A heerlijkheid (a Dutch word; pl. heerlijkheden; also called heerschap) was a landed estate that served as the lowest administrative and judicial unit in rural areas in the Dutch-speaking Low Countries before 1800. It originated as a unit of lordship under the feudal system during the Middle Ages. The English equivalents are manor, seigniory, and lordship. The heerlijkheid system was the Dutch version of manorialism that prevailed in the Low Countries and was the precursor to the modern municipality system in the Netherlands and Flemish Belgium.
Characteristics and types
A typical heerlijkheid manor consisted of a village and the surrounding lands extending out for a kilometre or so. Taking 18th-century Wassenaar as an example of a large hoge heerlijkheid, it was 3,612 morgens in size and had 297 houses. Nearby Voorschoten was 1,538 morgens in size and had 201 houses. Nootdorp was an ambachtsheerlijkheid of 196 morgens and 58 houses. There were 517 heerlijkheden in the province of Holland in the 18th century. All fell into the last three categories in the list below (except for a few for which this information is unknown).
Not all heerlijkheden were the same. They differed in size and composition. Also, a heerlijkheid should not be confused with a larger territory like a county (graafschap) or viscounty (burggraafschap), nor with administrative regions on par with an English shire, Dutch gouw, German Gau, or Roman or Carolingian pagus. A Flemish castellany (kasselrij or burggraafschap) was larger and different from a heerlijkheid, but they were similar in some ways.
There were different kinds of heerlijkheid:
Lord of the manor (heer)
The central figure was the lord of the heerlijkheid and effectively its owner—the manorial lord or lady. In Dutch, the lord was called heer and the lady vrouw(e). The lord was also referred to by the Latin word dominus. A rarer English alternative is seigneur. There were different kinds of lord and lady:
Under the feudal system, a manorial lord typically was himself the vassal of a higher-ranking tenant-in-chief, usually a highborn noble, who was in turn the crown vassal of the king or emperor. However, sometimes there was no mesne tenancy (tussenliggende heerschappij), as was the case with knight's fees held in capite (rijksonmiddellijke heerlijkheid). The heerlijkheid was ruled directly by a count (graaf), a viscount (burggraaf) or a baron (baron). Also, it was not uncommon for the lord to be ecclesiastical, e.g. a prince-bishop (prins-bisschop) or prince-abbot (vorst-abt).
Originally, heerlijkheden were held exclusively by the nobility. However, starting around the 16th century, lordship over a heerlijkheid was not synonymous with nobility. A heerlijkheid could be bought and sold. Many ended up in the hands of wealthy merchants and a political class known as the regents.
In addition, many were bought by boroughs (burghs). In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, it was not unusual for a borough to purchase the heerlijkheden around it in order to gain control and ownership of the surrounding land and the resulting economic advantages. Boroughs were themselves not part of the manorial system: the countryside and villages were governed by lords, whereas boroughs were self-governing.
The heerlijkheden came into being as a result of the feudal system, in particular the sovereign's delegated judicial prerogative. The crown, as lord paramount, granted the right to govern and to exercise judicial authority to a crown vassal, often a confidante or as a reward for military service or political support. The crown vassal—e.g. a count (graaf) or duke (hertog)—thus exercised all or part of the sovereign's royal authority. In turn the crown vassal granted rights to the mesne lords of the heerlijkheden.
Because a fief (leen) originated out of a bond between vassal and lord for military service, vassalage (Dutch manschap) was personal not heritable. With the advent of professional armies, the vassalage bond fell into disuse or was replaced by scutage; however, vassalage remained personal. One of the consequences of this was that, on the death of the vassal (leenman or vazal), the fief escheated to the lord (leenheer). The vassal's heir was able to retain the heerlijkheid through the commendation ceremony (leenhulde), the process of paying homage and swearing fealty officiated at the head manor court (souveraine leenhof or leenkammer). The new vassal made a symbolic payment (leenverhef) to his lord. The same ceremony was held when a heerlijkheid manor was sold. If there was no direct descendant, other blood relatives could exercise their right of laudatio parentum (Du naderschap), which grants them a right of first refusal and explains how heerlijkheden were able to be kept in the same families for centuries.
The tenancy of a heerlijkheid is not to be confused with land ownership. It was an estate in land, not land per se. Although lords of the manor generally owned property within a heerlijkheid (often substantial amounts), it was possible for a lord not to own any property at all within his own heerlijkheid. Also, when agricultural land was held by a lord in the Low Countries, the amount held was smaller in comparison to other countries.
Lordship conferred a set of manorial rights. The word heerlijkheid denotes an estate in which these limited rights were held and could be exercised. The rights exercised varied widely, and were more extensive and survived longer in the eastern provinces. A manorial lord was able to function as a minor potentate within "his" heerlijkheid. However, his manorial rights were limited and subject to numerous restrictions. The lord was required to conduct himself in accordance with local customary law.
