Dutch History for the non-Dutch

(Part 1) Before the foundation of the Netherlands (1 - 1581)


The Netherlands, literally meaning "the low countries", did not become an independent and recognised nation until the year 1648 AD. The Dutch at least those living in the northern parts of the Netherlands did not declare their independence until 1581 in what is called the Act of Abjuration (Plakaat van Verlatinghe). Throughout much of the period prior to the Golden Age much of the Netherlands were a part of various empires, including empires such as the Roman Empire, the Empire of Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire. Though one should not think this period before the independence was without troubles, or fights for independence of its own. Indeed it had seen a lot of strife throughout much of the history of the area that came to be known as the Netherlands. The difference is that the real war of independence that is now known as the Eighty Years War, for the first time resulted in a unified nation that ultimately was to be known as the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The Eighty Years War so called because it lasted 80 years, even though in reality there was a 12 year truce, so it should in fact be called the 68 years war, or something like that, but never mind I am straying from the main point, made it a unified and independent nation for the first time. Knowing that the Netherlands became an independent and unified nation does not tell you why that happened and this part among other things will explain the reasons why the Netherlands became an independent and unified nation. There are 4 basic reasons as to why the Netherlands became a small independent nation in the middle of Western Europe now situated between 3 great nations, namely France, Germany and the United Kingdom. These reasons have everything to do with the Economics, Politics, Religion and Geography of the Netherlands.

But first what is the Netherlands anyway? The area that is known as the Netherlands or the low countries is in fact much larger than the state of the Netherlands. It also includes Belgium and Luxembourg. The Northern part of the low countries seperated from the Spanish Netherlands known as the Seventeen Provinces. Prior to that the area was called Lotharinge in the Dark Ages and in Roman times it was simply known as a part of Germania, or the area where the Germanic tribes dwelt.

The Roman Era (1 - 450)

The area comprising the low countries (modern Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) was intially occupied by various Germanic tribes, chief among those tribes were the Frisians who lived alongside the coast of the Northsea (then known as Mare Frisia or Mare Germanica). Other Germanic tribes also established themselves in the area, including the Salian Franks, the Saxons and a tribe known as the Batavians. During the first and second century AD the Romans tried to occupy the whole area and were initially succesful.

The Romans managed to conquer the whole of the Netherlands for a very brief period in history, but lost the part north of the rivers like the Rhine and the Meuse soon after they had conquered it. The Roman Empire was keen to expand even further into Germania, but halted further expansion when the Romans suffered a huge defeat at the "Teutoburger Wald" in 9AD. No less than 4 roman legions were completely annihilated in the defeat at Teutoburg Forest and it is reputed that even the Roman Emperor himself cried out in distress in the Roman Senate at the loss of his 4 legions.

The Germanic tribes in the area had no love for money, they bartered for their goods. The arrival of the Romans facilitated trade and with Roman trade came currency. It was the Romans who introduced the love for money into the Netherlands. However with currency also came taxes.

The Frisians were not keen on paying high taxes (which consisted of paying cattle hides to a Roman procurator) and they basically hanged the tax collector when he came to collect the hides. Hence the Dutch expression "de huid wordt duur betaald" (hides do not come cheap), at least when it concerned the Roman procurator. Yes even then the Dutch were as frugal and thrifty as ever, they did not waste a good rope when they had it. But morbid humour aside, lets continue. The Batavians who settled in the area south of the Rhine-Meuse delta were however not so lucky and suffered a defeat when they rebelled against the Romans in 69AD and 70AD.

This rebellion, the hanging of the tax collector and the previous defeat at the Teutoburg Forest made the Romans decide not to expand any further into Germania and keep the river Rhine as their northern frontier. This situation continued for several centuries. This Roman frontier in the low countries was essentially peaceful, save for the occasional rebellion. Trade grew as a result and so did the population. Agriculture developed and made further inroads deeper into Germania. The Romans also founded frontiers towns like Utrecht, Nijmegen and Maastricht along the border of their empire.

However in later centuries the Roman Empire came into a period of decline that ultimately resulted in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The Eastern part endured much longer and became known as the Byzantine empire. Spurred on by this collapse of the Roman Empire was the movement of a whole lot of tribes into what used to be the Roman Empire.

