1672: The Year the Dutch Ate Their Prime Minister

“The Bodies of the Brothers De Witt” by Jan de Baen

On Wednesday 1st of April Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands abdicated the throne in favour of her son. This event made the news all over the world. In modern Europe monarchies are no longer the norm. The Dutch monarchy was a relative late-comer to the history of European kingdoms, being established during the Napoleonic wars. The ruling dynasty descends from the prestigious house of Orange-Nassau, whose importance stretches beyond the borders of the Netherlands. In 1688 Queen Beartix’s ancestor, William III of Orange was invited by Parliament to invade England and overthrow the Catholic King, James II. This would become known in Britain as the Glorious Revolution and William of Orange would co-rule England for 12 years. In that time Protestantism was further entrenched in England and William also became infamous among Catholics for his invasions of Ireland and France. However, prior to the Glorious Revolution William, as Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, had orchestrated another, less glorious, revolution to overthrow his rival Johan de Witt, the Grand Pensionary (Prime Minister) which ended in the later being butchered and eaten by a riotous mob.

In the 17th century the Dutch Republic was one of the powerhouses of the world. Dutch trade, science, military, art and finance were the envy of the world. In this period known as the Dutch Golden Age this young republic (founded in 1581) produced artists such as Vermeer and established trade routes all over the world (they even maintained a small outpost in Japan which at the time had entered a period of seclusion from the rest of the world). However, within the Republic there were internal divisions between the House of Orange and the republicans. The House of Orange held the position of Stadtholder, a similar role to that of President. This office was for life and the holder would be chosen by a regency council (similar to the House of Lords in Britain). However, by the 17th century the office had become a hereditary position for the House of Orange and, as such, a symbol of a possible monarchist future.

The secondary office of the Netherlands was that of Grand Pensionary which was elected by the Estates (Similar to the House of Commons). From 1653 this office was held by Johan de Witt. The de Witt family was a Patrician family of great influence. As a result Johan and his brother, Cornelis received a top education at the Latin school which imbued them with fantasies of recreating the Roman Republic in the Netherlands. Johan left the Latin school to go and study mathematics and law at Leiden university. He excelled at both subjects and received a doctorate from the University of Angers in 1645. After university Johan moved into a career as a lawyer and quickly rose to prominence until he was elected as Grand Pensionary in 1653. The Dutch at the time were at war with the English Commonwealth, led by the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. England had recently cast off its own monarchy when Parliament had executed Charles I. De Witt sought to make peace with the new English Republic which was arranged in the Treaty of Westminster in 1653. One of the clauses of this treaty was that William (future William III of England and Stadtholder of Orange) could not be elected as Stadtholder on the death of his father (confusingly also called William). Cromwell had insisted on this clause as William (III) was a blood relative of Charles I and a threat to the English Commonwealth. This clause would ultimately be the downfall of de Witt as it created a rift between the pro-monarchy Orangists and the republican Statists.

This problem did not come to the fore until 1672 due to Johan’s skill as a political manipulator and his success at blocking William from succeeding as Stadtholder. 1672 would come to be known in Dutch history as the Rampjaar or “disaster year”. In this year the Republic was attacked simultaneously by France, England (under a restored monarchy) and the German states of Galen, Munster and Bavaria. The invading armies overwhelmed the Dutch forces and conquered a large portion of the Republic. The result of this catastrophe was that the Orangists siezed power in the remaining provinces of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. William was installed as Stadtholder forcing Johan de Witt to resign as Grand Pensionary (William had the word “honourable” removed from the declaration of resignation). William announced that the people responsible for the disaster would be held responsible. One of the first to be held responsible would be Johan’s brother, Cornelis who had been the head of police. Cornelis was arrested and imprisoned in The Hague for treason.

On hearing that his brother was in prison Johan made the worst mistake of his life and payed him a visit. Whilst he was in the prison a crowd gathered around the building demanding the imprisonment of Johan. At this point the small contingent of soldiers guarding the prison left their posts. Without this deterrent the mob stormed into the prison. Johan and his brother Cornelis were butchered by the mob who, in their frenzy, were reported to eat the bodies of the two brothers. The instigators of the riot would never see prosecution for their ghastly crime. William offered them state protection and even rewarded principle rioter, prompting modern historians to suspect that the riot (but probably not the cannibalism) had been William’s idea all along.

 

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3 comments

  1. Do you think the cannibalism was a rumor spread to discredit the rioters and reduce the killers of Johan and Cornelis to mere “savages” ? Disinformation?
    Elephant

    1. That is entirely possible, however, in the scope of Dutch history they are generally considered “the good guys” and the de Witt brothers are “the bad guys”. The description of the cannibalism seems more likely to have been used as a device to illustrate the frenzy of the mob. The truth is we will never know for certain all we have are the sources describing the attack, most of whom weren’t there at the event (but rumours spread like wild-fire).

  2. I’m Dutch and it’s not entirely true that there’s something like a good/bad divide. The position towards both the De Witts and Willem III is ambivalent. The De Witts were good regents in times of peace. Under their administration trade flourished but they weakened the army as an instrument of the House of Orange i.e. the Stadhouder. Their downfall was their idleness when the threat of war became imminent. Willem is celebrated as the saviour of the nation but at the same time resented for his monarchical tendencies. Under Willem the Dutch suffered under the highest tax pressure of the world. Willem and his wars bled the state dry and in the end it gained the republic nothing. Instead, after the glorious revolution the powerbalance tilted in favour of England, which meant the end of the Dutch Golden Age.

    NB. yamatasaxon, do you have some sort of contact form? It seems you are the moderator of this page and I want to make you a business proposal. You can contact me at info@acetoday.nl

    Hope to hear from you,

    Avon

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