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The Princes of Orange: Stadtholders of the Dutch Republic

Updated on September 9, 2013

The history of the Dutch Republic is closely linked to the Princes of Orange. They served the country as stadtholders and military commanders from the very birth of the Republic in the sixteenth century until it ceased to exist when Napoleon invaded.

This hub gives a brief biography of each of the seven princes of Orange who have been stadtholders of the Dutch Republic.

Orange Family Tree

A beautifully decorated family tree of the Orange Dynasty. For a larger version that can be read more easily, see the original file on Wiki Commons:
A beautifully decorated family tree of the Orange Dynasty. For a larger version that can be read more easily, see the original file on Wiki Commons:
Prince William I of Orange
Prince William I of Orange | Source

William the Silent

Prince William I of Orange is nicknamed 'William the Silent'. The origins of the title are unclear. It most likely refers to his skill in diplomacy. He supposedly was reluctant to speak his mind openly.

William I of Orange (1533-1584)

William I was the eldest son of the Count of Nassau. When William's cousin Rene of Chalon died without children in 1544, he inherited the sovereign principality of Orange. It was a tiny territory, consisting of little more than a single city in southern France, but it was an independent country nonetheless. As its ruler, William joined the ranks of the highest nobility, which gave him a much more prestigious place in society.

The young, newly minted prince was sent to the court of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Brussels. The emperor would personally oversee William's education, which would include military and diplomatic training.

William was a favourite at court. Charles' successor King Philip II appointed him stadtholder of a number of the Dutch provinces. A stadtholder represented royal authority in the absence of the monarch. It was an extremely prestigious position.

From the 1560s onwards however, William became one of the leaders of the Dutch rebellion against Philip. The king declared William an outlaw, and in 1584 he was assassinated by Balthasar Gerards. By then he had already earned the title Pater Patriae, the father of the fatherland, of the new Dutch Republic. William I is still remembered by as such by the Dutch today.

Prince Maurice of Orange
Prince Maurice of Orange | Source

Maurice (1567-1625)

William I's son Maurice succeeded his father as stadtholder once he turned eighteen in 1585. The title was honourary at this point, as the Dutch provinces no longer recognised Philip II as their monarch. The Dutch decided to continue the tradition of appointing a stadtholder. The Princes of Orange, as sovereign monarchs in their own right, were ideal figureheads for the fledgeling state and could function as a unifying symbol. They also served as captains-general of the union, that is, commanders-in-chief of the armies of the Republic.

Maurice had a great talent for military tactics. He studied Roman tactics and used them to reorganise the Dutch army. Many of his military innovations would be copied by other generals throughout Europe. He would spend his life at war against the Spanish.

Prince Frederic Henry of Orange
Prince Frederic Henry of Orange | Source

Frederic Henry (1584-1647)

Maurice had no children upon his death - no legitimate ones anyway. The stadholderate therefore was bestowed on another of William I's sons, Maurice's half brother Frederic Henry.

If anything, Frederic Henry was even more successful in his command of the Dutch army than Maurice had been; a talent for military tactics clearly ran in the family. He was particularly good at siege tactics; he earned the nickname stedendwinger, which roughly translates as forcer or conqueror of cities.

Like his predecessor, Frederic Henry would spend his entire life fighting the Spanish. The Peace of Munster was only concluded the year after his death in 1647

Prince William II of Orange
Prince William II of Orange | Source

William II (1626-1650)

The next stadtholder was Prince William II.

When the Eighty Years’ War finally concluded a year after he was appointed, the governing body of the Dutch Republic, the States General, wanted to reduce the number of regiments they employed; keeping a large army was very expensive and no longer necessary. The new stadtholder was opposed to the measure, not in the least because much of his power was derived from his control over the army. The dispute between William and the States General rapidly escalated, and in 1650, the prince threatened to lay siege to Amsterdam. The situation was only resolved without civil war because William suddenly died.

William II's actions meant that the Oranges lost a lot of their popularity within the Dutch Republic. In addition, for the first time the country was not actively at war. The States General decided they would therefore not appoint a new stadtholder. In any case, William II's son, William III, was born only after his father's death. Obviously, a baby was not suited be stadtholder and command the army. The Dutch Republic thus entered into the first Stadtholderless Period (1650-1672).

Prince William III of Orange - The Stadtholder-King
Prince William III of Orange - The Stadtholder-King | Source

Louis XIV and Orange

Louis XIV and William III of Orange were sworn enemies. It is therefore not surprising that the French king annexed the principality in 1672. The city Orange was located in France after all. William III and his descendants continued to use the title prince of Orange, but it had essentially become an empty claim on a principality that no longer existed.

