The St. Elizabeth Floods

On the night of 18 November 1404 into the morning of the 19th the oceanic tide combined with a storm surge from the North Sea pushed huge amounts of water up the coastal rivers, overwhelmed the dike system of Flanders, Zeeland and Holland (part of modern day Belgium and the Netherlands) and causing massive flooding that killed thousands of people in the low-lying areas. This flood, which would become known as the First St. Elizabeth’s Flood, washed away entire villages and communities. Almost all the smaller islands within the estuary of the Scheldt river (in the southwestern part of the Netherlands) were washed away.

medieval flood woodcut

There had been flooding in this area before, of course, inasmuch as more than half of this territory are polder lands (in this case, flood plains kept dry by a series dikes and sluices) below sea level. However, after the last big flood in 1375 the Dutch thought they had fixed the problem. John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy and Count of Flanders, ordered that all the dikes be merged into one large seawall running from north to south along the coast of the affected areas.


This new infrastructure gave people a feeling of security and the polder lands were resettled.

historical map of netherlands holland zeeland

The feelings of security were premature.

Exactly 17 years later, 18 November to 19 November 19 1421, another North Sea storm surge broke through the protective seawall of the Zuiderzee inland sea was breached and overwhelmed one of the major dikes, again inundating the polder lands again in the Second St. Elizabeth’s Flood.


This one was even worse because this time the waters went all the way to a large sea arm between south-Holland and Zeeland.

Zeeland 1580

The floodwaters completely obliterated the farming district of Grote Hollandse Waard … land which has never been reclaimed even into the present. The catastrophy wiped out more than 70 villages and there may have been as many as 10,000 casualties.

I wonder, in 600 years, how many people will remember the Boxing Day Earthquake and Tsunamis of 2004? It killed more than 230,000 people along the coastline of the Indian Ocean … and the horrific images of that disaster still haunt me. Will that just slip into history, too? Because until today I was completely unaware of the hideous loss of life that occurred during the floods of the 15th century Netherlands.  

For that matter, why had I never heard of the Netherlands’ flooding that happened in 1953?


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