Leyen, von der, family

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Von der Leyen was a Mennonite family of Krefeld, Germany. To this enterprising family Krefeld owes its rise to prosperity. Adolf von der Leyen from Rade vorm Walde in the duchy of Berg in Germany acquired citizenship in Krefeld in 1679.

Adolf began the manufacture of silk thread and velvet ribbon and on the side sold silk ribbon and embroidery silk, imported foods, Nürnberg trinkets, Bibles, calendars, etc. After his death in 1698 his son Wilhelm became the soul of the business; he manufactured silk ribbon and velvet yard goods, selling most of his products at the fair at Frankfurt. He purchased the raw silk from Zürich and had it spun and twisted in Milan and Turin. Later the East India Company delivered the Asiatic raw silk direct to Krefeld. In spite of unfavorable conditions of transportation von der Leyen's business increased in his own sales outlets in Frankfurt, Cologne, Strasbourg, Zürich, and Geneva. In 1724 he established a dyeing plant. Soon his business was limited to the manufacture and sale of his own silk and velvet wares.

Although in competition with Lyons, the Netherlands, and Cologne the von der Leyens achieved an unusual prosperity, so that in the span of a century Krefeld had to extend its walls five times. The four sons of Wilhelm von der Leyen added three supplementary firms. But the firm of the Brüder Friedrich and Heinrich von der Leyen, established in 1731 with a capital of only 18,900 Reichsthaler, soon overtook it, creating a world business of hitherto unheard of dimensions in silk goods, which increased from year to year (by 1740 the turnover was 206,000 Rt, and by 1756, 520,000 Rt.).

In 1738 King Frederick William I visited Krefeld, inspected the factories and warehouses, having previously ordered the exemption of the von der Leyen workmen from military duty. The introduction of machinery from the Netherlands hastened the growth.  The old silk center of Cologne, with its tradition- and guild-bound silk industry, now sought to prevent the importation of the cheaper and better wares from Krefeld, but the royal council declared that if that was done, a duty would be placed on Cologne wines passing down the Rhine. The prohibition was therefore abandoned.

Although with the commission system prevalent at that time thousands of hand weavers living as far away as Cleve earned their living by working for the Krefeld firm, and subsidiaries were established in Geldern, Xanten, and Aldekerk, the city itself continued to grow through the influx of master weavers from Italy, France, and the Netherlands. In the course of a century the population increased twentyfold; it grew from 1,499 in 1722 to 4,576 in 1740, 6,082 in 1763 (2,700 of whom were directly employed by the firm), and 7,896 in 1787.

In 1755 Frederick the Great bestowed on Friedrich and Heinrich von der Leyen the title of Kommerzienrat for their great service to their workers, and later also upon their three nephews Conrad, Friedrich, and Johann. This title released the bearer from the jurisdiction of the city, making him subject directly to the king. But in spite of this the Krefeld products were barred from many places "east of the Weser." Even the wares destined for Poland and Russia by way of the Frankfurt a.d.O. fair were charged duty for crossing the country. On this point King Frederick was adamant, in order not to threaten his favorite Brandenburg silk industry. Nevertheless the Krefeld industry continued to grow, employing 3,400 workers in 1786, the year of King Frederick's death. Since this industry had grown to maturity without help from the state, the government avoided interfering with its internal affairs. In 1751 and 1763 the king was in Krefeld and made his headquarters with the von der Leyens. His expressions of satisfaction are found in the Acta Borussica. In 1763 he notified the government of Cleve that the Krefeld firm was not to suffer competition from small industries which would be unable to maintain themselves, by the luring away of workers, and by having their machinery, invented by themselves, copied.

In their wills the brothers Friedrich (died 1778) and Heinrich (died 1782) erected a modest monument for themselves (ML II, 572). By this time the firm was exporting goods to all parts of Europe and to America. The three nephews, Friedrich (died 1787), Conrad (died 1797), and Johann (died 1795), continued to increase it. The new king, Frederick William II, recognizing at once the importance of Krefeld, bestowed on the three men a title of hereditary nobility. Johann built the magnificent house on Friedrichstrasse, which later became a bank, and Conrad built as his residence the "castle," which became the city hall.

