Heusden was a municipality in itself, incorporating the communities of Herpt, Heesbeen, Hedikhuizen, Doeveren, and Oudheusden. In 1997 Heusden was incorporated together with the municipalities of Vlijmen and Drunen to form a new municipality, for which the name of Heusden was chosen.
The settlement of Heusden, bordering on the river Meuse (Maas), as we know it today dates back to the 13th century, and started with the construction of a fortification to replace the castle that was destroyed by the Duke of Brabant in 1202. This fortification was quickly expanded with water works and a donjon (castle keep). The city of Heusden received city rights in 1318. The castle of Heusden was the property of successive dukes of Brabant, in 1357 it went over to the counts of Holland. With the construction of ramparts and moats the castle became located within the city's fortifications, and the castle lost its function as a stronghold. The donjon was now used as a munition depot. A disaster marked the end of the castle of Heusden and caused the economic demise of the city; on 24 July 1680 a terrible thunderstorm hit Heusden, and lightning struck the donjon. Sixty thousand pounds of gunpowder and other ammunition exploded, and destroyed the castle. It took the people of Heusden seven weeks to clear the rubble and debris. The castle was never fully rebuilt. However, the original outlines of the main features were restored in 1987.
Fortifications and restoration
During the first years of the Eighty Years War (1568-1648), Heusden was occupied by the Spanish. In 1577, however, following the Pacification of Ghent, the people of Heusden chose to ally with William, Prince of Orange. William decided to consolidate the town's strategic position near the river Meuse, and ordered fortification works to be constructed. Work started in 1579 with the digging of moats and the construction of bastions, walls, and ravelins. and was completed in 1597.
By early 19th century, the defence works were fallen into disrepair and dismantled. In 1968, however, extensive restoration works started, and fortifications were carefully rebuilt, based on and inspired by a 1649 map of the city of Heusden by Johannes Blaeu, son of the famous Dutch cartographer Willem Blaeu. In 1980, the city of Heusden received the European Urbes Nostrae restoration prize. Heusden now draws over 350 thousand tourists every year who visit the historic town centre and walk the walls that once made it a formidable stronghold.
Heusden Town Hall Massacre, a Nazi warcrime
Towards the end of World War II, in October 1944, the cities of Tilburg and 's-Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch) are liberated by the allied forces. The bridge across the river Meuse makes Heusden, then still occupied by the Germans, a strategic object. The cellars of the old town hall, built in 1588, are a shelter for civilians during artillery fire. The German Wehrmacht uses the building as a communication centre and hospital.
A few weeks after Operation Market Garden, the allied Operation Pheasant starts on 20 October 1944. The 1st Canadian Army (advancing from Belgium) and the 2nd British Army (advancing from the east) fight to liberate central and western Noord-Brabant. On Saturday 4 November, under heavy artillery fire, two Scottish Highlander regiments advance, and 170 civilians seek shelter in the town hall's cellars. Early in the morning of 5 November, three German army engineers detonate the explosive charges they placed earlier. The 40-metre tower collapses, killing 134. Only hours later, the 5th battalion of the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders from the 51st Highland Division liberated Heusden.
Heusden was literally decimated, as one tenth of the town's population died that night in the town hall's cellar. A staggering number of 74, i.e. more than half of the total number of victims, were children aged 16 years or younger.
Witnesses have stated that on 4 November German soldiers carried explosives into the town hall's tower, and also into two churches, a windmill, and dairy factory in Heusden. NCO (non-commissioned officer) Bottnick, who was probably following orders from commander Pfühl, a mining engineer, undermined the eastern part of the tower thus ensuring that it would collapse on the town hall, not on the street.
Later, events were investigated by the British Civil Affairs. However, this has never resulted in the trial and punishment of the war criminals Pfühl, Bottnick, and their accomplices.
A new town hall was erected in 1956. Designed and built in the style of the Bossche School, it has much less splendour than its late-gothic predecessor. A memorial tablet in the forecourt still remembers the lives that were lost in the night of 4 to 5 November 1944. Its inscription: "Wandelaar, waar gij staat vielen vijf november 1944 honderd vier en dertig burgers den oorlog ten offer." (Passer-by, where you are, on five November 1944 one hundred and thirty four civilians fell victim to the war.) Inscriptions in one of the larger bells in the tower ("Nabestaanden, als ik luid, weet: Uw vele, vele doden zijn niet oorlogs droeve buit, maar aan 't Gastmaal Gods genoden."), and an epitaph ("5 November 1944. Hier staat in steen geschreven geen daad of droom, geen leven, maar slechts het blijvend feit van hun afwezigheid") in the building itself are also dedicated to the memory of the victims.
The massacre ("Stadhuisramp") is commemorated every year.
With the fusion of the municipalities of Heusden, Drunen and Vlijmen in 1997, the town hall has lost its original function. Since 2005, the building houses a visitors centre