10 interesting little factoids about Haarlem’s history

Hello, my fellow quarantined friends! Are you looking for something new to do to occupy yourself in these somewhat dull times? How about some fun reading, to brush up on your history of our beautiful city?

As an incorrigible trivia addict, I love spending my free time uncovering history gems and little-known anecdotes about, well, anything. Luckily for me (for us!), when it comes to history, Haarlem certainly doesn’t disappoint. This amazing place has got many stories to tell and, today, I decided to share with you some of my favourite ones.

Historic Haarlem

Are you ready? Let me take you on a journey to the past, a journey that begins more than 1000 years ago.

1. Did you know? Haarlem became a city long before Amsterdam or Rotterdam did.

Haarlem has an incredibly rich history, going back to pre-medieval times. The first documented mentions of the city date from the 10th century, when it was still a simple settlement built on a thin strip of land above sea level. This strategic location, ‘high up’, allowed inhabitants to be protected from the agitated waters of the North Sea and the IJ bay. It also meant that the village was at an ideal halfway spot on the busiest route in the country, connecting Leiden to Alkmaar, which helped it grow quickly. By the start of the 12th century, Haarlem was a fortified town, and became the seat of the Counts of Holland, the leaders of the region at the time.

Count Willem II granted Haarlem the city rights in 1245 – that is 55 years before Amsterdam was allowed to call itself a city and 95 years before Rotterdam! All throughout the Middle Ages, Haarlem was a major economic hub, richer and more important than Amsterdam, and the second largest city in Holland after Dordrecht.

Historic Haarlem

Haarlem in the Middle Ages (15th century)


2. Did you know? ‘Haarlem’ means ‘home on the forested dune’ in ancient Dutch.

The name Haarlem is believed to be a modern variation of the Old Dutch ‘Haarlo-heim’. ‘Lo’ translates to ‘forest’, and ‘heim’ translates to ‘home’ in Old Dutch. As for the word ‘haar’, linguists do not all agree on the exact etymology, but it looks like it has several meanings, one of which would be ‘elevated place’.

That meaning is the preferred one. Indeed, like I said, Haarlem was/is built on a high strip of land, also called a beach ridge or ‘strandwal’ in Dutch – basically, a dune. It is therefore highly likely that the use of ‘haar’ in the city’s name would have been chosen to refer to its location on a ‘strandwal’.

‘Haar-lo-heim’ would then translate literally to ‘elevated place-forest-home’ or ‘home on the forested dune’.


3. Did you know? The exact spot where the current City Hall of Haarlem is located has always been a place of power in the city’s history.

If you, one day, come across a time machine and decide to visit 13th-century Haarlem, I recommend that you check out the Grote Markt first – that is, if you manage to avoid being burned at the stake for witchery, of course. There, you might be the lucky spectator of a knight’s sword fight or witness a knighting ceremony. If you pick 1219 as your destination, you may even be able to applaud the knights of Haarlem as they come back victorious from Egypt and the fifth Crusade.

For the Grote Markt of Haarlem was a central point of power, army and leadership in medieval Holland. In fact, for more than two centuries, a big castle on the square was the primary residence of the Counts of Holland, up until 1358 when they decided to definitely and officially move to The Hague. They had already been using The Hague as an administrative centre and ‘royal’ court for a few decades anyway. The move was also partly motivated by three large fires, in 1328, 1347 and 1351, that destroyed a great many buildings in Haarlem, among which the Count’s castle.

Instead of bothering to rebuild, the Count in charge at the time donated the castle’s grounds to the city. Some years later, in the 14th century, the new City Hall – the one we still admire today – was built on the precise spot where the Count’s castle once stood.

Haarlem coat of arms

Haarlem city’s coat of arms on the City Hall, bearing the sword and cross of the Counts of Holland, and Haarlem’s motto (Latin for ‘virtue conquered violence’) (Photo: Till Niermann ©)


4. Did you know? Haarlem was, for a very long time, a hot spot for beer brewing: at some point during the Golden Age, it counted no less than 100 breweries within its walls.

