Het Steen (The Stone in English) has been on my bucket list for years. Normally, the old prison of Delft is not open to the public, but there are exceptions during school holidays. And I’m either at work or away on school holidays, so that’s a problem. But, I managed to go last week and I wasn’t disappointed. By the way, sorry in advance for the long read.
The history of Het Steen
Medieval city prison Het Steen was constructed in the 13th century. It’s foundations were created in 1250, the year that Delft received city rights. The name Het Steen simply comes from the fact that it was the first stone building in Delft, all the other buildings were made from wood. The prison is nothing more than a tower, but two centuries after it was constructed, the city hall was built around it. So, today the building is quite impressive. If you look close, though, you can see that the different parts are from different periods.
The prison cells
Today, most of the tower is used as an office. This is where the Provincial States, a regional section of the Dutch government, work and debate. But all the way in the attic, the original prison cells of Het Steen have been perfectly preserved. You literally step back in time when you enter the dark prison cells. The walls are extremely thick and the original window has 7 layers (!) of bars to prevent people from escaping. One would never stay long at Het Steen: you simply awaited your verdict. The prison itself consists of two separate cells. The cells are seperated by an open wall, so one could see, touch and smell the others. The cells were dark, cold and empty apart from some straw to sleep on and a bucket for human waste. It must have been awful up there.
The Choke Room
All the way up in the main cell, there was a small coffin-like area named the Choke Room. If a prisoner miss behaved, he or she had a good chance of ending up in the choke room. This room is completely dark, and almost air tight. The person in there must have felt as if being buried alive. What an awful way to punish someone!
Trial and punishment
Punishments ranged from corporal punishment, to banishment and, of course, death. Not everyone confessed to their crimes immediately. Interrogations were sometimes necessary. Interrogations were held in the tower’s basement. This area, unfortunately, no longer exists. The interrogation room used to be covered in tiles. The same can be seen in the torture chamber (because that’s what the interrogation room was) of the Prison Gate. The reason they put tiles in there was that it was easier to clean after the “questioning”. Blood and other bodily fluids flowed abundantly in there.
Shown in the prison cells at Het Steen were a Rack and a Breaking Bench. The two smaller items were blocks that a person had to carry along all day. These torture devices weren’t normally on display in a cell, but they would be found in the interrogation room.
If you look at the pictures, it looks as if I was at Het steen all by myself. This was not the case. It was quite crammed. So, I had enough time to take a look at the prison walls. I was so happy to see original medieval graffiti! When I visited the Prison Gate in The Hague, the original graffiti was overwritten with texts like: “Ramon was here, 2011” or “Alex loves Michelle xxx”.
That was so depressing. Here, on the other hand, names, dates, Witch Marks (!) and complete drawings such as the one above were still there! If you look closely, you can see a person who resembles Jesus on the cross. Underneath the word “remember” (gedenk) is carved. And above the figure, an entire ship is drawn! How cool is that! So many stories are told on these walls. And we have two stories to take a better look at.
Wolfert van Borselen
Wolfert van Borselen (1245 – 1299) was Lord of Veere. Van Borselen was one of the mightiest men of the counties of Holland and Zeeland. The Netherlands was then a collection of counties owned by counts and lords. He is known for the fact that he granted city rights to Rotterdam in 1299. While Van Borselen lived, the politics in the Lowlands were quite unstable. During his reign, he managed to get really rich at the expense of his people. This made him a hated person by many. In 1299, an open rebellion broke out against him. Together with his wife he tried to escape, but he was overpowered in Schiedam. He and his wife were taken to Het Steen in Delft.
The fall of Van Borselen
On August 1, 1299, an angry mob surrounded the tower of Het Steen, threatening to burn the tower down if Wolfert wasn’t handed over to them. Inside the tower, he was as much hated as he was outside the tower. So, his cellmates pushed him out of the window and Van Borselen tumbled down. Het Steen is a high tower, but not too high. So Van Borselen survived his fall. Well, he would have been better off dead, because the angry crowd literally tore the man apart. The spot where Van Borselen met his end is now a thriving and lovely restaurant.
