To the 15th century

Low Countries: 1st century BC - 14th century AD

The name Netherlands, or Low Countries, has been given historically to the entire region around the waterways of the Rhine delta. The low-lying coastal plain, needing the protection of dikes against the constant threat of flooding, has an obvious geographical unity.

But in cultural terms the Low Countries straddle deep and significant dividing lines in European history. These can be seen in terms of Language - Dutch and Flemish are Germanic tongues, whereas the French spoken by the Walloons of Belgium is a Romance Language. Similarly, at a later stage of history, Calvinism in Holland becomes a close and hostile neighbour to Roman Catholicism in Belgium.

The linguistic division derives from the Roman empire. Established in the 1st century BC as the province of Germania Inferior, the region of the Rhine delta is an unstable frontier. To the south, in Gaul, Roman influence is all-pervasive. To the east, in the forests of Germany, it is almost non-existent. In the Netherlands it is partial.

This intermediary position is increased from the 4th century when the Franks move into the region, settling around Tournai. They become the dominant Germanic tribe. But they are also closely allied to Rome. And they are the first barbarians to adopt Roman Catholic Christianity (as opposed to the Arian version).

This northwest corner of Europe in the late 8th century is the centre of the great Frankish Empire of charlemagne . When the empire is divided in 843 into three vertical slices, ruled separately by his descendants, the Netherlands are at the northern extreme of Francia media, the rich but geograpically unspecific central kingdom.

This alignment south through Europe, along the Rhine and down past the Alps, becomes an important theme in Netherlandish history - particularly with the rise of the duchy of Burgundy in the 14th century. By then the provinces of the Netherlands contain highly developed towns, many of them enjoying a degree of self-government as communes.

Flanders: 12th - 15th century AD

During the later Middle Ages some of the feudal lords in the Netherlands become virtually independent. Chief among them are the counts of Flanders, an area rich from trade and manufacture. Further north, Holland is also an independent county from the 12th century.

Ghent and Bruges are the two leading cities of Flanders. Ghent prospers from the weaving of cloth, mainly from English wool. Bruges is the headquarters in the Netherlands of the Hanseatic league. The Flemish cities and the counts of Flanders are frequently at odds with each other (as in the case of Jacob van Artevelde). But in the 14th century both lose their liberty to a greater power, the duchy of Burgundy (through the Marriage in 1369 of Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, to Margaret of Flanders).

It takes the dukes of Burgundy the best part of a century before they establish full control over the Netherlands. The richer cities, accustomed to virtual independence as self-governing communes, resent the imposition of a centralized administration (see Flemish communes). Bruges rebels in 1437-8. An uprising of the citizens of Ghent in 1451 is only suppressed after their army is massacred by the Burgundians at Gavere in 1453.

Nevertheless this is a century of solid achievement for the cities of the Netherlands, and particularly for Bruges and Ghent. Their painters pioneer the Renaissance in northern Europe. In this respect their interests chime very closely with those of their Burgundian masters.

The dukes of Burgundy are passionate patrons of art, and in Flanders they find artists of genius. In 1425 Jan van Eyck enters the service of Philip the Good (duke of Burgundy for half a century, from 1419 to 1467) as his court painter.

Ten years later Philip's chancellor, Nicolas Rolin, wants to commission an altarpiece for the cathedral of Autun in Burgundy. He turns to van Eyck, who provides one of the masterpieces of the northern Renaissance - a Madonna and Child, conversing on pleasantly equal terms with Chancellor Rolin, in front of an extensive view over a prosperous Christian city.

Burgundians are not the only foreigners to commission paintings in Flanders. The Flemish towns, situated at the main crossroads of northern Europe's trade routes, attract merchants and bankers from Europe's other great trading region - northern Italy.

Renaissance, no less than Burgundian aristocrats, recognize the quality of the local art.

Bruges and Italy: 15th century AD

The links of Trade and finance between cities in Italy and the Netherlands have been immortalized in two works of art. Giovanni Arnolfini is a merchant from Lucca living and trading in Bruges. In 1434, when newly married, he commissions a double portrait from Jan van eyck.

Hoping for a memorial to himself and his wife, Giovanni could not possibly have made a wiser investment. The Arnolfini Marriage is now one of the most famous paintings in the world. It is also an early glimpse of the Italian interest in Flemish art which will result, later in the century, in the spread southwards of the northern technique of oil painting (see oil and tempera).