Although I don’t like the taste of beer, I have to admit the Haarlem beer story is a nice one. Besides, I like the sparkle in my alcoholic boyfriend’s eyes when he tells me about it. These Dutch men, they certainly do like their beers, hey!

Beer brewing was the biggest industry in Haarlem for about 500 years. It flourished in the Middle Ages, along with the two other main economic activities of the city: textile and shipyards. Brewers used water from the city’s canals and the Spaarne river to brew their beers. By the 1500s, Haarlem had become one of the three main beer producers in the Netherlands, along with Gouda and Delft. Back then, there were between 50 and 75 breweries in Haarlem alone. That number exploded in less than one century, to reach a record of more than 100 beer breweries in the city at the beginning of the 17th century.

Haarlem beers were always mostly consumed in North Holland. However, some brewers exported parts of their production, and the Haarlem Koyt beer was even, for a while during the 15th century, the most popular beer in Antwerp, Belgium! A fun fact that beer-loving Haarlemmers are still immensely proud of – it is not every day that one beats the Belgium people at beer-making!

The beer industry in Haarlem slowly died down in the 18th century, due to the growing popularity of other drinks, such as coffee, tea and jenever. Craft beer then almost totally disappeared in the 19th and 20th centuries, because of automation and the concentration of the beer production in big industrialised breweries, such as Heineken and Grolsch.

Today though, Haarlem is once again a glorious beer town in the Netherlands, all thanks to the work of the Stichting Haarlems Biergenootschap (‘Haarlem Beer Fellowship’). In the 1990s, two craft beer recipes from 1407 were found in the Haarlem city archives; members of the Stichting Haarlems Biergenootschap made it their mission to revive those old traditional beers and bring them to the market, under the new Jopen beer brand.Jopen beer brand

If you like beer, you probably have already heard of the Jopen beers and maybe even enjoyed a pint in the Jopenkerk, the brewery and pub that was opened in a former church in the city centre of Haarlem. The future of beer brewing in our city actually looks pretty good, with a booming craft beer scene. It is worth to mention for example Het Uiltje which opened in 2012, which is another must-watch brewery also thriving to recreate past greatness.


5. Did you know? Born and bred Haarlemmers are affectionately nicknamed ‘de muggen’ (‘the mosquitoes’).

Ah! This is a cool little story. I literally just found out about this last week, while trying to join a Facebook group where this is the question you have to answer before sending in your joining request. I had no idea! I must have been living in a cave.

Yes, people of Haarlem – Dutch locals, not us immigrants – really are called ‘the mosquitoes’ (‘de muggen’ in Dutch). If it doesn’t sound very nice and endearing, that’s because it isn’t. It is rather unclear where the nickname comes from, but what is certain is that it started out as an insult, some 500 years ago. There are several hypotheses around its origin.

Some say the mosquito metaphor was used to represent the simple-mindedness and somehow annoying, parasitic nature of the inhabitants of Haarlem – calling them dumb hillbillies, in other words. Others think that it has to do with the swamps that were all around Haarlem before the whole country was drained, swamps thanks to which mosquitoes were probably the kings of the place back then.

There are also a few popular tales and legends going around, attempting to explain the nickname. I’ve read three stories. The first one is about some brave firefighters who were once called to the Sint-Bavokerk on the Grote Markt to fight a great fire, after witnesses reported having seen ‘huge clouds of smoke’. When they arrived, the firefighters did see clouds, but these were made of hungry mosquitoes, not smoke. The second story is about an evil witch who wanted to control the city; to do so she threatened to turn all of those who would not submit to her will into mosquitoes. The last story tells the adventures of three Haarlem soldiers who were bragging in a pub about their nocturnal exploits against the Spanish invaders, during the siege of Haarlem in the 80 years’ war. They were made fun of by their discouraged counterparts who said: ‘It’s no use, it’s like mosquitoes trying to hurt a giant’.


