History of Holland
By George Edmundson

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Chapter XV



The position of John de Witt in July, 1654, was a difficult one. The conduct of the council-pensionary in the matter of the Act of Exclusion was openly attacked in the States-General. Had the leaders of the Orange party been united, the attack might have had serious consequences; but notoriously the princess royal, the princess dowager and William Frederick were on bad terms, and De Witt, with his usual adroitness, knew well how to play off one against another. To meet the accusations of his assailants in the States-General he drew up however an elaborate defence of the action taken by the Estates of Holland and by himself. The document bore the title “Deduction of the Estates of Holland.” It was laborious rather than convincing, and it did not convince opponents. Nevertheless, though resentment continued to smoulder, the fact that peace had been assured soon reconciled the majority to allow the doubtful means by which it had been obtained to be overlooked. The tact, the persuasiveness, the great administrative powers of the council-pensionary effected the rest; and his influence from this time forward continued to grow, until he attained to such a control over every department of government, as not even Oldenbarneveldt had possessed in the height of his power.

John de Witt was possibly not the equal of the famous Advocate in sheer capacity for great affairs, but he had practical abilities of the highest order as a financier and organiser, and he combined with these more solid qualifications a swiftness of courageous decision in moments of emergency which his almost infinite resourcefulness in extricating himself from difficult and perilous situations, enabled him to carry to a successful issue. His marriage in February, 1655, to Wendela Bicker, who belonged to one of the most important among the ruling burgher-families of Amsterdam, brought to him enduring domestic happiness. It was likewise of no slight political value. Andries and Cornelis Bicker, who had headed the opposition to William II and had been declared by him in 1650 incapable of holding henceforth any municipal office, were her uncles; while her maternal uncle, Cornelis de Graeff, was a man of weight and influence both in his native town and in the Provincial Estates. By this close relationship with such leading members of the regent-aristocracy of Amsterdam the council-pensionary became almost as secure of the support of the commercial capital in the north of Holland, as he was already of Dordrecht in the south. Two of his cousins, Slingelandt and Vivien, were in turn his successors, as pensionaries of Dordrecht, while for his predecessor in that post, Nicolas Ruysch, he obtained the extremely influential office of griffier or secretary to the States-General. Nor did he scruple to exercise his powers of patronage for other members of his family. His father, Jacob de Witt, was made a member of the Chamber of Finance; his elder brother, Cornelis, Ruwaard of Putten. By these and other appointments of men who were his friends and supporters, to important positions diplomatic, military and naval, De Witt contrived to strengthen more and more his personal authority and influence. And yet in thus favouring his relatives and friends, let us not accuse De Witt of base motives or of venality. He firmly believed in his own ability to serve the State, and, without doubt, he was convinced that it was for the best interest of his country for him to create for himself, as far as was possible amidst the restrictions by which he was hemmed in on every side, a free field of diplomatic and administrative action. No one, not even his bitterest enemies, ever charged John de Witt with personal corruption. Throughout his whole career he lived quietly and unostentatiously, as a simple citizen, on a very moderate income, and he died a poor man.

One of the first cares of the council-pensionary after the peace with England was to deal with the internal troubles which were disturbing certain parts of the land, notably Groningen, Zeeland and Overyssel. In the last-named province a serious party struggle arose out of the appointment of a strong Orangist, named Haersolte, to the post of Drost or governor of Twente. The Estates were split up, the Orange partisans meeting at Zwolle, the anti-Orange at Deventer. Both enlisted troops, but those of Zwolle were the stronger and laid siege to Deventer. The victorious Orangists then nominated William III as stadholder with William Frederick as his lieutenant. At last, after three years’ strife, the parties called in De Witt and William Frederick as mediators. But De Witt was far too clever for the Friesland stadholder. It happened that the post of field-marshal had just fallen vacant by the death of Brederode. Both William Frederick and his cousin Joan Maurice aspired to the office. The council-pensionary induced his co-mediator, with the hope of becoming Brederode’s successor, to yield on all points. Haersolte was deprived of office; the prince’s appointment as stadholder was suspended until his majority; and therefore William Frederick could not act as his lieutenant. Thus peace was restored to Overyssel, but William Frederick was not appointed field-marshal. In the other provinces the tact and skill of De Witt were equally successful in allaying discord. He would not have been so successful had the Orange party not been hopelessly divided and had it possessed capable leaders.

