Online Dictionary of Dutch Women

BOLWATER, Gertruid (died 1511?), heroine of the defence of Venlo in 1511.

Nothing is known about the life of Gertruid (Gertrude, Truuj, Trui) Bolwater, and it is even questionable whether she ever existed. All the available information points to an ‘invented’ person who played an important role in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the growing awareness of identity of the citizens of Venlo.

The story

In 1511 Venlo was besieged by the troops of Emperor Maximilian I, who sought to annex the Duchy of Gelre (Guelders), but Duke Karel of Gelre (Charles Duke of Guelders) offered resistance and was supported in his efforts by the king of France. During the last attack a woman, Gertruid Bolwater, supposedly threw a stone at, and wounded, a standard-bearer who had climbed onto the city walls. She took his flag and paraded triumphantly through Venlo before hanging it on the front of her house.

Remarkably, in the first decades after this alleged event, nothing was written about Gertruid Bolwater’s feat. All the chronicles and pamphlets published in the wake of the siege praise the bravery of the inhabitants but make no mention whatever of her heroic deed. The account of the Triumphal Entry of Crown Prince Philip (II) in 1549 describes the customs, traditions and historical developments of the most important cities in the Netherlands, but this heroine does not occur in the history of Venlo. There is no mention of Gertruid Bolwater in the writings of local and regional historians, and no sign of her in the art (paintings, woodcuts) that was produced to the greater glory of the city. The first record, in 1632, of a heroic woman in the history of Venlo appears in a book by the Jesuit Famiano Strada, De Bello Belgico (written around 1602, published in 1632, and translated into Dutch in 1646), which describes the siege of Venlo by the Duke of Parma in the year 1586, and mentions in passing that ‘about 70 years ago’ an (anonymous) woman had fought among the defenders of the city. Perhaps Strada invented the woman to add lustre to the victory of the Catholic Duke of Parma over valiant Venlo. In the following century and a half she was continually mentioned – admittedly without a name – as a brave ‘virago and Amazon’.

Fact and fiction

Even though the Netherlands became a political entity after the French era, the inhabitants of the province of Limburg continued to feel like foreigners in the Dutch state. They went in search of their own identity and history, and so the siege of 1511 again received a lot of attention. Now the heroine was given a name, though unfortunately Keuller, the author of the first history of the city of Venlo (1843), does not explain why she bears the name of Gertruid Bolwater. Her local renown increased around 1860, when the Netherlands was threatened by powerful Prussia. Gertruid Bolwater’s heroic deed was thrust into the national limelight, transforming her from a local heroine like Kenau Simonsdr Hasselaar into a paragon of national courage. Her fame reached its apex in 1866, when a play was written about her. Venlo named a street after Gertruid Bolwater, but then she disappeared from memory with lightning speed.

In 1943, the Nieuwe Venlosche Courant – a newspaper taken over by the NSB, the Dutch national socialist (Nazi) movement – mentioned Gertruid Bolwater on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of Venlo’s enfranchisement, albeit in the category of ‘great men’ of Venlo. Nothing was said about why she had stood on the city walls in 1511, nor was the word ‘freedom’ mentioned. In the same year (1943), the magazine Veldeke published a poem about Bolwater in which the main themes are freedom, independence and patriotism. The protagonist even rejects an offer of marriage because she considers the struggle for national liberty more important. The political message is abundantly clear.

Since the Second World War the only things left to remind us of Gertruid Bolwater are the street named after her and a few Carnival songs. Her historicity was probably never taken seriously: she was only an alleged heroine needed in difficult times.

Reference work(s)

NNBW.

Bibliography

  • L.J.E. Keuller, Geschiedenis en beschrijving van Venloo (Venloo 1843) 239.
  • H.C. van den Eertwegh, De laatste dagen van Venloo’s beleg, 1511. Historisch dramatische schets in twee tafereelen (Venloo 1866).
  • L.J.E. Keuller, ‘Gertruid Bolwater of de heldin van Venlo (1511)’, in: H.Welters ed., Limburgsche legenden, sagen, sprookjes en volksverhalen 1 (Venlo 1875) 190-192.
  • H.H.H. Uyttenbroeck, Bijdrage tot de geschiedenis van Venlo 4 (Venlo 1914) 14-19, 31-32.
  • K. Haanen, ‘Gertruid Bolwater’, Veldeke 17 (1943) 67-70.
  • J.H.J. Geurts, ‘Omstreden veste. Venlo tussen twee vuren 1473-1543’, in: Venlo’s Mozaïek. Hoofdstukken uit zeven eeuwen stadsgeschiedenis (Maastricht 1990) 79-112.
  • C.A.Gorissen and R. van der Hoek ed., Venloclopedie (Venlo 1998) 22.
  • J.H.J. Geurts, ‘Gertruid Bolwater. Feit en fictie rond een vergeten heldin uit Venlo’, De Maasgouw. Tijdschrift voor Limburgse geschiedenis en oudheidkunde 119 (2000) 217-244.

Author: Jac Geurts

last updated: 13/01/2014