Friday, February 15, 2013

The (Republican) Netherlands


The Netherlands as we know it today was born out of a rebellion against Spain starting in 1568, a long and horrific conflict known as the 80 Years War. This was during the reign of King Carlos I of Spain or, as he is better known, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. At first the rebellion was not very well organized nor did it have very clear motivations. Even then the Dutch ports were centers of lucrative trade and many Dutch businessmen were upset about Spanish taxes, others had political grievances and wanted greater autonomy within the Spanish empire and then there was the spread of Protestantism which motivated many people to rebel against the very Catholic Kingdom of Spain. The religious aspect can still incite the most passion but it was often not exactly central to what was going on. There were rebel leaders, for example, who had been perfectly content to be Catholics who later converted to Protestantism simply as a way to attract aid and support from other Protestant powers against the Spanish. Which is, of course, not to say that the religious aspect was totally unimportant, for a time The Netherlands was the religious battleground of Europe where Catholic and Protestant powers fought by proxy.

The rebellion became more organized in 1579 with the Union of Utrecht which first brought the rebel provinces of the northern Netherlands into closer cooperation. The last tie with Spain was cut in 1581 when King Philip II was declared deposed and the provinces. The Netherlands, even then, was divided between those of republican and royalist sympathies, even among the rebels. The republican model was adopted but a monarch (of sorts) was also chosen in the person of Francois, Duke of Anjou who was appointed “Protector of the Liberty of the Netherlands” in a treaty ratified in 1581, effectively making the Duke of Anjou the sovereign of the new Dutch Republic. However, the Duke of Anjou didn’t last long, and he was mostly chosen simply to attract more foreign support to the rebel side, but the idea of a republic with a (sort of) monarch watching over it would not go away. The immediate survival of the Dutch republic was still in question though. The Spanish were still the most formidable military power in Europe after all, however, in 1585 the Dutch gained a most valuable ally in the person of Queen Elizabeth I of England who saw the rebellion in the Netherlands as an ideal way to bedevil her rival and former brother-in-law, King Philip II, from a distance.

It is still sometimes debated how much an impact the English army had, however, the English navy certainly had an impact and most likely saved the rebel Dutch forces from total defeat at the hands of the Duke of Parma who was probably the most brilliant soldier of his time. The Dutch republic was saved and eventually carrying on the war became too costly for Spain and in 1648 King Philip IV recognized the independence of the United Provinces. The Netherlands became an established power that was to become a permanent fixture of the European scene from then on. It was legally a republic but, like the republican city-states in northern Italy, it was a “crowned republic”. The most prominent leader throughout the war for independence had been Willem the Silent, the Prince of Orange. He was elected to the position of Stadtholder which, effectively if not officially, became a hereditary office passed from one Prince of Orange to the next. Willem the Silent was assassinated in 1584 and his son, the Catholic Filips Willem, became Prince of Orange but not stadtholder. His successor and half-brother, Maurits van Nassau, did become stadtholder for all of the United Provinces of the Netherlands other than Friesland. He would also go down in history as one of the most brilliant and innovative military commanders in European history.

At that time, as at the very start of the Dutch revolt, there was a more royalist camp and a more republican camp and despite the fact that the Prince of Orange held what was essentially a republican political office, Maurits van Nassau took a very monarchist view of things when it came to preserving the House of Orange and their place in The Netherlands. His successor was his half-brother Prince Frederik Hendrik who was also quite successful as Prince of Orange and Stadtholder. He won some great military victories and secured peace with Spain. Observers looking in on how he lived and how he was treated by the people could be forgiven for supposing him to have been a monarch. He was under no illusions about the nature of his position and arranged for his son and heir to marry the eldest daughter of the British monarch to bind the House of Orange to the House of Stuart. It was also under Prince Frederik Hendrik that the Orange/anti-Orange, royalist/republican divide began to really strongly take shape and lead to political confrontations.

 When Prince Willem II succeeded to the position of his father it was clear that a confrontation was inevitable. Willem II sincerely believed that electoral politics were weakening The Netherlands and that a strong leader and clear, uncontested succession were needed. If he were to have had his way it might have been Willem II who became the first King of The Netherlands. The army was with him and when political maneuvering was going nowhere the Prince gathered his forces and laid siege to Amsterdam. Unfortunately for the “Orange Party” the Prince died of smallpox during the siege and while his infant son, Willem III, became Prince of Orange, the republicans were able to seize power and The Netherlands entered the period known in history as the period ‘without a Stadtholder’. The Dutch republicans also fought with but at times made common cause with the English republicans under Oliver Cromwell. The situation changed when King Charles II and the House of Stuart was restored to the British throne which greatly strengthened the hand of the Orange party. In the absence of strong republican leadership Prince Willem III became Stadtholder of The Netherlands as his father had been.

