranje reinforced the fortress Ruigenhil with five bastions and two small forts. Defending the estuaries that provided access to Holland. That was the goal of the defensive line of the river Hollandsch Diep and Volkerak. In addition, the defensive line could serve as a shelter for troops retreating from Brabant to Holland. The fortified town of Ruigenhil, later Willemstad, was regularly targeted by enemy troops from the beginning of its existence.

From Ruigenhil to Willemstad

Willem van Oranje, also known as Willem the Silent, kept his cards close to his chest and proceeded to fight bravely. In 1580, the Habsburg King Philip II offered a reward of 25,000 Spanish escudos on Willem’s head. After a failed attack in 1582, Balthasar Gerards succeeded in killing Van Oranje in 1584.

Seven-pointed star

Willemstadt met zevenpuntige ster

Willemstad with its seven-pointed star

Willem’s son Maurits, now the Prince van Oranje, renamed Willem’s city Willemstad after his death and granted the fortress city rights. Until 1603, he expanded the fortress from a five-pointed star to a seven-pointed star, and he financed the construction of the Koepelkerk (church) and Raadshuis (city hall). Later, he also chose Willemstad as the location of his beautiful country house, Prinsenhof, which, after his death in 1825, housed the military governors of Willemstad.

Uninvited guests in Willemstad

In the following centuries, Willemstad survived the regime of the French emperor Napoleon and conquests by the Germans. Occupying forces came and went, their military constructions remained standing. The former Prinsenhof, Fort Sabina, Fort de Hel, the gunpowder depot and German bunkers in the ramparts. Together, they form a beautiful historical décor for a visit to or walk through the history of the defensive line of Willemstad.

Moerdijk-Willemstad-Mauritshuis ©Lieske Meima

The Mauritshuis in 2019