Montelbaanstoren (Montelbaan Tower), Amsterdam


The Montelbaans­toren (Montel­baan Tower) is a characteristic Amsterdam tower on the corner of Oude­schans, built in 1516 as part of a defense structure for the Lastage area, over­looking the IJ and the Zuider­zee (former Southern Sea, now IJssel­meer). It was constructed as a watch­tower at the edge of a newly dug canal (then called Saint Anthony’s Dike) after the Guelderians, under the command of Charles of Guelders (1467-1538) had attacked Amsterdam in 1512 and completely burned down the Lastage area. The tower has been a national monument since 1970.

Oudeschans, Amsterdam, with Montelbaan Tower, viewed from Saint Anthony's Lock

Oudeschans with Montelbaan Tower, viewed from Saint Anthony’s Lock (September 2020).

Growth of the Lastage

In the 16th century the marsh­lands east of the city developed into an industrial port area, with rope­walks, mast factories and ship­yards for caulking and repairing ships (caulking makes ships water­tight by forcing fibres and tar between the wooden planks). Due to the location of the area outside the city wall, taxes were much lower here and planning regu­lations less strict. The adjacent bend in the IJ inlet (called Waal) was shallow, which, although unsuitable for merchant vessels, was ideal for docking ships in winter (Waals­eiland had not been created yet).

Aerial photo of Oudeschans, Amsterdam, in 1921

Aerial photo of the Oude­schans, 1921. Center left the Lastage area with Montel­baan Tower, top left Waals­eiland (created in 1634), top right Rapen­burg, bottom right Uilen­burg (both created around 1593). (Stads­archief Amsterdam).

The name Lastage derives from the various ship ballast-related activities here. Proposals by residents in 1543 and 1548 to incorporate the area into the city were never honored, despite many efforts. In the year 1550 there were already 550 houses outside the city walls. In 1564, the residents once again urged the city to expand the city to include the Lastage. Due to the potential fire hazard the city denied the pleas again.

Guelders Wars

The Guelders Wars (1502-1543) were a series of conflicts between the Duke of Burgundy (who controlled Holland, Flanders, Brabant, and Hainaut) and the Duke of Guelders (who controlled Guelders, Groningen and Frisia). The wars ended with a Burgundian victory, putting all of the Low Countries under the control of Charles V. Although the conflicts consisted mostly of small hit-and-run actions and raids, the hostilities and incidents had a huge impact on civilians.

Montelbaan Tower viewed from the water of the Oudeschans, Amsterdam

Montelbaan Tower viewed from the water of the Oudeschans, on the left the Oude Waal (January 2020).

The Lastage area was threatened several times by the troops of Charles of Guelders. In the spring of 1508, when Charles occupied the nearby towns of Weesp and Muiden, the city decided to burn the area down as a precautionary measure. In December 1512, the Lastage was burnt down again, this time at the hands of the Guelders troops.

Charles of Guelders was the last independent feudal ruler in the Netherlands. At the height of his power he controlled most of the provinces of Gelderland, Overijssel, Drenthe, Friesland and Groningen. To protect against his attacks, Amsterdam created the Oudeschans, using the earth dug out to create an earthen defense wall. Habsburg Ruler Charles V (1500–1558) granted Amsterdam the right to raise the beer levy to combat the cost of the works.

Oudeschans with Montelbaan Tower, Amsterdam, in 1895

Oudeschans with Montel­baan Tower in 1895, seen in SW direction from Prins Hendrik­kade (Stads­archief Amsterdam).

The Tower’s Name

The name Montel­baan Tower first appeared around 1537. Over time there were several theories to explain the name, but none of them are official. Many different spellings were used on drawings and maps: Mont Alban Toren, Mont Albaans Toren, Montal­baans­toren, Monkel­baens­toren. Then in the 17th century Olfert Dapper mentioned that the name could be derived from the plan by Spanish Duke of Alba to construct a castle here around 1568. In fact, the Amsterdam City Archive has a drawing of that plan from 1570, but the tower (and the name) existed well before that. Another theory suggested that a man named Montel (or Monkel) owned a rope­walk here, called Montel­baan (Montel’s Walk — lijn­baan is Dutch for rope­walk).

