Case Studies - Beguinages - The Netherlands

Begijnhof, Breda, The Netherlands


Type of institution for collective action


Name/description institution  



The Netherlands


Province of Noord-Brabant

Name of city or specified area 


Further specification location (e.g. borough, street etc.)

When the beguinage was first established it must have been situated – according to IJsseling (1967)  – somewhere around the current Prins Bernard Pavilion, at the north side of the city of Breda. Later on, it was moved because earl Hendrik III of Nassau wanted to extend his palace and the beguinage was in the way. The beguinage was thus moved to the eastern part of the Valkenberg, where it is still situated. 


Click here for larger version 

Map of the city of Breda in 1869, showing both the old and new location of the beguinage.

Number 11 shows the palace of Breda, which was built partially over the old beguinage.

Number 8 shows the place whereto the beguinage was moved.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Click on image for larger version. Click here for details on source.

Surface and boundaries

For the current location of the Begijnhof of Breda, click here (Google Maps).

Patron Saint

Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Foundation/start of institution, date or year


Foundation year: is this year the confirmed year of founding or is this the year this institution is first mentioned?

First mention of the beguinage, in the form of a foundation act.

Foundation act present?


Description of Act of foundation

The act, made up in 1267 by lord Hendrik van Nassau of Breda, states that the beguines are entitled to their estate and permits them to build their own chapel and churchyard.  

Year of termination of institution

The beguinage is still in place, though the last beguine, sister Cornelia Catherina Frijters, passed away on the April 13th – Good Friday – 1990. She was the last living beguine in the Netherlands. The beguinage now serves as a museum, with still a number of single women living in the courtyard.

Year of termination: estimated or confirmed?

See above.

Act regarding termination present?


No. See above.

Description Act of termination

N/a. See above.

Reason for termination?

See above.

Recognized by local government?

Yes; the beguinage was recognized by the local government. The beguinage of Breda even had – and still does – a special relation with the house of Orange, the royal family of the Netherlands. This must have had to do with the fact that Breda was a so called "Oranjestad" – a city of the house of Orange. As lords of the city of Breda, the Nassau family protected the beguinage during several instances in history, especially during the Eighty Years War (see also the history of the beguinage).

Concise history of institution

The first official mention of the beguinage of Breda was in 1267, but it must have existed some time before that. The beguinage was moved to its current location at around 1535.


The Dutch Revolt and the Eighty Years War posed some problems for the beguinage. At the time when the municipal council of Breda was in the hands of the reformatory movement, Catholic services were forbidden. From 1590 until 1625, the beguines had to give up their church, the Wendelinus chapel, and had to use a conventicle – which was an improvised chapel organized in two houses that were build against the Wendelinus chapel. From 1625 onwards, the beguines could use their own church again, only to give it up in 1648, when the church was given to the Reformed congregation. The treaty of Munster in 1648 forbade the Catholic worship and all clergy had to leave Breda, except for the inhabitants of the beguinage. The inhabitants of the beguinage were protected by the princess of Orange-Nassau; this becomes apparent in no less than four acts of saveguarding in 1590, 1637, 1649 and 1653.


The beguinage had thus set up a conventicle: this is where they professed their worship until they build a new church in 1838. This church was dedicated to Saint-Catharine, as were both the church at the old location and the altars in the Windelinus chapel.


The beguines had several occupations. First of all in the textile industry: they examined wool for little mistakes, and then repaired these. Also, in the sixteenth century they started to repair embroidered cushions.


A second task of the beguines was the caretaking of old and sick sisters; the beguinage of Breda would have had an infirmary on the old location. On the new location there was also a house called ‘the infirmary’ but it is not certain whether it has ever been used as such. The beguines did also take care of sick and elderly lay women in the new beguinage, but these women had to pay for the services of the beguines.


A third occupation of the beguines was that they prayed for those who had founded a benefice. This meant that they prayed for the souls of a person who had passed for which they got a certain amount of money or goods. For this the beguines would, on or around the date of death, pay a visit to the grave of the deceased and pray and attend mass for his or her soul. The names of the people who founded a benefice were registered in the anniversarium.


Last, but not least, the beguines also educated children – especially in church matters. The articles of association from the year 1855 tell us that the beguines were allowed to board and teach girls; boys were only allowed until they made their first communion.


The beguinage had a so called "mistress" (meesteres); she was the head of the institute, and as such also responsible for the financial aspect of the beguinage. During the twentieth century though, the title of the head of the beguinage was changed to 'superior' (overste), which is a term commonly used in convents. Another development that indicates that the beguinages was moving towards a structure that resembled a monastery, is the fact that the sisters were professed for life from the 1920s onwards, instead of for three years, as was the case before.

Special events? Highs and lows? Specific problems or problematic periods?

