Middeleeuwse dwangburchten van West-Friesland en Alkmaar
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The medieval castles of West-Frisia and Alkmaar
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Middelburg Castle and Nieuwburg Castle.

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1. Nieuwburg. Other names were used like: Nieburg, Nijenburg and Nuwenburg, in modern times replaced by Nieuwburg.

Nieuw: Dutch word for new. In Medieval Dutch ("Middle-dutch"): nieuwe, nuwe and nie.

Burcht: Dutch word for a fortified place (castle, fortified house, fortified town, citadel). Also in Medieval Dutch: borch, burch. So, the name "Nieuwburg" means: "new fortified place" (literally) or: "new castle".

The name is possibly derived from the fact that the castle was a newly built fortress, to be a substitution or support for the older castle's (i.e. Torenburg Castle) original strategic purpose: suppressing the Westfrisians.

2. Middelburg.

Middel: Dutch word for middle or centre. Same word in Medieval Dutch.

The name of this tiny castle was probably derived from the fact that it was positioned just between two other castles: Torenburg Castle and Nieuwburg Castle.

The name "Middelburg" means: "fortified house in the middle".

The foundations

Before he had his offensive against the Westfrisians, Florens V, Count of Holland, had plans for a grand strategy by preparing important precautions. One of his activities was to build a dam (dike) over the swampy terrain which was situated between the sand-ridge of the town of Alkmaar and the high sandy-clayish ('geest') area of Oudorp and Vronen (Sint Pancras, in present days). The dam should function as an exit-route for providing purposes and for movement of troups as well. Florens ordered the local people to help in this extensive project.

Of course, Florens' building activities were against the Westfrisian wishes: they had enough reasons to stop the Count's plans. So Florens encountered many efforts of the Westfrisians to sabotage his work. At last, in 1272, the Count's troups beat the obstructing Westfrisians in a bloody battle.

Nowadays the dam's position is still marked by the Munnikenweg (transl.: 'Monks'-road). A narrow cobble-stone paved road between Alkmaar's city and Oudorp.

After his final victory over the Westfrisian rebels, Florens V ordered five castles to be built to consolidate his conquest. During the years 1282 till 1287 he built Medemblik Castle and Wijdenes Castle, and also Nuwendoorn Castle.

Reconstruction of Middelburg Castle.
Reconstruction of Middelburg Castle.
(Drawing: Jantine Leeflang).
To guard the dam between Alkmaar and Oudorp, Florens founded Middelburg. Nieuwburg Castle was founded next to the Vronermeer ('Lake of Vronen'), resulting in a complete control of the important exit- and providing route. Together with Torenburg Castle, an older castle, they formed a very strong trio.

After the assasination of Florens V in the year 1296, many inhabitants of his territory rebelled, incited by the bishop of Utrecht, William of Mechelen. Westfrisians besieged Muiden Castle from which they retreated by plundering. They conquered Wijdenes Castle, which was completely destroyed. Nuwendoorn Castle, which was attacked from the West was damaged. Storming Castle of Medemblik, however, failed.

It is not absolutely positive if Middelburg and Nieuwburg Castle were involved in this rebellion. But there are indications that Nieuwburg Castle was. When the Westfrisian had finally been defeated, the treaty of peace was concluded in Torenburg Castle and not in Nieuwburg Castle, because the latter had been heavily damaged during the rebellion.

After Nieuwburg Castle had been rebuilt, Torenburg Castle lost its importance for the Counts of Holland.

The continuation

The successors of Florens V, his son John I and his cousin John of Avesnes (John II) carried over the supervision of the three castles Torenburg Castle, Middelburg and Nieuwburg Castle, to William van der Laen.

All known historical facts of Middelburg Castle and Nieuwburg Castle are extracted from accounts of the Counts of Holland. That is the reason that only isolated independent facts are known. So it is impossible to construct a historical story during the 14th and 15th centuries. Many times, the names of the castles' managers were mentioned. These castellans had a profession which was attended with another high leading position like a servant of law such as bailiff (in Dutch history there are more subtle differences in this kind of professions. They are called: "schout", "baljuw" and "drost").

reconstructie van de Nieuwburg
Reconstruction of Nieuwburg Castle.
(Image by Remco Cevat.
Click the drawing for magnification.
Reconstruction of Middelburg Castle.
(Image by Remco Cevat.).
Click the drawing for magnification.