The Dark Ages (450 - 800)

The collapse of the Roman Empire marked the beginning of the Great Migration period and later the Dark Ages. The Franks moved into what is now modern France (the country gets its name from the tribe) and the south of modern Belgium (an area roughly similar to modern Wallonia, or the French speaking part of Belgium), while the Batavians stayed put where they were. Some Frisians together with some Saxons (from modern Germany and the Netherlands), the Angles (from Northern Germany) and the Jutish (from Jutland in Northern Denmark) migrated to the now former Roman province of Britannia and conquered an area called Angeland named after the Angles tribe, which later became known as England. Meanwhile yet another Germanic tribe called the Burgundians moved from modern Germany into the eastern part of modern France in an area that is now appropriately known as Burgundy.

The sea level began to rise further during this time forcing the early inhabitants such as the Frisians to make man-made hills called "terpen", so they had high and dry ground during the regular floodings, so they could prevent themselves and their livestock from drowning. With a further population rise these "terpen" were no longer sufficient and the first dike is said to have been constructed at about 1000AD.

Frankish Realm (800 - 970)

Europe in the Dark Ages was deeply divided amongst various loosely affiliated tribes and small feudal states. A Frankish king named Clovis, converted to Christianity at about 500AD and he worked to defeat the Visigoths (one of the last remaining Germanic tribes whom still migrated). His subsequent successors expanded the realm of the Franks by conquest, the formation of alliances with other tribes, through marriage, and oaths of fealty by lesser nobility to the King of the Franks. Charlemagne inherited the realm of his Frankish predecessors and expanded his empire. In doing so, the Franks also conquered the Netherlands and introduced amongst other things Salic common law (the sole inheritance of all lands, titles, and finances to the oldest male heir) and Christianity (in this case Catholocism).

Prior to this, the inhabitants such as the Frisians were pagans and practiced a different form of kingship with elective support and exchange of gifts and had a seperate judicial branch.

This expansion into the Netherlands (during the 8th and 9th century) did not go smoothly for the Franks and the Franks suffered a number of initial setbacks. A Frisian King named Redbad reconquered the towns of Dorestad (formerly a Roman castellum) and Utrecht (a former Roman frontier town) from the Franks. The Irish saint named Boniface was murdered by Frisians at a place called Dokkum when he tried to christen the Frisians to the Christian and Frankish faith. He survived the initial blow made by a Frisian axeman, because he used the holy bible as a shield (Boniface was sanctified by the Catholic church for this, ahum, miracle), but was killed instantly by the second strike. Ultimately though the Frisian cause for independence was lost, because they were hugely outnumbered and because they lost the support of their key allies such as the Saxons (who were also defeated by the Franks). Another problem for the Frisians was that the Vikings began to make their first inroads into the rest of Europe and this may have helped to facilitate the growth of the Frankish empire.

When Charlemagne died, his realm was divided into 3 parts. The Western part became the kingdom of France, the Eastern part became the kingdom of Germany and the central part was called Lotharingen. The name is derived from an area, known today as the modern French departement Lorraine. Lotharingen consisted of the low countries and parts of modern France. The central part and the eastern part soon combined and formed an empire known as the Holy Roman Empire together with Switzerland and the north of modern Italy then known as Lombardy (named after yet another Germanic tribe the Lombards).

Holy Roman Empire (970 - 1384)

Although smaller than the empire of Charlemagne the Holy Roman Empire was nevertheless huge, but lacked a strong central government to govern the land. Government relied on powerful aristocratic dynasties to govern the land, to facilitate trade and to combat the ever restless Vikings, who by now were beginning to make their way as far as the island of Sicily and into huge tracts of Russia and even the great city of Constantinople. For the next few centuries powerful aristocratic dynasties vied for the land that came to be known, not as Lotharingen, but as the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands. To further the growth of trade within the empire, a number of free states with priviliges and free cities with city rights emerged. The construction of dikes and the expansion of the Hanseatic League saw the low countries grow enormously wealthy. The Frisians grew rich on trade of dairy products, while cities like Antwerp got enormously wealthy from the wool trade and the manufacture of cloth and linnen. This era also saw nobles such as the Count of Holland fighting in the crusades in the distant Holy Land.