An altarpiece of about 1475 proves very influential in this same respect when it reaches Florence. Tommaso Portinari, the agent in Bruges for the Medici bank, commissions from Hugo van der Goes an altarpiece for the church of St Egidio in which his family has a chapel.

The central panel of the triptych shows the Virgin with her newly born Child visited by angels and shepherds, while the kneeling Portinari family are presented from the side panels by saints. This large altarpiece makes the journey south by sea and river. It is the most imposing example of the northern style of painting to have reached Florence, the heart of the southern Renaissance.

16th century

Habsburg rule: AD 1482-1559

The Netherlands acquire a new ruling dynasty in 1482, when the Habsburgs inherit all the territories of Burgundy. For more than half a century the new regime is reasonably successful. The Habsburgs are at ease in the prosperous Netherlands; they cherish their valuable new acquisition. Charles V is born in Ghent (in 1500) and grows up in Mechelen at the court of his aunt Margaret of Austria - acting as regent on his behalf in Burgundy, after the early death of his father in 1506.

But Charles's broader responsibilities soon remove him from his childhood home. He becomes king of Spain in 1515 and leaves the Netherlands two years later.

Charles's personal link with the region no doubt contributes to the relative calm which prevails in the Netherlands until 1555, when he formally transfers the rule of the duchy to his son Philip in a ceremony in Brussels - the city to which the seat of government has been moved, from Mechelen, in 1531.

Even so, during the four decades of Charles's largely absentee rule there have been significant changes of attitude in the province.

There is an increasing sense of resentment at being on the periphery of the vast Spanish empire, with its different priorities and frequent demands for tax. And Calvinist ideas, infiltrating down the Rhine from Basel and Strasbourg, make many doubly resentful that the distant ruler of the Netherlands is Catholic as well as Spanish.

These circumstances would lead to unrest at the best of times. Philip aggravates them. Unlike his father, he is Spanish in upbringing. His appointments to the government in Brussels take little heed of local sensitivities. To add to his difficulties, a peace of 1559 between Spain and France opens the Netherlands border to energetic French calvinists.

William of Orange and the duke of Alba: AD 1559-1568

Philip II's first regent in the Netherlands is his half sister, Margaret of Parma. There is local unrest under her rule, but also an assumption that compromise may be possible. William of Orange, heir to large estates in the Netherlands and known from his quiet skill in negotiation as William the Silent, emerges as one of the leaders of those demanding change.

Religious toleration and freedom from the attentions of the Inquisition are among the demands most commonly made. But the Protestant cause is not well served by the intemperate behaviour of some of the Calvinists. Iconoclastic mobs go on the rampage in August 1566, smashing the treasures of many churches in the Netherlands.

Hearing of such events, Philip II resolves upon severe measures. He instructs the duke of Alba, a veteran of many campaigns, to march north with an army from Italy. He is to restore order in the Netherlands regardless of what measures may be required.

Alba, arriving in August 1567, introduces a rule of terror but does so at first by stealth. He lulls two of the leading dissident nobles, the counts of Egmont and of Horn, into accepting his hospitality. He then has them arrested, summarily tried and executed. They are merely the most distinguished victims of Alba's tribunal, which becomes known in the Netherlands as the Council of Blood.

Alba's agents act with the quiet efficiency of a modern police state. In 1568, in the early hours of Ash Wednesday (the morning after the pre-Lent carnival, when revellers are likely to be off their guard), fifteen hundred suspects are visited in their homes and taken from their beds. All, according to Alba's note on the incident, are executed.

William of Orange, wisely keeping his distance from Alba, slips into exile - and so remains available to lead the armed resistance to Spanish rule which now begins to develop.

Holland and Zeeland: AD 1572-1573

The first real success of the Netherlanders is almost accidental. Ships manned by savage crews, licensed by William of Orange but in practice little better than pirates, have for some time been raiding the coasts and preying on Spanish vessels. They are known as sea beggars (gueux de mer). The name gueux, or beggars, is first used dismissively of the rebels by a Spanish official but is then proudly adopted by all who are opposed to Spain.

In 1572 a fleet of sea beggars is forced by a storm to take refuge near Brill. Finding that the Spanish garrison is temporarily absent, they seize the town and raise the flag of William the Orange.