Many facts are known with regard to repairing and maintenance of the castles. Many builders and professionals were mentioned. For example: Master Ghenekijn was a slater and travelled from castle to castle to carry out repairs. It is known that he hired employees for the task. The accounts revealed all kinds of facts about taking care of both castles, which proves that Middelburg as well as Nieuwburg Castle, were important objects for the Counts of Holland during the 14th and 15th centuries.

Philip the Good (Duke of Burgundy and Count of Holland) handed over Nieuwburg Castle to his favourite friend Roeland of Uijtkerke in 1425. To bear the costs he also got the manors: Oudorp, Oterleek, Koedijk and Graft. In 1426 there was a rising by revolting Kennemers (inhabitants of the west coast region of Holland), which threatened Nieuwburg Castle and Middelburg. Both castles were captured and seriously damaged. The government of Alkmaar was held responsible for the rising and was convicted to compensate the damage. Nieuwburg Castle became an important centre, after Roeland proclaimed Nieuwburg Castle to the 'Manor of Nijenburg', a title which persisted even after Roeland had died.

A legend of Phebus (Phobys), was connected to Nieuwburg Castle. Phebus (Phobis, Phobys), a name, which appeared in an account of the year 1477 in which a tower was mentioned for maintenance: Phebus'- or Phobys'-tower. The legend is about a Mayor of the town of Vronen. This Mayor, Phebus, betrayed the citizens of his town to the Count, just for his own financial benefit. In the middle of the night, Phebus unlocked the town's gate and the Count's troups captured the town and created havoc. Next day the Count showed Phebus the price of his betrayal: the town's ruins that were left. He was emotionally shocked. But the Count had no mercy. Phebus was buried alive beneath one of the towers of Nieuwburg Castle, which kept Phebus' name for ever.

There are some doubts in this story, at first a town with the name of Vronen never existed. Second, this event was not known by history-writers. So the story has to be considered as a myth, not as a historical fact. However in the 16th century, the Mayor of Alkmaar Adriaen Doedesz. visited the ruins of Nieuwburg Castle in 1557 and declared he saw the remains of the Phebus'-tower and even the bones of the unfortunate Phebus with his own eyes!

As we told before, many facts were extracted from accounts of the Counts of Holland. Not only information about the maintenance of the buildings. But also actions of military and defending purposes as well. Besides this information it is described that Nieuwburg Castle was also used as a prison.


Detail of a map of 1566 by Lauris Pieterz., geometer, with Nieuwburg Castle's terrain. Left, a part of the Lake of Vronen.
Detail of a map of 1566 by Lauris Pieterz., geometer, revealing the site of Nieuwburg Castle's remainings. Left: a part of the Lake of Vronen.
(Lit. 8, J. Belonje)
In 1517 there came an end to the existence of Nieuwburg Castle and Middelburg Castle. In that year, when Jan Gerritz. was the castellan of Nieuwburg Castle, the castles were stormed by Grote Pier (transl.: "Great Peer") and his gang: the "Zwarte Hoop", a savage group of 4000 soldiers from Frisia and Gelre. This storming was a continuation after the gang's action of attacking the castle of Medemblik, in which they failed. Nieuwburg Castle and Middelburg Castle were plundered and set on fire. This destruction was the end of the mighty castles. Only the ruins were left.

After 8 years of discussion about the castle's remains, a final decision of demolishing was made. The ruins of Nieuwburg Castle and Middelburg Castle were removed, leaving some wall-fragments (1566). Fortunately, because of the fact that they were discovered in our days, it was not possible to remove the foundations of the castles.

The 16th century drawing below gives a bird's eye view if the siege which was laid to the town of Alkmaar by the Spanish troops in 1573. Magnification of a part of the drawing shows us more details with the remnants of a medieval Carmelite monastery and Nieuwburg Castle as well. Even the dike or dam on which the present Munnikenweg is situated is recognizable. Remnants of Middelburg Castle are not present on this drawing.

Laying siege to Alkmaar in 1573.
Laying siege to Alkmaar in 1573.
(Regionaal Archief Alkmaar, PR 1004104_2)
Detail of the drawing above.
Detail of the drawing above. The image shows the ruins of the Middelburg and Nieuwburg Castle.

The piece of land of the former Nieuwburg Castle, the "Hofweide Nijenburg", had been a property of different buyers till 1618: the year that the Van Foreest family procured it. The last piece of land was the property of Maria Eva van Foreest (widow of Daniel Carel de Dieu). She sold it in October 22, 1789, in Alkmaar.

