A Story of Belief and Friendship

Eveybody believes in something. People believe the earth is flat, or round, others believe in God, or The Big Bang. The Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady started with the mutual belief in in God, purgatory and hell.

Let me tell you a story. It sounds like a fairy tale, but this one really happened. It takes place in the beautifull city of Den Bosch, and started from the early 1300s. And the story isn’t over yet.

It all started way back in 1185. Duke Henry of Brabant built his hunting lodge on a site that we now know as The Market in Den Bosch. Apparently, this was a really good idea, because many more people followed his example and settled here. Where people are, faith followes rapidly. In 1220 the people of ‘s-Hertogenbosch began the construction of a romanesque Church, devoted to John the apostle. As the city was expanding, more and more people attended services at the romanesque church. In the 14th century, the church was replaced by a bigger version; toady this church is known as as Saint John’s Cathedral.

heilige maagd maria
The Holy Mother Mary

You must know that ‘soul salvation’ an important issue was in these days. No faithful cahtolic was looking forward to spending time in purgatory for the sins they commited during their life on earth. To help believers to stay on the straight and narrow, several saints showed followers of Christ the right way. The Virgin Mary is one of these saints. And should you commit a sin? No problem: the Catholics invented something for this: indulgences. Indulgences come in many forms, like penance through prayer or pilgrimage, but you can also redeem yourself by spending several years in purgatory, as a way of burning your sins away.

A group of about 30 brothers (from another mother), decided to unite and practice once a week the liturgy in the chapel and organize a yearly procession in honour of The Holy Mother Mary. The Bishop of Liege also thought this was a good idea and gave official approval for the founding of a brotherhood. The Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady was born.

A growing brotherhood

When the brotherhood got hold of indulgences, they became increasingly popular. More and more people wanted to join and buy off the punishment of their sinds in purgatory. In 1371 the brotherhoof began to allow ‘outside members’: men and women, even from outside the city of Den Bosch joined. They only had to pay an entry fee and ‘death debt’. Around de 1500’s the brotherhood was so popular that is counted 15,000 people among its members (the city itself had about 20,000 inhabitants).

Zwanenbroederhuis - oud
The first “Zwanenbroederhuis”

A core group (iurati) were known as the die hards of The Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady. They met weekly to eat and sing and went to the services in the chapel. The weekly meal was initially enjoyed at the house of one of these core members, but when they were given their own house on the Hinthamerstraat (Het Zwanenbroederhuis), they moved their activities there. The ‘outside members’ didn’t join in these activities.




Hell for The Brotherhood

Unfortunatly, things started to rumble in Europe and in Den Bosch. Calvanistic Protestantism was on the rise. The brotherhood lost members and in 1566 the Iconiclasm did not spare Saint John’s Cathedral and the chapel of the Brotherhood. However, the mercy blow fot the Brotherhood came in 1629.

Fredrick Henry defeated the Swamp Dragon. Den Bosch was conquered by a protestant nation and practice of the Catholic faith (and veneration of The Holy Mother Mary) was prohibited. Some members of the Brotherhood even made the switch to Protestantism. When in 1641 the Protestant Governor of Den Bosch requested admission to The Brotherhood, the brothers were faced with a dilemma: admission would mean a definitive end to Mary’s veneration, but refusing a prominent person could mean an end to The Brotherhood. After much deliberation and a vote, it was decided to admit the governor. The articles of association of the Brotherhood had to be rewritten.

Unity and friendship: can two faiths join hands?

Out of self-preservation, the brotherhood no longer focused on the veneration of

wapenboek 1723
Book of Arms (1723)

Mary. The new objective was the unity and friendship between Christians. From now on, the group of brothers consisted of 18 Catholic and 18 Protestant members (plus a number of candidate members). The brotherhood turned more and more inwards and only aristocrats and bourgeois citizens were allowed to become members. The weekly meal gradually became an annual meal, and fraternity and solidarity was not very noticeable within the group.

This continued for a while, but there was no question of dissolution of the Brotherhood. When in 1818, the brotherhood celebrated its 500th anniversary the character of the organisation changed. In 1968, during its  650-year jubilee, in 1968, the first ecumenical service was held; the brotherhood was slowely but surely reinventing itself. When Den Bosch reached the noble age 800 years in 1985, the Brotherhood decided that it was time to step out of the mystery and anonimity. ‘Het Zwanenbroederhuis’ was opened its doors to the public more often, and for 20 years they were officially allowed to call themselves a ‘Museum‘ and a National Monument.

Geloven in vriendschap
Believing in Friendship – 700 years Swanbrothers in ‘s-Hertogenbosch

The brotherhood still exists and they are more and more visible in the every day life of the city. They organise annual events to raise money for charities and this year they celebrated their 700-year anniversary. Those who want to know more about this Illustrious Society can visit the Noord Brabants Museum for an exhibition about the society. In addition, a book has been published.

So you see that where there is a will there is also a way to find, even between Catholics and Protestants. And they lived happily ever after.



The brotherhood is also known as “De Zwanenbroeders” (or: Swanbrothers), because of their habit of eating a swan meal every year. Although they have not been eating swans for a long time, they are still known by this name.

The Zwanenbroederhuis

On the rooftop at the front of the Zwanenbroederhuis, you can see the statue of a swan. It was placed there in the 1950’s.

Four male figures can be seen at the front of the Zwanenbroederhuis. These images from 1962 represent:

  • William of Orange, the first Orange to become Zwanenbroeder
  • Gijsbertus van der Poorten, donator of the Zwanenbroedershuis
  • Gerardus van Uden, founder of the Brotherhood
  • Count Floris van Egmont, who was also Zwanenbroeder

On this website you can see an accurate 3D-rendering of the Zwanenbroederhuis as it looked 1500.

Famous Zwanenbroeders

The brotherhood has known many members over the years. Some very famous.

  • Alart du Hamel – Architect of the gothic Sint John’s Cathedral (1450-1506)

    King Willem Alexander
  • Jheronimus Bosch – famous painter (1450 – 1516)
  • Willem van Oranje – Prince of Orange, count of Nassau-Dillenburg – aka Willem de Zwijger (1533 – 1584)
  • Wilhelmina of the Netherlands – Princess of the Netherlands and former Queen of the Netherlands (1880 – 1962)
  • King Willem Alexander – King of the Netherlands (1967 – present day)


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