The example at Brill is eagerly followed elsewhere. The more important port of Flushing is the next to be secured. Within weeks, all along the coast of Holland and Zeeland, towns expel the Spanish and declare for William. Merchants offer funds for a war chest. A spontaneous movement of liberation gives William the base which he has so far lacked.

Until now he has been planning an invasion of the Netherlands from France. Instead he takes ship for Holland and lands, in October 1572, at Enkhuizen. The towns in this region are by now mainly Calvinist. In 1573 William formally declares himself an adherent of the reformed faith.

There are bitter battles to be fought in the years ahead, but William of Orange now has a clear identity as the leader of a cause - and a strong territory from which to conduct that cause.

Meanwhile the duke of Alba fights hard to recover what has been lost. His Spanish troops commit appalling atrocities in the campaign - as in the massacre which follows the capture of Haarlem in July 1573. Alba's next target, the town of Alkmaar, is saved when the Dutch breach the dikes and threaten the Spanish troops with death by drowning. The duke finally loses appetite for the task, together no doubt with Philip II's confidence. He asks to be relieved of his command, returning in December 1573 to Spain.

War against Spain: AD 1573-1588

The bitter fighting of 1572-3 is the prelude to a prolonged war between the northern provinces of the Netherlands and the Spanish monarchy. The struggle becomes part of wider European wars, and is not finally concluded until the end of the Thirty Years' War, in 1648.

Meanwhile, in the early stages, it gradually becomes clear which parts of the Netherlands are seeking independence from Spain. But it remains far from certain what type of independence they have in mind.

There are several well-defined staging posts on the way to the eventual split between north and south. In 1576, in Ghent, a peace conference is convened between Holland and Zeeland on one side and the States General of the southern provinces on the other. The result is the so-called Pacification of Ghent, uniting the entire Netherlands in opposition to Spain but leaving unresolved the problem of Calvinist and Catholic rivalry between different provinces.

Early in 1577 the same rather unspecific hope of solidarity is enshrined in the Union of Brussels. It proves the last occasion when a union of this kind represents the whole of the Netherlands.

The next two unions are specifically sectarian. Extreme Calvinist violence in Ghent in 1578 (the sacking of churches and cloisters, the burning of monks in the market place) prompts three southern provinces to form the Union of Arras, early in 1579, for the purpose of defending the Catholic faith in Hainaut, Artois and Douai. Reconciliation with the king of Spain is a natural part of their programme.

The northern provinces of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht respond a few weeks later with the Union of Utrecht, committed to the principles of religious toleration and independence from Spain.

In 1581, in the Oath of Abjuration, the States General of the northern provinces formally depose Philip II. At this stage it is assumed that they will require a replacement king - a role for which their existing leader, William of orange, is not considered to have the necessary royal stature.

The issue has not been settled when William is assassinated, in 1584, by a Catholic fanatic. The northern provinces, now in dire need of help against the Spanish, offer the crown during 1585 to Henry III of France and then to Elizabeth I of England. Both refuse it, but both send military assistance. The Netherlands uprising acquires the status of an international conflict.

United Provinces and the House of Orange: from AD 1588

In 1588 seven northern provinces of the Netherlands begin to see themselves as a republic - the United Provinces. They are Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel, Friesland and Groningen. Their political structure is a loose one, dating back to an informal arrangement made in the Union of utrecht.

Each province is independent but has one vote in a combined States General, where decisions are supposed to be taken unanimously. Each province appoints its own chief executive or stadholder - from a Dutch word meaning 'place holder' or viceroy, deriving from the days of the Spanish monarchy and retained as an office by the republican provinces.

William of Orange has been stadholder of the two most powerful provinces, Holland and Zeeland. After his assassination they appoint his son Maurice of Nassau in his place. Maurice also becomes stadholder of three of the other provinces, enabling him to play a leading role in the formative years of the young republic.

Holland and Zeeland subsequently make a habit of appointing the prince of Orange as their stadholder, and other provinces often follow suit. Thus the House of Orange becomes effectively the royal family of a republic. Later, when the United Provinces revert in 1813 to being a kingdom, it is the prince of Orange whom the Dutch naturally select as their first monarch.

United Provinces and Spain: AD 1588-1648

William's son Maurice, though only twenty-one in 1588, proves an extremely able military leader of the United Provinces. With his cousin, William Louis of Nassau (stadholder of the province of Friesland), Maurice sets about creating a disciplined and sophisticated Dutch army which for the first time is the equal of the Spaniards.

