Kenau Hasselaar amassed an army of 300 women to fight the invading Spanish in 1572. You never heard of her.

November 1, 2013 | By | 6 Replies More

Kenau Hasselaar of Haarlem (1526–1588), mother, sister, ship-builder and war heroine.

I cannot approve of monarchs who want to rule over the conscience of the people, and take away their freedom of choice and religion. William of Orange – Havo Exam (1564)

Author CJ Underwood

Author CJ Underwood

I open with this quote because it means so much to me. Oppression is the central theme of my novel, An Army of Judiths, and defeating it is my personal raison d’être.

Certain authors write to gain a deeper understanding of their subject, and in the case of my story about Kenau Hasselaar’s role in the siege of Haarlem, 1572-3, this is definitely true for me. I could find nothing solid about this remarkable woman, either in English or in novel form, so I set about writing my own work of historical fiction about her.

I discovered Kenau on an early visit to Leiden University, soon after I’d moved to the Netherlands in 1993 On hearing that she’d amassed an army of three hundred women to fight the invading Spanish, my first thought was, what would I have done in such a predicament? 

Would I too have fought to preserve my family, my way of life and my city from invasion, or would I have done the rational thing and escaped while I could? I like to think I’m the courageous, resilient sort that will stand tall against tyrants, and indeed I’ve put my (real and metaphorical) fists up more than once in my life, and haven’t always come out smiling.

However, in the sixteenth century any show fists, metaphorical or otherwise, would have probably seen me thrown into the pest-house (they only had dungeons in those days), so I might not have been too eager to speak out, as Kenau reputedly did.

Imagine this. You are a widow of noble Haarlem stock who’s been running her deceased husband’s ship-building enterprise successfully for some years. You have numerous sisters and daughters, some quite young, and you lead a simple, hardworking life. You don’t care for ostentation, but the freedom to practise your faith is paramount to a decent life. Your city is beautiful and peaceful, and your ancestors fought hard for it to remain so, against all sorts of armies that invaded Haarlem with monotonous regularity.

Then the Spanish arrive, and all around you people are galvanising; countries are fighting and falling; cities turn on each other, enemies are made overnight, and the face of Europe is changing rapidly. Closer to home there is hardly a soul in power who takes the threat of invasion seriously. Your beloved ruler, William of Orange, is subjugated and your closest towns are falling rapidly to Spain.

3-armyofjudith330But you are more intelligent than most. You have never been pushed around, lied to, or fobbed off simply because you are a woman. You are hard on the heels of your debtors by making numerous appearances at the Cityhouse to collect writs. You don’t care that people snarl at you in the street and call you That Unnatural Widow Hasselaer. You have the law on your side, and the law will not abide cheats and swindlers.

You’re tough, principled and strong, and with the King of Spain almost at your city gates, you are furious. You are boiling with rage that this foreign army is marching up your country and vanquishing town after town by stealth and trickery. Their methods of subjugation are violent, and you are in no doubt as to what they will do you and your daughters and sisters when they arrive. And arrive they shall.

So, there you are, brimming with wrath; your hackles are up but your city’s defences are down. You look about you for others willing to stand firm against the Spanish army, but like a candle lighting your way through dark cellar, all the mice have scurried away to hide in the shadows. You are alone. Or at least you feel alone, which amounts to the same thing.

What would you do?

And that is why I wrote An Army of Judiths. Yes, I love to believe I’d stand firm and not run. Running feels like the wise thing to do, but really, was it? And anyway, where to? In those days every town had its own modus vivendi. Relocating would have been like someone born and bred in deepest Yorkshire moving to Alert, Nunavut, in Canada.

Early modern people weren’t nomadic, and the very thought of leaving one’s home and family must have terrified the daylights out of them. Besides all that, they wouldn’t have known much about the dangers that lay a few miles beyond their city gates. They were stuck. Scared, trapped and with their city walls in ruins, almost defenceless.

