History of Holland
By George Edmundson

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Chapter XXII: The Austrian Succession War. William Iv, 1740-1751

The death of the Emperor Charles VI in October, 1740, was the signal for the outbreak of another European war. All Charles’ efforts on behalf of the Pragmatic Sanction proved to have been labour spent in vain. Great Britain, the United Provinces, Spain, Saxony, Poland, Russia, Sardinia, Prussia, most of the smaller German States, and finally France, had agreed to support (1738) the Pragmatic Sanction. The assent of Spain had been bought by the cession of the two Sicilies; of France by that of Lorraine, whose Duke Francis Stephen had married Maria Theresa and was compensated by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany for the loss of his ancestral domain. The only important dissentient was Charles Albert, Elector of Bavaria, who had married the younger daughter of Joseph I and who claimed the succession not only through his wife, but as the nearest male descendant of Ferdinand I. On the death of Charles VI, then, it might have been supposed that Maria Theresa would have succeeded to her inheritance without opposition. This was far from being the case. The Elector of Bavaria put forward his claims and he found unexpected support in Frederick II of Prussia. Frederick had just succeeded his father Frederick William I, and being at once ambitious and without scruples he determined to seize the opportunity for the purpose of territorial aggression. While lulling the suspicions of Vienna by friendly professions, he suddenly, in December, 1740, invaded Silesia. Maria Theresa appealed to the guarantors of the Pragmatic Sanction. She met no active response, but on the part of Spain, Sardinia and France veiled hostility. Great Britain, at war with Spain since 1739, and fearing the intervention of France, confined her efforts to diplomacy; and the only anxiety of the United Provinces was to avoid being drawn into war. An addition was made to the army of 11,000 men and afterwards in 1741, through dread of an attack on the Austrian Netherlands, a further increase of 20,000 was voted. The garrisons and fortifications of the barrier towns were strengthened and some addition was made to the navy. But the policy of the States continued to be vacillating and pusillanimous. The Republican party, who held the reins of power, desiring peace at any price, were above all anxious to be on good terms with France. The Orangist opposition were in favour of joining with England in support of Maria Theresa; but the prince would not take any steps to assert himself, and his partisans, deprived of leadership, could exert little influence. Nor did they obtain much encouragement from England, where Walpole was still intent upon a pacific policy.

The events of 1741, however, were such as to compel a change of attitude. The Prussians were in possession of Silesia; and spoliation, having begun so successfully, became infectious. The aged Fleury was no longer able to restrain the war party in France. In May at Nymphenburg a league was formed by France, Spain, Sardinia, Saxony and Poland, in conjunction with Prussia and Bavaria, to effect the overthrow of Maria Theresa and share her inheritance between them. Resistance seemed hopeless. A Franco-Bavarian army penetrated within a few miles of Vienna, and then overran Bohemia. Charles Albert was crowned King of Bohemia at Prague and then (January, 1742) was elected Emperor under the title of Charles VII.

Before this election took place, however, English mediation had succeeded by the convention of Klein-Schnellendorf in securing a suspension of hostilities (October 9) between Austria and Prussia. This left Frederick in possession of Silesia, but enabled the Queen of Hungary, supported by English and Dutch subsidies, not only to clear Bohemia from its invaders, but to conquer Bavaria. At the very time when Charles Albert was elected Emperor, his own capital was occupied by his enemies. In February, 1742, the long ministry of Walpole came to an end; and the party in favour of a more active participation in the war succeeded to office. George II was now thoroughly alarmed for the safety of his Hanoverian dominions; and Lord Stair was sent to the Hague on a special mission to urge the States to range themselves definitely on the side of Maria Theresa. But fears of a French onslaught on the southern Netherlands still caused timorous counsels to prevail. The French ambassador, De Fénélon, on his part was lavish in vague promises not unmingled with veiled threats, so that the feeble directors of Dutch policy, torn between their duty to treaty obligations urged upon them by England, and their dread of the military power of France, helplessly resolved to cling to neutrality as long as possible. But events proved too strong for them. Without asking their permission, an English force of 16,000 men landed at Ostend and was sent to strengthen the garrison of the barrier fortresses (May, 1742). The warlike operations of this year were on the whole favourable to Maria Theresa, who through English mediation, much against her will, secured peace with Prussia by the cession of Silesia. The treaty between the two powers was signed at Berlin on July 28. Hostilities with France continued; but, though both the Maritime Powers helped Austria with subsidies, neither Great Britain nor the States were at the close of the year officially at war with the French king.

