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Dutch Garrisons in Prussia, 1600 to 1712
Does this story sound familiar to you?
My sixth great-grandfather, Albertus Henricus Ekker, was baptized in 1697 at St. Kilian Catholic Church in Brenken, Kreis Paderborn, Prussia, some distance from where his parents were living in Moers, Prussia. I had always been told my Ekker family was Dutch. But if so, what were they doing in Prussia? Could they have been German? If German, why did they later leave Moers and take up residence in Vollenhove, Overijssel, Holland, where they were living when my fifth great-grandfather Albertus Henricus Ekker the second was born in 1723?
- These kind of questions can drive your Holland research into Germany (Prussia), and perhaps reach some answers. Below are some fascinating details about life in the Dutch garrison city of Moers and in Holland proper during the seventeenth century, the Dutch Golden Age.
Garrisoning a City
Moers, Prussia, was a Dutch garrison city located on the west side of the Rhine about 60 miles from the current Holland border. Garrison cities, or fortified cities where substantial military troops were sent to guard the citizenry and defend the surrounding area, proliferated in sixteenth-century Holland. It was more expensive to maintain a standing army than it was to fortify existing towns and locate soldier there. To obtain a garrison city, according to Dutch history professors at University of Amsterdam and University of Leuven Johannes Cornelis Hendrik Blom and Emiel Lamberts, a small field army would attack and capture a fortified city and then strengthen the fortifications to keep it from being reclaimed. The defending army, on the other hand, would likewise strengthen fortifications, and if the soldiers succeeded in holding their city, they might lay siege to a city controlled by the enemy in recompense. Only rarely would the defensive and offensive troops contend in open battle. Both sides wanted to avoid that option since it did not result in more territory and the garrisoned cities remained intact. The advantage to man-to-man conflict was that it bought some time for the winner while the loser got ready for another battle—usually the next season (153-54). Surely initially fortifying a city was costly, but once accomplished, soldiers could stay in one place and have their families with them. Standing armies living in tents were seasonal soldiers, foragers, and often unruly.
Many of these fortified towns were built within the provinces themselves, particularly along the southern borders that were often encroached upon by adjoining countries. John Leake, a British clergyman who visited Holland in 1712, had first-hand experience in one of these fortified towns as he huddled in the trenches during the siege of the Belgium town of Quisnoy. Said he: Quesnoy is but a small place, for whilst we were upon the aforementioned battery, another, which was on the other side of the town, flung balls over our heads which we saw light at some distance and graze along the ground. The town was within a few days of surrender when we were before it. . . . It pleased God not to make us pay for our curiosity, but to bring us all safe again out of these dangerous windings. (Cited in van Strien 364)
During the Eighty Years’ War (1558-1648), the seven united provinces of northern Holland fought for and obtained independence from Philip II of Spain, sovereign of Habsburg, Netherlands. During and following the war, Dutch garrisons were stationed in cities along the eastern borders of Holland and within Prussia. Moers, one of these, was alternately captured by Dutch and Spanish troops (“Moers”), but once the war ended, it was held by the Dutch. Of the competition between Spanish and Dutch, British scholar and professor of Dutch history at Princeton University Jonathan Israel explains: Between 1591 and the mid 1630s, the Dutch and Spain had balanced each other, both garrisoning numerous towns, in different parts of the border zone. During the 1630s, the Spaniards evacuated [some holdings and were ejected from others], so that from the later 1630s, until 1702, the Republic alone had dominated the belt of territory from Cleves-Mark and Moers, in the south, to East Friesland, in the north. . . . (970)
The exit of the Spanish from Moers (Meurs or Mörs as it is also spelled) in 1567 is described thus:
- Sitting on the western bank of the Rhine[,] Meurs consisted of a fortress with a Castle. . . . [T]he governor of Spanish Upper Guelders reinforced the city with additional troops which totaled 400 soldiers. . . .Upon arrival Maurice [the leader of the Dutch troops] then had Meurs besieged from both sides. [H]is batteries opened up on the on the 29th August whilst the engineers had parts of the moat surrounding the city filled in at three places, so that the city could be stormed. Meurs, however, offered little resistance to the Dutch and English; with parts of the wall crumbling and even before the attack was launched on 3 September, [the Spanish] negotiated for terms, which Maurice accepted. Miranda [the Spanish leader] surrendered the city and his men marched out with full honors and Maurice’s troops then entered the city who then strengthened the fortifications and left a garrison. (“Siege of Meurs 1597”)
Manning the Garrison
Moers would have been inundated with soldiers over the years. Typical garrisons were made up of mercenary troops that might include Scottish, English, German, and Swiss soldiers commanded by Dutch officers (“Eighty-Years’ War”). If this were the case in Moers, it would have been a veritable tower of Babel. If the troops were primarily Dutch living among Prussian citizens, they would have spoken a similar language. Dutch, like German and English, came from Old Saxon. In the mountainous areas of Germany the language was called High German and in the flat lands it was called Low German. The Dutch and the Prussians in Moers spoke some variation of Low German. Though “low” is not meant to be pejorative, in fact speakers of High German considered Low German to be non-standard. On a linguistic scale, Dutch would fall between German and English.
