By the late 1400s Leiden was the most populous town in the county of Holland, with about 14,000 inhabitants. Its prosperity depended chiefly on the cloth industry, which employed nearly half the town's population. Good times came to an end in 1477, when a century-long period of economic decline and social unrest began.
Leiden's history took a turn in the 1500s during the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule. In 1575, after a yearlong siege of the town by Spanish troops, Dutch leader William of Orange founded a Protestant university there. The town also began welcoming Protestant refugees from the southern Netherlands, who helped modernize the cloth industry.
Cultural life in Leiden was fairly regional. Two monasteries produced manuscripts, and Dutch literature flowered in local literary societies. Many of Leiden's leading literary figures sympathized with Protestantism, and the town adopted Calvinism* in 1572. However, a controversy over theology* that began in Leiden grew into a political and religious conflict that divided the Dutch republic.
In general, though, the religious climate in Leiden was very tolerant. In 1609 the town allowed English exile John Robinson to found his Separate Church, which had about 300 English members. In 1620 William Bradford, one of the leaders of this English community, organized the departure from Leiden of the first group of Pilgrims bound for New England.
Leiden's university gained fame throughout Europe, especially for its literary studies. Many renowned scholars taught there. Intellectual life also flourished outside the university, but Leiden played only a secondary role in the Golden Age of Dutch painting and literature that began in the late 1500s. The Dutch translation of the Bible, first published in Leiden in 1637, had a major influence on the Dutch language. Leiden also produced many talented painters, but most of them settled elsewhere. Renaissance architecture arrived in the town only in the late 1500s. A notable example can be seen in the facade of Leiden's town hall.
- * Calvinism
Protestant church founded by John Calvin
- * theology
study of the nature of God and of religion