William III - The Stadholder-King (1650-1702)

Although he was excluded from the office of his ancestors, the young Prince WIlliam was raised to be a leader. His mother, Mary Stuart, the English princess royal, ensured he received a comprehensive education that included politics, diplomacy, military tactics and religion. She rightly expected that her son’s fortunes would sooner or later change.

In 1672, the Dutch Republic found itself at war with France. The armies of French King Louis XIV invaded the country and were able to march more or less unopposed nearly to the capital Amsterdam. In these circumstances, the Dutch Republic once again needed a prince of Orange to lead its armies, and William III was offered the positions of stadtholder and captain-general.

Under his leadership, the French were soon turned back, though not defeated. As most of his ancestors had spent their lives fighting the Spanish, William III would dedicate his life to the struggle against Louis XIV.

William III became more powerful than any other prince of Orange had ever been before him, or ever would be again. His successes against France and his political talent allowed him to take control of the Dutch government. Then, in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, he also became king of England, Scotland and Ireland. Until his death in 1702, he would rule both the Dutch Republic and England at the same time.

Prince William IV of Orange
Prince William IV of Orange | Source

William IV (1711-1751)

William III had managed to take almost complete control of the Dutch Republic, both politically and military. Needless to say, the States General had not been particularly happy about it. Moreover, because he had also been king of England, William had been absent from the Republic for much of the time. As William had died without leaving children, it seemed the obvious choice not to appoint a new stadtholder, and the Dutch Republic entered into its second Stadtholderless Period.

The Second Stadtholderless Period ended for pretty much the same reasons as the first had. France invaded the southern Netherlands in 1747 and the Republic saw its own territory threatened.

The title prince of Orange had been inherited upon William III's death by his distant cousin, Johan William Friso of Nassau-Dietz. Johan died in 1711; the new prince of Orange was his son, William, who would become Stadtholder William IV in 1747.

William IV would divide the Republic as no other prince of Orange had done. The general population adored the stylish young prince in the prime of his life, the political elite feared he would gain too much influence. He had to contend with political opposition and struggled with the economic downturn the Dutch Republic entered while he was stadtholder. He made some poor decisions in his governance and struggled with the consequences. Only a few years into his stadholderate, William IV became sick, and although he consulted the best doctors of the time, he would die in 1751.

Prince William V of Orange
Prince William V of Orange | Source

William V (1748-1806)

William IV's son was only a few years old when his father died. Previously only adults could be made stadtholder, but in the mid-eighteenth century the stadtholderate had been made hereditary. This meant that although a regent had to be appointed, the toddler-prince became Stadtholder William V.

In 1766, William V reached majority and officially took on the duties of his office. The occasion was celebrated on a grandiose scale. Musical sensation Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, then only ten years old, was invited to perform for the prince.

William's stadholderate would not end well. In the 1780s, the Republic found itself in a disastrous war with England, and the stadtholder received much of the blame. It did not help that William was a heavy drinker and was indecisive. His power was slipping away as wearing orange was made illegal.

Early in 1795 the Republic was invaded by Napoleon's troops and the stadtholder fled to England. It was the end of the Dutch Republic and the end of the stadholders.

King Willem-Alexander, his wife, Queen Maxima, and their three daughters, including the Princess of Orange on the left.
King Willem-Alexander, his wife, Queen Maxima, and their three daughters, including the Princess of Orange on the left. | Source

The Orange kings and queens

Although the Republic and the office of stadtholder ceased to exist, the Orange dynasty endured. After Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, the Oranges would rule as kings and queens of the newly formed kingdom of the Netherlands. The current Dutch king is Willem-Alexander, who can trace is ancestry all the way back to Prince William I. The title prince or princess of Orange is now reserved for the eldest son or daughter of the reigning monarch; at the moment this is Princess Catharina-Amalia of Orange.

The Netherlands are a democracy, and the king does not have any real political power but rather serves a ceremonial purpose. Perhaps not surprising given their important role in history however, the Orange family continues to enjoy great popularity in The Netherlands.


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    • Cleio profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Ireland


      Thanks for your kind comments. I live in Ireland now, and most people here don't even seem to be aware that The Netherlands is a monarchy. William III of Orange is famous here due to his involvement in Ireland in the seventeenth century (I'm hoping to post a hub on that later), most people seem very surprised that his descendents are still around today.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 

      5 years ago

      You know, I have seen the Dutch royal family in the news here and there, and had no idea they were house of Orange! I think we in the US are so enamored of the UK royal family and we pay no attention to other royals of Europe. I find them all fascinating, so thank you for this informative hub. I will upvote and share on FB :-)


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