Berkhey, a village swallowed by history

Berkheide is a reserve in the dunes between Scheveningen and Katwijk on the dutch coast, well known by many nature lovers. Few people though know that the name of the area can be traced back tot Berkhey, a fishing village that was an outcast in the late Middle Ages and eventually was swept away by the end of the sixteenth century.

In the fourteenth century the Lord of Voorschoten, Gillis van Cralingen, came to the area of Wassenaar, the Netherlands. In 1396 he established the village of Berkhey in the dunes. ‘Berk’ means birch, a tree that was common in that area. ‘Hey’ means moorland, suggesting the new born village was meant for cattle breeding.

But the truth was that the Lord had planned a fishing village. Fishery was very successful these days in the surrounding villages Scheveningen and Katwijk aan Zee. Van Cralingen wanted his share. He would give anyone willing to work as a fisherman land to build a house. In exchange he demanded some of the catch and four percent of the yield. The plan turned out to be fortunate, leading to serious rivalry between Berkhey and the surrounding towns.

Berkhey, berkheide, katwijk

According to the Society Old Katwijk, the people of Berkhey were mostly heretics and scum. But the competitive situation might have lead to that assumption. From 1412, it was prohibited for people from Katwijk to settle in Berkhey or even to communicate with inhabitants of the nearby village.

Little is know about what happened to Berkhey after that. Quite a few heavy floods, like the Elizabeth Flood of 1421 and the All Saints Day Flood of 1570, swallowed parts of Katwijk and Scheveningen. It is likely to assume that Berkhey was stricken as well. The register of Berkhey fishing boats in that period recorded nine so called pincks in 1475 and only two left in 1515, a down bound trend.

Berkhey is pictured one more time in a preserved 1598 drawing of a stranded sperm whale. The village is on a french map dated 1622, but after that, history erased the unfortunate fishing village. The fact that derivates from Berkhey still are quite common today as surnames in Katwijk, supposes that the last inhabitants of Berkhey fled to the nearby village.

Who is prisoner GN0098?

During my research for an article on a murder in 1867, I incidentally come across a huge archive containing almost 2,000 mugshots of inmates of the Friesian prison around 1900. When I browse through the old pictures, one after the other long gone prisoner is looking me in the eyes. Often brutal, sometimes with a friendly smile. Some wear names and dates, but most nothing but a number.

Suddenly, prisoner GN0098 appears on my screen. Her picture is lacking name and date. All I can find out is that she was doing time in the women’s prison of Appingedam in Friesland, The Netherlands. Why? What has this young woman, almost a child, done to deserve spending her days between cold prison walls? Has she ever been released and what became of her?

We will probably never know. History swallowed GN0098 without leaving us her name. Neither will we ever know what she was thinking about when she looked into the camera with her dreamy eyes. But that a century later she would look through many computerscreens into the eyes of so many people that were not even born the day she will die, is something she would surely never have believed.

The return of a dead baron

In September 1876, a noble man in The Netherlands blows out his mind. Subsequently, his body disappears and the secret of its wherabouts becomes the local myth in the village of Kessel. In Juni 2015, a gardener accidentally finds a mysterious coffin. Is this the lost baron and what made him disappear?

It is the year 1876 in Kessel, a tiny, idyllic village on a rivershore in the south east Netherlands. Bypassing skippers recognise the town from the recently completed neogothical church and the bold, medieval castle, that seem in peaceful coexistence. But reality is quite different. The lord of the castle and the priest are in a conflict that eventually will lead to a mystery that will be told from generation to generation during the upcoming 150 years.

On Wednesday September 27th, baron Frederick Henry Charles of Keverberg is near death in his house Villa Oeverberg, a few hundred feet upstream of his castle. After only 51 years, illness and alcohol are about to end his turbulent, miserable life. In his last will, written a few days ago, it says that Baron Frits, as villagers tend to call him, blames his mother, brother and daughter for his decay, because they all turned their back on him. As a result of a dispute with the priest he has stated that he shall not be buried according to catholic rituals. Instead, he offers his body for scienific purposes to the University of Leiden, where he once studied. However, the university kindly rejects and the baron never makes it to the cemetery. What does happen to his remains, no-one knows. The body seems to have vanished in the air, those last days of September 1876.

