You will see this image quite often if you spend some time in the Netherlands. It is the Royal Family’s coat of arms, and it gives us the chance to indulge in a bit of twisted European history. In the Middle Ages, alliances (and countries) were often shaped through a complicate game of dynastic unions, marriages and inheritances.This is how a Dutch dynasty ended up having a French motto on its coat of arms.
The family is officially known as the House of Orange-Nassau, after its original fiefdoms from the Middle Ages. Funny enough, both Orange and Nassau are outside the Netherlands, and none of them is today in the family’s possession. The two titles were united in 1515, through the marriage of Henry III of Nassau-Dillenburg-Dietz and Claudia of Châlon-Orange. Henry III was the uncle of William I, Prince of Orange, better known as William the Silent. William had been born in Nassau in 1533. So as strange as it may seem, the liberator of the Netherlands and father of the Dutch nation was actually German.
The Principality of Orange used to be situated in Provence, in Southern France. Its center, Orange, is a nice historical town 20 km away from Avignon. Despite its location, it was not a part of France in the Middle Ages. It belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, the large medieval state centered in today’s Germany. It survived as a semi-independent enclave until the beginning of the 18th century, and was a refuge for Protestants during the French wars of religion. In 1713, the territory was finally ceded to France, but the title was kept in parallel by two pretenders: the Dutch prince Johan Willem Friso and the Prussian king Frederick I.
The House of Nassau had its seat in the Nassau Castle, in Western Germany. Originally the family held the title of counts, but were later elevated to the title of Princely Counts in the Holy Roman Empire- that is, counts who had all the rights and privileges of a prince. The German territories were eventually handed over to Prussia by the Dutch King William I in 1815, at the Congress of Vienna. In exchange, he received the title of Grand Duke of Luxembourg.
As for the coat of arms: “Je maintiendrai” meant initially “Je Maintiendrai Châlons”, or “I will keep Chalons”, a small town in Eastern France which was one of the family’s possessions. If this motto was supposed to be a sort of reminder, it definitely did not work: the town was lost to France already in 1477. Later, it became “Je Maintiendrai Nassau”, but then Nassau was also lost, so eventually it turned into the comfortably vague “Je Maintiendrai”.
The lion in the image represents Burgundian Netherlands, which included also Belgium, while the arrows in the lion’s “hand” represent the seven provinces of the Dutch Republic. Initially, the lion held seventeen arrows, for the seventeen provinces of the Burgundian Low Countries in the 16th century. However, some of the provinces were lost to the Habsburgs during the 80 years war, turning eventually into what we know today as Belgium. As for the sword, it was offered initially to the Dutch provinces as a “present” by the Habsburg emperor Charles V. That happened only a few years before the beginning of the Dutch struggle for independence. Once the Netherlands became a free state, it was kept on the coat of arms as a symbol for the country’s will to defend its freedom. So there you go: a full trip through European history in a single image!