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Rulers of the Dutch Republic? - What is a Stadtholder

Updated on September 8, 2013
Stadtholder-King William III of Orange, at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland, 1690.
Stadtholder-King William III of Orange, at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland, 1690. | Source

The Stadtholder is probably the most confusing thing about the Dutch Republic. Nothing similar can be found elsewhere, and even at the time most foreigners were utterly confused about how they functioned within the Dutch Republic. The Stadtholders were not rulers of the country as such. Technically, they were no more than civil servants, but that does not do justice to the crucial role they played as political and military leaders.

This article will give an overview of what the Stadtholders were and how they functioned within the Dutch Republic.

Stadtholders prior to the Dutch Republic

The office of Stadtholder originates in the period prior to the Dutch Republic. Before Dutch independence with the Union of Utrecht (1579) and the Act of Abjuration (1581), the seven provinces of the Dutch Republic were part of the realm of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Because it was so large, Charles could not personally rule most of his empire. He therefore appointed officials to rule in his stead; the Stadtholder. The term Stadtholder is derived from the Dutch ‘Stadhouder’. This word literally means placeholder. The Stadtholders were exactly that. They represented the absentee monarch, royal authority and ruled in the place of the emperor.

After the Act of Abjuration, however, royal authority was no longer acknowledged within the Dutch Republic. The Stadtholder really became unnecessary. Yet the office was not done away with, as might have been expected.

A political figure head

The last Stadtholder appointed by the monarch was Prince William I of Orange. William, instead of dutifully representing royal authority, had actually been one of the leaders of the Dutch Revolt which saw the country independent. Grateful for his leadership, the Dutch did not want to dismiss William from his position of authority. He was an important unifying symbol, the Pater Patriae, the ‘Father of the Fatherland’.

But there were also practical reasons to keep the Stadtholder. William was the ruler of Orange, a small but independent principality located in southern France. He was therefore a sovereign ruler in his own right. This was important. In sixteenth century Europe, noble birth and rank counted for everything. As a sovereign prince, William of Orange was the equal of kings and emperors. The newly formed Dutch Republic was ruled by an assembly of wealthy citizens, many of which were of common birth. With their Stadtholder, they had a nobly born figurehead, who could act for them in international diplomacy.

Another reason to keep the Stadtholder was the army. The Republic was fighting a war of independence, and command of its armies required an experienced general who could command respect. William of Orange was that person.

William was assassinated in 1584. The practical reasons for keeping a Stadtholder still stood however, and he was replaced by his son Maurice. By the time Maurice died in 1625, the office of Stadtholder had become a feature of the political system, and it was almost without question that the Princes of Orange would be appointed Stadtholder one after the other.

Stadtholder William V and his wife celebrated by the political elite of Amsterdam.
Stadtholder William V and his wife celebrated by the political elite of Amsterdam. | Source

Not rulers, but civil servants

Let’s take a more in-depth look at the place of the Stadtholder within the political system - this is where it can get somewhat confusing!

The most important thing to keep in mind: the Stadtholders were not the the rulers of the Dutch Republic. The country was formed out of a collection of seven provinces. Each provinces had a governing body, the Provincial States, which acted as something like a parliament. Sovereignty of the country was shared by these seven Provincial States. This means that each province ruled itself. That was the case in theory at least. In reality it was obviously not a very practical system. For the sake of being able to work together, there was also a national ‘parliament’, the States General. Each of the provinces would sent representatives to sit in the States General. This is where all the important decisions were made.

Before Dutch independence, the Stadtholder had been appointed by the monarch. Now, he was appointed by the Provincial States. In the same way, as the Stadtholder had been a royal official, he was now accountable to the States. Though nobly born and Prince of Orange, he was essentially a civil servant. He was not even a member of the Provincial States or the States General, and could not vote in either assembly.