6. Did you know? Haarlem has its own legendary war hero, and she is a woman.

Every tragedy in human history comes with heroes. Whether these heroes truly existed or not, whether they were exactly like we are told they were or not, and whether the heroic actions attributed to them happened or not, often doesn’t really matter. It is deeply anchored in our nature to keep hope (and faith in humanity!) alive, by romanticising everything horrible that we go through – even wars. Haarlem, and the people who passed its stories from generation to generation, are no exception.

Even if you’re not that up-to-date on Dutch history, I am sure you have at least heard of the Eighty Years’ War with the Spanish, also sometimes called the Dutch war of independence. If not, here is a very quick reminder (this part of history deserves its own full separate article, so I won’t get into too much detail; it is touched upon here).

In the mid-1500s, the seventeen provinces of the ‘low countries’ – which roughly coincide with current day Benelux – decided that they didn’t like foreign rule so much, and that they have had enough of the control of Philip II of Spain, the then sovereign of pretty much all of western Europe. Philip II wanted everyone to be Catholic and to bow before him; the richest low countries (Holland, for instance) wanted to be left alone to do business and thought that being Protestant was way cooler anyway. Long story short, they rebelled, and it led to a complete mess. The Spanish army killed everyone, the flourishing economy in the low countries collapsed, and Catholicism still didn’t become all the rage in this region of the world (too bad for good old Philip). In 1648, after decades of bloodshed and misery, the Peace of Münster treaty recognised the Dutch republic as an independent nation, the Spanish army left, and the Dutch Golden Age could, at last, begin.

Historic Haarlem

Monument honouring Kenau (folk hero) and Ripperda (city governor and leader of the defence during the Spanish siege) on Het Stationsplein

This war is remembered as the most violent period in Dutch history. Haarlem suffered a lot in these times (famine, citizen executions, plundering of property, you know, the whole fun package), and was under Spanish siege for 7 months in the first half of 1573. When the city finally surrendered, the city- governor and his men were instantly beheaded, and the defenders of the city were murdered. Many were actually drowned in the Spaarne river – the executioner apparently got tired of chopping heads off and figured that drowning was a more time-efficient way to slaughter infidels. The remaining Haarlemmers had to ‘buy their freedom’ by paying a lot of money to their new Spanish overlords.

Haarlem’s brave and long struggle remained nonetheless an inspiration for the rest of Holland. Today, when we stroll through the city’s streets, we can spot many symbols of the locals’ resistance against the Spanish invaders. The drowning victims, for example, are honoured by a statue on the eastern bank of the Spaarne, near the Verfroller bridge.

But I was telling you about legendary heroes who always lift up tragic stories. In the case of Haarlem and the Eighty Years’ War, that hero was a woman, named Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer. She was the daughter of a Haarlem brewer and the prosperous widow of a wood merchant. The beautiful Kenaupark of Haarlem owes its name to her. She was mentioned in an anonymous account of the Siege of Haarlem, where she is depicted as an unusually fearless and tireless woman who worked day and night to help rebuild the city’s defense lines, every time that they would be destroyed by the enemy’s cannons. It is also said that she led a group of 300 women fighters to defend the city walls. Although there is plenty of evidence that Kenau herself truly existed, her accomplishments as a fully-fledged soldier in the Spanish siege are most likely glorified. Whatever the truth though, the feminist in me still loves the fact that the city-saviour in the popular legend is a hard-working, independent, fierce woman.


7. Did you know? The Black Death ravaged Haarlem’s population and economy, and almost eradicated the city forever – twice.

Every time I read about history, I feel so lucky and grateful to be alive in the Western world, in our day and age. Things may still not be perfect, our system may still have limitations, but we are without the shadow of a doubt living our best life.

Look at 2020: we are literally experiencing a global pandemic as we speak. And yet, as sad and scary as it is, it is very unlikely that it will threaten our survival as a species; it is very unlikely that it will wipe out entire cities and civilisations; and it is very unlikely that it will lead to war and famine. We live in an era of unprecedented technological progress, ultra-rapid communication, abundance of resources and global solidarity, like we never have before. It’s incredible.

