A university city since 1575, Leiden has been one of Europe's most prominent scientific centres for more than four centuries. Leiden is a typical university city, university buildings are scattered throughout the city and the many students from all over the world give the city a bustling, vivid and international atmosphere. Many important scientific discoveries have been made here, giving rise to Leiden's motto: 'City of Discoveries'. The city houses Leiden University, the oldest university of the Netherlands, and Leiden University Medical Center. Leiden University is one of Europe's top universities, with thirteen Nobel Prize winners. It is a member of the League of European Research Universities and positioned highly in all international academic rankings. It is twinned with Oxford, the location of the United Kingdom's oldest university. Leiden University and Leiden University of Applied Sciences (Leidse Hogeschool) together have around 35,000 students. Modern scientific medical research and teaching started in the early 18th century in Leiden with Boerhaave.
Leiden is a city with a rich cultural heritage, not only in science, but also in the arts. One of the world's most famous painters, Rembrandt, was born and educated in Leiden. Other famous Leiden painters include Lucas van Leyden, Jan van Goyen and Jan Steen.
Leiden was formed on an artificial hill (today called the Burcht van Leiden) at the confluence of the rivers Oude and Nieuwe Rijn (Old and New Rhine). In the oldest reference to this, from circa 860, the settlement was called Leithon. The name is said to be from Germanic *leitha- "canal"  in dativepluralis, thus meaning "at the canals". "Canal" is actually not the completely proper word. A leitha (later "lede") was a human-modified natural river, partly natural, partly artificial.
Leiden has in the past erroneously been associated with the RomanoutpostLugdunum Batavorum. This particular castellum was thought to be located at the Burcht of Leiden, and the city's name was thought to be derived from the Latin name Lugdunum. However the castellum was in fact closer to the town of Katwijk, whereas the Roman settlement near modern-day Leiden was called Matilo.
Windmill museum De Valk
The landlord of Leiden, situated in a stronghold on the hill (motte), was initially subject to the Bishop of Utrecht but around 1100 the burgraves became subject to the county of Holland. This county got its name in 1101 from a domain near the stronghold: Holtland or Holland.
Burgrave Filips of Wassenaar and the other local noblemen of the Hook faction assumed that the duke would besiege Leiden first and send small units out to conquer the surrounding citadels. But John of Bavaria chose to attack the citadels first.
He rolled the cannons along with his army but one which was too heavy went by ship. By firing at the walls and gates with iron balls the citadels fell one by one. Within a week John of Bavaria conquered the castles of Poelgeest, Ter Does, Hoichmade, de Zijl, ter Waerd, Warmond and de Paddenpoel.
On 24 June the army appeared before the walls of Leiden. On 17 August 1420, after a two-month siege the city surrendered to John of Bavaria. The burgrave Filips of Wassenaar was stripped of his offices and rights and lived out his last years in captivity.
16th to 18th centuries
Relief of Leiden (1574), painting by Otto van Veen. Inundated meadows allow the Dutch fleet access to the Spanish infantry positions.
The Singel at night, showing the chimney of the Light Factory
Leiden flourished in the 16th and 17th century. At the close of the 15th century the weaving establishments (mainly broadcloth) of Leiden were very important. After the expulsion of the Spaniards, Leiden cloth, Leiden baize and Leiden camlet were familiar terms. In the same period, Leiden developed an important printing and publishing industry. The influential printer Christoffel Plantijn lived there at one time. One of his pupils was Lodewijk Elzevir (1547-1617), who established the largest bookshop and printing works in Leiden, a business continued by his descendants through 1712 and the name subsequently adopted (in a variant spelling) by contemporary publisher Elsevier.
In 1572, the city sided with the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule and played an important role in the Eighty Years' War. Besieged from May until October 1574 by the Spanish, Leiden was relieved by the cutting of the dikes, thus enabling ships to carry provisions to the inhabitants of the flooded town. As a reward for the heroic defence of the previous year, the University of Leiden was founded by William I of Orange in 1575. Yearly on 3 October, the end of the siege is still celebrated in Leiden. Tradition tells that the citizens were offered the choice between a university and a certain exemption from taxes and chose the university. The siege is notable also for being the first instance in Europe of the issuance of paper money, with paper taken from prayer books being stamped using coin dies when silver ran out.