It’s a sad fact that we don’t know the true extent of Kenau’s deeds of courage during the protracted siege of Haarlem. The majority of evidence has either been destroyed, warped by (his)tory, or buried by time.

However, I have always believed that legends do not make themselves, and it wasn’t until I launched the book in the city of Haarlem that I was told of a museum in Germany that held letters written home from German mercenaries in 1572-3. These letters and journals tell of the women of Haarlem that threw lighted hoops onto the necks of the advancing soldiers, poured boiling oil over the walls and fought hand-to-hand like she-devils.

Stories of an army of three hundred women that fought on the walls of Haarlem have been passed down the centuries like Chinese whispers, and we all know about those! To get to know Kenau I read everything I could get my hands on, all in Dutch. From scholarly articles to children’s books, few of which were flattering to Kenau and her women, and most of which were downright derogatory.

I walked around the city streets, found her neighbourhood and the place her shipyard was reputed to have been. I spoke to historians, visited museums, stared at paintings and generally lived in sixteenth century Haarlem for a few years, in my head. When I couldn’t find Kenau I walked daily with my dog, holding up imaginary skirts and swearing in Dutch at invisible Spanish invaders, and I just didn’t care who was watching!

My conclusion is An Army of Judiths, and I am so pleased I got to know something about this remarkable woman who had so much to lose if the Spanish had taken over her city. Not least her life.

CJ Underwood grew up in a Yorkshire seaside town, became an apprentice chef in the kitchens at Blenheim Palace, and then travelled the world several times. As the first woman in the British merchant navy to work in the North Sea, CJ revelled in the adventure of sea life, and then continued her adventures on land. After years of living in Brooklyn, NY, CJ settled in the Netherlands to begin her writing career, which is where she discovered Kenau Hasselaer, the real life heroine of An Army of Judiths.

Whilst living in the Netherlands, CJ learned Dutch, was active in the poetry collective Wordsinhere, and her work featured in their annual publication, Versal. CJ also wrote freelance articles for Dutch national newspapers, and her work won several international poetry competitions. Having spent many years researching the Kenau’s remarkable life, the Siege of Haarlem and the Dutch Revolt, CJ wrote the first draft of An Army of Judiths, and was published in September 2013 by Knoxrobinsonpublishing, where you can read a short story that introduces the characters.

Buy Army of Judiths on Amazon HERE

Visit her website and Blog

Follow her on Twitter @MonkUnderwood or Facebook


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Category: Contemporary Women Writers

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  1. Featuring Women Writers on WWWB 2013 - Women Writers, Women Books | December 31, 2013
  1. C.J., Such a wonderful idea to bring Kenau alive for readers outside the Dutch readers map. Your post, above speaks to me. Born, bred, raised in the Netherlands I heard Kenau’s name often used by my mother. And of course the Spanish War was covered in history class. Still, I can’t remember ever reading a novel about her, and it’s with great delight that I read the prologue and 1st chapter of your book. That time period lends itself so well to poetry, if a writer is equipped to write words of which each one counts. I appreciated an added word at the end of a sentence which brings the line and words around. Poetic fiction, where each word drives the story forward. I plan to read the rest out loud, as I did the beginning, to my husband, it’s not always that our interest in reading matches up. Thanks for bringing this baby into the world and good luck with sending it, or her around the world.

  2. Marialena says:

    Great story, can’t wait to get my hands on the novel. It’s wonderful that you re-discovered this sixteenth century heroine, and he army of heroines, and brought her story to the world. I find that “what would you do?” is a very interesting way to frame it.

  3. CJ – What a great title. What a tight essay. I have ten things that I need to have done last week, but who could resist that title, and the once I started, you kept my attention.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write this for us!

    –Anora McGaha, Editor WWWB

  4. This sounds like a fascinating read about something I know nothing about. Can’t wait to read it. Thanks for the post.

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