If you take the ferry across the Zuider Zee to the northern province of Friesland, you will land at a small town called Stavoren. Today it is little more than a ferry landing, a brief stop in the journey north. You’d never guess this was once one of the great port cities of Europe.
Yet so it was, many centuries ago. And so it might be still, if not for the choice made by a lady.
The fine harbor at Stavoren welcomed the ships of many countries, and many countries were visited by the ships of Stavoren. So rich and proud became the city’s merchants, they fitted their doors with handles and hinges of gold.
Among these merchants was a young widow, richest of the rich and proudest of the proud. They called her the Lady of Stavoren.
The Lady would stop at nothing to show herself better than her fellow merchants. She filled her palace with the most costly goods from wherever her ships made port. But her rivals always found the means to copy her.
“I must show them once and for all that I am their better,” she said to herself. “Somehow, I must get hold of the most precious thing in the world.”
One evening, the Lady attended a grand ball at the palace of another merchant. There she met a rich and handsome sea captain who had just sailed into Stavoren. He asked her for every dance.
At the end of the evening, the Captain kissed her hand. “My Lady, I was told you were the wealthiest woman in Stavoren. But no one warned me you were also the most charming.”
From then on, the Lady and the Captain were seen everywhere, her arm in his. And everywhere they went, people talked about what might come of it.
“She’ll marry him,” said one.
“She’ll send him away,” said another.
“She’ll keep him dangling,” said still another.
It was not long before the Captain knelt before her. “My Lady, will you honor me by becoming my wife?”
“Gladly, dear Captain,” said the Lady. “But there is one condition. As a wedding gift, you must bring me the most precious thing in the world.”
“The most precious thing? What is that? And where do I find it?”
“If I knew,” said the Lady gently, “I would have purchased it myself. I ask you to discover it and bring it to me.”
“I will do so, dear Lady!” declared the Captain. “Until I return, please wear this ruby ring as a token of my love.”
The next day, the Captain sailed from Stavoren in search of the most precious thing in the world.
Months passed. Everyone in Stavoren knew of the Captain’s quest. Wherever the Lady went, she heard people guessing what the most precious thing would be.
“A magnificent gown,” said one.
“A marvelous statue,” said another.
“A pearl as big as an egg,” said still another.
The Lady was delighted to be causing such a stir. “And how they will envy me,” she said to herself, “when my Captain returns with his gift!”
At long last, the Captain’s ship was sighted entering the harbor. The people of Stavoren streamed to the dock. When the Lady arrived, dressed in her finest, they made way.
The Captain’s ship was just docking. “My Lady,” he called, “I have brought what you desired! The most precious thing in the world!”
“What is it, my Captain?” called back the Lady, barely able to hold in her excitement.
“I visited many ports in many lands,” the Captain said. “I saw many wonderful things. None could I say was the most precious of all. But at last, in the city of Danzig, I came across it. Then I laughed at myself! I should have known it from the first!”
“But what is it?” said the Lady impatiently.
“Wheat!” cried the Captain. “My ship is filled with wheat!”
“Wheat?” said the Lady. Her face grew white. Behind her, she heard murmurs from the crowd, and laughing. “Did you say wheat?”
“Yes, dear Lady!” said the Captain joyously. “What could be more precious, more valuable, than wheat? Without our daily bread, what good are all the treasures of the world?”
The Lady was silent for a moment, listening to the whispers and snickers of the crowd. “And this wheat belongs to me, to do with as I like?”
“Yes, my love! It is my wedding gift to you!”
“Then,” said the Lady, “pour it into the harbor.”
“What?” Now the Captain’s own face was white.
“Pour it into the harbor! Every grain of it!”
Murmurs of horror and approval both rose behind her.
“My Lady,” said the Captain, “please consider what you say. There is wheat enough here to feed a city! If you have no use for it, then give it to the poor and hungry. After all, you too may someday be in need.”
“I?” shrieked the Lady. “In need?”
She plucked from her finger the ruby ring the Captain had given her and held it high. “This ring will return to my hand before I am ever in need.”
With all her might, she flung it far into the harbor.
The Captain watched as the ring hit the water and sank. Then he looked at the Lady on the dock, her face red with rage.
He spoke not another word to her, but turned to his men.
When the ship reached the harbor mouth, the Captain had his men pour all the wheat overboard. Then he sailed from the harbor, never to return.
The next day, the Lady held a grand feast for all the richest merchants of Stavoren. She spared no expense, to show that she still had every cause for pride.
A huge roast fish was set before her for carving. As she was about to cut into it, the Lady saw something glinting in the fish’s mouth. She pulled out the object and held it up.
The diners gasped. The Lady turned pale.
It was the ruby ring.
A few weeks later, fishermen found that a sand bar was building beneath the water at the harbor’s mouth. The discarded wheat had sprouted and grown, and was catching the sand that before had drifted freely.
Soon, the tall ships could not enter. The harbor was ruined, and with it went the fortunes of the city. Many of the merchants lost everything.
Among them was the Lady of Stavoren.
In the tiny town of Stavoren today, the sand bar is still called “Lady’s Sand”—a reminder how the Lady of Stavoren scorned the most precious thing in the world.
About the Story
Stavoren is a coastal town in the province of Friesland in the Netherlands. It reached the height of its glory as a port city in the late Middle Ages. This is the legend told of its downfall.
My retelling is based largely on “The Lady of Stavoren: A Tale from the Province of Friesland,” in Tales Told in Holland, edited by Olive Beaupré Miller, The Book House for Children, Chicago, 1926. However, the romantic element on which I’ve so heavily depended—rare in versions of this story—comes from a brief synopsis of the legend in The Netherlands, edited by Doré Ogrizek, McGraw-Hill, New York, London, and Toronto, 1951.
Other versions consulted were in Dutch Fairy Tales for Young Folks, by William Elliot Griffis, Crowell, New York, 1918; The Golden Cat Head and Other Tales of Holland, by Marian King, Whitman, Chicago, 1933; The Owl’s Nest: Folktales from Friesland, by Dorothy Gladys Spicer, Coward-McCann, New York, 1954; and The Sunken City and Other Tales from Around the World, by James McNeill, Henry Z. Walck, New York, 1959.
My thanks for help and comments to Coby and Hans Siegenthaler in Los Angeles, and Claire Metz and her mother in Charlottesville, Virginia.
How to Say the Names
Friesland ~ FREEZ-lund
Stavoren ~ stah-VOR-en
Zuider Zee ~ ZI-der ZEE