Such a state of precarious make-believe could not last much longer. The Austrians were anxious that the English force in the Netherlands, which had been reinforced and was known as the Pragmatic Army, should advance into Bavaria to co-operate with the Imperial forces. Accordingly the army, commanded by George II in person, advanced across the Main to Dettingen. Here the king, shut in by French forces and cut off from his supplies, was rescued from a very difficult position by the valour of his troops, who on June 27, 1743 attacked and completely routed their opponents. The States-General had already, on June 22, recognised their responsibilities; and by a majority vote it was determined that a force of 20,000 men under the command of Count Maurice of Nassau-Ouwerkerk should join the Pragmatic Army.

The fiction that the Maritime Powers were not at war with France was kept up until the spring of 1744, when the French king in alliance with Spain declared war on England. One of the projects of the war party at Versailles was the despatch of a powerful expedition to invade England and restore the Stewarts. As soon as news of the preparations reached England, a demand was at once made, in accordance with treaty, for naval aid from the States. Twenty ships were asked for, but only eight were in a condition to sail; and the admiral in command, Grave, was 73 years of age and had been for fifteen years in retirement. What an object lesson of the utter decay of the Dutch naval power! Fortunately a storm dispersed the French fleet, and the services of the auxiliary squadron were not required.

The news that Marshal Maurice de Saxe was about to invade the Austrian Netherlands with a French army of 80,000 men came like a shock upon the peace party in the States. The memory of 1672 filled them with terror. The pretence of neutrality could no longer be maintained. The choice lay between peace at any price or war with all its risks; and it was doubtful which of the two alternatives was the worse. Was there indeed any choice? It did not seem so, when De Fénélon, who had represented France at the Hague for nineteen years, came to take leave of the States-General on his appointment to a command in the invading army (April 26). But a last effort was made. An envoy-extraordinary, the Count of Wassenaer-Twickel, was sent to Paris, but found that the king was already with his army encamped between Lille and Tournay. Wassenaer was amused with negotiations for awhile, but there was no pause in the rapid advance of Marshal Saxe. The barrier fortresses, whose defences had been neglected, fell rapidly one after another. All west Flanders was overrun. The allied forces, gathered at Oudenarde, were at first too weak to offer resistance, and were divided in counsels. Gradually reinforcements came in, but still the Pragmatic army remained inactive and was only saved from inevitable defeat by the invasion of Alsace by the Imperialists. Marshal Saxe was compelled to despatch a considerable part of the invading army to meet this attack on the eastern frontier, and to act on the defensive in Flanders. Menin, Courtrai, Ypres, Knocke and other places remained, however, in French hands.

All this time the Dutch had maintained the fiction that the States were not at war with France; but in January, 1745, the pressure of circumstances was too strong even for the weak-kneed Van der Heim and his fellow-statesmen, and a quadruple alliance was formed between England, Austria, Saxony and the United Provinces to maintain the Pragmatic Sanction. This was followed in March by the declaration of war between France and the States. Meanwhile the position of Austria had improved. The Emperor Charles VII died on January 20; and his youthful successor Maximilian Joseph, in return for the restoration of his electorate, made peace with Maria Theresa and withdrew all Bavarian claims to the Austrian succession. Affairs in Flanders however did not prosper. The command-in-chief of the allied army had been given to the Duke of Cumberland, who was no match for such an opponent as Maurice de Saxe. The Prince of Waldeck was in command of the Dutch contingent.

