What Brought The Pilgrims, Rembrandt, And Tulips To Leiden?

People who changed the world once lived in Leiden and were inspired by it. What was Leiden’s unique secret in the first half of the 17th century that attracted them to Leiden? What in Leiden inspired them….?

Leiden offered a unique combination of religious tolerance, open-mindedness, scientific innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit in the first half of the 17th century. This combination attracted the Pilgrim Fathers and let young Rembrandt van Rijn flourish. Scientists from Leiden University experimented with tulips, nowadays our national symbol.

Read on to find out what drove that glorious period in the history of Leiden.

What Was Leiden Famous For?

Leiden is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands. The first inhabitants of Leiden had already settled around 900 AC in the area. Leiden received city rights in 1266. During the following centuries, industry and trade flourished in Leiden, making it one of the Netherlands’ most important cities.

Leiden became famous when the Spanish army besieged the city in 1573-1574 during the independence war and could not conquer the city.

The Netherlands was at war with Spain, and the city of Leiden decided to join the Prince of Orange in the uprising against Spain. The Spanish governor was furious and sent an army to Leiden to conquer the city and crush the rebellion.

The Spanish army besieged Leiden for many months, and 6.000 of the 18.000 inhabitants starved to death. Leiden’s siege was ended in October 1574 by flooding the land around the city because that part of The Netherlands was below sea level.

The water forced the Spanish army to flee and secured a crucial victory in the young history of The Netherlands. The victory over the Spanish is celebrated annually in Leiden at the beginning of October.

You can then enjoy three days of celebration and festivities in Leiden, and many of its inhabitants behave as if it is their last day on earth and make sure that they will not starve themselves….!

The Foundation Of Leiden University

In 1575, Prince William of Orange granted Leiden the right to found the first university in the Netherlands. Some historians claim that Prince William of Orange supported Leiden’s people this way, but the truth was probably more pragmatic.

The Prince of Orange desperately needed well-educated civil servants to support him in governing the country. Leiden University could “produce” such highly educated civil servants.

Whatever the reason behind the decision to found Leiden University, fostering innovation is one of the cornerstones of Dutch mentality and culture and has contributed significantly to the country’s development.

Leiden University has attracted superb scientific talent who have contributed significantly throughout the centuries.

  • Carolus Clusius founded the botanical gardens of Leiden University at the end of the 16th century.
  • Christiaan Huygens was a professor at Leiden University in the 17th century and a prominent Dutch mathematician, astronomer, and physicist. He is seen as the most outstanding Dutch scientist of all time.
  • Albert Einstein was also a guest lecturer at Leiden University, and he fondly called Leiden that delightful piece of land on this barren planet.

The Introduction Of Tulips In Leiden

As a part of Leiden University, the Hortus Botanicus Leiden (Botanical Garden of Leiden) was founded at the end of the 16th century.

The Leiden botanical gardens were laid out around 1590, and it was here that Carolus Clusius grew the first tulips in The Netherlands. Tulips were seen as a status symbol and grew steadily in popularity.

The wealth in The Netherlands increased tremendously in the first half of the 17th century. The trading in tulips culminated in a tulip mania in 1636-1637, during which the price of rare tulip bulbs skyrocketed to insane prices. At its peak, the price of a rare tulip bulb exceeded that of a canal house in Amsterdam.

The cultivation of tulips is an example of the innovative spirit in Leiden at the beginning of the 17th century. Leiden was attracting scientists like Carolus Clusius, and the culture in The Netherlands was open-minded and entrepreneurial.

You may be interested in another article on this website (why is The Netherlands known for tulips?) if you want to learn more about the history of tulips in The Netherlands.

The area north of Leiden, the Bollenstreek, is now one of the country’s most famous tulip areas and offers an excellent opportunity to enjoy the most beautiful tulip fields in The Netherlands.

Read the 6 best places to see Dutch tulips for free for more (and quieter) regions in The Netherlands to see the blooming tulip fields in the spring.

Why Did The Pilgrims Seek Refuge In Leiden

In the years after the victory against the Spanish at Leiden, the Dutch steadily gained the upper hand in the independence war against Spain. Finally, the independence war was decisively won when the combined Dutch and English fleet destroyed a Spanish Armada in 1588.

That allowed the Dutch to start exploring the world with their innovative merchant sailing ships, and their entrepreneurial spirit brought enormous wealth to The Netherlands in the next century.