Burgundian Netherlands (1384 - 1482)

Marriage, inheritance and conquest ultimately lead to much of the provinces of the Netherlands being ruled by the house of Burgundy. Only the provinces of Gelre ruled by the Duke of Gelre (Gelre corresponds roughly to the modern province of Gelderland) and Friesland ruled by the Frisians resisted the rule of the Burgundians. This age saw the emergence of Frisian freedom fighters like "Grutte Pier" Great Peter (socalled because of his height) who according to legends was incredibly strong (capable of pulling a plow on his own) and wielded a huge sword. Grutte Pier fought against the Count of Holland who ruled the province of Holland with the support of the Burgundians. Again the cause for freedom was lost because the Duke of Saxony supported by Holy Roman Emperor (and with the consent of the House of Burgundy) invaded the province of Friesland and brought an end to the quest for freedom. In the end the Duke of Gelre was forced to make peace with the Burgundians.

The Burgundians introduced amongst other things the "rekenkamer" (court of Audit) to calculate and collect taxes. The Burgundians settled the court of audit in Brussels and in Rijssel (now known as the French city of Lille). The "Generale Staten" States General (the precursor of the modern Dutch parlaiment) to govern the lands, which consisted of the delegates of counties such as Flanders, Holland, Zeeland, Namen (Namur) and Rijssel (Lille). The States-General or Estates-General held court at the court in the "Ridderzaal" (Knight's Hall) of the county of Holland at a place called Schravenhage from "des Graven's hage", which translates as the hague of the count. This place is nowadays known as the city (even though it never aquired formal city rights) of The Hague. Rijssel is nowadays known as Lille, as remember the northern part of modern France with cities like Lille and Dunkirk was then Dutch speaking territory and part of the Netherlands. A fact the French cannot appreciate for other historic reasons. The fact that this northern part of modern France was Dutch linguistic territory can still be seen today (just look it up in a phonebook) and up until a few years ago French television had a few French news anchors with a Dutch family name. Oh yes, it is such a strange and confusing world the French live in.

Habsburg Netherlands (1482 - 1568)

In later years the fortunes of the House of Burgundy declined and with the death of Mary of Burgundy in 1482 her young son Philip I of Castile (Castile lies within modern Spain) inherited all the titles including that of count of Holland, count of Zeeland and count of Flanders. This meant the emergence of a new dynasty in Europe, the dynasty known as the Habsburg Dynasty, named after Habsburg a place in Austria. The dynasty gave rise to the Habsburg empire and this dynasty consisted of two cadet branches, the Spanish branch and the Austrian branch. Both branches were short on funds and in huge debt because they had fought numerous wars. The Spanish and Portuguese branch was in debt because of the "reconquista", it had been fighting the Moors on the Iberian peninsula and in modern Morocco for decades, whilst the Austrian branch had been busy fighting the Ottoman empire. Such a serious financial situation could not go good for long and it ultimately did go wrong on many occasion. Charles V of Flanders for example declared himself bankrupt and so did Philips II of Spain. The Austrian branch was in a slightly less serious situation because its prime opponent the Ottoman empire had troubles of its own, such as Persia, Russia and the Arab tribes and because the Ottoman empire had to fight wars against notorious figures such as Count Dracula, who knew how to sink his teeth into a fight.

The problem was that Philips II needed money to further his fight against the muslims. Money that he did not have. The Iberian peninsula had almost no gold, because that region had been thoroughly mined and cleared of its minerals by the Romans. The region also had little trade, because the Mediterrean had no trade like during Roman times (remember the lands south of the mediterranean were now muslim held territory), except for maybe citystates like Venice and Genua and well the Ottomans could close off the spice trade any time they pleased, whenever they had war with the Austrians. So that situation did not help much. The main centre for trade in Europe besides Venice was the Baltic Sea where the Hanseatic League had their vessels. So the only good and stable source of income the king of Spain could get his hands on, was taxes and well fortune had it that he could tax a rich area that had grown wealthy on trade. That area just happened to be the provinces of Holland, Zeeland and Flanders inside the Netherlands. Now if you know your geography, then you know that France is stuck between the Spanish Netherlands and Spain and no king however great can be in two places at once, which left Philip II and the Habsburg dynasty with a problem. The solution they came up with was to appoint a Stadtholder (literally: Citykeeper) to govern the land and have the Court of Audit deal with taxes.

Yet another solution to the problem was to find an alternative route to get spices so that they did not need to trade with the Ottoman Empire. Hence you get explorers like Columbus trying to find another route to India (except oh well he ended up in the Americas by accident).

This situation marked the beginning of a new age for the Netherlands and four major reasons caused the people of the Netherlands to go headlong against their ruler, the King of Spain.

A. The Age of Exploration (Geography)

The discovery of the Americas and the circumnavigating of Africa had consequences for the Hanseatic League. Now the centre of European trade shifted from the Baltic Sea to the Northsea, which was closer to the Atlantic Ocean and hence closer to the New World. A move advantageous for the southwest of the Netherlands, but disadvantageous for the north.