  • 1267: Foundation act made up by Lord Hendrik van Nassau of Breda.
  • 1270: The bishop of Liege – responsible for Breda until the second half of the sixteenth century – gave ecclesial permission to the beguines to establish a church and a graveyard.
  • 1291: Founding of the chapel of Saint Catherine.
  • 1531: Agreement between the beguines and the count Hendrik III about the move of the beguinage for the extension of his palace. The beguines moved to the new location around 1535.
  • 1590 – 1625: Ban on the use of the church next to the beguinage: the Wendelinus chapel.
  • 1548: The Wendelinus chapel is handed over to the reformed church.
  • 1637: Probably from this year onwards there was a pastor inhabiting the beguinage. Before this time the beguinage would have received their spiritual services from the benefice, but because of the alteration policy of the government of the Republic (staatsbewind), it was more safe for a pastor to live on the property of the beguines, since they were safeguarded by the prince of Orange. Though the pastor was at first not solely committed to the beguines, from 1674 onward he was.
  • 1731 and 1939: In these years a placard was given out which determined that there should be no new novices accepted by the beguinage. Clearly the municipal government wanted to extinguish the beguinage, this danger was averted in 1747 when a member of the Orange family was made stadhouder again.
  • 1836 – 1838: Construction of the new Catherine church.
  • 1850: Construction of a new vicarage.
  • 1860 – 1863: Constructing of  the Buitenhof: containing nine new houses and a communal area;
  • 1967: Celebration of the 700th anniversary of the beguinage, and the start year of the restoration of the entire estate.
  • 1990: Death of the last beguine: Cornelia Catherina Frijters.


Numbers of members (specified)

  • In 1480, the beguinage contained 16 houses, inhabited by 37 persons.
  • During the sixteenth century the beguinage was expanding. This can be noticed by the fact that the beguines added a gateway and some new houses around it.
  • In 1526, the beguinage contained 22 houses.
  • 1589: 21 beguines.
  • 1631: 11 beguines.
  • 1635: 8 beguines.
  • 1962: 10 beguines

Membership attainable for every one, regardless of social class or family background?

See below.

Specific conditions for obtaining membership? (Entrance fee, special tests etc.)

  • The women needed to be either unmarried or widowed;
  • Girls or women who wanted to enter first became a novice, this meant that they were subjected to a probation period of a year;
  • They had to pledge a vow of chastity and poverty.
  • The women who wanted to enter the beguinage also needed to donate a certain amount of estate. In the professie-register of the beguinage (see also sources mentioned at end of case study)  the mistress sometimes noted details about the donation. For example:  

‘Anno 1651 in september is geproffessit Anneken Willems out wesende vijftich jaeren. Heeft aen de kerck vereert vier coperen candeleren enden eenen witten satijnen geborduerden kelckdoeck. Suster Anneken Willems is gestorven int jaer 1675 den 10 november ende heeft aen het begijnhoff van Breda gemaeckt xxxx (doorgehaald) gulden, ontfangen bijde meesterse Magdalene van Sprangh, maer behouden 71 gulden 13 st. door de groote rusie die de vrinden maeckten. Maer heeft nog aen de kerck gegeven eenen silveren aerm die voor Sinte Begga hanght'.

[Transl.: In the year 1651, in the month of September, Anneken Willems, aged 50, has been professed. She has piously donated to the church four candelabres made out of copper and a embroidered purificatorium, made of white satin. Sister Anneken Willems has died November 10th, 1675 and has legated to the beguinage of Breda 40 guilders [the amount having been crossed out], as this amount has been received by mistress Magdalena van Sprangh, but has kept 71 guilders 13 stuivers because of the great quarrel among the friends. However, she has donated a silver arm, pending before [the statue of] Saint Begga].

Specific reasons regarding banning members from the institution?

Disrespecting the rules, inobedience to the mistresses of the beguinage, and indecent or improper behavior could  all in its way be the cause for banishing the novice or beguine from the beguinage.

Advantages of membership?

The beguines lived a life that was in-between the secular and the sacred: they were free to hold on to their own possessions. The beguines of Breda were even completely financially independent, both their possessions and income were their own responsibility. They could run their own household but still live within the walls of the beguinage, which gave them a form of protection. 

Obligations of members? 

  • Religious obligations: religious services were a big part of the life of the beguines. The beguines were concerned with the celebration of the Eucharist, and several times during the day they came together for silent prayers. On days of sacrament they held processions in the courtyard.
  • Domestic services: The beguines cleaned their own houses and rooms and the linens from the church, since those needed to be washed by pious hands.
  • Regulations: the beguines had to uphold their vows of chastity and obedience to the head of the beguines, for as long as they remained in the beguinage.
  • Beguines were obliged to work hard: partially because they had to, and partially because it was assumed that work was the only way to keep the devil away.
  • Dress obligations: beguines were obliged to dress according to regulations. These regulations changed over time, but were mainly concerned with the colors of the dresses. Form 1631 onward regulations determined that the beguines of Breda had to be dressed in black woolen dresses, with a white cap.
  • Originally the beguines were not permitted to leave the beguinage without the permission of their mistress.

Literature on case study

  • IJsseling, J.M.F., 1967. Het Begijnhof te Breda. S.l.: s.n.
  • IJsseling, J.M.F., 1966. Inventaris van het Archief van het Begijnhof te Breda. Breda: Gemeentearchief Breda.
  • Koorn, F. W. J., Van der Eycken, M., and Meeter, O., 1987. Begijnen in Brabant : de begijnhoven van Breda en Diest. Esso Museumreeks 9. Breda: Esso.

Sources on case study

  • Municipal Archive of Breda (Stadsarchief Breda)
    • Archief Begijnhof
      • 6: Statuten 1855 (esp. Ch. 6, regarding school education).
      • 43: Professieregister 1648-1833.
    • Archief Stadsbestuur Breda, 1280-1810 (toegang ARC0001)
      • 2273: Foundation act of the beguinage.
  • The archive of the Begijnhof of Breda will be digitized by the Municipal Archive of Breda (Stadsarchief Breda) and is expected to be put online in 2012. More information (in Dutch only) regarding this is to be found here.

Links to further information on case study:

Case study composed by

Aart Vos, Stadsarchief 's-Hertogenbosch (inventarisation of data)

Winny Bierman, Utrecht University (text)