Nieuwburg Castle's ruin seen by an anonymus artist in 1726.
Nieuwburg Castle's ruin seen by an anonymus artist in 1726. : 'Overblijfzel van 't kasteel NIEUBURG bij de stad Alkmaar, 1726.' The background view reveals the city of Alkmaar with the great Chuch (St. Laurens), the Waag and city-hall.
(Regionaal Archief Alkmaar, PR 1001377).

Digging up the foundations

On the eve of WW II, the Dutch castle-archeologist prof. Renaud, was requested by the The Netherlands Department for Conservation (Rijksdienst voor Monumentenzorg, RDMZ) to investigate the foundations of Middelburg Castle. Just three years later in 1942, the foundations were completely laid open. This exposure revealed surprising facts. First the professional view that the castle should have had a round ground-scheme appeared not to be true. The castle was small, had a square form with an irregular construction, supplied with a heavy, square main-tower (donjon). The outside proportions of this tower were 9 x 12 meters with 2 meters thick walls! Another smaller tower was situated at the south-west side.

The excavated foundations of Middelburg Castle. Middelburg Castle's ground-scheme.
The excavated foundations of Middelburg Castle, 1942. Regionaal Archief Alkmaar, archief Belonje Middelburg Castle's ground-scheme.

The foundations were constructed roughly. Probably a result of hasty work in finishing the castle. The building bricks which were used, measured 30 x 15 x(7 to 8) cms (these bricks are known as "kloostermoppen"). The place of the castle's kitchen was marked at a particular place at the north-eastern side in the former castle-moat, near the five tiny pillars. At that place fragments of all kinds of pottery were found, while none were encountered in the rest of the former moat. After the investigations had stopped, the castle's remains were covered again.

The foundations of a small tower of the front-castle of Nieuwburg Castle. The groundscheme of Nieuwburg Castle.
The excavated foundations of a small tower of the front-castle of Nieuwburg Castle. (Lit. 7a, E.H.P. Cordfunke) The groundscheme of Nieuwburg Castle.

Twenty-nine years later in 1971, prof. Renaud started the excavation of the foundations of Nieuwburg Castle. While he found the same kind of bricks (kloostermoppen) that were used to build Middelburg Castle, he also discovered some much older bricks, from another origin, in the castle's walls. Surprisingly, the expected large foundations of round towers were not found.

Nieuwburg Castle was divided in two main parts: the main-castle (with the residential part) and a secondary front-castle. The front-castle's dimensions were 40x42 meters and was not completely square, with small round open towers in each corner. The wall of the front-castle was only 1 meter in thickness. The main-castle had a nearly square ground-scheme of 24x25 meters, including a square main-tower (donjon) and a smaller gate-tower opposite it. Near this gate the stony remains of the drawbridge were encountered. This bridge acted as the connection between the two important parts of Nieuwburg Castle.

Nieuwburg Castle was close to the former Vronermeer ("Lake of Vronen"), while it was surrounded by a protecting double castle-moat. Vronermeer does not exist as such anymore after being reclaimed. At that place, nowadays we find a canal, which is called Hoornse Vaart (transl. "Canal of Hoorn").

The area where foundations of Middelburg Castle and Nieuwburg Castle were found, is situated in and near Oudorperpolder (north of Alkmaar). This region is called: "Zes Wielen-area", because of the (original) six mills which are called "Zes Wielen". While its boundaries are formed by the Hoornse Vaart and Munnikenweg, the area is declared to be a cultural heritage.

In 1999 the foundations of Nieuwburg Castle were covered up by a brick pathway, so that the lay-out of the foundations remained visible. The outer castle-moat was dug out for waterlevel regulation purposes.

The pathway on an earthen dam marks the foundations of Nieuwburg Castle.
The pathway on an earthen dam marks the foundations of Nieuwburg Castle.
(Photo: Ben Dijkhuis)

Middelburg Castle's remains, however, are still buried beneath the surface level.

Literature cited:

(Lit. 5, J.W. Groesbeek)
(Lit. 7a, E.H.P. Cordfunke)
(Lit. 7c, H. Janse)
(Lit. 8, J. Belonje)
(Lit. 11, P.E. van Rijen)
(Lit. 12, R.P. de Graaf)
(Lit. 13, F. Diederik)
(Lit. 16a, R.P. de Graaf)
(Lit. 29, M. Minnema)
(Lit. 34, J. de Vries)

Visit the "Zes Wielen"-area (between Alkmaar's city and Oudorp) with the remains of the Nieuwburg Castle and Middelburg Castle. (Also for nice pictures! In Dutch only!)