A bird's eye view
The oldest university in the Netherlands was founded on 8 February 1575 in the Pieterskerk in Leiden. This was at the time of the Eighty Years’ War with the uprising of the northern provinces against domination by the Spanish.
William of Orange believed that the Dutch Republic needed a university to educate good clergy and other competent members of society. Since the Dutch Revolt, Protestant students were no longer accepted at the university in the Catholic city of Leuven in Belgium.
The university was probably a gift to the city of Leiden for the city’s resistance against the Spanish. William of Orange’s letter to the States General announcing his intention to found the university can still be found in the University Library.
The wonder of Europe
Thanks to political and religious freedom, the university flourished and within 75 years had become ‘the wonder of Europe’. This development coincided with the Dutch Golden Age and was based on three main pillars:
- Economic growth
- Free speech
- Cultural and scientific growth
The first academy building was a former cloister at the corner of Rapenburg and Begijnhof. The well-known anatomical theatre and fencing school were also accommodated there. In 1581, the university moved to the Academy Building on the Rapenburg.
Education in the 16th and 17th centuries
In the 16th and 17th centuries, students from all over Europe came to Leiden. The academy was the leading Protestant university and consisted of three faculties:
All classes were taught in Latin and students attended classes at several locations: the library, the anatomical theatre, the Hortus Botanicus and the fencing or engineering school. Most students lived in the area around the Pieterskerk, Leiden’s Latin Quarter.
18th century: flourishing and stable
Around the year 1700 the university underwent a period of intellectual flourishing. Descartes and Newton were sources of inspiration. Leiden professors, such as Boerhaave, were the first to test electricity and steam with self-invented instruments. The university also built laboratories for the study of physics and chemistry.
Over the course of the eighteenth century, the university had to adjust its international ambitions due to the economic slowdown and collapse of the job market. The number of enrolments decreased and studying became a privilege of the small group of the wealthy elite.
Turmoil in the 19th century
The nineteenth century was a turbulent period. The university marched along with the patriots and followed the example of the French. However, after the French period, the academy underwent a revival. The economy picked up and by 1875 the university was one of the largest in Europe.
Practical research was, however, declining. Halfway through the century, archaeologist Reuvens and legal scholar Thorbecke emphasised the importance of growth and change. Education and research again came together with the construction of a physics laboratory and the new Leiden Observatory.
The Second Golden Age (1876 - 1940)
The 1876 Education Act gave a new impetus to education. Facilities were renovated and expanded. The university had the library and Academy Building rebuilt and new laboratories were constructed.
In the 1920s the university acquired a leading international position. Many Nobel Prize winners and famous professors were from Leiden. Names such as Lorentz, Kamerlingh Onnes, Einstein, Ehrenfest, De Sitter, Oort, Huizinga, and Einthoven still appeal to the imagination today.
1940 to the present day
Early in World War II, the German occupiers closed the university. The closure was in response to the famous speech by Professor Rudolph Cleveringa, in which he denounced the removal of Jewish colleagues from the university. With his protest speech, Cleveringa was honouring the university’s motto: Bastion of freedom.
The post-war growth once again brought about changes. Old buildings were assigned different purposes and a new knowledge centre was established on the outskirts of the city. A new academic hospital and laboratories for sciences were also built.
In 1998, Leiden University founded Campus The Hague. The study programmes offered closely reflect the key themes of The Hague: peace, justice, and security. Currently, six of Leiden University’s seven faculties are represented in The Hague.
If you would like to find out more about the university in the present day, please go to About us on the website.