embrandt van Rijn was born in the Weddesteeg alley in Leiden and lived in this city for the first 26 years of his life, important years for him. He was taught the Classics at the Latin School and decided to become a painter. He became apprenticed to Jacob Isaacsz Swanenburg, who lived in the Langebrug street. Once he had served out his apprenticeship and was a qualified painter he set up independently in Leiden. Many a masterpiece was made in his Leiden studio. Rembrandt’s parents are buried in the same church as Jan Steen and Gerrit Dou, the Peter’s Church. The Municipal Museum De Lakenhal has a painting from the Leiden period of the painter.

De Leiden’s Almshouses

There are 35 groups of almshouses in the city centre of Leiden. Every one of these almshouse complexes is an idyllic place, where the noise of the town is shut out and time seems to have stopped.

Almshouses are run by charitable foundations, intended to accommodate the elderly poor. The Dutch word for almshouse or group of almshouses is “hof”, which literally means court or courtyard. They were built as a collection of small houses around a communal inner yard or garden.

Often just the one entrance and exit opens on to the public road, via a passage or a hallway. There was usually a caretaker who was responsible for opening and closing times (he would lock the gate at a fixed time and let no-one else in) and who also provided various services for the residents and the governors. The foundation’s governing body usually consisted of the founder’s relatives, but later many almshouses came under the control of institutions caring for the poor and needy.

A separate meeting room was often reserved for the governing body, the Governors’ room. In some almshouses this room is extraordinarily richly furnished as is the case in the Meermansburg almshouses. The Governors sometimes ruled with an iron hand and bound the residents to all sorts of regulations, dictating numerous conditions. The residents considered it a great fortune that they were able to live free of charge and also that they received benefits in the form of bread, meat, beer, shirts and shoes; it was therefore only to be expected that they behave most respectfully and thankfully. Life in the almshouses was as a rule the very picture of peace and respectability.

Almshouses were usually founded by rich elderly people. No doubt they hoped that after their deaths, the prayers of the residents would enable them to gain a place in heaven.


Where in the world can you find a Tibetan nomad tent, an anatomical theatre, historical coins and medallions, an Egyptian temple, Dutch landscape paintings, a camarasaurus several metres high and exotic plants within a stone’s throw of each other? In Leiden. Once deemed the second city of the country, famous for its textile industry and well known for its university, the first in the country, Leiden offers the lot: an enormous selection of art and culture, ancient and modern, from today and from the past, from far away and from close by, familiar and unexpected, all collected in ten museums – and indeed, all within walking distance of each other.

Pilgrim Fathers

When the Pilgrims fled from England to Holland to evade persecution they were but one of many groups seeking refuge in Leiden. Holland was tolerant, having felt the Spanish terror and converted to a sober-minded Protestantism. Also, the economic advantages of this influx of artisans and craftsmen were recognized; the boom in the Leiden textile industry owed a lot to the arrival of French and Flemish weavers.

The Pilgrims led a quiet life in Leiden between 1609 and 1620. They held their services in a chapel of the university. William Bradford was a member of the wool guild and reverend John Robinson lived in the spot where later the Jean Pesijn almshouses were built. Robinson stayed in Leiden and when he died in 1625 he was buried in the Peter’s Church. In the Pieterskerkchoorsteeg alley you can still find the house where William Brewster’s Pilgrim Press produced dissident pamphlets which were smuggled to England. But peace and quiet weren’t enough for the Pilgrims. The tolerance they enjoyed also became a source of irritation. Too many different creeds and lifestyles influenced their offspring and after 12 years they decided to leave for the New World to found a society completely based on their convictions.

The Leiden American Pilgrim Museum in the Beschuitsteeg was established to remember the Pilgrims’ stay in Leiden.

The relief of Leiden... in historical perspective

What is nowadays The Netherlands was part of the Habsburg Empire in the 15th and 16th century. This empire was at its largest during the rule of Charles V. In this northern part of the empire however, his successor Philip II encountered a country that was greatly influenced by the Reformation. Religious arguments were just a part of the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648); the need for greater political freedom also played its part. William of Orange, “the Silent”, led The Netherlands in rebellion against the authority of Spain. Most of the fighting took place in the south of The Netherlands; the northern part could consider itself liberated towards the end of the 16th century. Before that, though, battles took place and the siege of Leiden was an important event.

Golden Age

After disengaging themselves from the Habsburg Empire at the end of the 16th century and becoming an independent state, a period of great prosperity started for the northern Netherlands. Mercantile spirit ruled, Holland bought and sold all over the world. Leiden was famous for its textile industry. Because of the growing wealth the city quickly expanded and wealthy houses were built, which can still be admired along the canals like the Rapenburg. But the numerous complexes of almshouses also refer to the prosperity of the city; many merchants tried to secure their place in heaven through building this provision for old age pensioners. Many famous painters, among them Rembrandt van Rijn, lived and worked in this city with its flourishing art world. Leiden had functioned as a market since the Middle Ages, and this became more and more important; the design of the city with its many waterways reflected this economic boom.