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Header image Celebration Relief of Groningen 350 at the UG

Celebration Relief of Groningen 350 at the UG

In 2022, we are celebrating the 350th anniversary of how the Netherlands escaped its downfall in 1672, the so-called Year of Disaster. The Republic of the United Netherlands, as it was then called, was being attacked by four neighbouring countries: England, France, and two German dioceses. This victory will be commemorated and celebrated all over the country during the whole of 2022, including in Groningen and, of course, at the UG!

To commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Siege of Groningen (Groningens Ontzet) by Bommen Berend and the subsequent liberation on 28 August 1672, the UG is organizing all sorts of activities and events. Click on the menu for the programme and for a short historical overview of the siege of the city and the role of the University during the siege.

See also:

Programme UG

Programme at the UG Library

Activities in the UB: Thursday 23 June until Sunday 30 October
  • Large-scale reproductions of historical maps and documents in the stairwell of the UB (June-December 2022)
  • Physical exhibition in the display cases across the floors of the UB: about Siege of Groningen (Groningens Ontzet) and the University during the siege. Timeline: Thursday 26 May until Sunday 30 October
  • Online exhibition about the University of Groningen and the Siege of Groningen
  • Online Humanity Hit (video clip, 3 min.) about the Siege of Groningen, 1672
    Sign up for the recordings on 23 and 24 May, via an email to f.j.den.hollander@rug.nl

Alumni reunion

Reunion for alumni during the weekend of 26, 27, and 28 August, with activities such as a guided city walk with a city historian, followed by a meal and drinks.

Public lectures

There will be four lectures in the Academy Building, with musical accompaniment. A more detailed version of the lectures will be published as a book. The lectures will be only in Dutch.

The Symposium will take place at 27 August, 3 p.m. - 4.30 p.m. in the Aula of the Academy Building

  • Dr Benjamin van der Linde: Bernhard von Galen’s campaign and the role of German border regions
  • Dr Joop W. Koopmans: The agression of ‘Bombing Berny’ and the news of 1672
  • Dr Judith Brouwer: National reactions on the relief of Groningen
  • Dr Arjen Dijkstra: The academic community under siege

IShop

There will be an IShop pop-up store in the lobby of the Academy Building, offering a selection of products from the shop and special GO350 merchandise (such as reproductions of historical prints and a jigsaw puzzle).

Beleg van Groningen

The Republic of the United Netherlands emerged as an independent state from the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648). Its riches were attractive spoils, while the Protestant character of the new state was still an eyesore to Catholic powers. In 1672, four neighbouring states invaded the country. England sent its fleet, while the mighty France, ruled by Louis XIV, advanced with a huge land army. The two German dioceses of Cologne and Münster were also involved in the invasion. Just 34 years after the Eighty Years’ War, the young Republic seemed lost. It was truly a Year of Disaster: ‘Het volk was redeloos, de regering radeloos en het land reddeloos’ (‘The people were beyond reason, the government was beyond hope, and the country was beyond saving’).

Painting of The Siege of Groningen
The Siege of Groningen in 1672, by Folkert Bock

The north and the east of the Republic were attacked by the small allies of the enemy alliance: the German dioceses led by Bernhard von Galen (Bishop of Münster) and Maximilian Henry (Bishop of Cologne). Their combined armies were initially successful in 1672: they conquered several cities, such as Elburg, Harderwijk, Deventer, Zwolle, and Kampen. Bernhard von Galen, Bishop of Münster, also conquered the fortified city of Coevorden, which opened the path to Groningen via the Hondsrug sand ridge, straight through the boglands of the province of Drenthe.

Portrait of Carl von Rabenhaupt
Carl von Rabenhaupt

Siege of the city

On 24 July 1672, the Münster army began the Siege of Groningen. The city was well protected by fortified walls and moats. In addition, large parts near the city were flooded by opening sluices and by cutting through a dike near Delfzijl. The resulting expanse of water prevented the Bishop of Münster from surrounding the city of Groningen and cut it off from the outside world. The city could still be provided with weapons, supplies, and extra troops via the Rietdiep canal, the Damsterdiep canal, and the harbour of Delfzijl. The besiegers were also faced with fierce resistance. Carl von Rabenhaupt was responsible for defending the city. This seventy-year-old officer was born in Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic), but had joined the Dutch army.

Portrait of Bernhard von Galen, aka Bommen Berend
Bernhard von Galen, aka Bommen Berend

When Bishop Bernhard von Galen appeared at the city gates, he started the modern warfare tactic that gave him his nickname ‘Bommen Berend’ (Bombing Bernhard): he kept bombing the city to destroy the city walls, set the city on fire, and force the citizens to surrender. All day and all night, grenades and bombs rained on the city, including firebombs that the prelate had especially developed for this siege. These destroyed most of the southern neighbourhoods of the city. The northern part of the city (between the city walls and the Grote Markt) was not affected by Bommen Berend’s artillery because it had been flooded. The buildings in this part of the city were spared and the citizens were able to take shelter there.

One hundred people were killed in the city, including about fifteen soldiers. This was nothing compared to the casualties among the enemy army, which was decimated by the day: as a result of warfare (they were an easy target from the city walls of Groningen), desertion, and contagious diseases. The Bishop of Münster did not succeed in capturing Groningen. In addition, powerful European states (allies of the Republic and/or enemies of France and its allies), including Brandenburg and Austria, threatened to intervene. After six weeks, Von Galen lifted the siege and Groningen was relieved. Since then, the victory of the Siege of Groningen has been celebrated on 28 August.

Map of the city of Groningen in 1672
The city of Groningen in 1672

The victory of the Siege of Groningen was the turning point of the Year of Disaster: it was the first major Dutch victory over its enemies. It took a little while longer before the Republic got rid of Bommen Berend, though. He made an unsuccessful attempt to attack Friesland, and Von Rabenhaupt spent the rest of 1672 driving him out of the provinces of Groningen and Drenthe. After this, the sovereign of Münster kept launching new attacks. The province of Overijssel was only liberated in 1673, and the peace treaty wasn’t signed until 1674.

Other parts of the Republic also held out. Admiral Michiel de Ruyter kept the English at bay. Although the French managed to cross the frozen rivers and even captured the city of Utrecht, they were unable to break through the Hollandse Waterlinie (Dutch Water Line) and move on to the province of Holland (which was, in every respect, the centre of the Republic). In Holland, stadtholder William III of Orange had come into power, partly under the pressure of the people. The former strongman Grand Pensionary Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis had been lynched under chaotic circumstances. The Dutch army, led by the young stadtholder, managed to drive the French back. This saved the Republic of the United Netherlands as a free, independent state.

Universiteit en Bommen Berend

The garrison in Groningen consisted of less than 2,000 professional soldiers, while the army of Münster comprised of 20,000 soldiers. This is why companies of citizens, who signed up as volunteers, aided in the defence of the city. There was also a company of students, consisting of about 150 young men. Many of them originally came from German Protestant regions. Seven years before, in 1665, Bernhard von Galen had attacked the province of Groningen for the first time. At that time, there was also a student company, which had its own banner containing the University’s coat of arms and the motto Deo, Patriae, Academiae (‘For God, for our country, and for the academy’) in golden letters. This banner could now be used again. A remnant of the banner is still on display in the Academy Building.

Fragment of the banner of the student company
The banner of the student company

The student soldiers were led by leaders from their own ranks. One of the tasks of the company was sentry duty on the city walls. In addition, every night, two students were appointed as firemen on duty in the University library. The professors were worried about the possible unwholesome influence of military service on the students and tried to regulate their behaviour with strict rules (with varying success). The Academy Building (located in the same place as the current Academy Building) was even used to store gunpowder, and the Latin School was used as a military hospital. There were barrels of water on standby everywhere, to be able to extinguish any fires quickly. Fortunately, the library and other University buildings were in the northern part of the city, beyond the reach of Bommen Berend’s artillery. They were spared, although one projectile did hit the roof of the Academy Building without causing any serious damage.

The students in the company turned out to be up to their tasks, sometimes in their very own ways. There is a famous tale that they would sing student songs during the night, loud enough so that the Münster army could hear them in their camp. This was to keep them from sleeping or, at the very least, to annoy them. Whenever the Bishop made an appearance, they hurled the crudest insults at him. There were no fatalities among the students, but several of them sustained injuries. One of them was hit by a bullet in his chest, but his comrades starting singing to mask his groaning and to hide from the enemy that he was hurt.

Picture of the model of the siege (at the Groninger Museum)
Model of the siege (at the Groninger Museum)

When Bommen Berend retreated, it became clear that not only the city had escaped its downfall, but the University as well. The University of Groningen was only 58 years old in 1672 and the siege almost dealt its final blow. If Bommen Berend had managed to capture the city, the Bishop would no doubt have had little consideration for a (Protestant) institution. Even if his cannons had set fire to the Academy Building or the library, it would have been unclear whether the University would have risen from its ashes.

Picture of the Academy Building in 1672
The Academy Building in 1672

The University suffered the negative consequences of the siege for a long time afterwards. Its buildings and inventory had barely been damaged, but there was no teaching for six months. The students were still under arms for another two months, after which their company was disbanded. All students received a silver medal. The number of enrolments at the University dropped drastically: in 1671-1672, 66 students enrolled; in 1672-1673, there were only 43. In the following years, the number continued to drop. Large parts of the southern neighbourhoods of the city were in ruins, causing a sinister, gloomy atmosphere that wasn’t conducive to a dazzling university life. And because of the housing shortage, it was difficult and expensive to find student accommodation. The city was gradually rebuilt, but in 1679-1680, only 36 new students enrolled, with even fewer the year after.

This wouldn’t be the last time that the fate of the University of Groningen hung by a thread. During the French Period, it was saved from closure by continuing to act as a branch of the Imperial University of France (1812); similar institutions in Harderwijk and Franeker were saved in the same way. The university also survived a large fire in the Academy Building in 1906 (caused by an accident during painting). But the University of Groningen always managed to survive. Now, 350 years later, this lively university, with no fewer than 36,000 students, is preparing for its 410th anniversary in 2024. These are all reasons enough for a commemoration and a celebration!

Sources: Klaas van Berkel, Universiteit van het Noorden. Deel I: De oude universiteit 1614-1876.