History of Leeuwarden in a bird’s eye view
Leeuwarden arose from a number of three mounds at the shore of the Middelzee, an estuary of the North Sea. Already before the year 1000 there were people living here. From the tenth century these agricultural inhabitants started trading as well. The position at the Middelzee was ideal for this purpose. The contacts reached into Russia. In this way Leeuwarden developed urban characteristics. But in the thirteenth century the Middelzee silted up and from that moment on the trading activities were concentrated in a smaller area. Leeuwarden was chartered in the year 1435 and became capital city of the region in 1504, when the central government and jurisdiction settled down here. Beside that, Leeuwarden became the residence of the Frisian stadtholders.
In these centuries the town was flourishing. The number of inhabitants rose spectacularly: from five thousand in the year 1500 to sixteen thousand in 1650. Then Leeuwarden belonged to the ten most important cities in the Netherlands. Several monumental buildings still testify to that period. Such as the Chancellery, where justice was settled, the Court of the Stadtholders, the Weighing-house, and Leeuwardens own tower of Pisa, the leaning tower of the Oldehove.
The prosperity of Leeuwarden needed to be protected against enemies. Therefore a canal was dug round about the town and ramparts were thrown up. Later, when these defences became needless, they were broken down or reformed to a public garden. Inside the inner town almost all the canals are still intact. In the nineteenth century Leeuwarden expanded outside the town-canal.
As a result of the major social changes in the second half of the nineteenth century, Leeuwarden became important as a town with central tasks in the area. At national level however the importance of Leeuwarden decreased extremely.
Nowadays the situation is still the same. Leeuwarden, having over 90.000 inhabitants, is the urban centre with a large number of provisions, within the comparatively sparsely populated province of Friesland, the only province in the Netherlands with two official languages, Dutch and Frisian. Roughly half of the Frisian population speaks Frisian, in Leeuwarden however the Frisian speakers form a minority. Almost all Frisians are able to understand the Frisian language.
Throughout the centuries many celebrities in the domain of art, literature, science an politics have come from Leeuwarden. World famous for instance are Mata Hari and M.C. Escher. So the history of Leeuwarden is a fascinating one. That’s why a lot of historical documents have been left behind. This material is kept in the Historisch Centrum Leeuwarden.