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Kenau (aka 1572: The Battle for Haarlem, 2014, dir. Maarten Treurniet, Dutch with English subtitles) is a Dutch/Belgian/Hungarian film about the Siege of Haarlem in the Netherlands in 1572 to 1573. The film focuses on the legend of Kenau Hasselaer, a folk hero who helped supposedly helped defend the Dutch city against the Spanish during the early phase of the Eighty Years’ War.



The Eighty Years’ War

By the 1550s, the territory we now think of as the Netherlands was part of the sprawling and unwieldy Hapsburg Empire that ruled Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Low Countries, but lacked a clear unifying identity. Philip II of Spain was a devout Catholic who was opposed the Protestant Calvinism that was spreading in the Netherlands and sought to crack down on religious dissent, which took the form of an outbreak of iconoclasm, in which Calvinists smashed the statues of Catholic saints. Philip sent in the Duke of Alva, whose aggressive cracked down, combined with the imposition of taxes to help fund Philip’s war against the Ottoman Empire, triggered a rebelliom by the Calvinists, led by William the Silent, the Prince of Orange.

Alva sent his son, Don Fadrique, into Guelderland and Holland with an army of about 30,000 men to pacify the region. Fadrique sacked Zutphen and massacred the population of Naarden. That alienated the residents of Haarlem, who had mostly managed to avoid the religious tensions of the time and had intended to stay loyal to Philip. The town government sent four representatives to Amsterdam to negotiate with Fadrique, but in their absence, Wigbolt Ripperda, the Calvinist governor of Haarlem, deposed the town government and replaced them with Orangists. When the representatives returned from Haarlem, he arrested them. The local cathedral, dedicated to St Bavo, was stripped of its Catholic symbols the same day, an effective gesture of revolt against Philip.


Haarlem is due west of Amsterdam

A few days later, on December 11th, Don Fadrique’s forces laid siege to the city. He had every reason to expect a fairly quick siege. Haarlem was not a large city and only had a garrison of about 4,000 men, many of whom were mercenaries. The city was walled, but its walls were in poor condition. But it was impossible to completely surround the city because it was built on a large lake, the Haarlemmermeer, which meant that the defenders were able to supplies into the city.

The city managed to repulse an initial assault, and the result was a prolonged and brutal siege. The Spanish attempted to undermine the walls, but the Haarlemers managed to dig their own counter-tunnels and collapsed the Spanish ones. The Spanish cannons blew down large sections of the walls, including two gates, the Kruispoort and the Janspoort, but the defenders managed to fill in the gaps with earth and rock. When the Spanish attacked the city, the defenders threw ‘tar-wreaths’, rings of flammable material soaked in burning tar, onto them.

In March, after 5 months, an army from Amsterdam was able to occupy the Haarlemmersmeer and complete the encirclement of the city, making it impossible to get more food into the city. The Spanish were able to launch a small fleet on the lake. By May, the food situation had become so desperate that the Haarlemers executed all the Spanish prisoners they had taken. Early in July, William the Silent tried to break the siege by sending an army of 5,000 to Haarlem, but Fadrique’s forces crushed the army.


St Bavo’s Church

At that point, with Haarlem virtually out of food, Ripperda’s government admitted the inevitable and negotiated a surrender. Fadrique permitted the town to buy the city’s freedom from sacking with an enormous ransom. But most of the garrison, along with 40 of the leading citizens were tied up and drowned in the river. Ripperda was beheaded. The occupying army violated the terms of the surrender by looting the town anyway.

Although the Spanish ultimately won the siege of Haarlem, it had a profound effect on the war. It bought William the Silent the time to shore up the defenses of Alkmaar further to the north, and the Dutch were profoundly inspired by the resistance the Haarlemers were putting up. When Fadrique tried to lay siege to Alkmaar, it repulsed a Spanish assault and then opened the dikes around the city, forcing the Spanish to completely withdraw. Unable to push further north, Fadrique and his father Alva were essentially thwarted and not long after that Philip II recalled Alva. As a result, the northern provinces of the Netherlands were able to effectively achieve independence, although the war lasted for another 7 decades before the Spanish threw in the towel.


Kenau Hasselaer

Kenau SImonsdochter Hasselaer (1526-1588) was the daughter of a brewer who married a shipbuilder named Nanning Borst, with whom she had four children: Guerte, Margiet, Lubbrich, and Gerbrand. After Nanning’s death around 1562, she continued running his business and made a couple logical expansions; she was importating wood from Norway to build ships, so she began dealing in timber as well and she expanded into Baltic commerce, selling Dutch grain into the region. Several of her brothers were shipbuilders as well, while her sister married a noted scholar.