Willem van Oranje
Another story that has ties to Het Steen is the story of the murder of Willem van Oranje (1533 – 1584). He was the Count of Nassau-Dillenburg and the statesman and military commander who played a key role in unleashing the Eighty Years’ War. Before that, he was in service of King Filips II of Spain, the ruler against whom this war had begun. It is safe to say that he committed high treason against his ruler. When Filips II found out what Willem van Oranje had done, he put a prize on his head. Twenty-five thousand golden coins! And the promise that the traitor’s killer would be canonized.
Refuge in the monastery
Once Willem van Oranje became aware that there was a prize on his head, he became scared. In the meantime he had been promoted to the leader of the revolt, so he needed a safe haven. He found refuge in the Agatha Monastery in 1572. From here, he continued his work against King Filip II. Several attempted attacks to kill Van Oranje were made, but none were successful. Until Balthasar Gerards pulled the trigger on July 10, 1584.
Balthasar Gerards, or Balthasar Gérard, was born in France around 1557. The part of France in which he lived was part of the Spanish empire. So he was a subject of King Filip II. He was very pro-Spain, so any threat against his King felt personal for him. When the Spanish king declared Van Oranje an outlaw on March 15, 1580, Gerards didn’t immediately respond. He did not leave France until two years later. It took him another two years to reach Delft. During that time he worked at several farms and he perfected his plan. He arrived at the Diamond Inn in Delft in May 1584, not far from the monastery where Van Oranje lived.
The murder of Willem van Oranje
Balthasar Gerards wrote a letter to Van Oranje under the alias François Guyon. In this letter he requested a meeting. It was granted a few days later. Gerards arrived at the Agatha Monastery on July 10, 1584 with a loaded gun. In the hallway, he shot Van Oranje twice who died minutes later. The Father of the Fatherland was taken away from the Dutch in a terrible way. Gerards tried to escape through the walled garden, but he was caught. He was immediately taken to Het Steen, where he admitted what he had done in fear of being tortured.
But, the judge wasn’t satisfied with his quick confession. He was convinced that Gerards had had help, so he was tortured anyway. At first he was whipped and afterwards his wounds were anointed with honey. He was hung by his arms and his big toes were weighted down (with 300 pounds each!). Later, his feet were put in wet, too small raw dog leathered shoes, and his feet were put near the fire. That way the leather shrank even more and the soles of his feet were burned. Torches were put under his armpits and spikes and needles were beaten under his fingernails. And still no confession of allies.
Conviction and execution
Gerards was convicted for the murder of Willem van Oranje on July 13, 1584. His right hand, the hand he used to shoot Van Oranje, was pinched off with red-hot tongs. The tongs were used on other body parts as well until the bone was reached. Did I mention that Van Oranje was a much-loved man, so his killer really had to pay. On the 14th of July, 1584, the execution was publicly executed. Gerards still beating heart was taken out of his chest and smeared across his face. Then, his body finally gave up. He was quartered and beheaded after his death. His head was put on a spike at one of the city’s entrance gates.
Despite the promises of King Filip II, Balthasar Gerards was never canonized. A priest by the name of Sasbout Vosmeer took his head down off the spike on December 27, 1588 and he brought it with him to safety. He desperately tried to have Gerards canonized after all, but that never happened. When Vosmeer was banned from Delft himself in 1600 by the Protestant government, he took the skull with him to Cologne, Germany, where the skull has long been venerated as a relic.
Het Steen is not open to the public. Exceptions are made for groups and during school holidays. The Agatha Monastery still exists today. It is a museum now: Museum Prinsenhof. This is also the place to contact if you want to visit Het Steen. The bullet holes are still embedded in the wall of the museum. The gun which was used to kill Van Oranje is on display here as well as his death mask. Van Oranje is buried in the New Church and his tomb can be visited. The Diamond Inn also still exists. Today, this is a bakery called The Diamond Ring and plaques on the outside of the building tell the tale of the final weeks of freedom of Balthasar Gerards.
Is Het Steen haunted?
That’s a good question. My guess is that a place like this is highly likely to be haunted. The Witch Marks indicate that the prisoners were afraid of the evil spirits that haunted the prison cells. We will never know for sure, but in this case, the walls can indeed speak…
Do you want to read about more haunted places in Europe? Please click here!
Cover photo: The Little House of Horrors
Sources: delft.com, wikipedia, tour guide from Museum Prinsenhof Delft
Address: Markt 87, 2611 GW Delft, The Netherlands