Leiden is also known as the place where the Pilgrims (as well as some of the first settlers of New Amsterdam) lived (and operated a printing press) for a time in the early 17th century before their departure to Massachusetts and New Amsterdam in the New World.
In the 17th century, Leiden prospered, in part because of the impetus to the textile industry by refugees from Flanders. While the city had lost about a third of its 15,000 citizens during the siege of 1574, it quickly recovered to 45,000 inhabitants in 1622, and may have come near to 70,000 circa 1670. During the Dutch Golden Era, Leiden was the second largest city of Holland, after Amsterdam. Particularly due to the work by Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738), it played a crucial role in the establishment of modern chemistry and medicine.
From the late 17th century onwards Leiden slumped, mainly due to the decline of the cloth industries. In the beginning of the 19th century the baize manufacture was altogether given up, although industry remained central to Leiden economy. This decline is painted vividly by the fall in population. The population of Leiden had sunk to 30,000 between 1796 and 1811, and in 1904 was 56,044.
On 12 January 1807, a catastrophe struck the city when a boat loaded with 17,400 kilograms (38,360 pounds) of gunpowder blew up in the middle of Leiden. 151 people were killed, over 2,000 were injured and some 220 homes were destroyed. King Louis Bonaparte personally visited the city to provide assistance to the victims. Although located in the centre of the city, the area destroyed remained empty for many years. In 1886 the space was turned into a public park, the Van der Werff park.
In 1842, the railroad from Leiden to Haarlem was inaugurated and one year later the railway to The Hague (Den Haag) was completed, resulting in some social and economic improvement. Perhaps the most important piece of Dutch history contributed by Leiden was the Constitution of the Netherlands. Johan Rudolf Thorbecke (1798-1872) wrote the Dutch Constitution in April 1848 in his house at Garenmarkt 9 in Leiden.
Leiden grew twelve-fold in size between 1896 and 1981, annexing land from neighboring municipalities.
Leiden began to expand beyond its 17th-century moats around 1896 and the number of citizens surpassed 50,000 in 1900. After 1920, new industries were established in the city, such as the canning and metal industries. During World War II, Leiden was hit hard by Allied bombardments. The areas surrounding the railway station and Marewijk were almost completely destroyed.
The city's biggest and most popular annual festival is celebrated on 3 October and is called simply 3 Oktober. The people of Leiden celebrate the end of the Spanish siege of 1574. It typically takes place over the course of two to three days (usually two but three if there's a Sunday involved) and includes parades, a hutspot feast, historical reenactments, a funfair and other events. The city has recently started to host the Leiden International Film Festival, the fastest growing festival of its type in the Netherlands.
The city also houses the Eurotransplant, the international organization responsible for the mediation and allocation of organ donation procedures in Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Slovenia. Leiden also houses the headquarters of Airbus, a global pan-European aerospace and defence corporation and a leading defence and military contractor worldwide. The group includes Airbus, the leading manufacturer of commercial aircraft worldwide.
Rivers, canals and parks
Canal near Leiden - May 1978
The two branches of the Oude Rijn, which enter Leiden on the east, unite in the centre of the city. The city is further intersected by numerous small canals with tree-bordered quays. On the west side of the city, the Hortus Botanicus and other gardens extend along the old Singel, or outer canal. The Leidse Hout park, which contains a small deer park, lies on the northwest border with Oegstgeest. The Van der Werf Park is named after the mayor Pieter Adriaansz. van der Werff [nl], who defended the city against the Spaniards in 1574. The city was beleaguered for months and many died from famine. The open space for the park was formed by the accidental explosion of a ship loaded with gunpowder in 1807, which destroyed hundreds of houses, including that of the Elsevier family of printers.
Buildings of interest
Because of the economic decline from the end of the 17th until the middle of the 19th century, much of the 16th- and 17th-century city centre is still intact. It is the second largest 17th-century town centre in the Netherlands, the largest being Amsterdam's city centre.