Despite these limitations, the Stadtholder was still potentially very powerful. Although he could not vote, he could attend States’ meetings and present his opinions on any issue presented. He also had a strong influence in the election of magistrates, usually by choosing his preferred candidate from a list of nominees.

It is impossible to define the exact extent of the political power the Stadtholder had. Although he was limited in some ways by the political system of the Dutch Republic, there were a lot of possibilities to extent his influence. Much depended on the circumstances and the individuals, and some Stadtholders were far more powerful than others.

Coat of Arms of the Orange-Nassau family, to which most of the Stadtholders belonged.
Coat of Arms of the Orange-Nassau family, to which most of the Stadtholders belonged. | Source

How many Stadtholders? One, two, or seven?

Another confusing thing about the Stadtholders is that there was actually more than one. How many exactly depends on the date, but also on your interpretation of the question.

The Stadtholder was a provincial office. It’s been explained in the previous section that he was appointed by the Provincial States. This means that each province appointed their own Stadtholder. In theory, with seven provinces, you could have seven Stadtholders. In practice, there were never more than two, as most of the provinces tended to appoint the same person.

From the formation of the Dutch Republic and most of the seventeenth century, the Prince of Orange was Stadtholder in the provinces Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland and Overijssel. Friesland and Groningen appointed members of a different branch of William of Orange’s family (Nassau-Dietz, mostly). Because it was the wealthiest, Holland was by far the dominant province. Its Stadtholder was also the more powerful.

There are two stretches of time in the history of the Dutch Republic known as the Stadholdersless Periods (1650-72 and 1702-47). It is actually inaccurate to call them that, as it was only the provinces that commonly appointed a Prince of Orange that went without a Stadtholder during these years. There was always a Stadtholder in Friesland and Groningen.

The second of the so-called Stadtholderless Periods occurred after William III died without leaving any children in 1702. The principality of Orange would be inherited by the Nassau-Dietz family that were Stadtholders in Friesland and Groningen. This means that when a new Stadtholder was eventually appointed in the five other provinces, it was now the same person for the entire country. From then on to the end of the Dutch Republic, there would be one single Stadtholder.

Admiral-General

The princes of Orange were, aside from captain-general, also admiral-general. They never commanded the navy in person, however, focussing instead on the army, so their influence there was of much less importance.

Captain-General of the Union

William I had combined his role as Stadtholder with the command of the armies of the Dutch Republic. This too became a custom. The Republic was at war with one nation or another for most of its existence, and it was important that its armies were led by a single individual of experience and authority. The Princes of Orange fulfilled this role most of the time.

Aside from Stadtholders they were therefore appointed Captain-General of the Union - commander-in-chief of the Republic's armies. Their control over the army obviously gave the Stadtholders a significant boost to their political power. But because the soldiers were always paid by the States, there was a limit to this authority. If the States decided to keep the treasury locked, regiments would not be paid and would soon desert. In this way, the States could still curtail the influence of the Stadtholder.

The Stadtholder - Central to the history of the Dutch Republic

The stadholders were not the rulers of the Dutch Republic as such, but it cannot be denied they played a crucial role, both as political and military leaders. The extent of their power depended much on circumstances and the ability of individual. From William I, the Father of the Fatherland onwards, they played a central role in the history of the Dutch Republic - and their descendents are now the kings and queens of present day The Netherlands.

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    • Old-Empresario profile image

      Old-Empresario 3 years ago from Texas

      This was a fascinating read for me. I've always been interested in the Dutch Republic, but I never knew anything about it. I always assumed that the Stadholders were like a US President--Head of State and of Government. But it doesn't seem that way at all. I really need to learn more on this topic.

    • Cleio profile image
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      Cleio 3 years ago from Ireland

      I've encountered professional historians who lecture on the Dutch Republic who don't really know what a Stadtholder is, so you're in good company. I think the problem is that there's very little literature in English on the topic. Although Israel's 'History of the Dutch Republic' is excellent.

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