According to University of Rotterdam professor Willem Frijhoff and former professor at Free University of Amsterdam Marijke Spies, soldiers along with their families comprised about one-third of the inhabitants of a garrisoned town. For example, if a town had 8000 inhabitants, it might have 800 to 1000 soldiers and 500 to 700 dependents. The soldiers might live in barracks, abandoned convents, or among townspeople (152-53). Naturally the size of a garrison varied from year to year, but few garrisons exceeded 1000 soldiers according to independent scholar William P. Guthrie. Records show that in 1607, for example, the Moers garrison had 400 soldiers. Troops during the Spanish war years included regular army, paid forces, and unpaid local militias. If paid, they were fortunate that the Dutch were reputed to be dependable paymasters (188-89).
Life in a Garrison City
What was it like to live in a garrison City? “Multicultural,” “crowded,” “dirty,” “adversarial” might be terms to describe what it was like to live in a town like Moers. A 1698 British visitor to Nijmegen, another fortress city on the Rhine, described that fortified city in words that may apply to Moers: “It is one of the largest cities in Gelderland and strongly fortified with high bastions and mounds of earth well palisadoed; the ditches are deep but dry. The city is encompassed with an old brick wall, which I entered at three old brick gates in the chief street, which is broad. The houses are new, tall and handsome; most of the houses are covered with slate” (van Strien 302). Perhaps as another British observer said of a sister city, “The streets are foul and narrow” (van Strien 300). On a happier note, perhaps it had “a pretty market place and . . . a grove of trees, which in summer must needs be very delightful” (van Strien 300).
Fortunately there was a rich cultural exchange. Of the ambiance in garrison towns, Israel says, “Dutch influence had been generally dominant not only politically and economically but, in the Calvinist areas, also in religion, and in culture through the entire zone (970). Since this was the case, a brief look at Dutch politics, economy, religion, and culture in the seventeenth century is in order to better understand what it was like to live in Moers. Volumes have been written on each of these aspects of Dutch life in the seventeenth century. This review draws particularly on first person accounts by seventeenth century British visitors to two fortified border towns on the Rhine near Moers, and what might safely be assumed to also apply to Moers, and on the well-known scholarship of Kenneth Haley, an authority on seventeenth century English, Dutch, and Anglo-Dutch history.
Dutch neutrality is legend. But it did not start with the First World War. British architect and traveler John Talman said this about his visit in 1698 to Nijmegen, Holland, a border town on the Rhine: “The hall of justice is a handsome room, the length of the stadhuys [town hall]; the judges’ seats are adorned with gold and white. In a white freeze is written in gold letters UTRAMQUE PARTEM AUDITE [listen also to the other party]. Over the seats is a niche in which stands the figure of justice with a pair of scales in her hand” (van Strien 303). This Latin quotation, is typical of the government of Holland during the sixteen hundreds. However “[i]t is striking that while the Low Countries exercised great influence in Europe through its economic and cultural vitality, regional politics and government were largely directed from abroad. The houses of Bavaria, Burgundy and Habsburg, governing from their less economically developed homelands, provided an important political dynamic in the Low Countries” (Blom and Lamberts 56). This dynamic was nowhere more evident than in the border fortresses along the Rhine that had been controlled for centuries by warring powers: “[W]ith the cessation of hostilities [in1621] . . . , the Dutch republic became badly divided along religious lines, and this led to political turmoil” (Blom and Lamberts 143). Thus the very existence of garrison cities was a demonstration of Dutch politics.
Dutch greatness depended on water, so the soldiers in Moers would have felt at home along the shores of the Rhine and its tributaries. Not only did the many rivers, canals, and lakes facilitate Dutch boat travel, but they were a source of fish to eat and sell. Rich and poor had access to fish in their diets. A favored fish of the Dutch and a lucrative export was herring. The Dutch made their catch in waters as far away as Scotland and harvested salt in the off-season to preserve the fish and to sell. Soldiers in Moers might have had access to salted Herring. As ship builders and seafarers, the Dutch cornered the market until the eighteenth century with an estimated ten percent of all adult men taking to the sea (Haley 29). Dutch holdings in the Spice Islands and Brazil, as well as other ports of call, developed in the seventeenth century. Ships returned to Dutch ports laden with pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and mace (Haley 24). Moer’s citizens might have become accustomed to exotic spices and exotic places.
