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The Netherlands under Charles V

Charles V succeeded his father Philip the Handsome as ruler of the Low Countries in 1506. His predecessors had tried to unite the loosely connected territories. Charles V completed this task. In so doing, he laid the foundations for a prosperous, centrally governed state.

Charles was a mere six years old when he inherited the Low Countries. His aunt, Margaret of Austria, was charged with governing the Netherlandish regions. She was a highly cultivated and politically aware individual, and maintained her court in Mechelen. Charles V was given majority in 1515 and took over from her. Though not for long. In 1517 Charles left for Spain to assume the crown and Margaret once again became regent of the Netherlands.


William of Orange

William of Orange, stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht, played a key role in the Dutch Revolt – at the onset of the Eighty Years War – and the advent of the Dutch Republic. As the prince of Orange he took military and political charge of the rebellion, yet it was his ability to serve as a focus for unity in the chaos of war that proved his decisive contribution.

When Philip II, whose titles included the counties and dukedoms of the Low Countries, sent the Duke of Alva with an army to crack down on the mobs ransacking Catholic churches, William of Orange fled to Germany. The Council of Troubles which Alva set up to deal with the agitators, decided to pursue William of Orange too. He was prosecuted and all his property in the Netherlands and abroad was impounded. This was a hostile move against the prince in person. It gave the prince the excuse he needed to launch his insurrection against Alva. In Germany he looked around for support from Protestant rulers. He received only limited funding however, and found himself hiring German mercenaries at his own expense.

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Trade with the East

To spread risk evenly and to regulate the trade with Asia, the Dutch established a company: the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Within a few years, it had bases throughout Asia.

Founded in 1602, the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) flourished and survived for two centuries. The company, a combination of commercial organisations in various cities of Holland and Zeeland, traded both in Asia and between Asia and Europe. It was the first public company to issue negotiable shares and it developed into one of the biggest and most powerful trading and shipping concerns. The VOC ran its own shipyards, the largest being in Amsterdam. This spectacular trade with Asia made the Dutch Republic the world’s key commercial hub.


Trade with the West: WIC

The Dutch West Indies Company (West-Indische Compagnie or WIC) started as a company of privateers. Its ships attacked enemy vessels and stole cargos, or indeed the entire craft. This was authorised by the States General as part of the war against Spain, and letters of marque sanctioning these attacks were issued to the WIC. Later, the WIC developed into a trading monopoly organising commerce with North and South America.

The Dutch West Indies Company (West-Indische Compagnie or WIC) was founded in 1621. According to its charter, issued by the States General, the organisation was set up to trade with territories west of the Cape of Good Hope: along Africa’s west coast, North and South America. Yet the WIC was more concerned with plundering Spanish ships. The Dutch were especially tempted by the massive Spanish treasure fleet that carried its precious cargo each year from the New World to Europe. The first attempt in 1626 failed, but in the following year the Dutch succeeded.


Amsterdam’s Prosperity

In the 17th century, Amsterdam experienced unprecedented growth and affluence. The city developed into a metropolis in just a few years, becoming the world’s staple market.

Around 1600 trade, shipbuilding and industry were flourishing in Amsterdam as never before. This attracted new immigrants. People who were persecuted for their religion in their own country found refuge in the Republic. Many of these migrants contributed to the growing affluence of the country. All these people needed somewhere to live. Amsterdam still retained its late mediaeval shape and area, surrounded by a perimeter canal. It was not permitted to build beyond this, although of course some houses were constructed. The city was bursting at the seams; there was no space for more. In 1613, the city launched a series of expansions and renovations, extending its boundary.




Of the many migrants who began to arrive in the Dutch Republic from the late 16th century, the Sephardi Jews of Spain and Portugal and the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe were the most noticeably different. Here they found the freedom to practice their faith as they wished.

In the mid-17th century, toleration was raised to the level of right. In 1670, work started on a major new Portuguese synagogue. A prominent location was selected, on today’s Mr Visserplein. It was a gigantic structure that dominated the neighbourhood: a Jewish cathedral. The Esnoga is still a functioning synagogue and retains its original 17th-century interior.

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The War of the Spanish Succession

In 1700, Spain’s king Charles II died. Having no children, he had stated that the French king Louis XIV’s grandson should inherit the throne, as long as Spain remained sovereign. Britain and the Dutch Republic opposed the idea of a Franco-Spanish power block. And they went to war to prevent it.

When war broke out, the Republic’s stadholder, William III, was also king of England. Naturally, the two countries would be expected to pursue a joint political and military policy. They concluded a Grand Alliance with the Habsburg empire, Prussia and various German principalities. Gradually, a military force was assembled and in 1702 the army was ready to fight its first battle. In that same year, William III suddenly died following a riding accident. He left no children. The States of Holland took the opportunity to leave the position of stadholder vacant, and it remained vacant for many years.