Don’t agree? Well, how about I give you a choice: catch coronavirus in Haarlem in 2020, with a fully-equipped modern hospital 2 kilometres from you, and recover while watching Netflix in the comfort of your couch as your family and friends bring all the food you want to your front door. Or… catch the Black Death in Haarlem in 1381, with a ‘healer’ putting a wet cloth on your forehead as the only treatment, and die in agony in a pool of your own excrements while your family and friends fight over the one loaf of bread that they could find that day.

The Black Death, commonly known as the plague, is an infectious disease caused by bacteria that is believed to have made up to 200 million victims across Eurasia and North Africa during the Middle Ages. It is, to this day, the deadliest pandemic ever recorded in human history.

Haarlem was not spared by the horror and went through two massive outbreaks, one in 1381 and another in 1657. Both epidemics took their toll on the city, socially and economically. The first outbreak killed 5000 people, half of the city’s population at the time, and the city barely survived the shock as the other half fled en masse. The second outbreak rudely interrupted Haarlem’s slow recovery after the Eighty Years’ War, and brought death and devastation back to its inhabitants, for six terrifying months. After that, the situation in the city turned very sour, for a long time.

Crazy, right? The amount of PTSD people must have had back in those atrocious days… I can’t even fathom.


8. Did you know? Mozart may – or may not! – have played on the organ of the Grote Kerk.

This is my ultimate favourite anecdote about Haarlem. Why? Because it is widely accepted as fact, but it is also most likely not true, and I find that hilarious.

Historic Haarlem

The Christian Müller organ in the Grote Kerk

When you enter the Sint-Bavokerk on the Grote Markt, you are pretty much immediately blown away by the magnificent organ that covers one of the walls. This organ was built in the first half of the 18th century and was, upon completion, the largest organ in the world (with the highest pedal-towers). It is so magnificent in fact, that it is even used in the famous novel and literature masterpiece Moby Dick, to describe the inside of a whale’s mouth and ‘all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about’.

Walk to the organ and look to the right, on the wall, for a small golden plaque. On it, an inscription claims that world-renown composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played the organ in 1766, when he was just 10 years old. Due to this plaque, and the same information being given on the church’s brochure and website, the word has gone out, via travel blogs, travel review platforms and other online communities. It seems that very few people bothered to question the claim and, now, it is simply considered true – because the plaque said so.

Me though, I love questioning things. So, after I saw the plaque and first thought ‘hey, that’s cool’, I went and read some more about this ‘fact’, to scratch below the surface. And funnily enough, when you read biographies of Mozart by actual historians (not Wikipedia writers): there is no mention of Haarlem. You would think that if the great man had indeed played on the biggest organ in the world (!!), it would be cited somewhere in the story of his life – but no. Mozart did do a lot of travel in his early years, across Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands and the UK. It is heavily documented by letters and journals written by his father, who was always travelling by his side; there is, by the way, proof that he performed in The Hague, Amsterdam and Utrecht. If Mozart did pass through Haarlem (which, again, there is no evidence of), it would most likely have been in summer/autumn 1765, while on his way to The Hague, where he fell gravely ill and stayed for a while.

Anyway, one possibility – other than this being a lie – is that Mozart and his father really did come to Haarlem and played the organ in the Sint-Bavokerk, but just didn’t realise the magnitude of what they were doing. Maybe they didn’t think it was worth mentioning in writing, somewhere. But given the beauty of the organ and of the church itself, and the greatness of Haarlem in general, I find that very hard to believe.


9. Did you know? The first tow-canal, the first railway line and the first electric tram in the Netherlands all ran from Haarlem.

Another proof that Haarlem was a major city in the country for centuries is found in the history of its transport connections.

Thanks to its control of and direct access to the Spaarne river, the city could collect tolls from passing ships and develop its shipyards all throughout the Middle Ages, getting richer in the process. When Amsterdam grew more powerful and influential during the Golden Age, Haarlem was the first city to be connected to what was quickly becoming the new economic hub in North Holland.

