Monday, September 26, 2016

Monarch Profile: King Willem I of the Netherlands

It is no exaggeration to say that the reign of King Willem I of the Kingdom of the United Netherlands was the culmination of centuries of struggle, climaxed by the most critical conflict since the Dutch won their independence from Spain and which would remain the most critical until World War II was thrust upon them with the German blitzkrieg in May of 1940. From the start of the Dutch fight for freedom, that fight had been led by the Princes of Orange and, as founded, the independent Netherlands had been a republic but a republic which reserved a special place of leadership for the Princes of Orange. However, a more strident republican faction had emerged that sought to exclude the House of Orange from any position of influence. In response, a royalist faction rose up to counter them, often called the Orange party for the Orange sashes they often wore to show their support for their prince. As the republican faction strove to make the Netherlands more puritanically republican, so too did the Orange party move to do away with republican concessions and make the Prince of Orange their king.

Princes Willem & Frederik
Willem Frederick, Hereditary Prince of Orange-Nassau, was born in The Hague on August 24, 1772 to Prince Willem V of Orange and Princess Wilhelmina of Prussia. The internal struggle that had long troubled the Netherlands was still going strong at the time of his birth, not long before the forces of revolution began to sweep across the western world. In America, British colonists rose in revolt and declared the independence of the United States. Prince Willem V favored the British but the Dutch government allied with the Americans and declared war on Britain. That conflict was eventually settled but a more serious problem arose with the growth of a much more radical revolutionary movement in France. The Dutch republicans saw the French revolutionaries as their natural allies and rose up in a rebellion known as the “Patriot revolt” which was suppressed with help from the Prussians in 1787. Prince Willem and his brother Frederick were both given an education that stressed military matters, both eventually attending a military academy in Brunswick.

While on a visit to Berlin he met Princess Friederike Luise Wilhelmine of Prussia, his cousin, and the two were married in 1791. After finishing his education, the Hereditary Prince was made a general in the Dutch army by his father and given a seat on the Council of State of the Dutch republic. Not long after, the Dutch republicans were to learn that the kinship they felt with the French revolutionaries was not returned when the French National Convention declared war on the Dutch republic in 1793. Prince Willem was given command of the Dutch ‘mobile army’ to meet the attacking French and he was soon leading his troops alongside the armies of other powers in the Flanders campaign. It was hard fighting and the Prince tasted both victory and defeat such as when he captured Landrecies and was later smashed along with his allies at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. Still, he made enough of a favorable impression that the Emperor Francis II gave him command of the Austrian forces in the region, to be grouped with his own though, in the end, the huge advantage in numbers possessed by the French revolutionaries with their campaign of mass conscription, proved impossible to overcome.

Willem, Prince of Orange
In 1795 Prince Willem V was forced to leave the Netherlands and go into exile in Britain, taking his sons with him as the French and their Dutch republican collaborators proclaimed the birth of the Batavian Republic, effectively a French puppet state. Prince Willem wanted to strike back immediately but his Prussian relatives vetoed the idea but he returned nonetheless in 1799 in an effort to spark a loyalist counter-revolution in cooperation with a joint Anglo-Russian invasion. The whole affair was a fiasco, though much of the navy and some Dutch soldiers did defect to join their prince. These men were formed into the King’s Dutch Brigade which later saw action in Ireland. When the British made peace with the French “First Consul”, Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1802 the cause of the Dutch loyalists seemed lost. Prince Willem felt betrayed by the British, who also went on to conquer a number of far flung Dutch colonies such as the Cape colony in South Africa and Ceylon in the Indian Ocean. Embittered, the Prince left England for Germany.

