Were your ancestors guild brothers?

In the fall of 2008 I attended the inauguration of a professor at Tilburg University. In the auditorium, I noticed a group of men in black suits with red sashes. I had no idea who they were and why they were in the audience. But their appearance impressed me. After the ceremony, one of the men approached me. It turned out to be my former boss at the Tilburg Regional Archives. He explained to me that the men were all members of the Royal Archers Guild of Saint Sebastian, one of the three guilds in Tilburg. He told me they were looking for new (and younger) members and he thought I would make a good guild brother, as I was greatly interested in history and traditions. It flattered me but I told him I had not enough time for new activities.

Nine months later, I met the guilds again when I was representing the mayor of our town at the 525th anniversary of another guild in Tilburg. That evening my former boss tried for the second time to talk me into becoming a guild brother. This time I promised him I would come to one of their weekly meetings. It must have been July or August 2009 when I met the guild brothers on a Monday evening. They were all very helpful in explaining the history and purposes of their guild and showed me how to use a hand bow. Half a year later, I was a guild brother myself. And in 2016 the guild brothers elected me as their captain.


Wikipedia says:
“A guild /ɡɪld/ is an association of artisans or merchants who control the practice of their craft in a particular town. The earliest types of guild were formed as confraternities of tradesmen. They were organized in a manner something between a professional association, trade union, a cartel, and a secret society. They often depended on grants of letters patent by a monarch or other authority to enforce the flow of trade to their self-employed members, and to retain ownership of tools and the supply of materials. A lasting legacy of traditional guilds are the guildhalls constructed and used as meeting places.”


Most people know of these types of guilds, as they often appear in history books or movies. But not a lot of people know of guilds who were not controlling the practice of crafts, but were responsible for law and order on a local level. In a time where police forces did not exist yet, these guilds guarded the town or village and its residents as a representative of the local lord. It is for this special task that these guilds carried weapons, either a hand bow or crossbow or a gun.

It is quite remarkable that so many people never heard of ‘shooting guilds’, for one of the most famous paintings – known to people all over the world – depicts a similar group: the militia company under the command of captain Frans Banninck Cocq also known as… The Night Watch, painted by Rembrandt van Rijn. Look at the captain, dressed in a black suit with a red sash!

The Guild of Saint Sebastian in Tilburg

Let us get back to my guild, one of the ‘shooting guilds’ from Tilburg. In a will, of May 1504, resident of Tilburg bequeathed some money to “the altar of Saint Sebastian”. In those times, fraternities took care of altars. Some of these fraternities or brotherhoods later became guilds, named after their patron saints: for example Saint Sebastian, Saint George, Saint Catharine or Saint Barbara. The members of the guild of Saint Sebastian not only protected the society with their hand bows, their special task during epidemics was to collect the dead bodies in the streets and bury them.

During the 18th and 19th century, these guilds transformed into societies for notables, who were now using their handbows for competitions. The guild brothers of Saint Sebastian took part in several national shooting contests, organized by king William III. Because of the special bond between the king and the guild brothers, the king granted the guild of Saint Sebastian in 1851 the designation ‘Royal’. It is the only Dutch guild with this designation, something to be proud of!

Current situation

At the end of the 19th century, notables chose more and more to join new gentlemen’s clubs or music groups. Guilds became extinct. Fortunately, one family kept all our guild’s treasures together. In the 1960s, descendants of the old guild brothers and a group of artists revived the guild. Nowadays, 19 guild brothers have committed to keep the guild’s traditions alive: a brotherhood of men and women with great respect for each other and with a strong interest in social issues, using the hand bow in a sportive way.

Silver Artefacts

Most guilds have an extensive collection of artifacts. Some of them will be paper documents. There will be lists or registers with names of guild brothers, when did they enter the guild and when did they die. There will be chronicles or minutes of meetings that give you an idea about the most important events and developments of the guild. Some of the artifacts will be objects: medals, silver shields, goblets, paintings and more. Some of the artifacts will be for general use, but some of them might be a private object that belonged to your ancestor.

Let me give you an example. My 3x great-grandfather Jan Jansen (1821-1877) was a member of the guild of Saint Crispin in Loon op Zand. In 1858, he won a triennial shooting and thus became ‘king’ of the guild for the next three years. It is a general guild tradition that each king donates a silver shield to the guild. The king is free to design this shield: he chooses the shape, the symbols and the text. Hence, each shield gives personal information about that king. How great it is to see or even hold a silver shield that once belonged to your ancestor!

Not only the guild’s king wears a silver shield, most captains – civil law would call them the president or chairman – wear silver or even gold-plated shields. A captain’s shield is not personalized, but it is handed over from one captain to the next and can be therefore very old. For example, the shield that I am wearing as captain of our guild dates from the 18th century and has all names of successive captains engraved on the back.

Final Thoughts

Especially in early days, it was quite common that guild brothers were family members. Fathers would bring their sons, or their sons-in-law. Generation after generation, families would have a strong connection with the guild. And once a guild brother, most of them were member of the guild until they died. The guild’s collection might be a true treasure trove! It could be a great place to look for clues to solve a brick wall puzzle. If you find one ancestor as a guild brother, you might find more relatives.

There are guilds in almost all European countries: the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, Scandinavia, Croatia, and Italy. So, there is always a chance one of your ancestors was a member of a guild… Try to find out, it may bring you a lot of interesting information about your family!