As an administrator and organiser the council-pensionary at once applied himself to two most important tasks, financial reform and naval reconstruction. The burden of debt upon the province of Holland, which had borne so large a part of the charges of the war, was crushing. The rate of interest had been reduced in 1640 from 6 J to 5 per cent. But the cost of the English war, which was wholly a naval war, had caused the debt of Holland to mount to 153,000,000 guilders, the interest on which was 7,000,000 guilders per annum. De Witt first took in hand a thorough overhauling of the public accounts, by means of which he was enabled to check unnecessary outlay and to effect a number of economies. Finding however that, despite his efforts to reduce expenditure, he could not avoid an annual deficit, the council-pensionary took the bold step of proposing a further reduction of interest from 5 to 4 per cent. He had some difficulty in persuading the investors in government funds to consent, but he overcame opposition by undertaking to form a sinking fund by which the entire debt should be paid off in 41 years. Having thus placed the finances of the province on a sound basis, De Witt next brought a similar proposal before the States-General with the result that the interest on the Generality debt was likewise reduced to 4 per cent.

The English war had conclusively proved to the Dutch their inferiority in the size and armament of their war-vessels, and of the need of a complete reorganisation of the fleet. De Witt lost no time in taking the necessary steps. The custom which had hitherto prevailed of converting merchantmen into ships of war at the outbreak of hostilities was abandoned. Steps were taken to build steadily year by year a number of large, strongly-constructed, powerfully armed men-of-war, mounting 60,70 and 80 guns. These vessels were specially adapted for passing in and out of the shallow waters and were built for strength rather than for speed. Again, the part taken in the war by the light, swift-sailing English frigates led to a large flotilla of these vessels being built, so useful for scouting purposes and for preying upon the enemy’s commerce. The supply and training of seamen was also dealt with, and the whole system of pay and of prize-money revised and reorganised. It was a great and vitally necessary task, and subsequent events were to show how admirably it had been carried out.

No one knew better than John de Witt that peace was the chief interest of the United Provinces, but his lot was cast in troubled times, and he was one of those prescient statesmen who perceive that meekness in diplomacy and willingness to submit to injury do not promote the cause of peace or further the true interests of any country.

The conquests of France in the southern Netherlands caused great anxiety to the Dutch; and the high-handed action of French pirates in searching and seizing Dutch merchantmen in the Mediterranean aroused much indignation. The States, acting on De Witt’s advice, replied by sending a squadron under De Ruyter to put a stop to these proceedings. The Dutch admiral took vigorous action and captured some French freebooters. The French government thereupon forbade Dutch vessels to enter French harbours. The Dutch replied by a similar embargo and threatened to blockade the French coast. This threat had the desired effect, and an accommodation was reached. The peace of the Pyrenees in 1659, by which the French retained a large part of their conquests in Flanders, Hainault and Namur, while the English acquired possession of Dunkirk, was disquieting. For the relations with England, despite the goodwill of the Protector, were far from satisfactory. The trade interests of the two republics clashed at so many points that a resumption of hostilities was with difficulty prevented. More especially was this the case after the outbreak of war with Portugal in November, 1657.

The Dutch accused the Portuguese government of active connivance with the successful revolt of the Brazilian colonists against Dutch rule. What was once Dutch Brazil was now claimed by the Lisbon government as a Portuguese possession, and De Witt demanded an indemnity. As this was not conceded, a squadron under Obdam, November, 1657, blockaded the Portuguese coast, while another under De Ruyter made many seizures of merchant vessels. Cromwell was disposed to intervene, but his death on September 3,1658, removed any fears of English action. Meanwhile the Dutch captured Ceylon and Macassar and practically cut off Portuguese intercourse with the East Indies. At last in August, 1661, a treaty was signed by which the Dutch abandoned all territorial claims in Brazil, but were granted freedom of trade and an indemnity of 8,000,000 fl. to be paid in sixteen years, and, what was more valuable, they retained possession of their conquests in the East.