In a typical Amsterdam warehouse, there would be “Polish grain, Swedish copper, Spanish wool, American tobacco, Brazilian sugar, East Indian spices” as well as arms and munitions, cannon, and gunpowder (Haley 43). The latter items would have been essential to the Moers garrison. In addition to sailing, importing and exporting, Holland could be called “a nation of shopkeepers” (Haley 49) who largely inhabited urban areas where banking, investment, and manufacturing provided jobs for the lower classes and wealth for the upper classes. Soap, sugar, cured tobacco, glass, cut diamonds, linen, cloth, textiles, and beer topped the list of items manufactured (Haley 44).
Farming was also an important livelihood in primarily agrarian provinces like Overijssel and in the eastern provinces. Dairy cattle were renowned in Europe and peasants produced and marketed cheese and butter—even if they couldn’t afford to butter their own bread (Haley 48).
Religious differences were at the root of many political disputes as mentioned above. “The one half of the town at least is Catholic, but the Huguenots [Protestants] have the churches” (van Strien 300). So said British traveler James Drummond, Earl of Perth, when he visited the fortified Prussian border city of Cleves [Kleve] in 1694. John Talman, another British traveler, wrote in 1698, “Here are four Catholic churches, a nunnery and a Presbyterian church. . . . The chief street, which runs through the city, is adorned with a Presbyterian church, whose front is a large and fair building of brick after the new mode” (van Strien 300). The division between Catholic and Protestant churches on the border was the rule rather than the exception in most Dutch cities after the reformation. One of the major reasons Holland revolted against Spanish rule was to escape the imposition of the Catholic faith. The immediate aftermath was the imposition of Calvinist Protestantism (Reformed) in many areas of Holland. Protestants commandeered Catholic church buildings, stripped them of paintings, stained glass and pews—even some of the organs. The austere worship of the Calvinists (Reformed) required most worshippers to stand during services, the men wearing hats only to be doffed for prayer. The government did not generally get involved with church business, but did mandate that services in Amsterdam could only last one and a half hours (Haley 88) indicating that in many churches standing must have lasted longer than that. Calvinist Christianity did not appeal to all. The Dutch took pride in self-improvement. Calvinist doctrine dictated that all are predetermined and cannot change their lot in the afterlife. The initial swing to Calvinism could not last. Catholicism became more acceptable once again as well as other protestant faiths and Judism. Moers probably followed the trends seen elsewhere.
The second half of the seventeenth century “underwent explosive economic growth. . . . The Republic’s wealth also fostered a cultural life that reached unprecedented heights of achievement” (Blom and Lamberts 143). How much of this rich cultural life found its way to Moers is unknown. Had they seen the paintings of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and others greats? Were they familiar with the philosophy and legal writings of Spinoza and Grotius? Did they enjoy the silverware, glassware, and porcelain in great demand in the finer Dutch homes? (Haley 137). If nothing more they may have owned one of the great literary feats of the time—the 1637 States’ Bible in the vernacular (Haley 92).
Scientific advancements might also have reached Moers, especially Simon Stevin’s methods of warfare and Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s microscopic observations (Haley 148-52). Even if they were not familiar with the great minds of the times, Nijmegen and Kleve, fortified cities on the Rhine like Moers, are peppered with remains of Roman occupation, statuary, urns, inscribed images, fountains, and collectables, like buttons, buckles, and coins. One visitor also identified a castle “said to be built by Caesar, a vile ancient hole” (van Strien 300). Education, not available to all until later in Dutch history, opened the world to the elite even in garrison cities. Though Kleve had a very small garrison of one hundred and fifty, the town “had a great school, where they teach not only grammar, but logic and some parts of philosophy” (van Strien 301).
Whether or not the citizens of Moers enjoyed high culture, they enjoyed many common pleasures. According to Haley, the Dutch diet was better than in most other European countries and even the poor ate better. “[I]t is possible that more vegetables were eaten in the Netherlands than anywhere else in Europe” (Haley 48). The British visitors to garrison towns did not mention exotic spices in their food, but found one thing exotic about the Dutch diet: “The first dish at ordinaries and entertainments is usually a salade, sla they call it, of which they eat abundance in Holland” (Van Strien 366. Cheese were also a diet mainstay: “They have four or five sorts of cheese; three they usually bring forth and set before you. . . “(van Strien 366). Even the poor Dutch had more protein than other Europeans because of the availability of cheese, fish, and meat (Haley 153). And they enjoyed eating. One of the British visitors to the area observed, “Generally, the Dutch men and women are almost always eating as they travel, whether it be by boat coach or waggon” (van Strein 366).