The provinces of Friesland, Groningen, Overyssel and Gelderland had repeatedly urged that this post should be bestowed upon the Prince of Orange; and the States-General had in 1742 offered to give William the rank of lieutenant-general in the army, but Holland and Zeeland steadily refused. The campaign of 1745 was disastrous. The battle of Fontenoy (May 11) resulted in a victory for Marshal Saxe over the allied forces, a victory snatched out of the fire through the pusillanimous withdrawal from the fight of the Dutch troops on the left wing. The British infantry with magnificent valour on the right centre had pierced through the French lines, only to find themselves deserted and overwhelmed by superior forces. This victory was vigorously followed up. The Jacobite rising under Charles Edward, the young Pretender, had necessitated the recalling not only of the greater part of the English expeditionary force, but also, under the terms of the treaties between Great Britain and the United Provinces, of a body of 6000 Dutch. Before the year 1745 had ended, Tournay, Ghent, Bruges, Oudenarde, Dendermonde, Ostend, Nieuport, Ath fell in succession into the hands of Marshal Saxe, and after a brave defence Brussels itself was forced to capitulate on February 19, 1746.

Van der Heim and the Republican conclave in whose hands was the direction of foreign affairs, dreading the approach of the French armies to the Dutch frontier, sent the Count de Larrey on a private mission to Paris in November, 1745, to endeavour to negotiate terms of peace. He was unsuccessful; and in February, 1746 another fruitless effort was made, Wassenaer and Jacob Gilles being the envoys. The French minister, D’Argenson, was not unwilling to discuss matters with them; and negotiations went on for some time in a more or less desultory way, but without in any way checking the alarming progress of hostilities. An army 120,000 strong under Marshal Saxe found for some months no force strong enough to resist it. Antwerp, Louvain, Mechlin, Mons, Charleroi, Huy and finally Namur (September 21) surrendered to the French. At last (October 11) a powerful allied army under the command of Charles of Lorraine made a stand at Roucoux. A hardly-fought battle, in which both sides lost heavily, ended in the victory of the French. Liège was taken, and the French were now masters of Belgium.

These successes made the Dutch statesmen at the Hague the more anxious to conclude peace. D’Argenson had always been averse to an actual invasion of Dutch territory; and it was arranged between him and the Dutch envoys, Wassenaer and Gilles, at Paris, and between the council-pensionary Van der Heim and the Abbé de la Ville at the Hague, that a congress should meet at Breda in August, in which England consented to take part. Before it met, however, Van der Heim had died (August 15). He was succeeded by Jacob Gilles. The congress was destined to make little progress, for several of the provinces resented the way in which a small handful of men had secretly been committing the Republic to the acceptance of disadvantageous and humiliating terms of peace, without obtaining the consent of the States-General to their proposals. The congress did not actually assemble till October, and never got further than the discussion of preliminaries, for the war party won possession of power at Paris, and Louis XV dismissed D’Argenson. Moderate counsels were thrown to the winds; and it was determined in the coming campaign to carry the war into Dutch territory.

Alarm at the threatening attitude of the French roused the allies to collect an army of 90,000 men, of whom more than half were Austrian; but, instead of Charles of Lorraine, the Duke of Cumberland was placed in command. Marshal Saxe, at the head of the main French force, held Cumberland in check, while he despatched Count Löwenthal with 20,000 to enter Dutch Flanders. His advance was a triumphal progress. Sluis, Cadsand and Axel surrendered almost without opposition. Only the timely arrival of an English squadron in the Scheldt saved Zeeland from invasion.

