Leiden University

Leiden University is the oldest university in the Netherlands. It was a gift by the Prince of Holland, William of Orange to reward the citizens of Leiden for their courageous defense of the city during the Spanish occupation in the 16th century. In the 16th century the Dutch rebelled against the authority of Spain. Most of the fighting took place in the south of the Netherlands; the northern part could consider itself liberated towards the end of the 16th century.


The Dutch army, led by William of Orange (nicknamed "the Silent"), deliberately flooded the fields around Leiden, breaking the dikes, to force the Spanish armies to raise their siege. The Spanish tried to lure the citizens into surrender with promises, but the people of Leiden decided to stick it out in spite of a terrible shortage of food which brought the people of Leiden to the verge of starvation. Finally the Spanish withdrew, and the siege ended on October 3, 1574. The Dutch army entered the city with food: bread with cheese and herring. The date on which the siege ended, the third of October (Leidsch Ontzet or Leiden's Deliverance), is still celebrated every year with large scale festivities. This event is still commemorated on each 3rd of October, when the inhabitants of Leiden eat the same food as their ancestors in 1574. Another of the traditional food supplements eaten on that day is a kind of "carrot stew". Legend has it that, when the Spanish fled, all that was left in the city was a casserole with carrot stew. (source: tourist office Leiden).

In 1574, Prince William of Orange took the first steps towards establishing the university, when he wrote a letter to the States of Holland. In this letter he proposed that as a reward for the town’s brave resistance against the Spanish invaders a university be founded which would serve as ‘a staunch support and maintenance of the freedom and good lawful government of the country’. On February 8, 1575, the university was founded, and later was granted the motto Praesidium Libertatis, or Bastion of Liberty. 

During the first three years of its history, the university was housed first at the Barbara cloister and subsequently from 1577 to 1581 at the Faliede Bagijnhof, the very place where one will nowadays again find the Board of the University at Rapenburg 70. In 1581 the University then moved to the other side of the canal called the Rapenburg, and found permanent residence in the old chapel of a Dominican abbey. It is in this building where the university still celebrates its rituals, where inaugural lectures and valedictions are held, where defense ceremonies and examinations take place, and where its graduates receive their diplomas: The Academie building.

During the early centuries of its existence, Universiteit Leiden went through a golden period. It was a period in which many eminent scholars taught at the university: the humanist Justus Lipsius, the mathematician Willibrord Snellius and the physician Herman Boerhaave, to name just a few. Notable nineteenth-century alumni of the university included the liberal statesman Johan Rudolph Thorbecke, who drafted the Dutch constitution of 1848 during his days in Leiden, and Matthias the Vries, the father of Dutch linguistics. The lawyer Eduard Maurits Meijers, who drafted the new Dutch Civil Code in 1947 is one of the well-known names of the twentieth century, as are the historian and cultural philosopher Johan Huizinga, author of Waning of the Middle Ages and the astronomers Willem de Sitter and Jan Hendrik Oort.

Throughout the centuries many great scholars and scientists have brought international fame and respect to Universiteit Leiden. In Leiden, at the world’s first university low-temperature laboratory, professor Heike Kamerlingh Onnes achieved temperatures of only one degree above absolute zero of -273 degrees Centigrade. In 1908 he was also the first to succeed in liquefying helium and can be credited with the discovery of superconductivity in metals.

Prof. Kamerlingh Onnes was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1913. Three other professors received the Nobel Prize for their research performed at Universiteit Leiden: Hendrik Antoon Lorentz and Pieter Zeeman received the Nobel Prize for their pioneering work in the field of optical and electronic phenomena; and the physiologist Willem Einthoven for his invention of the string galvanometer, which among other things, enabled the development of electrocardiography.

These Nobel Prize winners, but also the physicists Albert Einstein and Paul Ehrenfest, the Arabist and Islam expert Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje and the law expert Cornelis van Vollenhoven, were among those who pushed the university into a place of international prominence during the 1920’s.

Since its founding in 1575, Leiden University has maintained an impressive international profile. Large numbers of international scholars and students find their way to Leiden to spend various amounts of time studying and doing research. The current student enrollment is around 14,000 students, of which approximately 10 percent are foreign students. Leiden University still has an international outlook and orientation and maintains numerous contacts with academic institutions all over the world.

The Law Faculty

The university’s tradition in law dates back to the time of Hugo Grotius. Often referred to as the ‘Mozart of International Law’, Grotius started his studies at Leiden University in 1594 at the age of 11.

Leiden Law School is located in two beautifully renovated national monuments in the historic heart of Leiden. The Law School also has teaching and research facilities at its campus in The Hague: The Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies, thus allowing a unique collaboration with The Hague’s international legal institutions.

Throughout its history Leiden Law School has continuously managed to maintain its reputation for excellence by combining a high level of academic teaching with acclaimed and innovative research. The Law School has an eminent reputation in the training of lawyers and diplomats. Our alumni include members of the Dutch Supreme Court and several international courts, the former Secretary General of NATO, prominent lawyers in the Netherlands and the USA, and chief executives of multinational companies.

Leiden Law School offers a varied choice of courses and programmes for international students, whether you are an exchange student, a degree seeking student or looking for a specialised advanced studies programme. We receive yearly more than 400 international students.

The School has a full-time teaching staff of approximately 300 people and enjoys an undisputed international reputation in a great number of fields.

Last Modified: 29-01-2013