Though the streets might have been as dirty as the British observer said, the houses were not: “Their houses in Holland are kept clean with extraordinary niceness, and the entrance before the door curiously paved with stone. All things, both within and without, floor, posts, walls, glass, household-stuff marvelously clean, bright and handsomely kept” (van Strien 367). Beds, however, were strange to the English: “Their beds are for the most part like cabins, inconveniently short and narrow. . .” (van Strien 367). These beds were like large cupboards built against the wall.
As for entertainments, the British visitors noted riding in chaises for those who could afford it, or walks around the city on Sunday afternoons. In the winter, “when the frost is hard and the streets slippery with hardened snow” sleigh or sledge rides drawn by a horse and skating, “[w]hich they do very much and promiscuously, boys and girls young men and maidens, and some few of the better sort are sometimes seen on the side in that sport” (van Strien 372-73). Works by artist Jan Steen show the joys of family and social life, featuring parties, games, music, and alcohol, with lots of rollicking children and pets in the scenes. Such might have been the life in his large family. This idealized look at family life may not fit all levels of Dutch society, but one Englishman observed: “No beggars to be seen in all Holland, care being taken to set on work all that are able, and provision made for the aged and impotent” (van Strien 367). Government contributed to the care of those in need, but the churches assumed much of the responsibility—even the Reformed that taught charitable acts did nothing to change one’s predestined fate in the next life: “The collections for the poor are made in sermon-time, a purse with a bell hanging at the bottom of it, and fastened to the end of a pole, being by the collector reached to everyone” (van Strien 367). Women, children, and servants were treated better than in other countries. In fact, outsiders visiting Holland felt that women had too many privileges, being “partners in the household” rather than subjects as they should have been (Haley 165). A Frenchman felt that children were overindulged with the Dutch “not beating them sufficiently” (Haley 165). Even worse, in his view, masters were not allowed to beat their maids or fire them. Instead, the master could receive a fine if he was shown to be unfair (Haley 165). As for holidays, Saint’s days were mostly done away with after the reformation, but “Saint Nicholas continued to call on 6 December, bringing with him Black Peter” (Haley 163). When the seventeenth century Dutch came to America, settling in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware, they brought with them St. Nicholas’ nickname, Sinterklaas, our Santa Claus. By the close of the seventeenth century in Holland, “[t]here was a unity based on common experience, on political and economic success, and of the creation of a distinctive civilization” (Haley 194). The end of the century also saw the end of the garrison in Moers.
Dutch Troops Leave Moers
Dutch occupation of Moers came to an official end in 1702 and the town fell to Prussia. Scholar Israel explains:
- On the death of William III, King Friedrich I of Prussia annexed the counties of Lingen and Moers, on the grounds that Frederik Hendrik’s last testament had stipulated, should his direct male descendants become extinct, that the legacy of the House of Orange-Nassau, in his line, should fall to the descendants of his eldest daughter, Louise Henriette, wife of the great Elector. The States General and States of Overijssel protested but the king deterred Dutch counter-pressure by threatening to withdraw from the alliance against the Bourbons” (Israel 970).
“[T]he Republic [of Holland] mounted the largest and most sustained military and logistical effort in its history” between 1702 and 1713 but to no avail (Israel 970; see Arblaster 161-62)
When the last of the Dutch soldiers and their families returned to Holland and took up their lives is uncertain. Did Prussian townspeople return with them? Did Dutch citizens marry Prussians and return to Holland together? Did some mixed couples stay in Prussia? That is research for another day. And that research will impact how I proceed to look for my Ekker ancestors. One thing is certain: wherever they were before mid-sixteen hundred, by the early eighteenth century, they were in Vollenhove, Overijssel, Holland, and considered themselves to be Dutch.
- Arblaster Paul. A History of the Low Countries. 2nd ed. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillin, 2012.
- Blom, J. C. H., and E. Lamberts, eds. History of the Low Countries. New ed. New York: Berghaln Books, 2006.
- “Eighty-Years’ War.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.
- Frijhoff, Willem, and Marijke Spies. Dutch Culture in a European Perspective: 1650, Hard-Won Unity. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillen, 2004.
- Guthrie, William P. The Later Thirty Years War: From the Battle of Wittstock to the Treaty of Westphalia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.
- Haley, K. H. D. The Dutch in the Seventeenth Century. London: Thames and Hudson LTD., 1972.
- Israel, Jonathan. The Dutch Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
- “Kleve.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.
- Koopmans, Joop W., and Arend H. Huussen Jr. Historical Dictionary of the Netherlands. 2nd. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2007.
- “Moers.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 2014. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
- “Nijmegen.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.
- “Siege of Meurs 1597.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.
- van Strien, Kees. Touring the Low Countries: Accounts of British Travellers, 1660-1720. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1998.
- This page was last modified on 22 March 2014, at 18:23.
- This page has been accessed 485 times.
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