Who was Baron Frits and what turned him into the lonely, bitter man whose body disappeared during  the mid-nineteenth century? Frederick Henry was born July 22th 1825  in Stonor, England, as the second child of the british Mary Lodge and the dutch baron Charles Louis of Keverberg. The father was a political hotshot. He had served under Napoleon during the french occupation and turned to King William 1 after the French were expelled. He died in 1841 and his family moved to Castle Keverberg in Kessel. At that time, Frits was a law student in Leiden and already had his first disputes with the Van Wylick-family, a powerful dynasty that Frits accused of stealing his property. Despite these fights, Frits became town councellor in 1851. Shortly after that, his mother and siblings left Keverberg to move to another castle, Aldenghoor in the nearby village of Haelen. Frits was alone in his castle, but not for long.

1857 he married Louise Villers de Pité, who gave birth to their daughter Mary Mathile a few years later. But the joy of a child could not consolidate the marriage. It was widely known that the castle was the scene to many terrible fights between the couple, eventually resulting in Louise fleading. When little Mary Mathilde was seven years old, she was taken away by her grandmother to never be brought back. The child spend her youth in several boarding schools. She even lived a while under a false name in Duesseldorf, Germany, to keep her hidden from her father. In 1859 Baron Frits lost his position in the town council, but he was not ready to let that happen. The next meeting, half past nine in the morning, he entered the room, obviously drunk, only to insult his successor. During a game of cards with some high placed friends in The Hague, Frits got an argument with a Prussian prince. Only diplomatic intervention could restrain them from a duel with pistols.

In 1869 it was priest Simons’ turn to become subject to baron Frits’ rage. Simons had the old church torn down and replaced by a new and bigger house of God. The old building had stood partly on the castle’s ground and tradition had it that this part was therefore exclusively for the habitants of the castle. This was not the case with the new church and thus the priest considered the tradition to be outdated. For compensation, Simons offered the baron the first row in church, but Frits did not accept that. He attended the first masses outside, on the exact spot where his old, private bench had been.

The priest critisized his default of catholic obligation, but baron Frits replied that he was very capable of getting to peace with God by himself. He never attended a mass again and his separation with the catholic church was definate. This was the reason why Frits did not want to be buried according to catholic tradition and therefore the cause of the mysterious disappearance of his dead body.

Was he buried in the gardens of his house Villa Oeverberg? The castle’s gardens? The family tomb in Haelen? The latter was not very likely, since Frits had disputes with his relatives as well. It is said that on his deathbed he had a loaded revolver standby, just in case his mother and siblings would come to say farewell. True or not, it is a fact that in his last will it can be read that he left serious sums of money to his maid and his servant, under the condition they would succeed to keep his relatives out.

Thus, a myth was born and told from father to son to grandson. Albeid it was not really all that mysterious. The dutch writer and historian Jacobus Craandijk visited the castle in 1880 and wrote about an overgrown grave in a corner of the yard, that was said to contain the castle’s last noble inhabitant. Although that assertion could not stop the myth, it does help a lot when over a century later, June 25th 2015, workers find a lead coffin in the castle’s garden.

A month later the coffin is opened by forensic antropologue Birgit Berk. She scrutinises the remains to conclude that they belonged to a 44 to 53 year old male, 175 to 179 centimeters tall. That suits with the few things we know about baron Frits. Stains on the inside of the ribs witness of a heavy case of pneumonia, perhaps tuberculosis, which could very well be the disease that killed the baron back in 1876. The lead coffin and hardly worn (i.e. little physical labor) joints make it likely this was a wealthy man.

Alltogether it is almost sure that the lost body of baron Frits is back, almost 139 years afte rit vanished. Still, we will probably never be hundred percent sure. That would need a DNA-match, but who to match with? His daughter Mary Mathilde became a nun and was buried in the convent’s cemetery, which was emptied in 1976, with all the bones thrown in a mass grave. Only Frits’ sister Elfrida’s remains can be found in a markes grave in the city of Roermond. Should she be exhumed? Perhaps it is better to spare what’s left of the mystery.

This article was published November 2015 in Quest Historie