However, in 1806 Napoleon invaded the German states, the same year that Willem V died and his son officially became Prince Willem VI of Orange, and the Prince fought alongside his Prussian relatives against the French as a divisional commander of the Prussian army at the Battle of Jena. However, the Prussians were defeated and the Prince was forced to surrender the next day. He was given his parole, forced to promise not to fight against the French any more and was granted a pension from France as his country was a vassal of the government in Paris. However, he had no intention of keeping his word to the French and when the Austrian Empire went to war with France, he quickly joined their ranks and was wounded at the Battle of Wagram while serving on the staff of the Austrian commander Archduke Charles. Later, he received a great boost from Czar Alexander I of Russia who promised to help restore Dutch independence and make the Prince of Orange king. Prussia and Britain were both expected to agree. After the defeat of Napoleon at Leipzig, an Orange restoration seemed imminent.

By 1813, republicanism had been hugely reduced in the Netherlands, mostly thanks to the French. After promoting himself to Emperor, Napoleon had abolished the Batavian Republic and recreated the country as a satellite state called the Kingdom of Holland with his brother Louis as monarch. As it happened, King Louis proved rather popular and seemed to take his position seriously and clashed with his brother when French and Dutch interests collided. Napoleon would have none of that and so he sacked his brother and simply annexed the Netherlands to the French Empire. This turned the Dutch completely against the French and Napoleon’s constant wars and increasing demands for more money, more men, more resources brought about a very anti-French attitude amongst practically the entire Dutch population. The period of French rule made everyone long for the return of the Prince of Orange and the idea of a Dutch monarchy was more popular than it had ever been before.

The return of the Prince of Orange
On November 30, 1813 a British warship landed the Prince of Orange at Scheveningen, almost exactly the spot where he had left the country eighteen years before and the local provisional government immediately offered him the title of king. Humbly, the Prince of Orange refused, at least for the time being, calling himself “Sovereign Prince of the Netherlands” and, knowing well enough that the years of French prattle about the “Rights of Man” had to be taken into account, called for “a wise constitution”. He knew what he was doing and would end up in a far stronger position than any of his ancestors could have dreamed of. A new constitution was drawn up but it was a constitution that made Willem an all but absolute monarch. With the agreement of the Emperor in Vienna, he was made Governor-General of the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and in exchange for the Duchy of Nassau, who he gave to Prussia, he was made Grand Duke of Luxembourg. The allies had all agreed that it was best to have all the Low Countries united under one reliable monarch as a bulwark against any future French offensive into central Europe.

King Willem I inspects the army in the 100 Days Campaign
With the allies gathered at the Council of Vienna, and Napoleon escaping his exile to return to power in France, it was unanimously decided to regularize the situation in the Low Countries by making the “Sovereign Prince” King Willem I of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, covering all of the Dutch and Belgian lands as well as Luxembourg. He was proclaimed king on March 16, 1815 and with French troops marching into Belgium, King Willem I’s son and heir, the Prince of Orange, was made a corps commander in the allies army that definitively defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. It was the hour of triumph for the new King Willem I who had achieved more for his house and country than any would have thought possible. He was practically an absolute monarch over all of the Low Countries with the support of all the major powers, his greatest enemy was defeated and tributes poured in from abroad. The King of Spain awarded him the Order of the Golden Fleece, the King of Great Britain sent him the Order of the Garter, it was as though all of the wildest dreams of the old Orange party had come true at last.

However, there were problems. The Belgians had hoped to gain their own independence from the wars with France and many were not happy about being subject to a Dutch king. Though his son was popular there, King Willem I was not. The Belgians complained of being underrepresented in the new Dutch government. They resented the King pushing everyone to adopt the Dutch language as, in those days, not only did the Walloon population of Belgium speak only French but the elite, the educated and the businessmen of Flanders spoke French as well. The Belgians were also solidly Catholic and they also resented the special favor shown by their Protestant monarch to the Dutch Reformed Church. This is all, of course, completely understandable just as it is understandable that King Willem I wished to have all parts of his kingdom united, wanting one people, one language, one religion under one monarch. It might not have been so bad if Belgian expectations had not been raised previously. It also did not help that the policies which benefited the Dutch population of traders, bankers and businessmen were often less than helpful to the farmers and laborers of Belgium.