In 1632, the Amsterdamsevaart (or Haarlemmertrekvaart) was opened between Haarlem and Amsterdam to be a tow-canal. A tow-canal is a typically Dutch thing, and refers to a canal where barges and boats could get towed by animals (mostly horses) or by man power on a path by the canal’s edge. This mode of transport was very common before the invention of engines because it allowed to navigate where sailing was rendered impractical by narrow channels, tunnels and bridges, or unfavourable winds. The Amsterdamsevaart is the oldest tow-canal in the Netherlands.

The very first railway line in the Netherlands was also built between Haarlem and Amsterdam, along the old Amsterdamsevaart tow-canal. Passenger train service on the line began in 1839. Faster and more reliable than ‘trekschuit’ (passenger traffic along tow-canals), the train quickly made the Amsterdamsevaart obsolete and gave Haarlem the strong economic boost it needed. Additional fun fact: the central station of Haarlem isn’t only the oldest railway station in the Netherlands, it is considered one of the most beautiful, too. It was even featured in a scene of the big budget American movie Ocean’s Twelve.

At some point, Haarlem train station got so busy, it needed to be connected further. In 1878, a horse tram service was established between the station and the Haarlemmerhout woodland park in the southern end of the city. The horses were then replaced by electric tram cars, hence creating the first ever Dutch electric tram that ran in Haarlem from 1899 onwards.


10. Did you know? There is a reason why the bells of the Sint-Bavokerk on the Grote Markt ring every evening from 21:00 to 21:30 – and it’s based on complete nonsense.

Historic Haarlem

The Capture of Damietta, painting by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen, Frans Hals Museum

This is another one of those ‘facts’ that Haarlemmers are so proud of but which aren’t supported by any historical evidence. I do however find this story quite poetic, so I am sharing it anyway. I am always very impressed with how much the locals love their city.

If you live in Haarlem centre, you must have noticed it: every night, between 21:00 and 21:30, you can hear the bells of the Grote Kerk ringing. First, I thought it had something to do with one of the two World Wars. I am French, and in my country a lot of villages still commemorate the fallen soldiers of World War I and the victims of the Holocaust with this kind of solemn daily events – but that’s not it.

The bells of the Sint-Bavokerk are lovingly called the ‘Damiaatjes’, in reference to the Egyptian port city of Damietta that the Haarlem knights supposedly conquered during the Fifth Crusade. It is said that the bells were offered by the defeated city to the heroic knights, after they cut the harbour chain with a ‘saw ship’ and allowed the rest of the fleet of European Crusaders to attack. Once brought back to Haarlem, the bells were installed in the Grote Kerk and were rung every night, to alert the population of the closing of the city’s doors. Today, 800 years later, there are no more doors to be closed but the bells still ring to celebrate Haarlem’s eternal glory and great knighthood. I had the opportunity to visit the City Hall in person, and there is a huge and very impressive tapestry in there, dating from early 17th century, illustrating this legend.

For it is, almost certainly, nothing more than a legend. Although the port of Damietta did indeed get conquered during the Fifth Crusade, and although there is proof that Dutch soldiers including Haarlemmers were among the Crusaders, there is no mention of the alleged exploits of the Haarlem knights anywhere outside of Haarlem people’s fantasies. And I mean, come on! A ‘saw ship’? Give me a break! Besides, another art piece in the City Hall gives it away: it’s a painting that shows the Holy Roman Emperor, Emperor Barbarossa, granting the city of Haarlem the usage of a sword on its coat of arms, to thank the Haarlem knights for their brave deeds in Egypt. The only thing is, the Siege of Damietta happened in 1218, while this Barbarossa dude died in 1190…

Personally, I think that Haarlem knights stole the bells once Damietta had surrendered, and then had their Middle Ages version of a penis contest when they got back home, showing off and exaggerating their courage to please their Count. We’ll never know for sure. No matter what, it’s an awesome legend, and I find it particularly amazing that the bells still ring in honour of something that never happened.


On that note, that’s it for today! For those of you who have read my entire monologue and have made it to here, we clearly share the same passion for history.

So, I would love to know which fun facts about Haarlem keep you up at night! Give me a shout in the comments section.

Have a great day,


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