Breda has a long and distinguished history, a history that you can still see today packed into the compact city centre. It was granted city status as early as 1252, but its Golden Age came in the years after it passed into the hands of the House of Nassau-Orange in the 14th century. It was the heir of this Franco-German aristocratic family, William I of Orange, or William the Silent as he’s also known, who would lead the revolt against Spanish rule and lay the foundations for an independent Dutch state. Breda would be centre stage throughout.
Breda’s relationship with the House of Nassau-Orange made it a royal city, bringing it wealth and prestige. It also brought it a whole heap of trouble during the Eighty Years’ War, known in the Netherlands as the Dutch War of Independence. The city saw much fighting and, in 1581, it was captured by the Spanish. Despite Spanish promises, their troops massacred over 500 people and plundered the town. It would take a decade for the Dutch to recapture Breda.
As the name suggests, the Eighty Years’ War was only just getting started, and Breda’s strategic position meant it would see plenty of fighting. In 1625, the Spanish were once more in control after a brutal 10-month siege. It took until 1537 for Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, to recapture it. Breda became Dutch permanently only at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1548. Over a century later, in 1660, it played a starring role in the history of England.
It was in Breda that the exiled Stuart monarchs took refuge after the English Civil War. The Declaration of Breda in 1660 saw Charles II of England accept the conditions for his return to England, and to reclaim his throne. Ironically, a few years later the Treaty of Breda would end the Second Anglo-Dutch War, which Charles II fought against his former protectors. This turbulent history would be hard to guess at today, were it not for the impressive Breda Castle. Still an active military base it’s sadly not open to the public.
We reached the castle by passing through the lovely and peaceful Valkenberg Park, home to a large number of free range chickens, before making our way towards the town’s most dominant feature, the Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kerk. The Church of Our Lady towers over the Grote Markt central square, which is ringed by cafes and restaurants. At 10am the Grote Markt still felt like it was sleeping off the festivities of the night before. We wandered off to explore the historic centre.
This did not take very long. Breda, it’s fair to say, has a small centre even if it’s home to 180,000 people. We found ourselves back in the Grote Markt less than an hour after setting off, only this time something was different. It wasn’t that cafes were now open and tables were filled with people sipping lattes; no, it was more the fact that there was a Scottish bagpipe player entertaining a crowd of people, all of whom were wearing green and had red hair.
Unbeknownst to us, we’d stumbled upon Redhead Day 2017, a gathering of thousands of people with red hair. Apparently, this celebration of all things red hair has been going on in Breda for over a decade. With somewhat greying hair I didn’t really fit in, but the impact of so many red heads in one place is quite amazing. We had lunch in a small, pleasant square just off the Grote Markt and watched the crowds of redheads.
We made a visit to the church to see the tombs of the house of Nassau-Orange, before calling at the Begijnhof Museum on our way to the train station. A ‘hof’ is a walled garden with houses around the outside, often a form of medieval social housing like Alms houses. The Begijnhof Museum is what is left of a former religious community of independent lay women known as the Beguines. I’d never heard of them before but the small museum had a great video telling their story.
Breda’s last Beguine died only in 1990 by which time the community had existed for over 700 years. They dressed like nuns but didn’t take vows, and as ‘independent’ women they were often viewed with suspicion by the Catholic Church. Not because they could leave any time they liked and kept their own possessions, but because they were often viewed as heretics. Today, the houses of Breda’s Begijnhof are reserved for single women … continuing an honourable tradition.
* An Elvis quote seen on a window in Breda