Zuylen Castle and the novelist Isabelle de Charrière

Castles, Travel

Just outside the city of Utrecht, in the middle of the Netherlands, you will find the cute pittoresque village of Oud-Zuilen along the riverside of the Vecht. Before the 13th century only some farmers and fishermen lived on the riverbanks. But the nobility had the marshland cultivated and built stronghouses. The stronghouses later became castles, the river was used for trade between Amsterdam and Utrecht. One of these castles was Zuylen Castle in Oud-Zuilen. The lovely church of the village was built in 1654 by Adam van Lockhorst, Lord of Zuylen. The church partly burnt down in 1847, but was rebuilt the next year. It is now owned by the Adam van Lockhorst Foundation and certainly worth a short visit when you’re visiting the castle.

The castle itself is however the main attraction. The first house – or rather a simple donjon with 2,7 metres thick walls – on this spot was built around 1250 by Steven van Zuylen. Foundations can still be seen in the terrace. The tower had several owners, but in 1422 was destroyed during the Hook and Cod wars in the County of Holland. At the time it was in the possesion of Frank van Borssele, the fourth husband of Jacqueline Duchess of Bavaria, Countess of Holland and Zeeland (in the Netherlands best known as Jacoba van Beieren). Only about 100 years later, around 1525, Count Willem van Rennenberg build a new castle with a gatehouse on the old ruins. Early 17th century it was bought by Adam van Lockhorst as a summer residence. His only heir was his four-year-old granddaughter Anna Elisabeth van Reede, who in 1665 married her stepbrother and nephew Hendrik Jacob van Tuyll van Serooskerken. Diederik Jacob van Tuyll van Serooskerken in 1752 had the castle conversed majorly into a castle from the Middle Ages – a country house in the French style – with a moat. Since no big alterations have been made anymore. Until 1951 the castle remained in the possession of this family – several members have been buried at the cemetery of Oud-Zuilen. Then the last inhabitants put the castle, gardens and most contents of the house into a foundation. Since more than 50 years the castle is a museum, you however have to take a guided tour. My tour last September was quite nice, although I unfortunately arrived rather late in the afternoon, so I just managed to get into the last tour and hardly had time to have a better look around. There also is a small shop, a café and you can walk around in the lovely gardens.

The worldwide most famous inhabitant of the castle was Isabella Agneta Elisabeth van Tuyll van Serooskerken (1740-1805), a Dutch writer of the Enlightenement. In the Netherlands she is known under the name Belle van Zuylen, elsewhere as Madame Isabelle de Charrière. She wrote letters and novels, pamphlets, music and plays. She was born at Zuylen Castle as the eldest of seven children of Diederik Jacob van Tuyll van Serooskerken and Helena Jacoba de Vicq. In 1771 she married Charles-Emmanuel de Charrière de Penthaz (1738-1808). She lived most of her life in Switzerland and wrote in French. Her first novel, Le Noble, was published in 1762 and was a satire against the nobility. As you can imagine you will hear her name quite often during the tour through the castle.

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