Welcome To My Website

C J Underwood
Kenau and the True History of the Siege of Haarlem  is now avialable in eBook form. Please click on the book at the side, which will take you to the site.

CJ Underwood

Press Release March 2014
The True History of the Siege of Haarlem
Haarlem, Netherlands, spring 1572

King Phillip II of Spain spends his days praying on his knees and his nights devising strategies of war. But hard as he prays, the zealous king cannot convince the rebel Queen Elizabeth of England to surrender her protestant faith and take him as her lawful husband. Europe, he fears, will not be turned catholic without divine intervention. And as God’s right hand, he is the only soul alive prepared to subjugate the heathens of Northern Europe.
Under his command the Spanish army has all but conquered the small, but pivotal, Lowlands. Having taken Amsterdam some time beforehand, the soldiers are advancing towards the strategic city of Haarlem, triumphantly crushing towns and villages with such savagery that very few can quite believe the gruesome rumours that reach their city gates. Fantastical tales of Spanish barbarities and trickery drift into Haarlem on the prevailing wind, sometimes heeded, but largely ignored by the majority of those in power.
With the enemy is closing in on Haarlem by the hour, very few believe in the danger, even fewer are listening to sense, and the town is divided. Those that do recognise the imminent threat cannot warn their neighbours strongly enough, or shout their watchwords loud enough, or strengthen their houses effectively enough to stop the quick march of Phillip II’s brutal army.
Those that grasp the danger are but a handful of city elders, a mob of displaced noblemen who’ve banded together to form the Prince of Orange’s unofficial navy, the Sea Beggars. And one noblewoman…
Kenau Hasselaer.
Haarlem lies just ten miles west of Amsterdam. It has rested peacefully near to the North Sea coast for centuries, but now stands between Spain’s need to conquer the Low Countries entirely, and Holland’s right to remain at liberty. Holland cannot be conquered without Haarlem and as the Spanish army marches to take the city, it is city is thrown into disorganised panic. 
Mother, sister, widow and shipbuilder, Kenau Hasselaer is the sister-in-law of William of Orange’s physician.  She has much to lose, should Haarlem fall to Spain.  But with a passion to rival King Phillip’s own, Kenau forms a troop of three hundred women soldiers, furious and driven, to match the Spanish invaders blow for bloody blow. 
With these women, she launches a defense of the city in a desperate bid to protect her family, her way of life, and her beloved city.
A Visit to a Dutch University Inspires a Novel of a National Heroine
When I moved to the Netherlands in the early 1990s to work on a novel, I discovered a much different nation to write about. I first encountered the legend of Kenau Hasselaer when I overheard a professor and his students at the University of Leiden’s library, and was immediately captivated. The professor spoke about the savage sixteenth century Dutch Revolt against the invading Spanish King Phillip II, the revolt that inspired one woman’s fight to preserve the lifestyle that her family had nurtured for generations. Kenau’s battle was the seven-month Siege of Haarlem, 1572-1573. The professor recited the legend of this spirited aristocrat who had been driven to form an army of three hundred women soldiers. He said that Kenau had trained them to fight the Spanish back from the walls of Haarlem, but had refused to wear armour.
From the moment Kenau entered my consciousness, I determined to learn every possible detail about this inspirational female character, a woman that was grist to the mill of my own life story. Although I’d always written, I had spent my career at the time travelling a man’s world; I’d thought nothing of working as a chef in all-male brigades, and was the first woman in the British Merchant Navy to work in the North Sea.
My first surprise was that in the Netherlands the name Kenau was synonymous with the derogative, Bitch. If Kenau Hasselaer had indeed been a Dutch war heroine, I couldn’t understand why she was so maligned by modern Dutch society. After a thorough search of the Amsterdam women’s library, and various other institutions, I was baffled to find nothing more solid than a couple of cursory, albeit reliable, reference works and some old, unreliable stories of Kenau’s part in the siege. I found a tapestry of Kenau in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, but it wasn’t until some years later that paintings of Kenau Hasselaer were available online.
It seemed to me that legends have a lot to answer for, after all these years the fable that Kenau Hasselaer was a dedicated cutthroat for the sake of it should have morphed into something more honourable. She may indeed have been a hellcat, but she must have been so much more besides. Some legends just beg interrogation.   
Having visited Haarlem many times to research Kenau Hasselaer’s role in the siege, I enlisted the help of a few eminent historians, one of whom explained that Kenau must have been a frequent visitor to the Cityhouse to meet with Haarlem’s magistrates in order to collect writs that she’d handed to her debtors, some whom lived as far afield as Delft.
Luckily, those official meetings were well documented; otherwise very little personal information would have survived about Kenau’s lifestyle. One historian suggested to me that Kenau might have been quite an unwelcome sight at the Cityhouse, just for that reason alone. I don’t think she’d have been too happy with anyone poking about in her affairs, however, which is why I was so keen to get my facts right.’ My novel rigorously follows the historical details of the siege itself, which was also well documented. ‘It is a remarkable history that needs no embellishment, and the more I discovered, the deeper went my respect for Kenau Hasselaer, and indeed all the courageous citizens of Haarlem, particularly the women who withstood the brutality of sixteenth century warfare.
My second big surprise was that in Northern Europe at the time, when a city was under attack, women had always fought. Towns and cities were built with ramparts, they were formed as citadels, or bastions, and when attacked everyone defended their home.
Women were probably more vicious in battle than we’ve ever given them credit for, as a woman I feel particularly touched by accounts of man’s inhumanity towards women. I immediately put myself in Kenau’s shoes, as a mature Dutch woman, mother, and no fool, Kenau must have known that once those marauding Spaniards broke through the bulwarks and gates of Haarlem, she and her daughters, sisters and nieces would lose their lives in ways too terrible to contemplate. So Kenau wasted no time in contemplating the obvious; she rounded up three hundred of Haarlem’s toughest, most formidable women, and taught them how to defend themselves; to fight off the enemy, and to protect their beloved city. But first they rebuilt the decrepit walls of Haarlem.
Then they waited.
Apart from her noble lineage, Kenau had a sister who was married to the Prince of Orange’s physician, which suggests that she may have been privy to the intricacies of the political turmoil of the day.
The first report of Kenau’s role in the siege, written before it had even ended in 1573 by a Friesian scholar named Arcerius, was a published account of Kenau’s contemptuous baiting of the enemy. This might have been sixteenth century Dutch propaganda, of course, but the marvellous image of this woman at the walls of Haarlem taunting the Spanish with icons, relics and at times of hardship, bread and beer, has never left me.
I discovered that historians have disagreed for generations about Kenau’s role, both as a war heroine, and as a businesswoman.  Kenau was the widow of a Haarlem shipbuilder, and instead of marrying again after his death, it is entirely possible that she built ships in her own right. Her shipyard no longer exists, but had faced onto the Spaarne River, which runs through Haarlem, next to the Adriaan Windmill (Molen De Adriaan), which was built in 1778.  I learned that she had indeed traded in timber, so even if she hadn’t built ships, for a woman to be in such a strong business position in the sixteenth century shows a remarkably hardy sort of personality. However, I learned that after she was widowed, Kenau’s shipyard took multiple orders for ships that were suitable for the Dutch inland waterways. It is also documented that not only had Kenau bought property, but supplied timber for Haarlem to build a single-decked sailing galley. This ship would have been fitted with guns, and was big enough to hold 1,000 men. The city owed her money for the timber, and Kenau’s daughters continued fighting for this debt to be paid long after their mother’s death.
Despite the good deal of documented history about the siege, very little is known about the character of Kenau Hasselaer.
I believe that writing about any national legend carries a great deal of responsibility, but having researched the war in great detail, including Haarlem’s and Kenau’s role in the siege, I agree with certain academics that Kenau’s name has, at times, been denigrated. Legends can be exaggerated, but they don’t make themselves. I am always gripped by the sort of mind that cannot even contemplate defeat. Perhaps Kenau would not have been the sort of woman you’d want at your dinner party, and quite a challenging woman to get to know, or even like, on a personal level. As a character she certainly eluded me for a good while. I owe a debt of gratitude to those who have researched and written about Kenau Hasselaer, whatever their bias. 