Maurice achieves a series of striking successes against the Spanish, driving them steadily back until the Netherlands north of the river Meuse is in republican hands. The period of expansion and consolidation up to 1598 is so exhilarating that it becomes known in Dutch history simply as the Ten Years.

In 1596 both France and England give de facto recognition to the new republic. But another half century must pass before the independent status of the United Provinces is finally established, in the peace signed with Spain in Münster in 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years' War.

This treaty finalizes the split between the Protestant republic in the north and the Catholic southern provinces, or Spanish Netherlands, which later become Belgium.

During the preceding half century, to 1648, warfare with Spain is almost continuous, frequently redrawing the boundary between north and south. The only lull is the Twelve Years' Truce, agreed to by both sides in 1609 as a way of postponing any final decision on an intractable problem. When the truce ends, in 1621, Spain resumes its campaign to recover the United Provinces. By now this local conflict is an extra sideshow in the complex Thirty Years' War convulsing Europe.

But at least the truce has given the northern republic a lull in which to develop two outstanding Dutch skills - seafaring and commerce. Holland's merchants have their sights set on the east.

17th century

Dutch trade in the east: AD 1595-1651

The first Dutch expedition round the Cape to the far east, in 1595, is captained by Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, a Netherlands merchant whose only knowledge of the orient comes from trading in Lisbon. The survivors of this journey get back to Holland two years later. They bring valuable cargo. And they have established a trading treaty with the sultan of Bantam, in Java.

Their return prompts great excitement. Soon about ten private vessels are setting off each year from the Netherlands to find their fortune in the east. The States general of the newly independent Dutch republic decide that this unlicensed trading activity, in distant and dangerous waters, needs both control and protection.

In 1602 the States general form a Dutch East India Company, with extensive privileges and powers. It is to have a tax-free monopoly of the eastern trade for twenty-one years. It is authorized to build forts, establish colonies, mint coins, and maintain a navy and army as required.

With these powers the company takes only a few decades to deprive Portugal of the spice trade. A capital is established at Batavia, in Java, in 1619. The Portuguese are driven out of Malacca by 1641 and from Sri lanka by 1658. But the main focus of Dutch attention is the Moluccas - the Indonesian islands of which the alternative name, the Spice Islands, declares their central importance in the eastern trade.

The Moluccas are the source of the most valuable spice of all, the clove, coveted for many different purposes - as a flavour in food, as a preservative, as a mild anaesthetic, as an ingredient in perfume, even to mask stinking breath. In pursuit of Moluccan cloves, and also nutmegs, the Portuguese make local treaties as early as 1512.

In the early decades of the 17th century the Dutch East India Company gradually excludes the Portuguese from trade in the Moluccas. The Dutch also take on, and oust from the islands, another European nation attempting to get a foothold in the region - the English East India Company.

The Dutch control the trade in cloves with ruthless efficiency. During the 17th century clove trees are eradicated on all the Spice Islands except two - Amboina and Ternate - to limit production and keep prices high. Strict measures are taken to ensure that plants are not exported for propagation elsewhere (a restriction successfully maintained until the late 18th century).

The Portuguese never recover their trading strength in the east. But in expelling the English from the Moluccas, the Dutch unwittingly do them a favour. The English East India Company decides to concentrate its efforts on India.

Meanwhile the Dutch company has taken a decision, small in itself, which has momentous results. Dutch sea captains have discovered that it is feasible to sail directly northeast across the Indian Ocean from the southern tip of Africa. This makes The cape a very important port of call for taking on water and fresh supplies.

In 1651 the company decides to meet this need by establishing a small Dutch settlement on the bay beneath Table Mountain. By now there is also a thriving Dutch colony on the other side of the Atlantic.

This History is as yet incomplete.

Dutch in America: AD 1624-1664

In 1621 the States General in the Netherlands grant a charter to the Dutch West India Company, giving it a monopoly to trade and found colonies along the entire length of the American coast. The area of the Hudson river, explored by Hudson for the Dutch East India Company in 1609, has already been designated New Netherland. Now, in 1624, a party of thirty families is sent out to establish a colony. They make their first permanent settlement at Albany, calling it Fort Orange.

In 1626 Peter Minuit is appointed governor of the small colony. He purchases the island of Manhattan from Indian chiefs, and builds a fort at its lower end. He names the place New Amsterdam.

