Impression The Nassaus of Breda - Castle city and country
© Studio Louter
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Permananent exhibition in Breda

Dec. 7, 2023

The Nassaus of Breda is the new multimedia and permanent exhibition of Stedelijk Museum Breda. Historical objects and art from its own collection, loans and the stories behind them, contemporary art and a special family route offer a surprising look at the history of the city Breda and the (Orange) Nassau family.

Visitors travel through time in three centuries. It is the period of rise, blossoming and decline of Breda. The presence of the (Orange) Nassau family ensures the city a prominent place in
the Netherlands. Breda will become the breeding ground for ideas that live on in the Netherlands today. It is a well-kept secret that the grandeur of the city has everything to do with the intriguing family history of the Oranje-Nassaus, the current royal family. In the exhibition you will discover stories of love, lavish parties, rich and poor, trickery, intrigue and struggles.


The roots of the Dutch royal family lie in Breda. Over 600 years ago, Johanna van Polanen, wealthy daughter of the lord of Breda, became countess of Nassau. She was just 11 years old when she married German count Engelbert of Nassau. Many subsequent Nassaus of Breda governed the city and region. Most Nassau family members can still be found in the catacombs of the Great Church.

William of Orange-Nassau flees the city out of fear of the king of Spain – against whom he has rebelled. During the Eighty Years' War between the Northern and Southern Netherlands, William leads the rebels from afar. His sons take over after his death and continue to wage war against the Spanish army. Breda lies on the frontlines. After the peace treaty of 1648, the city is part of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands.

Near the Stedelijk Museum Breda lies Breda Castle – home of the Nassau family. Each generation of Nassaus continues to work on the structure. Hendrik III of Nassau and Mencía de Mendoza have the castle grounds transformed into a 'royal' court, including a new building. Hendrik was inspired to create this residence in southern Europe, where he travelled with Emperor Charles V. He asked architect Vincidor de Bologna to design a Renaissance palace, in the latest architectural style, based on Greco-Roman examples. Today, this building houses the Nederlandse Defensie Academie (Netherlands Defence Academy).

The Nassaus of Breda are ambitious and headstrong. Thanks to their vast family holdings of land and houses, they are among the most important people of nobility in Europe, holding increasingly senior positions in government. Property and titles, such as lord, count or baron, are passed on through the husband. Preferably through a son and if that is not possible through a nephew. Those wanting to climb socially need to marry wisely. The wives are well educated and manage the entire Castle household. Around 1400, Breda held a special position in the Duchy of Brabant, an region is the size of the Benelux countries and northern France combined. The highest administrator of the city and the surrounding lands – the seigniory – is known as the Lord of Breda. Engelbert I is the first of the Nassau family to hold this title, as do all his successors, including the current king
of the Netherlands. From Engelbert I onwards, the Nassaus are in charge in this area. They establish their court and court household in the city, set rules, appoint the city council, secure the city with ramparts, support building projects and interact with Christian organisations such as

The Nassaus liked to make a display of their wealth and power, especially in the Great Church or Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the centrepiece of Breda. They invest considerable sums into new buildings, construction of a private chapel, and painted decorations. The Nassau family and Breda stick together, even in bad times. William of Orange’s opposition to Spanish rule has significant consequences for the city. The Revolt breaks out in
the Northern Netherlands, marking the start of the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648). This conflict revolves around the attribution of power, and which religious beliefs are deemed acceptable. Breda lies exactly at the intersection of the Protestant North and the Catholic South. It is vital to both parties: no city is occupied and recaptured as often. The Nassaus do all they can to preserve 'their' city.
They succeed: once peace has been achieved, Breda belongs to the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. The southern border of this new nation lies just below the ‘land of Breda’.

1625 The Surrender of Breda

At the surrender of Breda On June 5, 1625, Justin of Nassau hands over the keys to the Breda city gates to Ambrogio Spinola. The recapture of Breda is a noteworthy military victory for Spain. Spanish court painter Diego Velázquez creates a large painting of this symbolic moment, which
will hang in the palace of King Philip IV in Madrid. The masterpiece is now on display at Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. A copy was painted in 1903 which is on display here.

In the summer of 1637, Frederick Henry, the ‘enforcer of cities’, marches his army to Breda. Alarm bells sound in the city of Breda and the emergency flag is raised. From three sides, State soldiers attack the fortified city. Cannons and muskets fire back and forth, for days, the streets are littered with ammunition. When the Spanish occupiers run out of gunpowder after four months, they decide to surrender. On October 6, 1637, the time has come at last: in a long procession, the Spanish head south. Breda is free and remains definitively in the hands of the Republic.

1648: PEACE!
After eighty years, peace finally arrives in the Netherlands. Treaty signing takes place on 15 May 1648, in the German city of Münster. Seven northern provinces continue as the independent Dutch Republic. Ten southern provinces remain under the rule of the Spanish king. Brabant is divided: the border of the republic will run just below the land of Breda. For the inhabitants of Breda, a welcome period of rest follows. The numerous attacks and casualties have come to an end. Breda remains the city of the Nassaus, although the family now lives in other places.

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