The news of these events caused an immense sensation. For some time popular resentment against the feebleness and jobbery of the stadholderless government had been deep and strong. Indignation knew no bounds; and the revolutionary movement to which it gave rise was as sudden and complete in 1747 as in 1672. All eyes were speedily turned to the Prince of Orange as the saviour of the country. The movement began on April 25 at Veere and Middelburg in the island of Walcheren. Three days later the Estates of the Province proclaimed the prince stadholder and captain-and admiral-general of Zeeland. The province of Holland, where the stadholderless form of government was so deeply rooted and had its most stubborn and determined supporters, followed the example of Zeeland on May 3, Utrecht on May 5, and Overyssel on May 10. The States-General appointed him captain-and admiral-general of the Union. Thus without bloodshed or disturbance of any kind or any personal effort on the part of the prince, he found himself by general consent invested with all the posts of dignity and authority which had been held by Frederick Henry and William III. It was amidst scenes of general popular rejoicing that William visited Amsterdam, the Hague and Middelburg, and prepared to set about the difficult task to which he had been called.

One of the first results of the change of government was the closing of the Congress of Breda. There was no improvement, however, in the military position. The allied army advancing under Cumberland and Waldeck, to prevent Marshal Saxe from laying siege to Maestricht, was attacked by him at Lauffeldt on July 2. The fight was desperately contested, and the issue was on the whole in favour of the allies, when at a critical moment the Dutch gave way; and the French were able to claim, though at very heavy cost, a doubtful victory. It enabled Saxe nevertheless to despatch a force under Löwenthal to besiege the important fortress of Bergen-op-Zoom. It was carried by assault on September 16, and with it the whole of Dutch Brabant fell into the enemy’s hands.

Indignation against the rule of the burgher-regents, which had been instrumental in bringing so many disasters upon the Republic, was very general; and there was a loudly expressed desire that the prince should be invested with greater powers, as the “eminent head” of the State. With this object in view, on the proposal of the nobles of Holland, the Estates of that province made the dignity of stadholder and of captain-and admiral-general hereditary in both the male and female lines. All the other provinces passed resolutions to the same effect; and the States-General made the offices of captain-and admiral-general of the Union also hereditary. In the case of a minority, the Princess-Mother was to be regent; in that of a female succession the heiress could only marry with the consent of the States, it being provided that the husband must be of the Reformed religion, and not a king or an elector.

Strong measures were taken to prevent the selling of offices and to do away with the system of farming out the taxes. The post-masterships in Holland, which produced a large revenue, were offered to the prince; but, while undertaking the charge, he desired that the profits should be applied to the use of the State. Indeed they were sorely needed, for though William would not hear of peace and sent Count Bentinck to England to urge a vigorous prosecution of the war in conjunction with Austria and Russia in 1748, promising a States contingent of 70,000 men, it was found that, when the time for translating promises into action came, funds were wanting. Holland was burdened with a heavy debt; and the contributions of most of the provinces to the Generality were hopelessly in arrears. In Holland a “voluntary loan” was raised, which afterwards extended to the other provinces and also to the Indies, at the rate of 1 per cent. on properties between 1000 fl. and 2000 fl.; of 2 per cent. on those above 2000 fl. The loan (mildegift) produced a considerable sum, about 50,000,000 fl.; but this was not enough, and the prince had the humiliation of writing and placing before the English government the hopeless financial state of the Republic, and their need of a very large loan, if they were to take any further part in the war. This pitiful revelation of the condition of their ally decided Great Britain to respond to the overtures for peace on the part of France. The representatives of the powers met at Aix-la-Chapelle; and, as the English and French were both thoroughly tired of the war, they soon came to terms. The preliminaries of peace between them were signed on April 30, 1748, on the principle of a restoration of conquests. In this treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle the United Provinces were included, but no better proof could be afforded of the low estate to which the Dutch Republic had now fallen than the fact that its representatives at Aix-la-Chapelle, Bentinck and Van Haren, were scarcely consulted and exercised practically no influence upon the decisions. The French evacuated the southern Netherlands in return for the restoration to them of the colony of Cape Breton, which had fallen into the hands of the English; and the barrier towns were again allowed to receive Dutch garrisons. It was a useless concession, for their fortifications had been destroyed, and the States could no longer spare the money to make them capable of serious defence.