B. The Decline of the Hanseatic League (Economics)

The herring spawn grounds also moved to the Northsea from the Baltic sea. Lubeck the chief city of the League relied on trade of salted fish which was the diet for many ordinary Europeans during vasting (catholic Europeans that is, for it did not concern protestants). These two moves together with the reformation dealt a cripling blow to the Hanseatic League, whose fortunes were steadily declining. For the Spanish Netherlands and England this decline of the Hanseatic League was a very good thing, because it meant these states could set up their own monopolies, which they did. Holland eventually had a monopoly on sugar in Denmark for instance.

Aside from the decline of the Hanseatic League there were also factors that contributed to the flowering of trade, industry, the arts and the sciences in the Netherlands during the Golden Age. A necessary condition was the supply of cheap energy from windmills and from peat, easily transported by canals to the cities. The invention of the sawmill enabled the construction of a massive fleet of ships for worldwide trading and for defense of Dutch interests by military means.

C. The Reformation (Religion)

The Danish royal family had such a sweettooth that it went in debt. Sure there were other causes, but the sugar certainly did not help the Danes either. To relieve himself of his debtors the King of Denmark converted to the Lutheran faith and became a protestant. Some German Princes did the same thing and also converted to the Lutheran faith. England already had become a protestant nation earlier when Henry VIII, unable to have a male heir (remember the Salic law) with his wife had to divorce his wife to declare his bastard son Edward IV as his heir. A move that ultimately failed and meant the rise of the church of England and lead to ascendency of the throne of Queen Elizabeth I.

Meanwhile France and Switzerland saw the emergence of John Calvin and his Huguenots, which led to a civil war within France, that seriously weakened the French state. The Huguenots lost the civil war and many were forced to flee to a more a tolerant and less restrictive environment. Such a free and tolerable situation just happened to be found in the Netherlands. Remember the Netherlands was not fully within the grasp of the authority of the King of Spain.

Protestants were not the only ones that sought refuge, fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition were Jews like the philosopher Spinoza who fled from Portugal to Amsterdam. Protestants, Catholics and Jews were all living alongside eachother doing their business and their trade. The Netherlands were experiencing a great economic boom period, further facilitated by the fact that the main competitor of the Dutch (the Hanseatic League) was declining. Dutch literature, map making, ship building all were blossoming enterprises. Jewish merchants made gigantic fortunes in the ruby and diamond trade in Antwerp. Amsterdam was busy building more and more ships with Swedish timber. German migrants who had previously worked in towns like Kallstadt near busy Hanseatic trade routes, were migrating to the Netherlands to find new enterprising careers in the shipping industry. Even Tsar Peter the Great of Russia knew he had to be in the Netherlands during the Golden Age to learn all about shipbuilding.

The Netherlands thus intially were a Catholic country amidst many Protestant neighbours. The problem was that the King of Spain Philip I formed the council of Trent in 1559 and issued a counter-reformation. He legally defined protestants as heretics and heresy was a capital offense. The Grandees of the Estates General who formed the day to day goverment of the Netherlands engineered a recall of Cardinal Granvelle (the chief counter-reformer in the Netherlands) under the leadership of William of Orange in 1564. He persuaded the council to ask for moderation of the socalled placards. When this recall failed in 1565 it fanned the flames under a already hotly debated political issue.

D. The Seventeen Provinces (Politics)

Governing the masses of various people who seemed to have come from all over Europe was the Stadtholder and various low nobility who came together in the Estates General at the Hague to discuss political matters. They were forced to collect the ever increasing taxes on the people, so that the King of Spain could wage his war on the infidels (in this case the muslims, although some protestants and jews reckoned it included them too). There was silver to be found in the mines of the new world (modern Mexico had a vast amount of silver), Africa could be circumnavigated too. The problem was that all of this took time and Philip II needed money urgently. The easy way out was to collect more taxes. The population in the Seventeen provinces, especially the North grew ever more impatient on the increasing demands of the king. The Stadtholder and many of the lower nobility were in no mood to help the King of Spain. Some may have symphatised with the protestants, some may have been unhappy with imposing impopular measures such as the Spanish Inquisition and noone was happy with more taxes, whatever the reason the lower nobility and the people increasingly grew to resent King Philips II. This resentment would lead to open revolt.

Continue to PART 2