Herengracht corner Leidsegracht, Amsterdam, gable stone depicting the Four Sons of Duke Aymon

Herengracht corner Leidsegracht, gable stone depicting the Four Sons of Duke Aymon on their horse Bayard (February 2023).

In the 18th century historian Jan Wagenaar saw a link to the French castle Montauban in Southern France, 50 km (31 mi) north of Toulouse. There may well have been a house called Montelbaan nearby the tower in Amsterdam. A very popular medieval tale circulated in many countries of Western Europe, which told of the adventures of the Four Sons of Duke Aymon (Dutch: Vier Heems­kinderen) and their magical horse Bayard in their revolt against Emperor Charlemagne. The tale was based on manuscripts by Renout of Montalbaen, one of the four sons, who built a castle on a rock in southern France, called Montalbaan.

Many houses in Amsterdam (and elsewhere) had gable stones depicting scenes from this wide­spread medieval tale. Two remaining gable stones showing the fours sons and their horse can be found at Heren­gracht 394 and at Damrak 47.

Herengracht 394, Amsterdam, gable stone with the four sons of Duke Aymon on their magical horse Bayard

Herengracht 394, gable stone with the Four Sons of Duke Aymon on their magical horse Bayard (February 2023).

Repurposing the Tower

When the city expanded again in 1591, the Montel­baan Tower lost its strategic function. It was first lowered so it would not be higher than the new bastions and was then used as a guard house and storage. In 1606 an octa­gonal brick layer was added to the tower with a wooden spire on top of it, covered with lead and painted in a sandstone color, presumed to be designed by city sculptor Hendrick de Keyser. This made the tower 48 m (157.5 ft) high. To appease the inhabitants of the area (who previously had no way to tell time), the city added a clock and two bells. The clock initially did not have a hand for the minutes — that was only added in 1890.

In 1610, after only four years, the tower started to sag on its inadequate foundation of sods and clay, due to the increased weight, the wind load and the water flow between Amstel and IJ. It was then supported by poles and straightened with winches and cables. A new foundation and thick wall around the base kept the tower upright. But after these operations the clock and bells of the tower started to behave erratically: they started to sound at the strangest times, sometimes followed by days long silence, which earned the tower the nickname Crazy Jacob (Malle Jaap). In 1760 the whole third and fourth floor internal constructions were renovated.

The base of the Montelbaan Tower, Amsterdam

The base of the Montelbaan Tower (August 2019).

In 1852 the Montelbaan Tower narrowly escaped demolition, when the city council refused to pay for its restorations (they argued that the tower had neither historic nor achitectural value). A last minute financial windfall saved the tower. From 1878 until 2006 the tower housed the city’s Water Management Office. In 1906 it was also used as a police station. In 1908 the added brick and wooden constructions around the tower were demolished and the tower was internally restructured. Another internal restructuring followed in 1964-1966.

In 1967 the original sandstone color on the spire was restored, which had turned grey over time. After 2006 the tower stood empty for a long time, as no one wanted to pay the exorbitant rent which the city asked. The tower and spire were extensively renovated in 2006. In 2010 it housed the Secret Garden foundation, today it is home to the company Private Boat Tours, offering canal tours on classic saloon boats.

Favorite of Painters

The Montelbaan Tower has been a favorite of many painters through the centuries — and the view has changed remarkably little since the tower was built. Rembrandt drew the tower in 1644, but without the added top. The tower was painted twice in 1874 by Claude Monet (1840–1926), once viewed along the Oude­schans and once viewed from Rapen­burgwal.

Embarkation of Company Troops at the Montelbaan Tower, Amsterdam, painting by Abraham Storck

Embarkation of Company Troops at the Montelbaan Tower, by Abraham Storck (1644-1708) between 1670 and 1690 (Amsterdam Museum).

Montelbaans Tower, Amsterdam, painting by Claude Monet from 1874

Montelbaans Tower, painting by Claude Monet from 1874.

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