The protracted dispute with Portugal was however of quite subordinate importance to the interest of the Dutch in the complications of the so-called Northern War. On the abdication of Christina in 1654, Charles X Gustavus had succeeded to the Swedish throne. The new king was fired with the ambition of following in the footsteps of Gustavus Adolphus, and of rendering Sweden supreme in the Baltic by the subjection of Poland and Denmark. Charles was a man of great force of character and warlike energy, and he lost no time in attempting to put his schemes of conquest into execution. Having secured the alliance of the Great Elector, anxious also to aggrandise himself in Polish Prussia, the Swedish king declared war against Poland, and in the early summer of 1656 laid siege to Danzig. But the importance of the Baltic trade to Holland was very great and Danzig was the corn emporium of the Baltic. Under pressure therefore of the Amsterdam merchants the States-General despatched (July) a fleet of forty-two ships under Obdam van Wassenaer through the Sound, which raised the siege of Danzig and with Polish consent left a garrison in the town. Thus checked, the Swedish king at Elbing (September, 1656) renewed amicable relations with the republic, and Danzig was declared a neutral port. At the same time a defensive alliance was concluded between the States and Denmark. It was obvious from, this that the Dutch were hostile to Swedish pretensions and determined to resist them. De Witt was anxious to preserve peace, but he had against him all the influence of Amsterdam, and that of the able diplomatist, Van Beuningen, who after being special envoy of the States at Stockholm had now been sent to Copenhagen. Van Beuningen held that, whatever the risks of intervention on the part of the States, the control of the Sound must not fall into the hands of Sweden. The emergency came sooner than was expected.

Brandenburg having changed sides, the Swedes were expelled from Poland; and Frederick III of Denmark, despite the advice of De Witt, seized the opportunity to declare war on Sweden. Although it was the depth of winter Charles Gustavus lost no time in attacking Denmark. He quickly drove the Danes from Schonen and Funen and invaded Seeland. Frederick was compelled at Roeskilde (February, 1658) to accept the terms of the conqueror. Denmark became virtually a Swedish dependency, and undertook to close the Sound to all foreign ships. Involved as the republic was in disputes at this time with both France and England, and engaged in war with Portugal, De Witt would have been content to maintain a watchful attitude in regard to Scandinavian matters and to strive by diplomacy to secure from Sweden a recognition of Dutch rights. But his hand was forced by Van Beuningen, who went so far as to urge the Danish king to rely on his defensive alliance with the republic and to break the treaty of Roeskilde. Charles Gustavus promptly invaded Denmark, drove the Danish fleet from the sea, placed strong garrisons at Elsinore and Kronborg, and laid siege to Copenhagen. Van Beuningen had proudly asserted that “the oaken keys of the Sound lay in the docks of Amsterdam,” and his boast was no empty one. At the beginning of October a force of thirty-five vessels under Obdam carrying 4000 troops sailed for the Sound with orders to destroy the Swedish fleet, and to raise the siege of Copenhagen. On November 8 Obdam encountered the Swedes in the entrance to the Baltic. The Swedish admiral Wrangel had forty-five ships under his command, and the battle was obstinate and bloody. Obdam carried out his instructions. Only a remnant of the Swedish fleet found refuge in the harbour of Landskrona, but the Dutch also suffered severely. The two vice-admirals, Witte de With and Floriszoon, were killed, and Obdam himself narrowly escaped capture, but Copenhagen was freed from naval blockade.

Charles Gustavus however held military possession of a large part of Denmark, and in the spring began to press the attack on the capital from the land side. As both England and France showed a disposition to interfere in the conflict, the States-General now acted with unexpected vigour, recognising that this question to them was vital. An imposing force of seventy-five warships, carrying 12,000 troops and mounting 3000 guns, was despatched in May, 1659, under De Ruyter to the Baltic. Negotiations for peace between the Scandinavian powers under the mediation of France, England and the United Provinces, were now set on foot and dragged on through the summer. But neither Charles Gustavus nor Frederick could be brought to agree to the terms proposed, and the former in the autumn again threatened Copenhagen. In these circumstances De Ruyter was ordered to expel the Swedes from Funen. On November 24 the town of Nyborg was taken by storm and the whole Swedish force compelled to surrender. De Ruyter was now supreme in the Baltic and closely blockaded the Swedish ports. The spirit of Charles Gustavus was broken by these disasters; he died on February 20, 1660. Peace was now concluded at Oliva on conditions favourable to Sweden, but securing for the Dutch the free passage of the Sound. The policy of De Witt was at once firm and conciliatory. Without arousing the active opposition of England and France, he by strong-handed action at the decisive moment succeeded in maintaining that balance of power in the Baltic which was essential in the interest of Dutch trade. The republic under his skilful leadership undoubtedly gained during the northern wars fresh weight and consideration in the Councils of Europe.