The position of William IV all this time was exceptionally responsible, and therefore the more trying. Never before had any Prince of Orange been invested with so much power. The glamour attaching to the name of Orange was perhaps the chief asset of the new stadholder in facing the serious difficulties into which years of misgovernment had plunged the country. He had undoubtedly the people at his back, but unfortunately they expected an almost magical change would take place in the situation with his elevation to the stadholderate. Naturally they were disappointed. The revolution of 1747 was not carried out in the spirit of “thorough,” which marked those of 1618, 1650 and 1672. William IV was cast in a mould different from that of Maurice or William II, still more from that of his immediate predecessor William III. He was a man of wide knowledge, kindly, conciliatory, and deeply religious, but only a mediocre statesman. He was too undecided in his opinions, too irresolute in action, to be a real leader in a crisis.

The first business was to bring back peace to the country; and this was achieved, not by any influence that the Netherlands government was able to exercise upon the course of the negotiations at Aix-la-Chapelle, but simply as a part of the understanding arrived at by Great Britain and France. It was for the sake of their own security that the English plenipotentiaries were willing to give up their conquests in North America as compensation for the evacuation of those portions of Belgium and of the Republic that the French forces occupied, and the restoration of the barrier fortresses.

After peace was concluded, not only the Orange partisans but the great mass of the people, who had so long been excluded from all share of political power, desired a drastic reform of the government. They had conferred sovereign authority upon William, and would have willingly increased it, in the hope that he would in his person be a centre of unity to the State, and would use his power for the sweeping away of abuses. It was a vain hope. He never attempted to do away, root and branch, with the corrupt municipal oligarchies, but only to make them more tolerable by the infusion of a certain amount of new blood.

The birth of an heir on March 8,1748, caused great rejoicings, for it promised permanence to the new order of things. Whatever the prince had firmly taken in hand would have met with popular approval, but William had little power of initiative or firmness of principle. He allowed his course of action to be swayed now by one set of advisers, now by their opponents. Even in the matter of the farmers of the revenue, the best-hated men throughout the Republic and especially in Holland, it required popular tumults and riots at Haarlem, Leyden, the Hague and Amsterdam, in which the houses of the obnoxious officials were attacked and sacked, to secure the abolition of a system by which the proceeds of taxation were diverted from the service of the State to fill the pockets of venal and corrupt officials. In Amsterdam the spirit of revolt against the domination of the Town Council by a few patrician families led to serious disorders and armed conflicts in which blood was shed; and in September, 1748, the prince, at the request of the Estates, visited the turbulent city. As the Town Council proved obstinate in refusing to make concessions, the stadholder was compelled to take strong action. The Council was dismissed from office, but here, as elsewhere, the prince was averse from making a drastic purge; out of the thirty-six members, more than half, nineteen, were restored. The new men, who thus took their seats in the Town Council, obtained the sobriquet of “Forty-Eighters.”

The state of both the army and navy was deplorable at the end of the war in which the States had played so inglorious a part. William had neither the training nor the knowledge to undertake their reorganisation. He therefore sought the help of Lewis Ernest, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (1718-86), who, as an Austrian field-marshal, had distinguished himself in the war. Brunswick was with difficulty persuaded, in October, 1749, to accept the post of Dutch field-marshal, a salary of 60,000 fl. being guaranteed to him, the governorship of Hertogenbosch, and the right to retain his rank in the Austrian army. The duke did not actually arrive in Holland and take up his duties until December, 1750.

The prince’s efforts to bring about a reform of the Admiralties, to make the Dutch navy an efficient force and to restore the commerce and industries of the country were well meant, but were marred by the feebleness of his health. All through the year 1750 he had recurring attacks of illness and grew weaker. On October 22, 1751, he died. It is unfair to condemn William IV because he did not rise to the height of his opportunities. When in 1747 power was thrust upon him so suddenly, no man could have been more earnest in his wish to serve his country. But he was not gifted with the great abilities and high resolve of William III; and there can be no doubt that the difficulties with which he had to contend were manifold, complex and deep-rooted. A valetudinarian like William IV was not fitted to be the physician of a body-politic suffering from so many diseases as that of the United Provinces in 1747.


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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