Breda, North Brabant, The Netherlands
Breda has fallen! This phrase was said many times throughout history, in different languages and periodically taking turns between the besiegers and the besieged.
And what is Breda? Breda is a small town in the south of the Netherlands, in the province of North Brabant and very close to the Belgian border.
The name «Breda» is probably familiar to many people, even if they don’t know exactly why. Some may go a step further and be able to associate it with the painting «Las Lanzas» by Diego Velázquez, some may also remember certain scenes from the film «Alatriste».
The reality is that at the time of visiting the city my references are the same, with the addition of some comments from friends who have already visited it.
Not knowing exactly what I was going to find, I took the train from Brussels, and after about an hour and a half’s journey I arrived in Breda.
We have referred to «Las Lanzas» by Velázquez. This masterpiece by the Sevillian painter, also known as «The Surrender of Breda», depicts the surrender of the city in 1625.
It should be remembered that, at that time, the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) was in full swing, with periodic conquests and reconquests by both sides, the Spanish Monarchy and the Dutch rebels. The city was in Dutch hands, and after 11 months of siege, General Spinola won one of his most important victories, surrendering the city. The heroism of the Dutch in defending the city and their bravery led to Spanish recognition; it is this moment, in which Spinola meets Justino de Nassau (defender of the city), that Velázquez intends to capture in his famous painting.
But as I said at the beginning of the article, Breda changed hands many times. The main sieges took place in 1577, 1581, 1590 and finally 1637, when Spain abandoned it for last.
A city with so much history behind it is a great attraction for me. So I set out to visit it and see if there is anything left of that era. And the truth is that something did remain, and that Spain was here too.
I need to focus again on Velázquez’s painting. Given the enormous number of war events in which Spain was involved, what is it that made it precisely the capture of Breda that the painter wanted to immortalise? The fact is that the painting had a certain «marketing» component, in the terms of the time. Spain was already in decline, and a victory such as Breda served to inflame the national spirit in the face of a situation that was already foretelling the end of Spain’s presence in Dutch Flanders.
I arrive at the station and the first thing I do is to ask for a map at the tourist office, which is right next door. A few metres from the station and crossing one of the canals that surround (and surrounded in 1625) the city, I arrive at a large park called Valkenberg Park. It is a hot summer day, and many people take the chance to come to the park, where several animals, mainly barnyard animals, come and go.
After crossing the park, you reach the heart of the city, the historic centre. There are several museums, and I visit the Protestant Cathedral, the Grand Place, the Walloon Church and Breda Castle. However, it is not possible to enter as it is now a military area (or so I understood from the signs in Dutch).
Next to an area of terraces by the canal, I find a boat that until a few years ago served as a bar-terrace. In faded neon letters it says «Bar Spinola», and so far that’s all I can find related to what I’m looking for.
The castle was built by a city lord in 1350, renovated by Henry of Nassau in 1536 and by William III in 1696.
Next to the castle there are still remains of the walls that Spinola and his men confronted in 1625.
Clearly, Breda was a well-defended city and very difficult to take. Moreover, Nassau had about 14,000 men ready to defend it.
In this situation, Spinola opted for the same strategy that had worked so well in Antwerp, the siege. The defence of the city was fierce, and an intense mine war was waged with tunnels and counter-tunnels that sought to weaken the city walls.
The siege of Breda began in August 1624 and lasted until June 1625. Despite the weakened position of Breda, with the onset of winter the Dutch were revived by the news that the English and Danes were sending reinforcements. However, another heroic act by the tercios, the kind that earned them their deserved fame on all the battlefields of Europe, dashed the rebels’ hopes.
The fact is that more than 8,000 Danes and English were on their way to break the siege of Breda. However, about 500 Spaniards (including infantrymen, pikemen and crossbowmen) were able to hold them off, taking advantage of their position on a small mound that gave them a certain advantage over the English reinforcements. In response, the English tried to occupy Antwerp and thus stem the flow of supplies to the besieging forces at Breda. They also failed.
In between, a Dutch spy (who turned out to be a Spanish double spy) infiltrated the city and led Nassau to believe that resistance was futile and that there were no reinforcements to be expected, as well as exaggerating the number of Spanish troops stationed outside the city walls.
Thus, Breda finally surrendered on 5 June 1625, and Justin of Nassau knelt before Spinola, who acknowledged the courage of the Dutch, allowing them to leave the city with honours and preventing the sacking of the city. The latter did not sit well with many of the Spanish soldiers and their allies… looting was a common way for the soldiers to collect what they were not paid by the King.
In my search for Spanish traces, I also follow Velázquez. Discouraged to find almost no remains of the Hispanic period in the city, I decided to go to the Stedelijk Museum (city museum). Maybe, I think, they have something of Breda’s history there, going back a little further than the Second World War (we have an obsession in Europe with this war, probably because it is the most recent one).
It was a pleasant surprise for me, as I didn’t really go with high expectations, and I thought I was just going to find a few black and white photos from the 20th century.
However, as soon as I enter, I see written in large letters and in Spanish: «Las Lanzas», they know who Velázquez was, they know he painted them, and they like it!