Income from a heerlijkheid
A lord was entitled to receive feudal incidents in the form of rents, levies, and other payments from various financial and property rights associated with a heerlijkheid:
Heerlijkheden and the nobility
Originally heerlijkheden were in the hands of the nobility. Much of the wealth of a noble family came from their ownership. Many members of the nobiilty were heavily dependent on this source of power, income and status. Because the surnames of noble families were often derived from a heerlijkheid (e.g. "van Wassenaer"), it was important for the prestige of the family to maintain ownership over it. However, the economic benefits of a heerlijkheid were not always certain, finances were not always well arranged, and some nobles were poor.
In the province of Holland, possession of a heerlijkheid was a prerequisite for admission to the ridderschap (literally, the "knighthood"), the college of nobles that represented rural areas in the States of Holland. A seat in the ridderschap provided access to various financially interesting honorary positions and offices.
It was not unusual for a noble to amass a number of heerlijkheden. Queen Beatrix is a modern-day example of a noblewoman who holds the titles to many heerlijkheden. In addition to her primary titles, she is the Erfvrouwe and Vrijvrouwe of Ameland and the Vrouwe of Baarn, Besançon, Borculo, Bredevoort, Bütgenbach, Daasburg, Geertruidenberg, Heiloo, Upper and Lower Zwaluwe, Klundert, Lichtenvoorde, Loo, Montfort, Naaldwijk, Niervaart, Polanen, Steenbergen, Sint Maartensdijk, Sint Vith, Soest, Ter Eem, Turnhout, Willemstad and Zevenbergen.
Starting around 1500, nobles began selling the rights to heerlijkheden to non-nobles; however, losing a heerlijkheid did not result in loss of noble status. The nobility were recognised by all as having a special status not attached to wealth or ownership of a heerlijkheid.
Heerlijkheden and the rise of a new nobility
In the southern provinces (modern-day Belgium) the financial character of a heerlijkheid was accentuated by the Royal Edict of 8 May 1664. From then on, a noble title was granted only if the following minimum payment was obtained from the income of the feudal estate.
In the southern provinces, this edict ensured the financial stability of the most prominent heerlijkheden and resulted in the rise of a new nobility based on wealth.
Starting around the 16th century, lordship over a heerlijkheid was not synonymous with nobility. A heerlijkheid could be bought and sold. Many ended up in the hands of wealthy merchants and a small and exclusive political class known as the regents. In all the provinces the military obligations associated with a fief gradually died out so that by the 16th and 17th centuries the heerlijkheid was increasingly seen by non-nobles as a status symbol.
Successful merchants and regents from the large towns saw the heerlijkheid as a country residence and a means of giving the appearance of noble status. It often came with large tracts of land and a castle or manor house. In noble fashion, they then added the name of their heerlijkheid to their own surname, resulting in surnames like Deutz van Assendelft, Six van Oterleek, Pompe van Meerdervoort and Beelaerts van Blokland). (The word "van" in the surname meant "of". However, very few Dutch surnames with "van" have their origins in the ownership of a heerlijkheid.) They became what J.L. Price refers to as a "quasi-nobility". A heerlijkheid was also a source of income and an investment, but they were usually acquired for other reasons.
In the Netherlands, acquiring the rights to heerlijkheden did not confer noble status. The regent families who purchased heerlijkheden were not a true nobility, but by the early 19th century the ranks of the nobility had become so depleted that the Dutch king elevated certain members of the former regent class to noble status.)
In the southern provinces (modern-day Belgium) heerlijkheden and the associated rights were abolished after the French invasion of 1795. In the northern provinces (modern-day Netherlands) they were declared abolished around the same time as part of the inauguration of the Batavian Republic. This was formalised in the 1798 Batavian Constitution (Bataafsche Staatsregeling). A distinction was made between the feudal rights of appointment and patronage, which were completely abolished, and the income-related rights, which were more complicated. Some of these were feudal in nature and abolished. Others were similar to contractual or property rights and therefore their loss was compensable. Lordly claims for reparations flooded in. Some heerlijkheid rights were maintained or later restored as property rights and still exist today.
The overwhelming majority of the remaining rights disappeared in Belgium on the introduction of the 1830 constitution and in the Netherlands with the 1848 constitutional amendments. Most of the administrative functions of a heerlijkheid were transferred to the municipality and fell under the new Municipality Act (Gemeentewet). Responsibility for the manor courts and judicial system were taken over by the national government. The formal end of the heerlijkheid came in 1923, because in that year the Game Act abolished the last remaining property rights that had their origin in the heeriljkheid system.
After this, the use of the title "Lord of..." is based on the ownership of the remaining non-abolished rights. To this day there are people in the Netherlands who use the title "Lord of...". Unlike in the U.K., there is no trade today in ‘lord of the manor’ titles.
What remains of the heerlijkheid system are many of the manors and castles. Most of them are now parts of estates, museums, parks, hotels, etc. Since the last heerlijkheid was seen over 200 years ago, many of the manor houses and castles have been rebuilt, or have been fully or partially demolished.
A sign erected at the remaining parts of the Slot Heemstede (now in a park) describes what happened to this particular manor. The history and fate of this manor are typical: