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.
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.
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.
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.