Amsterdam, the imperial crown on the Westertoren

The Crowned City

Did Amsterdam really receive the right to carry the Emperor’s crown above the city emblem as a gift of gratitude, or — much more prosaic — did they just buy that right? A bit of both, it turns out. This is a tale of politics, different crowns, city trade marketing, disputes over colours, and how urban legends were created to polish Amsterdam’s public image and promote pilgrimage tourism in those days.

Maximilian I's crown on the Blauwbrug, Amsterdam

The crown on the Blauwbrug (Blue Bridge) across the Amstel (July 2020).

Hooks & Cods

The Hook and Cod wars were a series of wars, battles and skirmishes in the Low Countries between 1350 and 1490. The feudal system was a chaotic mess, with lots of smaller local nobility with varying priviliges and a country overlord somewhere else. The growing cities gained more and more autonomy, and younger cities like Amsterdam did not adhere silently to the local nobility with their never­ending wars and related requests.

The Hook faction consisted mostly of conservative nobility and their interests, against the more centralised Burgundy reign. The Cod faction consisted largely of the more progressive cities, in favour of the Burgundy reign and against the local noblemen. The lesser nobility saw their privileges and finances dwindle with the big noble houses gaining power and growing cities becoming smarter at avoiding the crippling taxes for all the petty wars. Allegiance was a fickle thing though and strange choices were made all the time.

The Burgundy Reign

Amsterdam had been a part of the Burgundy Reign since 1433. In 1477 Maximilian I of Austria (1459-1519) married Mary of Burgundy, heiress to the Duchy of Burgundy, and thus he also became regent of the Low Countries (including Flanders) in 1482. The cities with their fat wallets were naturally always the darlings of the Burgundy dukes.

Left Maximilian I (1459-1519), right his son Philip the Handsome (1478-1506)

Left: Maximilian I (1459-1519) — Right: his son Philip the Handsome (1478-1506).

Amsterdam, growing fast in the 16th century, was becoming an important player in inter­national trade, much to the chagrin of older Dutch cities who had been dominant until then. Many regularly sent small armies to Amsterdam to pillage and destroy. Amsterdam, making sure to always contribute on time to the Burgundy ruler financially, counted on his influence and help in these conflicts.

The Wall & the Crown

The powerful bishop of Utrecht resented the Burgundy’s meddling in his succession and financial affairs. Maximilian, who was regent for his minor son Philip, laid siege on Utrecht in 1483 and won. Triumphant he rode into Amsterdam and urged the city to finish the stone wall, which had been stalled due to the cost of the wars. Maximilian had to cope with revolts in Flanders and trouble with the Hook cities and nobilities. Amsterdam supported him financially in 1485 (with an eye on his future military support of course), and again with a substantial loan in 1488.

Emperor Maximilian I granting the imperial crown to Amsterdam

Emperor Maximiliaan I of Habsburg granting the imperial crown to the Amsterdam city virgin.
(tableau vivant during the festivities for the visit of Maria de’ Medici to Amsterdam in 1638)

As a thank you for the financial help and for the way he was received in Amsterdam, Maximilian granted the city additional priviliges, most importantly the privilege to carry the reign’s crown on top of the city’s coat of arms, “for now and until all eternity”. Maximilian became Holy Roman Emperor from 1508 until his death, but he never really got to Rome (the trip being too dangerous) to receive the Papal coronation traditionally needed for the adoption of the imperial title.

Regaining the Crown

When Maximilian’s son Philip became ruler in 1494, he promptly declared all privileges and contracts arranged by his parents null and void and re-negotiated the interest on Amsterdam’s loan to his father. In 1497 the city invited Philip to visit and pampered him no end. After which mayor Andries Boelens Dircksz went to Den Haag to try and convince Philip to once again confirm the right to carry the crown on the city seal. For a very handsome sum of money he got the privilege back, signed and sealed.

Imperial crown above the Amsterdam seal at the Spinhuissteeg, Amsterdam

Imperial crown above the Amsterdam seal at the Spinhuis, Spinhuis­steeg (January 2020).

So Amsterdam actually bought her crown — which wasn’t even an Emperor’s crown when they got it. Nevertheless, the crown on the city’s seal was a very important advantage and recommendation to have in all trade dealings abroad. When Maximilian became Emperor, the city wasted no time in replacing the original Habsburg crown and proudly promoting the Imperial Crown above the seal everywhere, without even bothering to ask for permission for the change.

Urban Legend

City marketing with a lax attitude towards actual facts is not just a modern invention. The urban legend created to support the Emperor’s crown on Amsterdam’s seal told that Maximilian had gotten very ill during a visit to Den Haag in 1489. Fearing for his life, he was said to have promised — if cured — to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Stead on the Rokin in Amsterdam, where they revered a host which had not been consumed by fire in 1345. Once recovered, he was said to have immediately followed up on his promise for the pilgrimage, then went to the city council and granted them the right to carry the crown above the seal.

Engraving after a stained glass window in the Holy Stead Chapel, Rokin, Amsterdam

Engraving after a stained glass window in the Holy Stead Church on the Rokin, made by Pieter Nolpe (1625-1650). It depicts Maximilian I giving thanks to the host which did not want to burn from the Miracle of Amsterdam (1345), allegedly responsible for his miracle cure. He is seen wearing the Emperor Crown, but he did not become emperor until 14 years later.

It was a clever bit of Catholic marketing (like the whole Miracle of Amsterdam story was), except he fell ill in Den Haag in 1484 and not in 1489, so five years earlier. City chronicler Piet Scheltema even went so far as to publish a note in 1855 in which he “corrected” the year to be more in line with the legend. The miracle cure legend was kept alive mostly in Catholic lore. In 1884, 400 years later, Habsburg Empress Sisi of Austria (1837–1898) visited the Begijnhof Chapel to commemorate Maximilian’s miraculous cure.


The famous Wester­toren (Western Tower) on the Wester­kerk, its spire 85 meters high, dates from 1638 and carries one of the more prominent imperial crowns. Except that this is not Maximilian’s crown, but a crown which was modeled by architect Hendrick de Keijser after the one which Emperor Rudolf II had in 1602 ordered to be made by Dutch goldsmith Jan Vermeyen in Antwerp. A standard emperor’s crown consists of a bishop mitre over which a crown is placed, a gold band over it, on top an orb topped by a cross (globus cruciger).

Westertoren, Amsterdam, spire with Rudolphinic crown

Westertoren from 1638, the spire designed by Hendrick de Keijser with the Rudolphinic crown on top.

The crown on the Westertoren was blue originally, but was painted golden yellow in 1906. In 2006 the original blue color was restored, also on the vases on the four corners at the base of the spire. When Amsterdam had become a powerful trading city they kept the imperial crown, even when the Protestant Republic had officially left the Holy Roman Empire in 1648. Still boasting their importance as a city.