In the first year of the war the Grand Alliance won a significant victory. An Anglo-Dutch fleet cornered the Franco-Spanish fleet in the bay of Vigo and captured a huge amount of gold, silver and treasure.


Patriots vs Orangists

In 1781, a new political movement of discontented burghers became increasingly vociferous in the Republic. They called themselves Patriots, to show their love of country, and aimed to restore the Republic to its former power and glory. Their concerns were greater individual freedom and the rights of man. Power, which had accrued to the stadholder and aristocracy, should lie with the burghers.

In the night of 25 to 26 September 1781, an anonymous pamphlet was distributed around the country. It was addressed ‘To the People of the Netherlands’ and called on burghers to demand their rightful part in the government of town and country. Later, it emerged that it had been written by a nobleman in Overijssel, Joan Derk van der Capellen tot den Pol.

The call signalled the start of a Patriot revolution against corruption, cronyism and other abuses. One of the leaders was Cornelis (Kees) de Gijselaar of Dordrecht and this gave rise to a pejorative for the Patriots – ‘kezen’ – while they in turn proudly wore badges showing a keeshond (barge dog). Opponents chided ‘In this century of mad dogs, it’s an honour to be crazy.’

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King William I and Waterloo

After the fall of the Napoleonic Empire, William Frederick, prince of Orange, was invited to rule the country. He was the son of the previous stadholder, William V.

Sunday morning, 21 November 1813, marks a crucial moment in Dutch history. On behalf of the prince of Orange – then living in England – a provisional government was created to reassume power from the French. This ‘Hoog Bewind’ consisted of Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp, Frans Adam van der Duyn van Maasdam and Count Leopold of Limburg Stirum, and convened in the home of the plan’s initiator, Van Hogendorp, on the Kneuterdijk in The Hague.


The Belgian Revolution

Fifteen years on, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands found itself in a deep crisis. Criticism of King William I’s authoritarian rule grew, primarily in the South. The Belgians revolted in 1830, and created their own state in November 1831.

The far-reaching meddling of the Protestant William I irritated various groups in the South, including the Catholics, the French speakers, and the Liberals. However, imminent revolt was still out of the question. This changed after the July Revolution in France of 1830, which saw the overthrow of the French king. Soon thereafter, incidents also broke out in the Southern Netherlands, beginning in Brussels.

The king sent both his sons to Brussels, but to little avail. A truce was ultimately negotiated, after which a long period of political bickering ensued. William I refused to meet the demands of the Belgians, making secession inevitable. In a final attempt to have his way, he deployed the army one more time, part of which was already stationed in Rijen in the province of Noord-Brabant. It crossed into Belgium, at Poppel, on 2 August 1831.


Thorbecke and the constitution

In 1844 King William II had resolutely vetoed proposals for amending the constitution. The times were changing, however. Revolution was sweeping across Europe. Absolute monarchs were no longer tolerated. William II had to give in.

Throughout Europe, 1848 was a revolutionary year. In France the king abdicated and the French republic came into being. There were also incidental disturbances in the Netherlands. Because of these events, on 13 May 1848 King William II announced that he would work on a fundamental amendment of the constitution. The conservative government resigned. William II claimed he had changed from being extremely conservative to extremely liberal in 24 hours. Thorbecke and a few other Liberals were ordered to make a proposal for amending the constitution. This resulted in the constitution of 1848. It gave the ministers ‘ministerial responsibility’ and the king total immunity. The Netherlands became a constitutional monarchy. Parts of the constitution have subsequently been revised on numerous occasions. However, the constitution of 1848 remains the basis for the for.


Abolition of slavery

In 1863, slavery was made illegal in Surinam and the Antilles. In the Dutch East Indies, this had been achieved with a little less fanfare the previous year. The Dutch were among the last to abolish slavery. After Denmark in 1803, Britain in 1834 and France in 1848, the many thousands who worked on the plantations in the Dutch West Indies were finally released.

The abolition of slavery in British Guyana in 1834 caused an upheaval among people who had little hope of release in the neighbouring district of Nickerie in Surinam. The Dutch authorities reinforced the garrison and took precautionary measures. Even so, rebellion erupted in 1837. Unrest spread to sugar, coffee and tobacco plantations elsewhere in Surinam and some people attempted to escape.

Protests were not unusual on plantations in the West Indies colonies, and they were brutally suppressed. Already in the 18th century small communities had formed in the forests of Surinam of people who had escaped and who regularly raided nearby plantations. While those who had rebelled at Nickerie in 1837 were severely punished, others were rewarded for remaining obedient. This medal was given to George of Leasowes plantation ‘for his proven loyalty to legitimate authority during the disturbances among the slaves in Nickerie’.


