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Warmond House (Huis te Warmond), the manor house for the Hoge Heerlijkheid of Warmond

A heerlijkheid (a Dutch word; pl. heerlijkheden; also called heerschap) was the basic administrative and judicial unit in rural areas in the Dutch-speaking Low Countries before 1800. It originated in the feudal decentralization of government authority in the Middle Ages. The English equivalents are manor, seigniory, and fiefdom.[1] 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 in the Flemish region of Belgium.[2][3]

Characteristics and types[edit]

Titles of Jacob Jan, Lord of Wassenaar (1765)

Generally speaking, a heerlijkheid was essentially made up of a village and the land extending around it 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

There were different kinds of heerlijkheid:

  • vrijheerlijkheid - defined as a baronie (barony).[7] These "free heerlijkheden" were found usually at the edges of a county and were called "free" (vrij) because they were allodial and not granted as a fief by a higher lord.[5]
  • hoge heerlijkheid - a large or important or high-level heerlijkheid, either a fief or allodial. In these "high" heerlijkheden there was jurisdiction to appoint a bailiff (baljuw) instead of just a schout, and to administer capital punishment. It was possible for a heerlijkheid to be both "free" and "high". The very largest were effectively counties within the county.[5]
  • ambacht or ambachtsheerlijkheid - a smaller low-level heerlijkheid granted as a fief and often found in heart of the county. This was sometimes nothing more than a castle and a few hectares of land, although most were larger than this.[5] In these there was no jurisdiction to administer capital punishment.
  • schoutsambt - the jurisdiction of a schout, thus indicating the jurisdiction of a heerlijkheid

The heer[edit]

Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer-Obdam as painted by George de Marees

The central figure was the tenant of the heerlijkheid and effectively its owner—the lord or lady. In Dutch, the lord was called heer (lord) and the lady vrouw(e) (lady). The lord was also referred to by the Latin word dominus. Rarer English alternatives are seigneur[8] or "lord of the manor". There were different kinds of lord and lady:

  • vrijheer and vrijvrouwe (literally, the "free lord" and "free lady") - Essentially the same as a baron (baron) and barones (baroness).[7]
  • erfheer and erfvrouwe (literally, the "hereditary lord" and "hereditary lady")
  • baanderheer (literally, "banner lord", but the term in English is knight banneret or banneret) - Some lords used this title when their noble line was ancient and therefore superior to other nobles
  • ambachtsheer - The lord of an ambacht or ambachtsheerlijkheid

Under the feudal system, a manorial lord typically was himself the vassal of a higher-ranking overlord, usually a highborn noble, who was in turn the vassal of the king or emperor. However, sometimes there was no mesne lord. The heerlijkheid was ruled directly by a count (graaf), a viscount (burggraaf) or a baron. Also, it was not uncommon for the lord to be ecclesiastical.

Originally, heerlijkheden were in the hands of the nobility.[5] 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 in the hands of the towns. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, it was not unusual for a town to purchase the heerlijkheden around it in order to gain control and ownership of the surrounding land and the resulting economic advantages. The large towns were themselves not part of the heerlijkheid system: the countryside and villages were governed by lords, whereas towns governed themselves.

Feudal origins[edit]

The heerlijkheden came into being as a result of the feudal system, in particular the sovereign's delegation of judicial prerogative. The sovereign granted the right to govern and to exercise judicial authority to a vassal, often as a reward for military service or political support, or to a confidante of the ruler. The vassal—e.g. a count (graaf) or duke (hertog)—thus exercised all or part of the sovereign's royal authority. In turn the count or duke granted rights to the 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 tenurial. 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 sovereign manorial court (souveraine leenhof or leenkammer). The new vassal made a symbolic payment (leenverhef) to his lord. The same ceremony was held when a heerlijkheid 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.

Seignorial rights[edit]

The tenancy of a heerlijkheid is not to be confused with the possession of land. It was an estate in land, not land per se. Although lords 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.[9]

Lordship conferred a set of seignorial rights. The word heerlijkheid denotes a domaine in which these limited rights were held and could be exercised. The rights exercised varied from place to place, and were more extensive and survived longer in the eastern provinces.[8] A lord was able to function as a minor potentate within "his" heerlijkheid. However, the rights were limited and subject to numerous restrictions.[9] The lord was required to conduct himself in accordance with local customary law.

  • Appointments: One of the most important seignorial rights was the right to appoint bailiffs, reeves, aldermen, magistrates, schoolmasters, dike and polder officials, and so on.[8] A fee was paid by the recipients of these appointments. In particular, the lord was entitled to make the important appointment of the schout ‘reeve’. This official was charged with local administrative, law enforcement, and prosecutorial duties. The lord's right to appoint this official was significant because it entailed the associated right to receive the income collected by the schout from sentences and fines for minor and mid-level offences. (Higher fines and punishments fell within the jurisdiction of the officials appointed by a count or duke, i.e. the hoofdschout, hoofdmeier, drossaard or amman). The lord was entitled to act as schout himself, but most lords delegated this duty by appointing someone else to the office.
  • Advowson: A lord might have a right to make advowsons, be they collative (collatie), presentative (gezag) or donative (agrement)[8] when it comes to instituting a parish priest or minister. As early as the high Middle Ages there were already disputes with ecclesiastical authorities over the usurpation of this right. After the Reformation, the involvement of a lord in a minister's institution might similarly result in tension between the lord and his vassals, particularly in places where the lord was of a different faith than most of his fellow parishioners.
  • Manor: Most heerlijkheden had a manor house that served as the official seat of the lord, if not always the permanent residence. There were sometimes grand homes with estates or even castles. (Some of these grand homes and castles still exist.)
  • Church: If a parochial church had been founded by a previous lord, the lord was considered to have his own church and enjoy the rights that went with that.
  • Coat of arms: A lord had his own coat of arms, which was displayed in places like church pews and windows and carriages.[8] Many of these became municipal coats of arms.

