King Billy, Derry and a Dutch city

The fortified port at the centre of the city of Hellevoetsluis.
The fortified port at the centre of the city of Hellevoetsluis.

Derry is not the only city in Europe with an organisation dedicated to preserving the memory of William of Orange. Hellevoetsluis, a fortified city in western Netherlands, also played a major role within the War of the Three Kings and delegates from the two cities discovered this shared history when they met up at the 2012 European Walled Towns Conference.

The European Walled Towns (EWT) is the international association for sustainable development of walled towns, walled cities and fortified historic towns in Europe.

A section of the historic fortifications in Hellevoetsluis.

A section of the historic fortifications in Hellevoetsluis.

Last September, the annual conference of the EWT Network was held in Gmund in Karnten, Austria. Towns from all over Europe were present and among them Derry and Hellevoetsluis (Netherlands).

During the conference, the delegates from Derry and Hellevoetsluis discussed the historical connection between the two cities. Lex Noyon and Veronique Stern, from the Gemeente Hellevoetsluis, explained the connection to the ‘Journal’: “It goes back to the times of the War of the Three Kings when the invasion fleet of William III of Orange’s departed from the port of Hellevoetsluis.

“In those days, Hellevoetsluis was the most important naval port of the Netherlands which was then known as the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Hellevoetsluis is located on the Haringvliet and had an open connection to the sea. William III sailed to England with a fleet consisting of 400 ships, more than 20,000 sailors and soldiers and 3,000 horses. He started at Hellevoetsluis on November 11, 1688 after a month of waiting. He tried his best to make the English feel at ease and, for example, flew the “St George Cross” on the ships. A strong easterly wind - known as ‘the Protestant wind’ - blew the fleet to Torbay. William landed in Brixham on November 15, 1688 and issued his famous declaration. ‘The Liberties of England and The Protestant Religion, I Will Maintain’.”

One may argue about the reasons for the invasion of England in 1688 that started the Williamite war but in the 17th century, just like nowadays, the main concern of England, France and Holland had to do with European leadership, economics and, of course, religion.

Preventing Louis XIV of France from becoming the most powerful monarch on the continent was definitively one of the most important objectives. For that purpose, William wanted to join hands with England to counterbalance the power of France.

In Dutch history, the expedition is referred to as “the glorious crossing” of Stadhouder Willem III. However, the whole enterprise was an Anglo-Dutch expedition. Not only did the English make significant financial contributions but almost half of the invasion force was, in fact, British and an English naval officer served as the admiral in charge of Williams’s fleet.

Just like Derry, Hellevoetsluis is known for its fortifications. The construction started in the early part of the 17th century. These were simple constructions of wooden stakes and earthen parapets situated around the harbour. They were built to offer protection to the port against attacks and not, as is often the case with historical towns, to protect the inhabitants of the city itself.

The reason for this was probably that the Republic feared attacks similar to the one they executed in 1667 when a Dutch fleet departed from Hellevoetsluis and sailed to attack the British navy port of Chatham.

That operation was very successful: dozens of frigates were burned or sunk and the flagship, The Royal Charles, was captured. The remains of The Royal Charles are no longer to be found at Hellevoetsluis but the metal stern piece, along with the white ensign, is now on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

A metamorphosis took place between 1695 and 171 when William III decided to expand the port and to build a system of modern fortifications. The characteristic form of the fortress of Hellevoetsluis can still be recognizsed today. Several buildings around the harbour also date back to the 17th century. They are now in use as residential homes, restaurants or offices of the municipality, but it is easy to imagine what it looked like back then.

While there are plenty of remnants of the famous past of Hellevoetsluis in the local museum and in the neighbourhood of the old harbour, there are very few documents preserved showing how the supply of the fleets was organised. The armada that William III took to England was huge, even for that time. The feeding alone of the thousands of troops and sailors must have been an enormous task, which certainly could not have been done by the small town of Hellevoetsluis itself. Whereas the port was of great importance, the town itself was just a hamlet with only a few houses.

Later this year, Derry will be hosting the European Walled Towns’ 2013 Symposium. As Lex and Veronique point out: “This may be an opportunity to study in depth the historical connection between Derry and Hellevoetsluis and, perhaps, use this special occasion to exhibit museum pieces from Hellevoetsluis to illustrate this important period in our cities’ history.”

Holywell Trust, through the City Walls Heritage Project, will be helping Derry City Council with the organisation of the 2013 European Walled Towns Symposium. This will be an opportunity to look at best practice on how historic town walls and fortifications can be used as present-day resources for learning, tourism and regeneration. For more information, see www.walls400.com. The City Walls Heritage Project is assisted by the Heritage Lottery Fund.