The Star Fort of Bourtange is one of the most unique fortifications in Europe, for several reasons. First, it is the only site that consists primarily of earthworks rather than stone walls. Its design became a prototype that was soon replicated in Europe and colonies around the world. Second, the Star Fort is now inhabited and maintained as a small village with a living museum, in much the same way as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Here visitors can see not only one of the world’s finest examples of an early gunpowder-ready fortification, but also experience what life was like in 18th century Holland. The Star Fort is also a mind-blowing study in geometry, and should be viewed from the air in order to be fully appreciated.
In the mid-16th century, the Hapsburg family ruled over a vast amalgemation of nations and territories in Europe, inclusing Austria, Spain, parts of Italy and the Low Countries. Vying with them for territory and power were England and France who were busy building overseas empires, as well as various smaller states in Germany, Scandinavia and elsewhere. Against this tense backdrop was the added pressure of growing animosity between the Catholics and Protestants. Europe was gearing up for what became nearly a century of secular and religious warfare. The first blows fell in 1566, when a union of seventeen Dutch provinces openly broke with the Spanish Hapsburgs. Known as the Eighty Years War or Dutch Revolt, this would later be absorbed into the Thirty Years War in the 17th century.
In the early years the war went badly for the Dutch. But in 1585 Spain went to war with England, and the Dutch gained a major ally. English troops were sent to the Netherlands, and most of the northern territories which constitute most of modern day Netherlands became independent in all but name. However, a loyal Spanish garrison held out in the northern town of Groningen. Supplied by friendly powers in Germany, Groningen became a major thorn in the side of the Dutch and English.
The Dutch decided to starve the Spanish out by cutting the road to Germany. To this end the Star Fort of Bourtange was built. Having learned that classic castles with high stone walls were no match for modern cannon, the Star Fort employed state-of-the-art engineering techniques that were designed to maximize firepower against invaders while minimizing the exposure of the defenders. It would later become a prototype that would be used in fortifications around the world. The Star Fort was an unmitigated success. Completed in 1593, the Spanish were utterly unable to overcome it and surrendered Groningen less than a year later.
After the collapse of Groningen, Bourtange became a major army base for the Dutch for the next 250 years. Amazingly, despite its location and strategic importance, the Star Fort rarely saw action again, even during the Thirty Years War and Napoleanic Wars. In the 1850s Bourtange was abandoned by the Dutch military and taken over by locals who converted the site into a village, which it remains to this day. A century later, in the 1960s, the entire site was restored to its 1742 condition. Since then, Bourtange and its inhabitants have become part of a living, open-air museum which daily recreates Dutch life in the 18th century.
The Star Fort of Bourtange is a masterpiece of geometric perfection, one which, unfortunately for most tourists, is best appreciated from the air. From a military standpoint it is somewhat similar to a linear castle, but one that is protected by a labyrinth of walls, earten ramparts and moats. The main fortress is shaped like a five-pointed star with a central pentagonal courtyard which housed the original garrison building and now the village. This is protected by the primary moat. Two smaller fortifications, also protected by outer moats, add additional defensive layers. To reach the inner fortress invaders must pass over no fewer than four easily defended causeways.
The heart of the main fortress is now home to the Village of Bourtange, which is now a living museum. This 18th century recreation centers around a market square, and is home to a barracks, a smithy, warehouses, a pub, a church and even a synagogue. There is also a museum with assorted military exhibits and a liberal sprinkling of cannons around the fort’s outer walls. Once the area around Bourtange would have been kept well cleared to prevent advancing enemies from having access to cover. But now the whole perimeter is lined with neat rows of trees and ornamentals. The formidable earthen ramparts are now covered in neatly manicured lawns. The whole village can easily be mistaken for a botanical garden, rather than one of Europe’s mightiest fortresses.
The Star Fort dominates the village of Bourtange on the German-Netherlands border, approximately 90 miles east of Amsterdam and 50 miles west of Bremen. Because the site is an active part of the village, it is always open. The Museums are open from April to October from 10:00am-5:00pm (opens at 11:00 on weekends); and from November to March from 12:30pm-4:30pm. Admission to the fort is free. Web: www.bourtange.nl (official website).
The Dutch were among the most prolific and innovative builders of forts and fortresses during the colonial era. Most of their focus was on protecting overseas possessions, but a large number were also built in the Netherlands itself. Foremost among these, in addition to Bourtange, were Fort Nassau and Fort Orange in Aardenburg near the border with Belgium.