Netherlands Historical Geography

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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 Flanders, which was part of the county of Flanders (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
  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.

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 Flanders
  4. Gelderland
  5. Utrecht
  6. Groningen
  7. Overijssel and Drenthe

Also included in this union were large parts of the present provinces of Noord-Brabant, Limburg, and Zeeuws Flanders, which were controlled directly by the central government (the States General). Further, the Republic at one time included all of the modern country of Belgium, the present-day departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais in France, and the area of Ostfriesland in Germany.

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.

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.

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.

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 Family History Library Catalog under:





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.