The peace of the Pyrenees, followed by the peace of Oliva and the settlement with Portugal, seemed to open out to the United Provinces a period of rest and recuperation, but probably no one knew better than the council-pensionary that outward appearances were deceptive. In the spring of 1660 a bloodless revolution had been accomplished in England, and Charles II was restored to the throne. The hostility of De Witt and of the States party to the house of Stuart had been marked. It happened that Charles was at Breda when he received the invitation recalling him to England. The position was a difficult one, but the council-pensionary at once saw, with his usual perspicacity, that there was but one course to pursue. Acting under his advice, every possible step was taken by the States-General and the Estates of Holland to propitiate the prince, who from being a forlorn exile had suddenly become a powerful king. Immense sums were spent upon giving him a magnificent reception at the Hague; and, when he set sail from Scheveningen, deputations from the States-General and the Estates of Holland attended in state his embarkation and lavish promises of friendship were exchanged. It was significant, however, that Charles handed to the council-pensionary a declaration commending to the care of their High Mightinesses “the Princess my sister and the Prince of Orange my nephew, persons who are extremely dear to me.” He had previously expressed the same wish to De Witt privately; and compliance with it, i.e. the annulling of the Act of Exclusion, was inevitable. But all the actors in this comedy were playing a part. Charles was not deceived by all this subservience, and, continuing to entertain a bitter grudge against De Witt and his party, only waited his time to repay their enmity in kind. De Witt on his side, though in his anxiety to conciliate the new royalist government he consented to deliver up three regicides who were refugees in Holland (an act justly blamed), refused to restore the Prince of Orange to any of the ancient dignities and offices of his forefathers. Acting however on his advice, the Estates of Holland passed a unanimous resolution declaring William a ward of the Estates and voting a sum of money for his maintenance and education.

Very shortly after this momentous change in the government of England, Cardinal Mazarin died (March, 1661); and the youthful Louis XIV took the reins of power into his own hands. Outwardly all seemed well in the relations between France and the republic, and in point of fact an offensive and defensive alliance for twenty-five years was concluded between them on April 27,1662. Later in the same year Count D’Estrades, formerly ambassador in the time of Frederick Henry, resumed his old post. The relations between him and De Witt were personally of the friendliest character, but the conciliatory attitude of D’Estrades did not deceive the far-sighted council-pensionary, who was seriously disquieted as to the political aims of France in the southern Netherlands.

By the treaty of the Pyrenees, 1659, the French had already acquired a large slice of territory in Flanders and Artois. They had since obtained Dunkirk by purchase from Charles II. Moreover Louis XIV had married the eldest daughter of Philip IV, whose only son was a weakly boy. It is true that Maria Theresa, on her marriage, had renounced all claims to the Spanish succession. But a large dowry had been settled upon her, and by the treaty the renunciation was contingent upon its payment. The dowry had not been paid nor was there any prospect of the Spanish treasury being able to find the money. Besides it was no secret that Louis claimed the succession to Brabant for his wife and certain other portions of the Netherlands under what was called the Law of Devolution. By this law the female child of a first wife was the heir in preference to the male child of a later marriage. The Dutch dreaded the approach of the French military power to their frontiers, and yet the decrepitude of Spain seemed to render it inevitable. There appeared to De Witt to be only two solutions of the difficulty. Either what was styled “the cantonment” of the southern Netherlands, i.e. their being formed into a self-governing republic under Dutch protection guaranteed by a French alliance, or the division of the Belgic provinces between the two powers. The latter proposal, however, had two great disadvantages: in the first place it gave to France and the Republic the undesirable common frontier; in the second place Amsterdam was resolved that Antwerp should not be erected into a dangerous rival. The last objection proved insuperable; and, although De Witt had many confidential discussions with D’Estrades, in which the French envoy was careful not to commit himself to any disclosure of the real intentions of his government, no settlement of any kind had been arrived at, when the threatening state of relations with England threw all other questions into the background.

