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Wednesday, 4 September 2013

An Army of Judiths by C.J. Underwood

‘She brought Haarlem to the edge of victory, and the enemy to its knees’

I first encountered the legend of Kenau Hasselaar when I overheard a professor and his students at the University of Leiden’s library in 1994, and was immediately captivated. The professor spoke about the savage sixteenth century Dutch Revolt against the invading Spanish King Phillip II, the revolt that inspired one woman’s fight to preserve the lifestyle that her family had nurtured for generations. Kenau’s battle was the seven-month Siege of Haarlem, 1572-1573. The professor recited the legend of this spirited aristocrat who had been driven to form an army of three hundred women soldiers. He said that Kenau had trained them to fight the Spanish back from the walls of Haarlem, but had refused to wear armour.

From the moment Kenau entered my consciousness, I determined to learn every possible detail about this inspirational female character, a woman that was grist to the mill of my own life story. Although I’d always written, I had spent my career at the time travelling a man’s world; I’d thought nothing of working as a chef in all-male brigades, and was the first woman in the British Merchant Navy to work in the North Sea.

My first surprise was that in the Netherlands the name Kenau was synonymous with the derogative, Bitch. If Kenau Hasselaar had indeed been a Dutch war heroine, I couldn’t understand why she was so maligned by modern Dutch society. After a thorough search of the Amsterdam women’s library, and various other institutions, I was baffled to find nothing more solid than a couple of cursory, albeit reliable, reference works and some old, unreliable stories of Kenau’s part in the siege. I found a tapestry of Kenau in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, but it wasn’t until some years later that paintings of Kenau Hasselaar were available online.
It seemed to me that legends have a lot to answer for, after all these years the fable that Kenau Hasselaar was a dedicated cutthroat for the sake of it should have morphed into something more honourable. She may indeed have been a hellcat, but she must have been so much more besides. Some legends just beg interrogation.

Having visited Haarlem many times to research Kenau Hasselaar’s role in the siege, I enlisted the help of a few eminent historians, one of whom explained that Kenau must have been a frequent visitor to the Cityhouse to meet with Haarlem’s magistrates in order to collect writs that she’d handed to her debtors, some whom lived as far afield as Delft.

Luckily, those official meetings were well documented, otherwise no personal information would have survived about Kenau’s lifestyle, at least publically. One historian suggested to me that Kenau might have been quite an unwelcome sight at the Cityhouse, just for that reason alone. I don’t think she’d have been too happy with anyone poking about in her affairs, however, which is why I was so keen to get my facts right. My novel rigorously follows the historical details of the siege itself, which was fortunately well documented. It is a remarkable history that needs no embellishment, and the more I discovered, the deeper went my respect for Kenau Hasselaar, and indeed all the courageous citizens of Haarlem, particularly the women who withstood the brutality of sixteenth century warfare.

My second big surprise was that in Northern Europe at the time, when a city was under attack, women had always fought. Towns and cities were built with ramparts, they were formed as citadels, or bastions, and when attacked everyone defended their home. This was early modern feminism in action. Women were probably more vicious in battle than we’ve ever given them credit for, and as a woman I feel particularly touched by accounts of man’s inhumanity towards women. I immediately put myself in Kenau’s shoes; as a mature Dutch woman, mother, and no fool, Kenau must have known that once those marauding Spaniards broke through the bulwarks and gates of Haarlem, she and her daughters, sisters and nieces would lose their lives in ways too terrible to contemplate. So Kenau wasted no time in contemplating the obvious; she rounded up three hundred of Haarlem’s toughest, most formidable women, and taught them how to defend themselves; to fight off the enemy, and to protect their beloved city. But first they rebuilt the decrepit walls of Haarlem.

Then they waited.

I believe that writing about any national legend carries a great deal of responsibility, but having researched the war in great detail, including Haarlem’s and Kenau’s role in the siege, I agree with certain academics that Kenau’s name has, at times, been denigrated. Legends can be exaggerated, but they don’t make themselves. I am always gripped by the sort of mind that cannot even contemplate defeat. Perhaps Kenau would not have been the sort of woman you’d want at your dinner party, and quite a challenging woman to get to know, or even like, on a personal level. As a character she certainly eluded me for a good while. I owe a debt of gratitude to those who have researched and written about Kenau Hasselaar, whatever their bias.


Deborah Swift said...

I love plots with strong women who are little known in history - and men too, though the women are more often overlooked. Thanks for a fascinating post.

Margaret said...

Thank you for posting about this book. My family history is from the Netherlands and I am always on the lookout for HF from there.

Can't wait to get my hands on this one.