A hundred buildings in the centre are decorated with large murals of poetry, part of a wall poem project active from 1992, and still ongoing.
At the strategically important junction of the two arms of the Oude Rijn stands the old castlede Burcht, a circular tower built on an earthen mound. The mound probably was a refuge against high water before a small wooden fortress was built on top of it in the 11th century. The citadel is a so-called motte-and-bailey castle. Of Leiden's old city gates only two are left, the Zijlpoort and the Morspoort, both dating from the end of the 17th century. Apart from one small watch tower on the Singel nothing is left of the town's city walls. Another former fortification is the Gravensteen. Built as a fortress in the 13th century it has since served as house, library and prison. Presently it is one of the University's buildings.
The chief of Leiden's numerous churches are the Hooglandse Kerk (or the church of St Pancras, built in the 15th century and containing a monument to Pieter Adriaansz. van der Werff) and the Pieterskerk (church of St Peter (1315)) with monuments to Scaliger, Boerhaave and other famous scholars. From a historical perspective the Marekerk is interesting too. Arent van 's Gravesande designed that church in 1639. Other fine examples of his work in Leiden are in the Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal (the municipal museum of fine arts), and the Bibliotheca Thysiana. The growing city needed another church and the Marekerk was the first Protestant church to be built in Leiden (and in Holland) after the Reformation. It is an example of Dutch Classicism. In the drawings by Van 's Gravesande the pulpit is the centrepiece of the church. The pulpit is modelled after the one in the Nieuwe Kerk at Haarlem (designed by Jacob van Campen). The building was first used in 1650, and is still in use. The Heilige Lodewijkkerk is first catholic church in Leiden that was built after the Reformation. This church was given to the Catholics after the gunpowder explosion in 1807, which killed 150 inhabitants and destroyed a large part of the city centre. The 'Waalse Kerk' (Breestraat 63) was originally part of the Katharina Hospital. In 1584 it became the church of Protestant refugees from the Southern Netherlands (Brugge) and France. Later churches in the centre include the St. Joseph in expressionistic style.
Molen de Valk - a corn-grinding windmill, now home to a museum (1743)
Pesthuis, which was built during 1657-1661 at that time just outside the city for curing patients suffering the bubonic plague. However, after it was built the feared disease did not occur in the Netherlands anymore so it was never used for its original purpose. The building has been used as a military hospital, prison, national asylum and army museum. Until 2019, it served as the entrance of Naturalis. This museum, one of the largest natural history museums in the world, was recently renovated and is a building of interest in itself.
The coat of arms of Leiden is two red keys, crossed in an X-shape on a white background. These keys are the Keys of Heaven held by St. Peter, for whom a large church in the city centre is named. Because of this coat of arms, Leiden is referred to as the "Sleutelstad" ("the key city").
For a time Leiden held the title "The Coldest Place on Earth" because of the developments in cryogenics in a laboratory there. Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (1913 Nobel prize winner in physics) liquefied helium for the first time (1908), and later managed to reach a temperature of less than one degree above Absolute zero.
The Norwegian cheese "nøkkelost" ("key cheese") is named after the keys in coat of arms of Leyden, as it is a variation of Leyden cheese.
The following places and things are named after this city:
Leiden's Stadhuis (Town Hall) has a poem in the form of a cryptogram on its façade that records the date 1574 in Roman numerals, the year of the "Black Famine" or Spanish siege (W equals two Vs):
The poem on Leiden's Stadhuis
Nae zWarte HVnger-noot GebraCht had tot de doot bInaest zes-dVIzent MensChen;
aLst god den heer Verdroot gaf hIVns Weder broot zo VeeLWICVnsten WensChen.
(Dutch: "When the Black Famine had brought to the death nearly six thousand persons, then God the Lord repented, and gave bread again as much as we could wish".)
Zorg en Zekerheid Leiden is the basketball club of Leiden. In 2011, 2013 and 2021 they won the National Title, in 2010 and 2012 the National Cup and in 2011 and 2012 the National Super Cup. The club also played in the FIBA EuroChallenge and reached the Second Round (Best 16) in 2011/2012.