King Willem I
In the summer of 1830 the Belgians rose up in revolt, soon declaring the independence of the Kingdom of Belgium and looking around for a monarch of their own. King Willem I responded by sending his sons with the Dutch army to put down the rebellion. The Prince of Orange was quite popular in Belgium, particularly Flanders where the Orange party existed in a new form but whereas the Prince was open to reconciliation, his father was not. King Willem I wanted all rebellion suppressed by force, the ringleaders made example of and that to be an end to it. In a short campaign the Royal Dutch Army was quite successful at scattering the rag-tag Belgian civilian-soldiers. However, when the French King Louis Philippe threatened to intervene, the Dutch were forced to pull back. Pressure was applied by the French, British and Germans to get King Willem I to agree and, failing that, they simply recognized the Kingdom of Belgium anyway. The Dutch army held on for a time in the fortress-port of Antwerp but they were besieged by the French Royal Army and in time were forced to concede and recognize Belgian independence.

This was a particularly bitter pill for King Willem I to swallow as he had been so very proud of his “United Kingdom of the Netherlands” which, after the separation of Belgium, became instead the Kingdom of the Netherlands as it is today though still with the personal union with the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Dutch liberals also took advantage of the opportunity that came with amending the constitution to take into account the loss of Belgium to diminish the King’s powers. It was not an immense change but it did mean that the King could no longer do as he pleased entirely and King Willem I was outraged by this. He was also facing mounting anger over his private life as, since the death of his wife in 1837 (after giving him two sons and two daughters) he had taken up with a countess who, to the outrage of the Dutch public, was a Catholic and a Belgian. He wished to marry her but it was clear the Dutch people would not stand for such a thing. So, with King Willem I refusing to accept the constitutional changes, his people refusing to accept his choice of wife and lingering resentment over the loss of Belgium, King Willem I started the tradition of Dutch monarchs abdicating when he gave up his throne on October 7, 1840.

The former king, to make room for his more popular son, left the country for the Kingdom of Prussia, using the title Count of Nassau. He married his beloved Belgian countess and she took good care of him for the rest of his life, which was not long. He died in Berlin in 1843 at the age of 71. The care his wife, Countess Henrietta d’Oultremont, showed to him even softened the hearts of the Dutch government sufficiently for them to grant her a pension and a castle near Aachen, though not enough to have her buried along with her husband and other Dutch royals when she passed away in 1864. So, in the end, King Willem I of the Netherlands had left his country on a less than happy note. He had fought the French for years to regain his country and his triumph in becoming the first King of the Netherlands was the culmination of many, many years of struggle for the House of Orange and their supporters. Yet, the subsequent losses he had to face were more than he could accept. Nonetheless, his reign had still been the most successful of any of his dynasty and his victory gave us the Kingdom of the Netherlands that still exists today.

Looking back at King Willem I, everyone would agree that he was a pivotal figure in Dutch history. Born into the Dutch republic, he presided over the creation of the Dutch kingdom. Today he tends to be viewed though, rather unfairly, in a critical light as a rigid man with a noticeably authoritarian streak. That is not, in itself, that unfair but it should be seen in context. Had he been a little less rigid the Kingdom of the Netherlands might not exist today. He was a man of great tenacity, who was unrelenting in his fight to restore his house and the independence of his country, making common cause with anyone who would help make that dream a reality. It is certainly understandable why the Belgians would have been unhappy with him but subsequent history can also be seen as something of a vindication of his policy given how bitterly divided Belgium has become as a bi-lingual country. In his opposition to the constitutional modifications, it is true that his loss of power was not a great one (real changes in that regard would come under his son) but one must remember the background of King Willem I. He had seen much of and learned even more about all the strife in his country when, as a republic, power was shared with the princes of Orange and he did not want to simply go from being a republic with a prince to a kingdom with a president. He had fought long and hard to finally make good on his family’s dynastic dream to become king and as king, he intended to rule. Willem I may be criticized for that today, but for him to have done otherwise would, for someone like him, seemed a complete betrayal of everything he had spent his life fighting to achieve and all the struggles of generations of his ancestors as well. History should be more kind to him.

1 comment:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...