Netherlands Historical Geography

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The FamilySearch moderator for The Netherlands is Daniel Jones.

Before Independence[edit | edit source]

Prior to 1543 the area now in the present provinces of the Netherlands consisted of the following jurisdictions:

  1. The counties of Holland and Zeeland, with the islands of Vlieland and Terschelling, but excluding Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, which was part of the province of Vlaanderen (Belgium)
  2. The Bishopric of Utrecht, including Groningen City, Goorecht, and the present provinces of Overijssel and Drenthe
  3. The Duchy of Gelre, including most of the present province of Limburg, except the southern part and the manors of Borculo, and Lechtenvoorden; some parishes in the eastern part of the county of Zutphen, which belonged to the Bishopric of Munster; and the enclave southeast of Arnhem, which was a part of Cleves. The countship of Gelre, or Geldern, established in the 11th century around castles near Roermond and Geldern (now in Germany). The counts of Gelre acquired the Betuwe and Veluwe regions and, through marriage, the countship of Zutphen. Thus had the counts of Gelre laid the foundation for a territorial power that, through control of the Rhine, Waal, Meuse, and IJssel rivers, was to play an important role in the later Middle Ages. It is now know as Gelderland. (See:
  4. The Duchy of Brabant, including the southern part of the present province of Limburg
  5. Friesland
  6. Groningen, except Groningen City and Goorecht

These independent jurisdictions were united as states in 1543 under the reign of Charles V, emperor of Germany and king of Spain. In 1555, Charles V abdicated the throne, and his son, Philip II, became lord of the Netherlands states. Because of heavy taxation to support the wars with France, the centralization of the government, the restriction of ancient freedoms of the states, and the persecution of heretics (non-Catholics), rebellion developed into a war for independence. This war lasted 80 years.

Dutch Republic[edit | edit source]

The Dutch established their own central government from 1572 to 1588 by incorporating the liberated provinces, and from about 1588 to 1795 the area was known as the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. It was a federation of states, each with a great deal of autonomous power. The following provinces were part of this union:

  1. Holland, except Sommelsdijk, which belonged to Zeeland
  2. Friesland
  3. Zeeland, including Sommelsdijk and excluding most of Zeeuws-Vlaanderen
  4. Gelderland
  5. Utrecht
  6. Groningen
  7. Overijssel

Drenthe was an independent county, but due to its poverty it gave up the right to statehood and representation in the central government (States-General) in exchange for exemption from taxes.

Also included in this union were the "Generality Lands", large parts of the present provinces of Noord-Brabant, Limburg, and Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, which were controlled directly by the States-General.

Local Government and feudalism[edit | edit source]

Prior to about 1800 the smaller political units in each province or state were comprised of various types of manors [heerlijkheden], towns [steden], and liberties [vrijheden]. In the rural areas during the early Middle Ages there were high manors [hooge-heerlijkheden] that owed their existence to the feudal estates (fiefs obtained from the dukes, counts, and bishops), which were controlled by their bailiffs [baljuws]. Titles to these manors became hereditary.

The manors [schoutsheerlijkheden or ambtsheerlijkheden] owed their existence to the land-lease registry offices of the dukes, counts, and bishops, which offices were controlled by bailiffs or sheriffs [schouten]. These manors also became hereditary and later became salable.

During the 13th century the towns and their liberties obtained their rights (charters) from the dukes, counts, or bishops. At first they were judicially controlled by the bailiffs and sheriffs, but soon they achieved independent jurisdiction. Some towns later bought one or more manors in their vicinity that contained several villages and hamlets.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, villages sometimes purchased their freedom by buying the manors in which they were located. In other instances the landholders in the villages, rather than the villages, bought the manorial rights.

French period and Kingdom of the Netherlands[edit | edit source]

During the French period, 1795 to 1813, the basis for the modern municipal boundaries was laid. These were created from the various town and manorial jurisdictions, following approximately the old manorial boundaries. Since that time the number of municipalities has decreased progressively because of annexations, especially by the larger towns.

Repertorium van Nederlandse Gemeenten vanaf 1812 (Overview of Dutch municipalities since 1812): Gazetteer that shows changes in municipalities over the years, including merges. Skip over the introductory material to where the actual listings begin on page 52. The first line gives the existence dates. "Afgesplitst" means "split off of", "toegevoegd" means "added", "opgegaan in" means "merged"' "ontstaan uit" means "originated from".

Boundary changes took place in Gelderland from 1816 to 1820. Land was also exchanged at that time with Prussia and between Utrecht and the province of Holland.

Holland was divided into Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland in 1840. Flevoland was created from parts of Overijssel and reclaimed land in 1986. Minor changes to provincial boundaries have occurred due to municipalities from different provinces being merged together.

Further reading[edit | edit source]

The following books explain more about the Netherlands’ historical geography. You can find these and similar materials at the Family History Library and many other research libraries.

  • The Columbia Lippincott Gazetteer of the World. Morningside Heights, New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. (FHL book 910.3 C723g.)
  • Dozy, G. J. Historische Atlas ten Gebruike bij het Onderwijs in Algemeene en Vaderlandsche Geschiedenis (Historical Atlas for Use in Teaching General and Dutch History). 2nd rev. ed. Zutphen: W. J. Thieme, 1902. (FHL book 949.2 E7d; film 1181864 item 1.)
  • Smith, C. T. An Historical Geography of Western Europe Before 1880. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1967. (FHL book 940 E3s.)

Other sources containing information about boundary changes are found in the FamilySearch Catalog under:





The most well-known atlas of Jacob Kuyper was the "Gemeente (Township)Atlas of the Netherlands". The maps of this atlas were drawn by J. Kuyper in the years 1865-1870.

The historical atlases described in the "Maps" section contain maps depicting boundary changes, migration and settlement patterns, military actions, and ethnic and religious population distribution. Gazetteers and histories are also helpful sources of information about name and boundary changes. See the "Gazetteers" and "Place Names" sections for more information.

Another great web-site that shows the bounderies through the ages is: WHKMLA Historical Atlas and History of the Netherlands