The Dutch company finds it easier to make money by piracy than by the efforts of colonists (the capture of the Spanish silver fleet off Cuba in 1628 yields vast profits), but the town of New Amsterdam thrives as an exceptionally well placed seaport - even though administered in a harshly authoritarian manner by a succession of Dutch governors.

The only weakness of New Amsterdam is that it is surrounded by English colonies to the north and south of it. This place seems to the English both an anomaly and an extremely desirable possession. Both themes are reflected in the blithe grant by Charles II in 1664 to his brother, the duke of York, of the entire coastline between the Connecticut and Delaware rivers.

New Amsterdam, and behind it New Netherland, lie exactly in the middle of this stretch. When an English fleet arrives in 1664, the Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant accepts the reality of the situation and surrenders the territory without a shot being fired. New Amsterdam is transformed without upheaval into New York.

This reduces the Dutch presence in the new world to the region of Guiana, in south America, where the first settlements are established before 1616. Taken over by the company from 1621, they survive on sugar grown with slave labour. Frequently disputed between Dutch, French and English interests, the Dutch section of the Guiana coast eventually becomes Surinam.

New Amsterdam, and in its hinterland New Netherland, lie exactly in the middle of this stretch. When an English fleet arrives in 1664, the Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant accepts the reality of the situation and surrenders the territory without a shot being fired. Thus New Amsterdam becomes British and two years later, at the end of hostilities between Britain and the Netherlands, is renamed New York. The town has at the time about 1500 inhabitants, with a total population of perhaps 7000 Europeans in the whole region of New Netherland - which now becomes the British colony of New York.

The Dutch have recently begun to settle the coastal regions further south, which the British now also appropriate as falling within the region given by Charles II to the duke of York. It becomes the colony of New Jersey.

The prosperous Dutch republic: 17th century AD

The trading energies of the Dutch in the far east and in the Americas are reflected in the growing prosperity of the towns of the United Provinces. Wealth accumulates in Holland and the other provinces at an extraordinary rate during the 17th century, creating an entirely new form of society and one with great significance for later centuries.

These towns of the northern Netherlands are the first middle-class communities, a foretaste of what is later often described as the bourgeoisie.

In this respect the United Provinces differ profoundly from another republic founded on trade. The institutions of Venice, in origin a medieval power, are aristocratic. The States General of the Netherlands, acquiring its independence in the 17th century, is no less an oligarchy than the Venetian senate. It too is the preserve of a small ruling class.

But the Dutch ruling class is made up of energetic merchants with eminently practical concerns. They are pillars of their community, in Amsterdam and in many lesser towns. And they are Protestants.

These characteristics profoundly affect the style of life emerging in Holland at this time. How much the Protestant ethic of Calvinism is linked with this capitalist society is a matter of debate. But a new departure is evident in many observable details..

These Dutch merchants live in a new kind of house - the comfortable but relatively small Town house, several stories high on a narrow plot of valuable real estate. Copied in England in the next century, this pattern provides the neat terraces of Georgian London or Bath. But the Dutch are in the lead. In the 17th century they are by far the most urban Europeans; two thirds of them live in towns.

In their town houses the Dutch live in smaller family groups than is normal elsewhere, starting a trend which leads eventually to the modern nuclear family. And they are so interested in their new society that they commission an entirely original school of painting to celebrate it.

Pictures by artists such as Pieter de hooch, showing members of the family and domestic servants in meticulously swept Dutch interiors, are unprecedented in the history of art.

The new Dutch prosperity is based almost entirely on overseas trade. In the second half of the 17th century the Dutch merchant fleet equals that of England, France, Spain and Portugal combined. And Dutch wages are the highest in Europe, some 20% above the equivalent in England.

This upstart republic, rejecting the claims of monarchy and acquiring wealth more rapidly than any other state, cannot avoid provoking hostility - above all from England, its immediate neighbour over the water and its greatest rival for new international trade. The years from 1652 to 1674 include no less than three successive Anglo-dutch wars.

Anglo-Dutch wars: AD 1652-1674

The first clash at sea between England and the United Provinces comes at a period, in 1652, when both nations are republics - England as the self-proclaimed Commonwealth which has executed its monarch in 1649, and the United Provinces as a republic which has at last achieved full international recognition in 1648.

As Protestant republics the two should be in sympathy. But as maritime nations, competing for trade around the world, and together requiring the Channel and the North Sea for access to their home harbours, they have everything to fight for.