The accession of Charles II placed upon the throne of England a man who had no goodwill to Holland and still less to the council-pensionary, and who, like all the Stewart kings, had a keen interest in naval and maritime matters. The Navigation Act, far from being repealed, was vigorously enforced, as were the English claims to the sovereignty of the narrow seas. The grievances of the English East India Company against its Dutch rival with regard to the seizure of certain ships and especially as to the possession of a small island named Poeloe-Rum in the Moluccas led to a growing feeling of bitterness and hostility. A special embassy, headed by De Witt’s cousin, Beverweert, was sent to London in the autumn of 1660 to try to bring about a friendly understanding, but was fruitless. At the same time George Downing, a skilful intriguer and adventurer, who after serving Cromwell had succeeded in gaining the confidence of the royal government, had been sent as ambassador to the Hague, where he worked underhand to exacerbate the disputes and to prevent a settlement of the differences between the two peoples. The position and treatment of the Prince of Orange had likewise been a source of difficulty and even of danger to the supremacy of the States party. There arose a general movement among the provinces, headed by Gelderland and Zeeland, to nominate William captain-and admiral-general of the Union and stadholder. The lack of leadership in the Orangist party, and the hostility between the two princesses, rendered, however, any concentrated action impossible. De Witt, with his usual adroitness, gained the ear of the princess royal, who accepted the proposal that the Estates of Holland should undertake the education of the prince, and even consented that De Witt himself and his wife’s uncle, De Graef, should superintend the prince’s studies. This arranged, Mary, for the first time since her marriage, paid a visit to her native land, being desirous to consult her brother on various subjects. Unfortunately she died of small-pox in January, 1661, having nominated Charles as her son’s guardian. This nomination did not tend to smooth matters between the two countries.

There was a powerful war party in England, supported by the Duke of York. It was at his instigation that a strong-handed act took place which aroused intense indignation in Holland. A company called “The Royal African Company” had been formed in which the duke had a large interest. A fleet fitted out by this company under the command of Admiral Holmes seized, in February, 1664, a portion of the coast of Guinea on which the Dutch had settlements. Strong protests meeting with nothing but evasive replies, in all secrecy a squadron was got ready to sail under De Ruyter, nominally to the Mediterranean. Dilatory negotiations were in the meantime being conducted by Beverweert in London, and by Downing at the Hague in regard to this and other grievances, but without any approach to a settlement. Downing in fact was surreptitiously doing his best not to reconcile, but to aggravate differences. Matters were brought to a head by the news that an English fleet had crossed the Atlantic and had taken possession of the Dutch colony of New Netherland (September), and that Holmes had made himself master of Cabo Corso on the West African coast, and was threatening further conquests. This was too much. De Ruyter received orders to proceed to Guinea, where he speedily drove out the English intruders and reoccupied the lost settlements. During the winter both powers prepared for a struggle for maritime supremacy which had become inevitable; and at last war was declared by England (March 4, 1665).


General Preface  •  Prologue  •  Chapter I: The Burgundian Netherlands  •  Chapter II: Habsburg Rule in the Netherlands  •  Chapter III  •  Chapter IV: The Revolt of the Netherlands  •  Chapter V: William the Silent  •  Chapter VI: The Beginnings of the Dutch Republic  •  Chapter VII: The System of Government  •  Chapter VIII: The Twelve Years’ Truce  •  Chapter IX: Maurice and Oldenbarneveldt  •  Chapter X: From the End of the Twelve Years’ Truce to the Peace of Muenster  •  Chapter XI  •  Chapter XII: Letters, Science and Art  •  Chapter XIII: The Stadholderate of William II.  •  Chapter XIV  •  Chapter XV  •  Chapter XVI  •  Chapter XVII  •  Chapter XVIII  •  Chapter XIX  •  Chapter XX: The War of the Spanish Succession and the Treaties of Utrecht, 1702-1715  •  Chapter XXI: The Stadholderless Republic, 1715-1740  •  Chapter XXII: The Austrian Succession War. William Iv, 1740-1751  •  Chapter XXIII: The Regency of Anne and of Brunswick.  •  Chapter XXIV  •  Chapter XXV: Stadholderate of William V, continued, 1780-1788  •  Chapter XXVI: The Orange Restoration. Downfall of the Republic, 1788-1795  •  Chapter XXVII: The Batavian Republic, 1795-1806  •  Chapter XXVIII: The Kingdom of Holland and the French Annexation, 1806-1814  •  Chapter XXIX: The Formation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, 1814-1815  •  Chapter XXX: The Kingdom of the Netherlands–union of Holland and Belgium, 1815-1830  •  Chapter XXXI: The Belgian Revolution, 1830-1842  •  Chapter XXXII: William II. Revision of the Constitution.  •  Chapter XXXIII: Reign of William III to the Death of Thorbecke, 1849-1872  •  Chapter XXXIV: The Later Reign of William III, and the Regency Of Queen Emma, 1872-1898  •  Chapter XXXV: The Reign of Queen Wilhelmina, 1898-1917  •  Epilogue  •  Footnotes

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History of Holland, (Cambridge historical series)
By George Edmundson
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