The confusions of 20 years of war 1794-1814 caused the firm to decline. Johann von der Leyen purchased for his residence the Kieckhorst estate in the Moers district. Conrad's son Friedrich Heinrich (born 1765) was still a manufacturer from tradition, but his interests lay in intellectual and aesthetic pursuits. As a friend of Fr. Ad. Krummacher, noted as a preacher and writer of parables, he and his highly educated mother lived in the intellectual world of Rousseau and Kant. Friedrich Heinrich von Conrad von der Leyen exercised his Kantian sense of duty in his interest in the industry and the people of Krefeld. Selflessly he devoted himself to the interests of the city, while the generals of the French army were comfortably quartered in his home. Later he exchanged friendly letters with the prince who became Frederick William IV. His cousin Friedrich Heinrich, a son of Friedrich von der Leyen, united with the Reformed Church and turning to rural life purchased the Moers feudal estate and Bloemersheim castle, as well as the monastery land of Meer (Neuss district).

Difficulties increased during this period, the most severe being the continental blockade and the change from rococo fashions to English fashions. The period 1797-1805 brought serious losses, some of which were regained in 1810. Competition with the Berg industry was too severe to permit further expansion. Nevertheless the firm of Friedrich and Heinrich von der Leyen continued until its dissolution to be the greatest industrial undertaking of the Rhineland and probably the greatest silk industry of the entire western world in its period.

The owners of the firm always regarded their position and their wealth as entailing responsibility to the people. They considered their income only as the just reward of their management of property belonging to God, to whom they must give account. Benevolent works were the necessary outcome of their faith, which was turned not to comfortable mysticism and contemplation, but to adventurous action. Their business was conducted as a large family affair. Workers employed in good times were not discharged in bad times. Even in 1780, when there was already a great surplus of manufactured goods, no workers lost their jobs, whereas in Lyons and Rouen 17,000 silk weavers were discharged. In 1794, 200 workers were given a sort of old-age retirement pension.

As Mennonites the von der Leyens were tolerant. Frederick William I in 1738 praised their tolerance when he learned that people of all creeds were employed by them. As the house of Orange had in 1695 permitted the Mennonites to build a church, Frederick the Great now allowed the Catholics to build one. The von der Leyens then built the "Siebenhäuser," the income of which was to be used for the poor, and provided a considerable fund for the employment of well-educated Mennonite ministers. The spirit of the von der Leyens, which considers wealth as an obligation, still prevails in Krefeld.


Beckerath, Gerhard von. "Die wirtschaftliche Bedeutung der Krefelder Mennoniten und ihrer Vorfahren im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert." PhD dissertation, Bonn, 1951.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: II, 645-648.

Hoop Scheffer, Jacob Gijsbert de. Inventaris der Archiefstukken berustende bij de Vereenigde Doopsgezinde Gemeente to Amsterdam, 2 vols. Amsterdam: Uitgegeven en ten geschenke aangeboden door den Kerkeraad dier Gemeente, 1883-1884: I, No. 1380.

Kurschat, W. Das Haus Friedrich & Heinrich von der Leyen in Krefeld. Frankfurt, 1933.

Niepoth, W. "Zur Frühgeschichte der Familie von der Leyen." Die Heimat 21 (1950): 156-158.

Risler, Walther. "Mennonites of Krefeld." Mennonite Life 6 (April 1951): 26.

Author(s) Karl Rembert
Date Published 1957

Cite This Article

MLA style

Rembert, Karl. "Leyen, von der, family." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 22 Sep 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Leyen,_von_der,_family&oldid=119933.

APA style

Rembert, Karl. (1957). Leyen, von der, family. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 September 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Leyen,_von_der,_family&oldid=119933.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 331-332. All rights reserved.

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