The Dutch have a stronger trading position. Their dominance in the far east has been brutally asserted in 1623, with the massacre of English merchants in Amboina. They have more recently seen off English fleets in the Mediterranean. But geographically they have a major disadvantage in relation to England. To bring home their merchantmen, heavily laden with valuable goods, they have to escort them through waters close to British shores - either through the Channel, or by the northern route round Scotland.

Between 1649 and 1651 the leaders of the Commonwealth double the size of the English fleet. By 1652 they are ready to challenge Dutch merchant fleets passing through the Channel.

The first engagement is an inconclusive encounter between a Dutch fleet commanded by Maarten Tromp and an English squadron under Robert Blake. They are two of the best admirals of the time. A third is Michiel de Ruyter, who fights brilliantly for the Dutch in later stages of the conflict. It is he who carries off the famous triumph (or in British eyes the outrageous affront) of sailing up the Thames and into the Medway in 1667, to destroy much of the English fleet in its home base.

These three admirals all lose their lives in sea battles. Every engagement of these Anglo-Dutch wars is fought at sea - an indication of the new importance, since the Armada, of naval warfare.

The first Anglo-Dutch war ends in 1654 with the treaty of Westminster, by which the Dutch pay an indemnity - long after the event - for the massacre at Amboina. Hostilities resume in 1665, until the treaty of Breda in 1667 formally cedes Amboina to England. The third war lasts from 1672 to 1674, ending with another treaty of Westminster and the symbolic concession that Dutch ships will salute the English flag in the North Sea - as a mark of respect only.

In immediate terms the effect of these wars has been slight. The important underlying change is that the English navy has grown steadily in strength and stature and can now stake a claim - fully justified in the next century - to be the world's leading maritime power.

Calvinism and capitalism: 17th century AD

The development of capitalism in northern Protestant countries, such as the Netherlands and England, has prompted the theory that the Reformation is a cause of capitalism. But this states the case rather too strongly, particularly since the beginnings of capitalism can be seen far earlier.

Nevertheless there are elements in Reformation thought which greatly help the development of capitalism. This is particularly true of the Calvinist variety of the reformed faith, which becomes the state religion of the Netherlands after the Great Assembly of 1651.

The most immediate way in which the Reformation aids the capitalist is by removing the stigma which the Catholic church has traditionally attached to money-lending - or Usury, in the pejorative Biblical term.

Calvinism positively encourages the purposeful investment of money, by presenting luxury and self-indulgence as vices and thrift as a virtue. It even subtly contrives to suggest that wealth may itself be a sign of virtue. This useful slight of hand is contrived with the help of the Calvinist doctrine of Predestination. If certain virtuous people are predestined to be saved in the next world, then perhaps success in this one is an advance indication of God's favour.

The tolerant Dutch republic: 17th century AD

Although Calvinist communities elsewhere incline to intolerance (New england, for example), the Dutch remain true to their republic's founding declaration in the 1579 Union of utrecht - that "every citizen should remain free in his religion, and no man may be molested or questioned on the subject of divine worship." The freedom which they originally claimed for themselves, these Calvinists extend with admirable consistency to others.

Amsterdam in the 17th century becomes famous as a city of tolerance. Even Catholics, ferocious persecutors of Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands, are allowed to worship in private chapels. One of them, Our Lord in the Attic, survives in Amsterdam today.

The republic benefits greatly from the arrival of enterprising refugees escaping persecution elsewhere - puritans from England (though the Pilgrim fathers turn out to be only in transit), Huguenots from France, Jews, even philosophers with no great need to escape but with a liking for this atmosphere of liberty.

Descartes lives in Amsterdam for twenty years, until his final and ill-advised journey to Stockholm. In a letter to a friend in Italy he describes the city as the most congenial place in the world.

Stadholderless: AD 1653-1672

When the Anglo-Dutch wars begin, in 1652, five of the seven United Provinces have no one in position as Stadholder. Part of the reason is that the head of the House of orange, the traditional holder of the office, is a one-year-old infant, the future William III. But the office itself is also the subject of political debate.

One faction, representing the oligarchy of the leading merchants, maintains that the Stadholder is needed only in a time of crisis. With the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 the republic has finally won its independence. The States General, they argue, are well equipped to safeguard Dutch interests in peacetime.

A rival party, representing the army and the House of orange, maintains that the welfare of the republic will continue to depend on war. A Stadholder, they say, is indispensable.

