This month, three hundred and forty years ago, the Netherlands was struck by probably the most dramatic single event in its history.
In 1672 political and social tensions were at such a high level that, on the 20th of August of that year, the man who had led the Netherlands as Europe’s sole republic for twenty years was publicly executed and eaten. This event was the climactic point of the worst year of turmoil in Dutch history.
1672 is known in Dutch folklore as ‘Rampjaar’ – the disaster year. During the course of this year the Republic of the United Provinces of the Netherlands was attacked by the monarchical French and British, as well as two bishopric German states, Münster and Cologne. This invasion led to foreign forces occupying large swathes of Dutch territory. The population across the whole country was racked in fear of this war, and they had good reason to be.
The entire situation of European politics at the time was one of extreme complexity. However, suffice it to say that it all occurred amidst a context of European wide conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism, as well as high tensions between Republicanism and Monarchism. As always, commerce, industry and ego all had their parts to play as well.
The Netherlands was a republic, but this didn’t mean that there was no Dutch ‘royalty’. Specifically, there was the family of Orange-Nassau, whose founding patriarch William I had led the country in its struggle for independence against the Spanish during the Eighty Years’ War, which ran from 1568 to 1648. Traditionally the male members of this family had held military roles with high political influence. During this war of independence the country had united into a republic and the Oranges had to struggle to hold on to any power. In 1650, the tensions between republicans and the Oranges led to William II moving to lay siege to Amsterdam, the heartland of the mercantile republican movement. When he died suddenly the chance came to block the Oranges off from Dutch politics, and the republican rulers took it, denying the Orange-Nassau family an official or meaningful role in state affairs from that point. The merchant-based republicans confirmed their control and appointed a man called Johan de Witt to the role of Grand Pensionary – the equivalent of a prime minister and effective head of government. De Witt led the Netherlands for the next twenty years, through a significant portion of their Golden Age.
This Golden Age was the height of Dutch influence in the world. They were the only republic in Western Europe, their artists led a renaissance of style and skill, and their trade ships sailed the world, bringing back exotic products and immense wealth to the tiny republic. Eventually, this caused much resentment amongst their neighbouring countries. Britain, in particular, held a huge grudge against the Dutch, which resulted in numerous conflicts and several wars. The Catholic French were constantly trying to reclaim the lost lands of the Holy Roman Empire, much of which had fallen to the Dutch rebels during their fight for independence from Spain. All in all, tensions were high in this part of Europe.
The Orange family had not disappeared in all this time, despite having been removed from political power twenty years earlier. William III, the son of William II, was the nephew of the British King Charles II, who had intentions to restore the Orange influence. Some in the Netherlands still hoped for a collapse of the republican government, and instalment of an Orangist monarchy. Because of this, Charles II had agreed that if France attacked the Netherlands and their border territories, the British would jump on board.
The Dutch republican government had spent these twenty years pumping resources into their navy; a necessity for both their on-going arm-wrestles with the British, and also for protecting their massive trade fleets. However, by 1672, this had left their army neglected, unorganized and inferior to those of neighbouring states. When the French, British and Germans attacked simultaneously, they came in hard and there was little that the sub-par Dutch army could do about it.
The French invaded from the east, via their German allies Cologne and Münster, and the British attacked Dutch fleets along the coast. By June, the French had successfully opened up the Dutch defence, and had only to waltz in and take the country for themselves. A terrified Dutch population turned on their republican government, blaming them for neglecting the evidently insipid army. They demanded installation of William III as the head-of-state, or Stadhouder in Dutch. Johan de Witt resigned from his post, after holding the position of Grand Pensionary for two decades. The Oranges finally came back into power.
At this point in time, turmoil turned into anarchy. De Witt’s younger brother, Cornelis, returned from a bout of naval warfare against the British, to find that Johan and he were bearing the brunt of Dutch popular anger. Cornelis was accused of treason, imprisoned in The Hague and after heavy torture he was banished on August 19th. His elder brother, having just lost his job, went to visit him on the 20th.
Apparently, Johan de Witt’s removal from the high office wasn’t enough to satisfy the angry populace. Whilst visiting his soon-to-be banished brother in prison, a lynch mob formed outside. The division between republicans and monarchists ran deep, across all levels of Dutch society. An Orange supporter and high ranking naval officer, Cornelis Tromp, gave the order which saw the De Witt brothers taken out of the prison by the local militia, executed and then publicly mutilated by the lynch mob. Their hearts were removed, and held on display for some time afterwards by one of the ringleaders. Furthermore, some reports told of how parts of their body were eaten by members of the participating mob.
Some historians believe firmly that the double assassination was devised by William III, Tromp and others, in order to reaffirm his political ascension. With popular support, and the demise of his republican enemies, he and his kin were reinstated to positions of high political power in the Netherlands. By this time, the French had reached Utrecht, and it looked inevitable that Amsterdam and The Hague would fall next. William III took control of the army, and withdrew behind the Dutch Water Line. The Dutch then deliberately allowed the outer-lying areas to flood, something that their engineering and mastery of water diversion allows them to do as a defensive measure. This created an impasse that denied the French army from proceeding into Holland, halting their advance. The republic was saved.
Although the republic continued in name, 1672 is seen as the beginning of the end of the Dutch Golden Age. Economically, socially and politically, the disaster year had an effect on their superpower status from which they would never recover.
The lynching of the de Witt brothers was akin to the lynching of republican order, which had overseen the transformation of the Netherlands into the wealthiest and most libertarian state in Europe. After the lynching, the Orange influence began to spread beyond the borders of Holland, andthe same William III would go on to claim the British throne in 1688. (His indirect descendants, of course, would eventually be crowned as the royal family of the Netherlands)
Indeed, at this point in time, Dutch history saw the downfall of its Golden Age and its pioneering and unique republican nature.