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The formation of the Dutch Republic

Updated on July 31, 2013

Map of the Dutch Republic

A map of the Dutch Republic as it was between 1559-1609.
A map of the Dutch Republic as it was between 1559-1609. | Source

During much of its existence the Dutch Republic was considered an enigma and an anomaly by contemporaries. Countries were typically governed by a hereditary ruler, and foreigners looked at the Dutch Republic not comprehending how the country worked. The key to the explanation lies in how the Dutch Republic came into existence. This hub will look at how the Dutch Republic was formed out of a collection of provinces, in a reaction against the rule of the Spanish-Habsburg king Philip II.

A personal union

This situation, where a group of nominally separate and independent territories is in practice ruled by the same person, is known as a personal union. In a time where rulers were hereditary and constantly intermarried, it was actually quite a common occurrence.

Charles V and the Seventeen Provinces

In 1543, the Low Countries were united under a single ruler for the first time. Through inheritance and marriage, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, became the lord of each of the seventeen provinces that roughly cover present day The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg.

It is important to note that Charles was not emperor or king of the Low Countries as such. The Low Countries were a collection of provinces, each with their own hereditary ruler; that ruler just happened to be the same individual in each province. Thus, Charles was Duke of Brabant and Count of Holland, Lord of Friesland and so on and so forth.

Philip II of Spain

Portrait by Alonso Sánchez Coello
Portrait by Alonso Sánchez Coello | Source

Philip II

When Charles abdicated in 1555, he divided up his empire. He dictated that the Dutch provinces should go to his son Philip, who would also rule as king of Spain.

Soon, there were increasing tensions between Philip and his Dutch subjects. There were a number of contributing factors. To begin with, the northern half of the seventeenth provinces had become largely Protestant. King Philip was a dedicated Catholic who sought to forcibly reverse the Reformation.

There were also economic considerations. The Low Countries, and especially Flanders, were relatively wealthy. Philip saw them as a source of income, and imposed heavy taxes. To make matters even worse, much of this income was used to fund wars against the Protestant nations of Europe.

Lastly, under Philip the centre of power moved from Brussels to Madrid. The Dutch nobility felt excluded as Philip favoured his Spanish court.

Philip's response to the troubles in his Dutch possessions was to sent the Duke of Alva and an army north. Alva, nicknamed the Iron Duke for his ironfisted suppression of any expression of dissatisfaction, only ended up making things worse in the long run, as the Dutch now went into full scale rebellion.

The Dutch Revolt

Philip's unwillingness to compromise in any way would strengthen the resolve of the Dutch opposition to his reign. The high ranking nobleman William, Prince of Orange became the leader of the insurgents. He remembered by the Dutch as the Father of the Fatherland. Although he would never be king himself, his descendant Willem-Alexander rules as king of The Netherlands today.

Eventually seven of the northern provinces unified in their protest against King Philip. Formalised in the Union of Utrecht (1579), this is generally considered to be the birth of the Dutch Republic.

Seven provinces? Or eight?

The provinces united in the Union of Utrecht were Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Friesland, Gelderland, Stad en Lande (Groningen), Overijssel and Drenthe. That actually adds up to eight, not seven. Drenthe wasn't counted as it was so poor that it was unable to contribute taxes and therefore received no vote in the newly formed independent country.

The formation of the Dutch Republic

Two years later, the rebellious provinces issued the Act of Abjuration. With this document, they declared to the world that they no longer accepted Philip II as their sovereign ruler. This was rather a big deal. In the sixteenth century mindset, monarchs were divinely appointed. To reject one could be interpreted as going against the will of God. To justify the Act of Abjuration, the Dutch declared Philip II a tyrant. The term abjuration, meaning to renounce or reject, was carefully chosen. The Dutch did not mean they renounced Philip; they argued that Philip had rejected them. As he was not fulfilling his responsibility as king, he could no longer claim to be sovereign lord.

After the Act of Abjuration, a number of candidates were considered as possible replacement hereditary ruler, but as no arrangement could be finalised which was agreeable to all parties, the seven provinces defaulted into forming a Republic instead.

The beginning of an era

The Dutch Republic then, was formed almost by accident. It was a reaction against the perceived tyranny of Philip II of Spain.

Of course, the story of the Dutch Republic doesn't end here - it is indeed only the beginning. Over the next few decades, the Republic would continue its war against Spain, while growing tremendously rich and powerful at the same time. I'll be publishing hubs on what happened next soon.

Read more

The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806 (Oxford History of Early Modern Europe)
The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806 (Oxford History of Early Modern Europe)

Israel's book on the Dutch Republic remains the standard work on the topic, at least in the English language. And rightly so; it's an excellent study. For more information on the formation of the Dutch Republic, chapters 7-10 are of particular interest.



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