For the moment the oligarchy prevails, but power does not pass to the full States General of all the provinces. Instead it goes to the chief executive (or "pensionary") of the estates of Holland, the most powerful province. In 1653 the 28-year-old Johan de Witt is elected to this office, which he holds - and exercises with distinction - until his death in 1672.

The reason for de Witt's violent death in 1672 is the return to the United Provinces of the horrors of warfare on land. In that year France and England together declare war on the Dutch. House of orange leads a magnificently equipped French army on to Dutch soil and rapidly overruns much of the country. Amsterdam is only saved by the classic Dutch manoeuvre of breaching the dykes and flooding the plain.

In the panic there is popular clamour for the return of the House of orange, saviours of the republic in the past. William III, now twenty-one, is appointed Stadholder of Holland and Zeeland and captain-general of all the provinces. An over-excited mob seeks out and murders de Witt.

William III of Orange: from AD 1672

The new stadholder rapidly enlists allies against the French invaders of the United Provinces. In 1672 the Austrian emperor Leopold I joins an alliance, as does the elector of Brandenburg. It is the first of several European-wide alliances in response to the growing power of France under Louis xiv.

On this occasion England is already France's ally against the United Provinces in the existing war which William III inherits. But in 1674 William signs a treaty with England, in the peace of Westminster, leaving France as the only enemy.

During 1673-4 William drives the French out of the United Provinces (now increasingly known to the English as Holland, from the name of the largest province). Other participants against France by now include Spain and Denmark, in addition to Austria and Brandenburg, so the war continues on many fronts until 1678-9 - when France signs a clutch of individual treaties with her various opponents at Nijmegen.

France gains from some of the treaties, but the one signed with Holland restores all the Dutch territories. Meanwhile William is forming a different sort of alliance - building on his existing family links with England.

William's mother is Mary, daughter of Charles I of England. In 1677 he marries his cousin, also Mary, the daughter of the duke of York, younger brother of Charles II. Charles II has no children, so the duke of York is the heir presumptive to the throne. Next in line are the duke's two daughters, Mary and her younger sister Anne.

After them comes their Dutch cousin, William. So, already fourth in Succession to the English crown, he is now also the husband of the princess who is second in line.

William's father-in-law, the duke of York, inherits the English crown in 1685 as James ii. His brief reign of three years brings a mood of constitutional crisis because he is a convert to Roman Catholicism in an obsessively anti-Catholic country. Nevertheless the future seems secure; James's two daughters have been brought up as Protestants. But in 1688 the king's second wife, herself a Catholic, gives birth to a boy. Suddenly there is the prospect of England being forced back to Catholicism.

Within a month of the birth of the prince a letter reaches William, from a powerful faction in England, urging him to invade and claim his wife's throne. The States General in Holland agree that he should do so.

Holland and England: AD 1689-1780

William's campaign against James II achieves immediate success, making him by February 1689 William III of England and of Orange (the number within each dynasty is the same). During his reign, to 1702, Holland is inevitably a junior partner, as the smaller of his two realms.

It is a status which is also becoming the case in economic and in naval terms. In the mid-17th century Holland has been the leading economic power in Europe and at least the equal of England at sea. By the end of the century England's navy is stronger and her economy is overtaking Holland's. Both are great maritime powers, but England has the inestimable advantage of being an island.

England is safe if her navy is strong. Holland must protect her merchant fleets at sea but must also maintain a strong army to defend her very vulnerable land frontiers against the aggressive powers of continental Europe. For a relatively small country this is a massive burden. During the 18th century its effects begin to tell.

During the first half of the century Holland remains an ally of England, while the house of Orange keeps family links with the British royal family (William IV marries George II's daughter Anne in 1734). But subsequently the Dutch find the expansion of British power as unwelcome as French aggression in the previous century.

They also discover the economic benefits of neutrality. Holland keeps out of the Seven Years' War (1756-63) to the considerable advantage of the carrying trade of the merchant fleet. And the Dutch reap similar profits from transporting goods between France and America, after France joins in against England in 1778 during the War of american independence.

This time England hits back, blockading Dutch ports and seizing Dutch colonies. In the peace of Versailles, signed in 1784, Holland has to make concessions in India and in the far east. But these are nothing to the upheavals facing the Dutch republic during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

18th - 19th century

French armies and the Batavian Republic: AD 1795-1806

When the French republican armies sweep through the Austrian netherlands, in 1793, their natural next target is the United Provinces to the north. In that year France formally declares war on the feeble stadholder, William V of Orange. He lacks support in his own republic and has even had to live in exile for two years (1785-7) when power is briefly taken by a new party, the Patriots, demanding reform and greater elements of democracy.