Social unrest

Amid the rise of industry and the growth of towns in the second half of the 19th century, life was often wretched for the working classes. Many worked twelve or more hours a day, women and children too. The conditions in which people lived and worked in the towns were often appalling. Workers soon combined to form unions to campaign for change.

It was a Liberal member of parliament, Samuel van Houten, who in 1874 initiated legislation to stop children under twelve being employed in factories. This was the first step on the road to reform. Yet abuses continued: inspections to ensure the law was obeyed were sporadic and child labour remained on farms and in cottage industries. Van Houten’s law was the first piece of social legislation in the Netherlands. Later, the Labour Law of 1889 and its updated version in 1911 regulated the hours that women and children could work, as well as men. A major contribution to the prevention of child labour was the introduction of compulsory schooling in 1901.

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Second World War

On 10 May 1940, German troops invaded the Netherlands. In the years that followed over 100,000 Dutch Jews were murdered by the Nazis in concentration camps. While some Dutch people collaborated with the Germans, there were others who resisted. In the Dutch East Indies, the war began with the Japanese invasion of Java in March 1942. The Japanese imprisoned some of the Dutch and mixed race population in internment camps where conditions were appalling.

The battle for the Netherlands lasted five days. German paratroopers tried to capture the government precinct in The Hague directly in the morning of 10 May 1940, but failed. Other assaults from the air succeeded. Within hours of entering the country, German troops had taken control of the northern provinces. The Dutch army took up a defensive position in the hills of Utrecht province near Grebbeberg and at Kornwerderzand at the end of the Afsluitdijk in Friesland. There the fighting was intense. After the Grebbeline fell on 13 May and the centre of Rotterdam was destroyed in an air raid on 14 May, surrender was inevitable. In May 1940, around 2,200 Dutch soldiers lost their lives and 2,700 were wounded. Civilian casualties stood at around 2,000.



Postwar recovery

In the years following the Second World War a miracle occurred in the Netherlands: despite the high birth rate, unemployment fell and the economy grew at an astonishing pace. No one had to miss out on the new prosperity in the 1960s. For those unable to provide for themselves, the welfare state set up under Willem Drees offered support. At the same time, the social divisions and loyalties that had marked prewar society lost their importance.

A key contribution to the recovery in postwar Netherlands came from the American government. Secretary of State George Marshall’s aid plan provided Europe with funds, goods, raw materials and produce. From 1948 to 1958, the Dutch government was a coalition of Catholic and social democratic parties (KVP and PvdA). Under the socialist prime minister Willem Drees the country recovered. Everyone was expected to play a part. The Netherlands was the only country in Western Europe where wages hardly rose at all. This gave the economy a competitive edge over its rivals. Employer organisations worked closely with unions representing the workforce.


Youth culture

The 1960s was a revolutionary period. Young people rebelled against the establishment, they became politically active, experimented with sex and drugs and listened to new, exciting music such as rock ’n’ roll. People began to abandon the religious structures that had once provided the form and content of their lives.

A key contribution to the recovery in postwar Netherlands came from the American government. Secretary of State George Marshall’s aid plan provided Europe with funds, goods, raw materials and produce. From 1948 to 1958, the Dutch government was a coalition of Catholic and social democratic parties (KVP and PvdA). Under the socialist prime minister Willem Drees the country recovered. Everyone was expected to play a part. The Netherlands was the only country in Western Europe where wages hardly rose at all. This gave the economy a competitive edge over its rivals. Employer organisations worked closely with unions representing the workforce.


European Union

After the Second World War, countries in Europe saw the benefit of greater cooperation. It made economic recovery easier and discouraged the discord of previous years. In 1958, the six-member European Economic Community (EEC) established a tariff-free common market. This developed into the close cooperation of the European Union (EU) with its 27 members and a common currency: the euro.

In 1957, the three Benelux countries and Germany, France and Italy signed the Treaty of Rome, forming the European Economic Community (EEC). This customs union guaranteed free trade on all products within the region. The EEC also pursued a common agricultural policy and set up a European atomic energy community (Euratom) to develop peaceful nuclear technology. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the EEG and Euratom eventually merged to form an expanded European Community (EC). After the Treaty of Maastricht was agreed in 1992, this expanded yet further and became the European Union (EU). Eventually it encompassed 27 countries, with constantly increasing areas of cooperation. A European constitution was proposed. Its ratification would seal the replacement of the European Community by the European Union. However, France and the Netherlands rejected the proposal in national referendums.

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