Income from a heerlijkheid[edit]

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:

  • Real burdens (onroerende belastingen): A fee farm tenant (cijnsplichtige) of a parcel of land in a heerlijkheid was required to pay an annual fee farm rent (feu-duty), called cijns or cijnsgeld in Dutch, which is comparable to the payment of property taxes today.[6] The amount of the cijns was proportional to the size of the burdened land. Since the amount of the cijns was not tied to inflation, it remained negligible during most of this period.
  • Tenurial rents (pachtgelden): The largest revenue source for the lord of a heerlijkheid was usually the leasehold rents from tenant farmers working arable land in the heerlijkheid.
  • Conveyance fee (pontpenning or werfschilling): The lord was entitled to levy a conveyance tax of around 5% of the sales price when a parcel of land was sold within the heerlijkheid.
  • Relief (keurmede): Usually the lord was entitled to levy a relief duty or heriot which was sometimes referred to in Dutch as the recht van de dode hand, "right of the dead hand". This was an inheritance tax on a deceased tenant's estate that granted the privilege to an heir to succeed to the deceased's estate. The amount was usually in the order of 5% of the value of the real property. Sometimes the lord also had the right to take the best chattel of the deceased. Depending on the region, this was referred to as the "best head right" (beste kateil/katell or beste hoofd, referring to the best head in the herd) or the "grand chair right" (hoogstoel, meaning the nicest piece of furniture in the household effects). Often there was also a special relief for the estate of a foreigner, someone not born in the heerlijkheid (inwijkeling) and illegitimate children.
  • Tolls (tolgelden): Tolls were charged to cross the borders of very many heerlijkheden. This was a kind of road toll (wegentol), but it also took the form of a charge on the transport of specific commodities (e.g. salt) or people.
  • Astrictions (banrechten): Tenants were restricted in tenure to make use of the infrastructure (mill, smith, oven, etc.) that was operated by the manorial lord more or less as a business. A typical example of these astrictions was thirlage (banmolen). Grain could only be ground at the lord's water mill or windmill. For this service, payment was required to the lord (or the miller who leased the mill from the lord).
  • Ecclesiastical privileges (kerkelijke rechten): In some heerlijkheden certain privileges that were in principle held by the church were absorbed by the heerlijkheid. Tithes might accrue to the feudal estate.
  • Fines (described in the previous part in the section on the appointment of the schout)
  • Quitrent (dienstgeld):[8] Released a tenant from services due by custom to his lord.
  • Appointment fee (referred to by Schama as the leenrecht): "The perquisite paid on appointment to office."[8]
  • Marriage and death duties: Marriage required the payment of a fee, the consent of the lord, merchet, etc. In some places in later years the lord would receive gifts on St. Walpurga's Day instead.[8] On death a tax also had to be paid.[6]

Heerlijkheden and the nobility[edit]

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.[6][9]

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.[5] 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[edit]

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.

  • for a barony (baronie): 6,000 guilders;
  • for a county (graafschap) or marquisate (markizaat): 12,000 guilders;
  • for a duchy (hertogdom) or principality (prinsdom): 24,000 guilders.

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.[9]

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.)[9]


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.[8]

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 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..." was based on the ownership of a castle or manor. Strictly speaking, they were simply the owners of a castle or manor (kasteeleigenaar) and thus "lords of the manor" (kasteelheer). Unlike in the U.K., there is no trade today in "lord of the manor" titles.

Heerlijkheid manors[edit]

Sign outside of former side of Heemstede Castle

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:


  1. ^ Van Dale. Groot Woordenboek Nederlands Engels. . The translation used by J.L. Price in Dutch Society 1588-1713 is "manor"; by David Nicholas in Medieval Flanders is "seigneury".
  2. ^ The unreferenced information in this article has been translated from the mostly unfootnoted article on "heerlijkheid" on the Dutch version of Wikipedia.
  3. ^ Much of the unreferenced information in this article is found at this website: Heerlijkheden van Holland (in Dutch only)
  4. ^ Heerlijkheden van Holland (in Dutch only)
  5. ^ a b c d e f Antheun Janse, "Een in zichzelf verdeeld rijk". Geschiedenis van Holland (Deel 1: tot 1572). pp. 70-102
  6. ^ a b c d David Nicholas. Medieval Flanders.  pp. 47, 50, 88, 106, 159, 341
  7. ^ a b I.M. Calisch and N.S. Calisch. Nieuw Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal 1864. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i Simon Schama. Patriots & Liberators.  pp. 75-77, 212, 222, 429, 470-472
  9. ^ a b c d e J.L. Price. Dutch Society 1588-1713.  pp. 174, 211, 212

External links[edit]

  • Heerlijkheden van Holland Site with lists and detailed information about heerlijkheden in 18th-century Holland and their owners.
  • Dutch Civic Heraldry Site with images and information about the coats of arms of municipalities and heerlijkheden that never became municipalities.