It turns out that the museum’s restaurant is called «Las Lanzas», and that was not all. On entering the restaurant, I noticed a large painting (not as big as the one in the Prado Museum, but equally large), a reproduction of «Las Lanzas». Excited (you have to understand that I hardly ever find such things on my travels and, sometimes, when I do, I am reproached for being Spanish and reminded that the Spanish «were bad»), I go to the counter. They inform me that there is still an hour left before the museum closes and that they have a section dedicated to the history of Spain in Breda. The lady is very friendly, and proudly explains that the Spaniards were in the city for a long time. And, on top of that, she doesn’t show any kind of rancour or Dutch nationalism. Then I tell her that I am Spanish, and she offers to show me personally the museum and to show me the parts dedicated to the History of Spain. It was not little that they had, a little less than a third of the museum was related to the Spanish period. Portraits of governors, a map of the siege with the coat of arms of the Spanish Monarchy, military helmets, maps of the period, maps showing the fortifications of the city… What I like most is an original copy of 1648 of the Peace of Münster.
This document is really important. I don’t know if I have already said something about it in previous articles… I don’t think so. Spain had been at war in Flanders for eighty years, defending the rights of its King and imposing Catholicism by force. Today it is clear that a religion cannot be imposed, and that it must be freely accepted and assimilated by the individuals who want to follow it. But at that time Spain needed to defend a Catholicism that was under attack from all sides, more so than today. This religious blindness, among other things, meant that the little gold (of all the gold that arrived from America) that was not lost in the corruption of the Court officials or stolen by the English, was destined for these European wars, which many authors have defined as «the Spanish Vietnam».
That is why, in my opinion, the Treaty of Münster was good news. For the Netherlands, of course, but also for Spain, which once again missed an opportunity to «modernise». Ultimately, the Treaty of Münster, together with the Treaty of Osnabrück, formed the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. With the signing of these treaties, Spain officially recognised the independence of the Netherlands and withdrew to the south, retaining most of the territories that today make up Belgium. Spain would remain there without much difficulty until 1713 (Treaty of Utrecht), but that is another story.
Unfortunately, the document was inside a glass case and I was not allowed to look at it. The lady thinks I am an «official» historian and tells me that I can ask for a permit. But the truth is that I am a lawyer and economist and that this is just a hobby. Anyway, the museum is a big surprise for me. On the way out we go back to the restaurant. From the ceiling hangs an original pike from the time when Spain came from Milan.
She also takes a photo of me with the copy of the painting, and explains that it was done by a local painter from Breda who spent some time in Madrid. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the painter’s name, nor the name of the nice lady who showed me around the museum.
Previously, I had noticed on the map I was given on arrival at the Tourist Office, a curious name on the side of one of the city walls: Spanjaardsgat, which literally means «Spanish sinkhole» (or similar).
The story behind this name is a curious one. At the beginning of the article, we mentioned how Breda had often changed hands. One of those times was in 1590, when the Dutch reconquered it until 1625.
The story of how they conquered Breda is truly incredible, even comical in a way. Although the Spanish authorities of the time were not amused, especially Alexander Farnese.
Again, on this occasion, the Dutch rebels were aided by the English. Two English «fishermen» entered the city where they made contact with a merchant who was sympathetic to the rebel cause. This merchant had a ship with which he smuggled coal into the city. Camouflaged on this ship, a small number of soldiers were smuggled into Breda. Dutch forces were waiting for the signal to finish the job and enter the city. However, this was not necessary, as the first 70 Dutch defeated a garrison of over 600 men defending the city.
It should be noted that on that occasion Breda was not defended by Spaniards, but by Italians. The Italian territories often provided men for the Spanish armies. On this occasion, the city was surrendered by a young Italian, whose life was spared although he was expelled from the army. The same was not true of several of his captains, whom Alexander Farnese (Captain General of Flanders) had no mercy in executing.
This fact is still remembered by the inhabitants of Breda.
But this was not the first time Breda surrendered to the Dutch. In 1577, after the pacification of Ghent (which forced the Spanish tercios out of the Netherlands, although it remained under Spanish control), William d’Orange saw an opportunity to seize the city. However, the city was defended by German mercenaries. Finally, the promise to pay them their overdue wages led the Germans to cede the town to the Dutch.
But Breda was an important city, very important. Especially as it was halfway between Amsterdam and Antwerp. So just a few years later, in 1581, the Spanish tercios under the command of Claude de Berlaymont took the city. Thanks to the treachery of a Dutch prisoner, the Spanish troops managed to enter the city. After a series of relatively short engagements, the tercios took the city and sacked it, leaving several hundred dead.
The rest has already been told. The Dutch «Trojan horse», Spinola’s siege and Velázquez’s painting.
Despite the titanic siege of Breda by Spinola’s troops in 1625, the city returned to Dutch hands, this time for good, in 1637 (just 12 years later). Despite fierce Spanish resistance, French support facilitated the final Dutch takeover of Breda.
Just as the siege of 1625 was a source of artistic inspiration in Spain, the departure of the Spanish troops in 1637 also inspired many Dutch artists. The Netherlands was beginning to build its national identity on the vanquished Spain, which a decade later would recognise the independence of the Netherlands by signing the Peace of Münster. On this trip I have been lucky enough to see this document and to remind Spaniards and Dutch people of what happened here. Huge events that linked these two nations forever.
It should be added that another great of Castilian literature, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, also wrote about the siege of Breda in his comedy «El sitio de Bredá» (The Siege of Bredá). Velázquez was inspired by it, but also by Spinola himself, whom he met on his first trip to Italy.
- La préponderance espagnole (1559-1660), Henri HAUSER
- Personal trip to the city
Guillermo Vergara Pérez- Villalobos