The victory against Spain secured the freedom of religion, and religious tolerance became a cornerstone of The Netherlands and its culture. This religious tolerance attracted the Pilgrims, who sought refuge in Leiden in 1609 and lived there until 1620.

The permission to live in Leiden was granted with an answer that makes one proud to be Dutch:

No honest persons will be refused free and unconstrained entry
to the city of Leiden to take up residence”

Upon arrival in Leiden, most of the roughly 100 Pilgrims could immediately find work in the city’s textile industry – among the largest in Europe at the time. It was a period of enormous economic expansion in The Netherlands and Leiden because of the tremendous wealth from the overseas colonies.

The Pilgrims bought land near the Pieterskerk in Leiden’s center and built houses known as the English Alley. Most Pilgrims had little trouble integrating into this dynamic, multicultural society in The Netherlands. But, as a result, their leaders feared that the group would eventually lose its religious and cultural identity.

Establishing a private colony to retreat and sustain their pure faith community became an increasingly attractive solution for them. Moreover, it was economically attractive for many Pilgrims to leave Leiden and build up a new life in America because life in Leiden was pretty hard for most Pilgrims.

In 1620, the Pilgrims set sail for the New World and founded the United States of America.

I also highly recommend visiting the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum in the Beschuitsteeg 9 in Leiden if you visit Leiden and want to explore the Pilgrims’ period in Leiden in more detail.

Rembrandt van Rijn

Perhaps the most famous person who ever lived in Leiden is Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt van Rijn was born and raised in Leiden and studied at Leiden University for several years. Rembrandt was educated and inspired in Leiden, an environment that allowed him to develop his phenomenal talent.

Rembrandt lived in Leiden until he was 25, when he moved to Amsterdam in 1632. By then, he was already a national celebrity. Moreover, Rembrandt could live very well from his paintings while still in Leiden because Leiden’s wealthy merchants could afford his paintings.

These orders from wealthy Leiden merchants were crucial to allow Rembrandt to focus on painting to earn a living.

These open-minded, entrepreneurial merchants were also willing to let Rembrandt experiment with painting. Fortunately, they loved how he integrated light and shadow into his work, which led to the creation of many world-renowned masterpieces.

Tourist Attractions in And Around Leiden

Next to these world-changing events that originated in Leiden and are described above, you can also visit other tourist attractions in Leiden.

Leiden can best be explored with a trip to watch the tulips in springtime in The Keukenhof or the region above Leiden. I have described the best places to watch tulips in the Netherlands and encourage you to read that post for more details.

However, it will not always be springtime and an excellent opportunity to watch the flowers. Therefore, I have added a description of other tourist attractions In Leiden to this post. I have collected these other tourist attractions in an easy-to-use interactive map below. You can click on each number to get more information.


Naturalis is a museum that builds on a century-old tradition in Leiden of studying biodiversity. The tulips are a prime example of that tradition. Naturalis extends that age-old custom and has excellent models of dinosaurs as eye-catchers. You can check their website for more information.


Corpus is a large building in the form of a human body in which you walk from body part to body part to get a better understanding of what happens in your body. Corpus is a very innovative concept and educational for children and yourself.

I highly recommend visiting the Corpus Experience because it is unique, fun, and educational. I enjoyed it very much!

Please note that Corpus is a little bit outside the city’s center.

The National Museum Of Antiquities

This museum is a typical Leiden museum. Its origin goes back to the exploration of the globe by the Dutch in the 16th century. Check out their website for more information and opening hours.

National Museum Volkenkunde

The National Museum Volkenkunde also traces back to the exploration of the globe by the Dutch in the 16th and 17th centuries and their interest in the other cultures they met on their journeys. This museum gives you a tour de force through various cultures and people worldwide. The museum focuses on unknown cultures, from Bali to Guatemala, Mecca to Djenne.

The underlying message is that there may be differences in economic prosperity today, but people who live in other parts of the world are just like us and, above all, human. So the implicit message that this museum would like to give is everyone is equal. That message resonates very well in an egalitarian society like The Netherlands.

Visit their website to find more information about this museum.

The castle of Leiden
The castle of Leiden

The Castle Of Leiden

The Castle of Leiden is one of the oldest remaining castles in the Netherlands. The castle protected the people of Leiden in times of war. The castle was built in the 11th century, and the artificial hill originates from the 9th century. You will have a fantastic view of the city from here; certainly worth the walk.

More information can be found here.


Pim has lived his entire life in The Netherlands and he enjoys revisiting all the Dutch towns he liked and rediscovering all activities that he enjoyed.