When the French invasion eventually comes, in 1795, there is little resistance. William V and his family escape to England. The Patriots welcome the French republicans who have helped them achieve their own political programme.

Economically the upheaval of 1795 has serious consequences. It brings the Netherlands into the French camp and thereby exposes Dutch commercial interests around the world to the British navy. Sri lanka and the Cape colony in South africa are both seized by the British during 1795.

The Netherlands acquires a new name as the Batavian Republic, one of the 'sister republics' now being established by France wherever possible in Europe. Its form of government at first reflects that of the Directory, in power in France from 1795. On the same basis, after 1799, Napoleonic reforms are introduced. And in 1806 another drastic political change results from Napoleon's new status as emperor.

Kingdom of Holland and French rule: AD 1806-1813

Napoleon declares in 1806 that Holland is to be a kingdom, with his 28-year-old brother Louis Bonaparte as king. Much to the surprise of the emperor, Louis takes his royal responsiblities seriously and attempts to rule in the interests of the Dutch. In particular he enrages his elder brother by not taking sufficiently strenuous measures to prevent trade between the Dutch ports and Britain, thus leaving a loophole in the Continental system.

By 1810 Napoleon has had enough. He abolishes the kingdom of Holland and incorporates the region under direct rule within his French empire. The Dutch now find themselves administered in departments with names such as Bouches-de-l'Yssel and Yssel-Supérieur.

With strict censorship, the teaching of French in all primary schools, the rule that a third of all officers in the Dutch army must be French and the appointment of French-speaking Belgian Catholics to many high administrative posts, the fiercely independent and Protestant Dutch find themselves living under an alien dictatorship.

Not surprisingly, news of Napoleon's defeat at Leipzig in October 1813 is followed by a national uprising. The head of the house of Orange (now William VI, whose father has died in 1806) is invited to return - no longer merely as stadholder but as William I, the sovereign prince of the Netherlands.

William accepts this title in December 1813. A few months later, after the defeat and first abdication of Napoleon, there is international discussion of a wider role for the Dutch sovereign. The Austrian netherlands, now liberated from the French, is not inclined to return to Austrian rule. It is suggested that all the Netherlands should be united under William.

The matter becomes urgent when news arrives, early in March 1815, that Napoleon has escaped from Elba and landed in France. On March 16 William proclaims himself monarch of a new kingdom of the Netherlands, comprising the United Provinces and the Austrian netherlands. Its existence, and his rule of it, is confirmed later in the year by the Congress in vienna.

Kingdom of the Netherlands: AD 1815-1830

It is a much argued question among historians whether the political unity imposed from above in 1815 on the entire region of the Netherlands has a natural validity and could have lasted. The recent centuries of European history have seen, for the most part, the emergence of nations with a clear geographical identity.

Geography unites the entire Netherlands, a region of low-lying land (as the name states) in the delta of the Rhine. But history has contributed deep divisions - of Language (the closely related Dutch and Flemish in the north, French in the south) and of Religion (Protestant in the north, Catholic in the south). To complicate matters further, the linguistic and religious boundaries are not the same.

These historical problems, and the distrust arising from them, complicate the efforts of William I to rule the entire area. Suitable gestures are made. The seat of government is to alternate annually between The Hague and Brussels. Dutch is made the official Language (being spoken by all in the north and by many in the south), but this rule is only enforced in the Flemish regions.

Inevitably there is much to complain about. Religious liberty, standard in the north and now imposed on the south, pleases southern liberals but offends southern Catholics. The north, with a smaller population, has as many seats in the states general as the south. And French Catholics are being ruled by a Dutch Protestant king.

William I benefits in the early 1820s from an increase in prosperity in both parts of his kingdom and from bitter disagreement in the south between the liberal and Catholic factions. But in 1828 the two sides come together in a pact known as the 'union of parties'. Together they sponsor a petition drawing attention to southern grievances. By the end of 1829 it has more than 300,000 signatures, representing a tenth of Belgium's population.

Unrest is therefore already in the air when News from paris, in July 1830, raises the tension in Brussels - and sets off the events which finally divide the Netherlands into two independent nations.

This History is as yet incomplete.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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