Willem III was a proud Dutch patriot and an ardent Calvinist who greatly impressed King Charles II, so much so that he tipped him off to the plan of King Louis XIV of France to conquer The Netherlands. He even considered allying with the Orange party to defeat the republican faction and see Willem III become a full-fledged monarch. That did not come about but the Orange party rose in prestige as Prince Willem III led a tenacious defense of his country against the French. He finally secured peace with France and a marriage alliance with Britain by marrying the daughter of the Duke of York. Then, most famously, in 1688 he was invited by English elites to mount a Dutch invasion of Britain to overthrow his father-in-law, then King James II, which he did in what has since become known as the “Glorious Revolution”. In the aftermath the Prince of Orange became King William III of Great Britain alongside his wife Queen Mary II. William was most concerned with his own country and paid little notice to the precedent this set in Britain where, for the first time, it was asserted that the Crown was in the gift of Parliament and that monarchs no longer reigned by “divine right”.

The death of King William III brought a period of turmoil in The Netherlands as he had no male heir. The King of Prussia claimed the Principality of Orange which William III had willed to Johan Willem Friso. Eventually a settlement was arranged which saw Friso’s son Willem IV become Prince of Orange. After another period of vacancy he also became Stadtholder of The Netherlands, the first to be so based purely on heredity. The royalist-republican division had been forced to take second place to other national emergencies but it came back in full force during the rule of Prince Willem V who succeeded his father as Stadtholder in 1766. He clashed with the anti-Orange party over both domestic and foreign policy. When the Revolutionary War broke out in America, the Dutch republicans were quick to side with the colonial rebels while Prince Willem V favored the British and did his best to stop efforts to aid the colonials and undermine King George III. Nonetheless, events ultimately pushed The Netherlands into war with Britain (which was not beneficial) and the Dutch republic was among the earliest powers to recognize the United States.

Spurred on by revolutionary movements in America and France, the anti-Orange party took to calling themselves the Patriots and became ever bolder in their opposition to Willem V. Eventually, confrontations broke out between the Dutch army and the Patriots but it was not until the intervention of King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia that they were totally cleared out. The Prussian army marched in, dispersed the Patriots and sent them fleeing to France where they were harbored by King Louis XVI (at least until he was overthrown by the French compatriots of the very people he had helped). Aroused to the danger of republicanism, though he was himself still technically the leader of a republic, Prince Willem V was quick to join the allied war effort against the revolutionary First French Republic in 1793. However, things did not go well and in time French revolutionary forces, aided by Dutch republicans, invaded and occupied The Netherlands. Prince Willem V fled to Great Britain and it was the French, ironically, who abolished the Dutch republic, replacing it with one of their own until Napoleon gave the Dutch his brother as monarch.

Prince Willem V did not live to see The Netherlands put back in order but his son would and his son would preside over the final victory of the Orange party with the allied victory over Napoleon. Willem V died in 1806 and his son became Prince Willem VI of Orange but by the decision of the victorious allies at the Congress of Vienna, in 1815 he was proclaimed King Willem I of The Netherlands or The United Kingdom of The Netherlands which was expanded to include Belgium and (after a little horse-trading) Luxembourg. The Netherlands finally, officially, became a monarchy and quite a robust one at that. In time, the threat of rebellion would cause the Dutch monarchy to hand power over to elected leaders but the monarchs themselves have remained fairly consistently influential and the Orange monarchy is very popular in The Netherlands. However, while there may not be an anti-Orange party in The Netherlands today, there are still those who are carrying on the same spirit, who wish to sideline the monarchy as much as possible, remove it from any significant involvement in government and this can only have the effect of weakening the position of the monarch as national leader. The loyal Dutch are the real “patriots” and they must be ever vigilant against any hint of republicanism. The Netherlands has never been totally republican and the House of Orange has guarded and guided the Dutch people since the time of independence and that should never be forgotten or taken for granted.

1 comment:

  1. His Imperial Majesty Charles V died in 1558, after resigning in 1556. The Dutch Revolt and the subsequent war began during the reign of Philip II, not during the reign of his father.

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