Around 3 October of each year, Leiden hosts a lavish party. For a few days, the town is painted red and everyday life grinds to a standstill. Leiden's citizens eat hutspot (hodge-podge), herring and white bread and sing during the Reveille. Why is that? Well, we will have to turn back to the second half of the sixteenth century to find out.

Revolt during the Eighty Years' War

From 1568 to 1648, the Dutch were involved in a war against Spain that ruled over the Dutch dependencies by means of its catholic King, Philip II. He sent the Duke of Alva to the Netherlands to set things right when the Dutch cities revolted. Initially, Leiden was loyal to the Spanish king, but when the Duke of Alva implemented measures that clashed with the freedom of religion, the city chose the side of Prince William of Orange and his Sea Beggars in 1572. .

Hunger and diseases

Officer De Valdés was in command of the Spanish 'Siege of Leiden'. The Spanish army had suffered considerable losses during his earlier assaults on the cities of Haarlem and Alkmaar. This is why he opted to close off the city of Leiden and to starve its citizens into surrender. Leiden's citizens managed to live off the city's reserves for months due to strict rationing. Only by August 1574 did the situation become so dire that the citizens became agitated. Many hungry citizens escaped the city. Some of them did not support William of Orange, the commander of the Beggars, but rather the Spanish King. Some of these ‘glippers’ (slippers) even provided the Spanish troops with strategic information on the situation in town.

Food shortages increased and an ever larger number of Leiden's citizens called on the city to surrender for fear of starving to death. It is estimated that 6,000 people died out of the 15,000 that were inside the city. Starvation was a major cause of death, but also diseases such as the plague and dysentery spread rapidly among the weakened population. To add to the trouble, beer was short, so people were forced to drink foul canal water.


In 2011, photographer Erwin Olaf gave the story of Leiden's Siege and Relief his own twist. On the occasion of the exhibition and celebration of the 475th anniversary of Leiden's Relief in 2011, Museum De Lakenhal and Leiden University commissioned him to create a modern historical piece and a series of portraits. Erwin Olaf set his dramatic depiction in Leiden's Pieterskerk (Saint Peter's Church) and used 'ordinary' citizens from Leiden to walk on alongside professional models. As such, the inconceivable suffering of the historical population from Leiden was drawn much closer to contemporary visitors. This is not only due to the real people on the photo, but also by using small, contemporary details that Erwin Olaf hid in the photo - including an iPod and flip-flops. The photo is an absolute favourite of the museum's visitors.

Detail of: Mattheus Ignatius van Bree
Detail of: Mattheus Ignatius van Bree Selfsacrifice of burgomaster Van der Werf (1816-1817). Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden


The citizens became increasingly discontent. Mayor Pieter Adriaansz. van der Werf had to show what he was made of. An emergency meeting was held at the Town Hall on 8 September 1574. Outdoors, the famished citizens had gathered to force the city into surrender. City Secretary Jan van Hout was watchful and called in the militia that only just managed to keep the crowd in check.

internship at the museum

On 20 November 2015, alderman of Culture Robert Strijk was intern for a day at the museum. In the morning, Robert Strijk told a schoolgroup about how mayor Van der Werff sacrifised himself for the people of Leiden.


At the summit of the famine, some homing pigeons were smuggled out of the city and taken to Beggar commander Louis de Boisot. At that time, he and his Beggar fleet were located at the Noord Aa, just outside Leiden. The contact with the Beggars was restored! On 29 September 1574, encouraging news reached the city: William of Orange had personally joined the fleet to prepare the relief of Leiden. He planned to cut the dikes of Holland in order to inundate the countryside around Leiden. This would enable the Sea Beggars to advance to the city's gates to surprise the Spaniards with an attack.

Burgomaster mr. Gerard Cornelis van der Willigen hands out the breads.
Burgomaster mr. Gerard Cornelis van der Willigen hands out the breads. 3 October 1967. Source: ANP Historisch Archief. Photo: Ben Hansen

Leiden is Relieved!

Early in the morning of 3 October 1574, galleys filled with dozens of Sea Beggars sailed in on the Vliet. The Spaniards had fled, the battle was over, Leiden was relieved! The Sea Beggars handed out herring and white bread to the famished citizens of Leiden, and it still is the traditional fare on 3 October to this day.

Commemorate together

Immediately after the Relief in 1574, Leiden's city administration actively contributed to keeping the stories and memories of this important historic event alive. In 1817, King William I donated the painting ‘De zelfopoffering van Burgemeester Van der Werff’ (Self-sacrifice of Mayor Van der Werff) which was created by Mattheus van Bree, to the city of Leiden. A few years later, during the 250th anniversary of Leiden's Relief in 1824, an exhibition was staged. The regional newspapers invited Leiden's citizens to give anything ‘of that time that was preserved or was related to it’ on loan. Items such as playing cards of Valdés, letters that were delivered by the homing pigeons and the famous hodge-podge kettle were part of this exhibition. In 1872, the ‘Museum van Stedelijke Oudheden’ (Museum of Municipal Antiquities), presently Museum De Lakenhal, took over this collection from the city administration. The collection is still on display in Museum De Lakenhal.

A heavily illustrated book was published on Leiden's Relief, which was based on Museum De Lakenhal's collection. It was written by History Curator Jori Zijlmans. The book is available from the museum shop at 19.50 euros.


The celebration of Leiden's Relief on 3 October is full of traditions and customs. Early in the morning, the musical reveille takes place on Stadhuisplein, and next a remembrance service is held in the Pieterskerk. Museum De Lakenhal offers free access to the public from 10 to 12 am. Guides recount the stories behind the 3-October collection in the museum to the children and their parents or grandparents. People eat herring and white bread, which was handed out to Leiden's famished citizens by the Sea Beggars when they sailed in, and the hodge-podge as it was retrieved - still hot - in the camp that the Spaniards had fled in a hurry on 3 October 1574. A parade, fun fair and finally fireworks round of the celebration. Up to this very day, Leiden's citizens demonstrate their pride of the city and their gratitude for its relief.