Kenau - a woman who stood up to fight.

In Holland, everybody still knows her name. But in Dutch nowadays, calling a woman "a kenau" is far from flattering. It is in fact something very close to an insult : a bitchy woman you should be aware of.
Curious, because the real Kenau was celebrated for her bravery at the time of that long Dutch struggle for freedom, the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648) of Independence against Spanish rule. Apparently, the role model, what is expected of a woman, has shifted since then.


Two portraits of Kenau. The one on the left is probably true-to-nature.

The early episodes of that war were almost disastrous for Holland.
At first, there was hesitation amongst the population. Sure, they did not like that far away Brussels government the king wanted to reinforce. More modern centralised bureaucracy, and the taxes that came with it.
Yes, there was widespread indignation over the brutal repression of everything that was not rightly Roman Catholic. But starting a revolt against the legal sovereign, well, that was something entirely different ...
And even if they'd wanted to resist, the land and the cities were simply not ready. No organisation, no infrastructure, no army.

A wise king might have looked for a compromise. But this one sent an army with the clear order : punish and set an example. So, when the murdering band worked his way up north, (they started in the Southern Netherlands, nowadays Belgium, where the revolt had sparked off first and the most violently), they left a trail of burned out and massacred towns. One of them familiar to many people who joined a bike trip in our region : Naarden. Slaughtered on December 2nd, 1572.

massacre of Naarden

With every massacre, the outrage and the drive to resist increased. That's the way things go. In the past, and today as well.
In fact, these events turned a revolt into a full scale war, and unintentionally led to the birth of a nation : the United (Northern) Netherlands. What we call today The Netherlands, or Holland.

This brings us back to Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer (with her full name), and Haarlem. Her hometown was going to be the next target of the Spanish troops, after Naarden.
But Haarlem decided to resist, and a seven month siege followed. By the way, the invading army was logistically supported by Amsterdam. And that as well, was never forgotten.

Accounts of those days depict a rapidly developing all out war. No more chivalry, just the horrors of a vicious fight to survive.
From an early stage on women, and children, participated. At first, not to fight, but to work on the defences. Repairing ramparts, digging trenches, carrying earth and bricks. Even under fire.
Naturally, both women and children became legitimate targets for the attackers. Reports speak of direct and fatal encounters, and spiralling acts of bitter hatred.

About the women of Haarlem and the role of Kenau, there are many stories. Some talk of Kenau commanding a women regiment, others of mainly moral and logistic support, with incidental unorganised fighting by Kenau and other women.
Certain is that also on the Spanish side it was noted with some astonishment that in Haarlem there were "these horrible women, and even girls, who attacked us ferociously".

That women participated in the fighting was not really surprising. It is clear that by that time they simply had enough of being raped, and their husbands and children killed before their eyes by these foreign troops.
Also, Dutch women were traditionally far more independent than in most other European countries. Many husbands being away for longer periods, sailing and trading, businesses were very often run by the women. That was broadly accepted as normal, and legalised.
Like Kenau for example. She was a widow, and continued running her husband's shipyards and chandlers. As a respected business woman.
They sure knew Kenau in Haarlem, for she was not the easy kind. She stood on her rights, as documented court procedures show. Even through war and siege, she kept on pursuing her debtors.

After seven long months of siege, starved Haarlem surrendered on July 12th, 1573. A ransom was paid to prevent pillage and plunder. But nevertheless, all those who had presumably taken up arms were stabbed to death, beheaded, hanged. And when that proved too slow, people were simply tied back to back, and drowned in the river.
Kenau escaped, and continued business in liberated territory and abroad.
In 1588, on a trade voyage to Scandinavia, she disappeared. Possibly killed by pirates.

The next city under siege was Leiden. But as people knew what had happened after Haarlem capitulated, there would be no surrender here.

If you ever visit Haarlem, and walk out of the train station, you're exactly on the spot of the picture below, where the bloodiest part of the fighting once took place.
Remember then for a moment Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer, the woman who stood up to fight. Haarlem 1573

March 2014, a theatre movie on Kenau and the Haarlem siege was released.
For the trailer with English subtitles : click here.

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