The CJ Underwood Story

I grew up in an east Yorkshire seaside town where I spent much of my young life with my head in stories of oppressed girls with cruel, dominating, guardians, rebellious heroines, unfit mothers, and my absolute favourite, the bloody-minded sort of woman that always outmanoeuvres her tormentor. As I tramped the long, windblown beaches of my home town, I yearned to see more of the world, and daily plotted my own means of escape from the stifling north east.
Because of my desperate need for adventure, at the age of fifteen I wrote to the Duchess of Marlborough, asking for an apprenticeship in the Palace kitchens. The celebrated chef at Blenheim Palace trained me to cook to a very high standard, a skill which I used, and enhanced, on my journeys around the globe. At nineteen I fulfilled my childhood dream to go to sea, and I became the first woman in the British Merchant Navy to work in the North Sea. Then aboard the company’s sister ship, I sailed across the Pacific Ocean to the Far East. After leaving the Merchant Navy I travelled the world on land, cooking in New York, London, northern Europe and finally moving to the Netherlands, where I lived for over a decade.
I moved back to the UK in order work on my writing career in 2005, and using my Dutch language skills, I researched Kenau as part of my BA Creative Writing module. My research involved several trips to Haarlem, where I met up with a knowledgeable, and helpful, historian that helped me with everything from the value of Kenau’s silver pistol, to the Hasselaer family history, and the broader political intrigue of the Dutch Revolt’s impact on Haarlem. I read widely around the siege of Haarlem, visited museums such as the Frans Hals museum, Amsterdam’s Rijksmusem, and many others. I walked down Kenau’s street, found where her shipyard had been, and was even invited to the Haarlem Historical Society’s monthly meeting at Haarlem’s historic civic guard headquarters, the Hoofdwacht.
After writing the first draft, I was selected as mentee for The Times Mentoring Competition, in 2009 (London). I was expertly mentored by bestselling novelist Adele Parks, who imparted her skills and knowledge kindly and generously. Our progress was recorded by The Times for a year. With Adele’s skilful help I managed to turn the dry, academic document into an exciting historical novel.
For more information on the Dutch Revolt and short stories, please see my blog.
Thank you for reading

Email this page to a friend  
© Copyright 2013 CJ UnderwoodWebsite design by Toolkit Websites