These Dutch Men Were So Angry at Their Prime Minister, They Did the Unthinkable

These Dutch Men Were So Angry at Their Prime Minister, They Did the Unthinkable

Matthew Weber - May 25, 2017

These days, the ending of a political career is usually peaceful. Of course, in times of war, that isn’t always the case, but most often, when a person is voted out office, they leave peacefully and retire in comfort.That was not the case for Johan de Witt, the leader of the Netherlands political system in the mid 17th century.

By the time de Witt took office in Holland, the Netherlands (known then as the United Provinces or the Seven United Netherlands), had been undergoing an amazing golden age for several decades. Johan de Witt was elected Grand Pensionary of Holland, the United Provinces most powerful province, in 1653. The way the Netherlands was organized during the 17th century, de Witt was the de facto head of the United Provinces between 1653 and 1672.

These Dutch Men Were So Angry at Their Prime Minister, They Did the Unthinkable
Statue of Johan De Witt. Wikipedia

Like with modern politics, there was a split between two factions. The group that de Witt represented was the merchant class, who favored a smaller central government, strong Protestant moderation and a ‘pragmatic’ style of foreign policy. The other faction was led by the House of Orange-Nassau. They represented the more middle class that favored a stronger government headed by a strong leader. Johan de Witt was a strong opponent of the House of Orange-Nassau his entire career.

The House of Orange-Nassau was an ancient house that played a role in the politics of the Netherlands government for centuries. In fact, the House was only dissolved by extinction in the main line in 1962.

One of Johan de Witt’s biggest problems, as we’ll see, is that he identified much more with the merchant and shipping classes, which were very much centered in Holland. The other six provinces were not so entrenched in those classes.

Johan de Witt’s Holland also differed religiously. Holland tended towards the Dutch Reformed Church, whereas some of the other provinces bore a more Calvinist approach to Protestantism.

This separation between the upper and middle classes would prove to be de Witt’s downfall, as would his life long opposition to the House of Orange-Nassau.

In 1650, four years before de Witt’s election, William III of Orange was born. He was the son of the late William II, who had passed away in November of that year. The middle class, who overwhelmingly supported the House of Orange-Nassau

These Dutch Men Were So Angry at Their Prime Minister, They Did the Unthinkable
Johan de Witt. Wikiwand

At the time of de Witt’s election, the Dutch were embroiled in the First Anglo-Dutch war. In 1654, de Witt ended that war with the Treaty of Westminster. The British managed to sneak in a secret clause (called an annex) which precluded William III of Orange from becoming the stadtholder (Chief Magistrate) of the United Provinces, it was called the Act of Seclusion. This would become much more important as young William got older.

Due to his life-long opposition to the House of Orange-Nassau , de Witt and three other leaders who opposed that house, conspired to control William the III through his education. Johan de Witt, as he did throughout his entire career, would do almost anything to keep a member of the House of Orange-Nassau out of positions of power.

The annex in the Treaty of Westminster wouldn’t come back to bite de Witt until later in his career. The aftermath of the First Anglo-Dutch War saw the Netherlands prosper economically under de Witt’s leadership. This allowed de Witt to further his ties to the merchant class.

As you’ll see if you jump to the next page, it is this conflict that eventually led to a disastrous downfall for Johan de Witt.

These Dutch Men Were So Angry at Their Prime Minister, They Did the Unthinkable
Johan de Witt. Wikipedia

A Violent End

The success Johan de Witt had after the First Anglo-Dutch War led to the Triple Alliance. This was an alliance between England, Sweden and the United Provinces that was formed to threaten Louis XIV who had invaded the Spanish Netherlands. The Alliance never had to engage in battle, as the threat of three of the most powerful armies in Europe caused Louis XIV to back down.

De Witt had continued and prodigious success throughout most of the 1660s, but his opposition to the House of Orange continued. In 1667, The Perpetual Edict was passed by the States of Holland. It stated that the stadtholderate would have no power in Holland from that period onward. At the same time de Witt suggested that William III take the position of Captain General when he came of age (23 years old at that time).

This constant war with the House of Orange-Nassau, which was the traditional ruling family of the United Provinces, would see de Witt face a nasty end, but it was only one part of what led to his downfall.

In 1672, everything seemed to go wrong for the Netherlands at once. For almost seventy years, the Republic had been in a Golden Age economically and diplomatically. Wars tended to end quickly, and those that they fought in ended with the Dutch victorious.

That all ended in 1672, which the Dutch refer to as the “Year of Disaster”. France, led by Louis XIV, and England declared war on the United Provinces. On the 21st of June of the same year, de Witt barely escaped an assassination attempt by a knife-wielding assassin. His brother was arrested on trumped-up charges by justices sympathetic to the House of Orange, and he was sentenced to exile.

The Orangeists had had enough of de Witt’s leadership, his constant war with the House of Orange (which as you’ll remember was more representative of the middle class), and the rearrangement of hostilities with both France and England. De Witt resigned the Grand Pensionary position on the 4th of August 1672.

After the trial and conviction of his brother, Johan de Witt went to visit him in his jail cell. On his way back with his brother, who was going to help with get started on his journey, they were attacked by a mob of The Hague’s civil militia. It was a clearly planned attempt at assassination. It has been claimed (and seems fairly obvious) that this was planned by either members of or sympathizers of The House of Orange. However it has never been proven, and any claims that William III of Orange had anything to do with the attempt, have never been substantiated.

These Dutch Men Were So Angry at Their Prime Minister, They Did the Unthinkable
The Execution of Johan de Witt. Blogger

The attack was successful. The two brothers were shot and strung up on a gibbet (similar to a gallows), and then the assassins left the bodies to the mob. In their frenzy, the mob ate at least part of the brother’s bodies. Some reports have them eating much more, while others say that it was only their livers that were eaten. Either way, the mob had their revenge on de Witt for his constant attacks on The House of Orange and his inability to maintain peace with the rest of Europe.

The aftermath saw the ascension of William III and the House of Orange. It would eventually lead to peace with England and France as well. None of the assassins of the de Witt brothers were ever caught, and no members of the mob that desecrated their bodies ever faced charges. Some historical reports say that once William III came into power, he protected the rioters from prosecution, leading some historians to suggest that the assassination of de Witt was William III’s idea.

William III would go on to great political success. He would become Stadtholder, and would hold that position until he died. In April 1688, he led a successful invasion of England, and would be the King of England until his death in 1702. He held claims to the throne of England through Charles I and James II (both of England) through blood, and through his marriage to Mary the daughter of James, the Duke of York.

These Dutch Men Were So Angry at Their Prime Minister, They Did the Unthinkable
King William III of England (of Orange). Wikipedia

The Dutch Golden Age, however, ended in 1672, despite William III’s success in England. While the first seventy years of the 17th century saw the Netherlands succeed in almost every endeavor, after the Year of Disaster, the republic never really recovered. For sure it never reached its former glory when, given time, it could have very well become one of the world’s largest empires. Whether Johan de Witt is completely to blame for this decline is debatable. For sure he focused way too much time on assaulting the House of Orange, and that cost him greatly in the end.