How the Prison Gate grew from being an entrance gate into a prison, and later a national museum
The canals around the Binnenhof
In the 13th century, when the gate was built, it was the only entrance from Plaats onto the forecourt of the Binnenhof. The Binnenhof, with its now-famous Knight’s Hall, was built as a hunting lodge. It grew to become the most important residence of the counts of Holland, who ruled over North and South Holland and Zeeland. The Binnenhof was a kind of castle with solid stone buildings, but it did not have any thick castle towers or high defensive walls with battlements. There was a double canal around the Binnenhof, however. A small lake, today’s Hofvijver, was also dug out next to the Binnenhof. The courtyard could be accessed via three gatehouses, one of which was the Prison Gate. The other two gatehouses were later demolished.
In early 1400, the gateway developed an additional function: the count’s prisoners were locked up there. Later, the gate also served as a prison for the Court of Holland. In the end, the Prison Gate would become a kind of state prison. The Prison Gate of that time cannot be compared with today’s prisons, where detainees sometimes remain incarcerated for many years.
The accused awaited their interrogation and trial in the Prison Gate. In most cases, they did not wait for long.
Suspects were interrogated in the Prison Gate’s ‘torture chamber’. Such interrogations were rarely gentle: suspects were often tortured in order to force them to confess. The suspects were beaten by the executioner or stretched on the rack. The politician Cornelis de Witt was one of the suspects who was cross-examined using torture. The excruciating pain would often cause people to confess, although the judges could not pass a sentence until the suspect then also confessed without the use of torture.
Extending the building
In the beginning, there was only the gatehouse; all of the necessary additions were made later. In the mid-15th century, for example, a wing was built along the approach to the Binnenhof. In order to be able to accommodate the growing number of prisoners, in early 1500, a three-storey cell block was added. This contained the ‘gaols’: bare, dark cells that were meant for the common people. More distinguished suspects were accommodated, for a fee, in the gatehouse itself, where the comfortable Knight’s Chamber was furnished for them. This was where the scholar Dirk Volkertsz. Coornhert and the politician Cornelis de Witt were imprisoned, among others.