A later essentially fantasy portrait of Kenau

During the siege, the women of Haarlem participated vigorously in the town’s defense, helping the haul earth and rebuild the damaged walls. This sort of thing was extremely common during sieged, since women as well as men stood to die (or be raped) if a town failed to keep out attackers. A single account of the siege, published only a few months after the siege, mentions Kenau as being tireless and fearless in her efforts to haul earth and keep the walls repaired. This probably also involved contributing wood to fortify the walls and gates; as late as 1585, she was fighting to get the town to repay her for wood she had sold them during the siege, and at least part of what she was owed didn’t get repaid until after her death.

Over time, however, Kenau became an object of many legends. Although all we know about her role in the siege is that she worked to maintain the fortifications, in popular stories, she was the one throwing the tar-wreaths onto the Spanish attackers. In the 1673 and 1773 centenary celebrations, she was described as fighting on the walls. By 1873, her role had grown to leading a troop of 300 women. Her name became a synonym for bravery, although it eventually evolved into a word for a shrewish woman. In 1800, a warship was named for her. She became a favorite subject for patriotic Dutch painters and engravers, and numerous images of her survive, none of which are likely to be an actual likeness of her.


A 1954 Romantic patriotic painting of Kenau leading the fighting

But by the 1872 anniversary, a Haarlem historian was starting to puncture her legend. He pointed out the sources from the time do not mention many female fatalities, which is unlikely if the women were actively fighting on the walls. He also argued that if other women had been fighting so hard, it was likely that there would be more than one refence to a specific woman helping defend the town. Although the Spanish executed 2000 male defenders of the town, they do not seem to have executed any women. It’s also been pointed out that during her efforts to get repaid for the timber, she never claims to have fought, although she does say in one court document “as a good patriot, I have sustained this town against the enemy.” If she was such a great war hero, the town was reluctant to admit it after the fact, and in fact many people in town called her a “witch” in the course of legal disputes with her. After her death, her son admitted that both Kenau and his sisters were “dangerous company for all men.”

After the siege, she left the city, managed to get herself appointed as the Weighing House Master in Arnemuiden. This was an important position, one not generally given to women. This seems to have been imposed on the town by William the Silent, suggesting that he appreciated whatever efforts or sacrifices she had made during the siege. In 1588, the captain of her trading ship was taken hostage in Norway. She set sail to get him released and was never seen again, although her son eventually discovered her ship for sail in another town, suggesting that she was captured by pirates and killed, a sad end for such a formidable woman.


Kenau in Kenau

The movie tells the story of the siege of Haarlem mostly through focusing on Kenau (Monic Hendrickx). The film jettisons a lot of what we know about her family. Her husband, incorrectly named Ysbrand, is already dead and she has only two daughters, Gertrude (Lisa Smit) and Kathelijne (Sallie Harmsen). She is correctly presented as a shipbuilder and sells some wood to the town when Wigbold Ripparta (Barry Atsma) presses her for it. She quarrels with a wealthy townsman Duyff (Jaap Spijkers), who is dissatisfied with the work she’s doing on a ship for him, and when his arrogance causes an accident that knocks one of her men into the canal, she leaps in and rescues him. She wears a man’s doublet and shirt throughout the film, the clearly the film wants us to view her as a ‘strong woman’. She wants nothing to do with the rebellion that his broken out elsewhere. She forbids Gertrude to embrace Calvinism, saying that she can do whatever she likes after the rebellion has ended.


Atsma as Wigbold and Hendrickx as Kenau

But Calvinists are agitating in Haarlem, and Wigbold’s son persuades Gertrude to go along with a small group of radicals when they break into St Bavo’s and small all the Catholic statuary. They get busted and are hauled off to Utrecht the very next day, Gertrude included, where the bishop immediately sentences them all to burn as heretics. By the time Kenau arrives, Gertrude is already tied to the stake. Kenau pleads with the priest, insisting that her daughter is a good Catholic, but when the pyre is lit, Kathelijne grabs a pistol and shoots Gertrude to spare her the suffering.

That’s all fairly improbable. The iconoclasm at Haarlem only happened after WIgbold seized power, so the film has to reverse the order of facts in order to give Kenau a motive to support the revolt. Haarlem had its own bishop, so the iconoclasts probably wouldn’t have been sent to Utrecht and would have been tried in Haarlerm. And there would certainly have been a delay of at least several days to allow for an actual trial. Having vaguely established religion as a motive for the rebellion and giving Kenau a motive to rebel, the movie promptly forgets religion entirely for the rest of the film.

During the initial Spanish assault, Kenau finds herself near the ramparts and, recognizing that hostile troops were in danger of scaling the walls, she organizes the women into a rock-hauling brigade so that the men on the ramparts have something to throw at the men on the ladders. Such things were entirely typical of the way women participated in defense of towns during sieges, and while it’s not there’s no evidence that Kenau actually did this, it’s not at all implausible.

But as the film goes on, the film comes up with increasingly unlikely ways for her to fight the Spanish. She stumbles onto some information that suggests that the Spanish will attack the Janspoort, but Wigbold is convinced the attack will come at the Kruispoort and refuses to allocate men to depend the Janspoort. So Kenau organized a group of women to defend the gate by building a second wall inside the gate. When the Spanish troops breach the gate, they find themselves trapped inside the second wall, where the women start pouring tar down on them and then thrown down a barrel of gunpowder and light it with a fire arrow, causing an enormous explosion that kills the invaders (but somehow doesn’t breach the wooden second wall).


The Spaniards about to get blown up

Then the food starts running out and Wigbold insists that the Spanish food convey from Amsterdam is too heavily protected to attack. Kenau organizes her Amazon commandos to attack the convey as it crosses the frozen Haarlemmermeer. They light fires to blind the convey and then attack the convey on skates, killing most of the troops and getting the food to the city. They manage to plant a spy in Don Fadrique’s (Attila Arpa) tent and she reports that the Spanish have undermined the gate and are planning to set off explosive charges to open a permanent breach in the walls. The Amazon commandos distract the Spanish troops by standing naked on the walls of Haarlem, which allows Kenau to get into the gunpowder store long enough to blow it up.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t get the gunpowder in the tunnel, so Faderique is still able to blow up the gate and the Spanish surge in to loot the town. Kenau uses Duyff’s ship to get an engineer (heretofore unseen) out of the town to Alkmaar but stays behind to find Kathelijne, and as a result she’s captured. She gets tied up and thrown into the canal, but because she knows how to swim she apparently gets away. The film ends by framing the heroic resistance of Haarlem as the reason for Dutch independence.

I’m of two minds about Kenau. On the one hand, the film generally distorts the facts. It attributes a whole lot of heroism to her and the other women of Haarlem that there is no evidence for. While the women of Haarlem certainly made an important contribution to the siege, there’s no reason to think that the women single-handedly saved the town over even actually fought at all, which is the impression the film offers. While Kenau’s various feats do bare a vague relationship to the facts (there was a Spanish plan to blow up the walls, getting food into the city was a serious problem, the defenders probably did pour tar or oil down onto the attackers, Kenau did survive the siege), none of those things happened the way the film shows.


Kenau about the blow up the gunpowder store

On the other hand, it’s pretty refreshing to see a war film in which women are the focus of the story, and the film generally explores women’s experiences during wartime much more than men’s. Except for the first fight scene, the male defenders generally take a back seat, doing their fighting in the background while Kenau’s Amazon commandos deal with a variety of problems the men are too beleaguered to address themselves. The film aces the Bechdel Test, and even when Kenau is talking about men with one of her daughters, the emphasis is generally on the relationship between the women.

The film has an interesting sub-plot looking at the fraught relationship Kenau has with Kathelijne. She is angry at Katheljlne for shooting Gertrude, doesn’t want her to risk her life fighting on the front lines, and doesn’t want Kathelijne to hook up with a particular mercenary. But the script makes it clear that their conflict is driven by deeper issues. While the performances in the film are generally mediocre, Hendrickx truly shines as the ferociously strong-willing Kenau and despite the enormous differences, her Kenau reminds me of no one so much as Holly Hunter’s Ada McGrath in The Piano. Both women are so strong-willed they don’t entirely understand their own motives but cannot be other than who they are.

Is Kenau a brilliant film? No. But I’ve seen far worse war movies and the solidly feminist angle makes it a war movie I’ve never seen before.


Want to Know More?

Kenau is available on Amazon under the title 1572: The Battle for Haarlem

There aren’t, so far as I know, any books about Kenau. If you’re interested in the 80 Years’ War, check out Revolt in the Netherlands: The Eighty Years’ War, 1568-1648.