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Netherlands - History

The history of Holland as a country begins with the story of how Holland actually became a country, because up to the 19th century Holland was just a river delta divided into various regions, most of which had their own governments. It was only on 29 March 1814 that the nation of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was born, under the rule of the Orange-Nassau family.

The name Netherlands, or Low Countries, has been given historically to the entire region around the waterways of the Rhine delta. Unlike many European countries, Dutch history is fairly clear-cut and continuous. While trying to understand the history of a country like Germany can be a colossal headache, as the modern "Germany" is such a recent creation, Dutch history is much easier to follow as there has been a clearly defined "Dutch" country for quite some time.

Geographically a difficult area to live, the ancient Netherlands had for its inhabitants Celtic and German tribes, one very important feature - safety. Its rivers, lakes, wetlands, and woods were impossible to cross for the invaders. It was only in the 1st century BC, that the ancient Roman Empire conquered the southern part of these lands establishing an important military post in Nijmegen. North of the today’s Netherlands remained not conquered nor even invaded. Under the Roman administration, prosperity grew for almost three hundred years.

This country, anciently inhabited by the Belgse or Belgic Gauls, was conquered by Julius Caesar, and continued in possession of the Romans till the decline of their empire. It was then occupied by the Franks, and, for a considerable time, formed part of the kingdom of Austrasia. It was then governed by counts or earls, and, at length, became incorporated in the circle of Burgundy In the Middle Ages, long before the Orange-Nassau family became Holland’s monarchs, Holland was divided into a great many counties and dukedoms. Later, the regions of Holland came under the rule of Spanish and Austrian lords.

As the Roman state got weaker, barbaric Germanic tribes started to invade the land. Most powerful of them, the Franks invaded the territory in the 5th century and brought the Christianity with them. By 800 today’s Netherlands was a part of the powerful Franks Empire of Charlemagne. It is in Nijmegen that Charlemagne built one of his palaces. Tradition says that Nijmegen was his favorite residence, while Aachen (today in Germany) was the empire’s capital.

During feudal times the territory of the Low Countries that eventually became "Holland" and "Belgium" was a collection of independent, self-governing provinces.

Holland is full of cities with histories that stretch back to ancient times. Holland’s most ancient cities are Maastricht and Nijmegen; Utrecht, Deventer, Middelburg and Stavoren have also been settled since the very early centuries of the common era. All this history can be seen in the architecture and culture of these splendid cities and towns. Amsterdam began its existence around the year 1000 and was first mentioned in recorded history around 1275. It was granted city rights by the bishop of Utrecht, Gwijde van Avesnes, around 1300. Through commercial good fortune, Amsterdam grew into Holland’s largest city; the seventeenth century, known in Holland as the Golden Century, brought enormous wealth, power and culture to Holland, especially Amsterdam. It was in this century that the city got its famous canals.

For the most part the cities and provinces in the area known as the Low Countries developed independently from the Ninth through the mid Fourteenth centuries. From 1363-1472 the area was gradually assimilated by four generations of the Dukes of Burgundy from Philip the Bold to Charles the Bold. Eventually the lands passed by marriage to the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Upon Charles's abdication in 1556 the lands reverted to his son Philip II of Spain. The Dutch provinces thus became part of the Spanish Empire.

This northern Calvinist area consisted of the seven provinces of Frisia, Groningen, Overijssel, Holland, Gelderland, Utrecht and Zeeland. The southern area, what is now know as Belgium, was predominantly Catholic, and included the provinces of Flanders, Antwerp, Hainault, Brabant, Namur, Liege, Limburg, and Luxembourg (Limburg is now part of the Netherlands and Luxembourg is an independent state).

In 1581, the Union of Utrecht proclaimed independence from Spain. The new nation suffered a series of reverses in the war, but finally in 1648 the Spanish recognized the sovereignty of the Republic. The Dutch Republic remained until 1794 at least nominally, under the power of the Austrian throne of Habsburg. With the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, at the conclusion of the Thirty Years War, the independence of the Republic of the United Provinces of the Netherlands was recognized.

It enjoyed a great degree of tranquility till Philip II king of Spain commenced a persecution of the protestants. A general insurrection ensued, and the Prince of Orange, great-grandfather of William III of England, retired into Holland, which, with the six adjacent provinces, entered into a league for their mutual defense, and, soon after, formed a republic, called the United Provinces of Holland.

Dutch history of the 17th and 18th Century can be an extremely confusing period. It was marked by a lot of political instability and intrigue, which can make it quite hard to follow. Despite all the war destructions and hardship, the Dutch continued expansion on the seas and discoveries of the new routes and lands. By the mid-17th century, the Republic was the biggest maritime power of Europe, and Amsterdam was the most important financial center of the continent. Naturally, wars about the domination on the seas with England and wars to resist growing power of France on the mainland followed.

Even knowing nothing about the centuries of bad blood between England and the Netherlands, the dictionary tells about it: Dutch courage (drinking until you feel brave), Dutch widow (a prostitute), Dutch bargain (one made while drinking), Dutch feast (one where the host is the first to get drunk), Dutch defense (a decoy defense), double Dutch (balderdash), in Dutch (in a difficult situation), I’m a Dutchman if… (I’ll be damned if…). Even today, when the wars of old have disappeared from memory, calling a frog a “Dutch nightingale” in England, or a dissonant choir as a “Dutch concert,” would be understood.

At the beginning of the 18th century, with the domination of the big absolutist empires of France, Austria, Russia, and Prussia on the continent, and United Kingdom on the sea, the demise of the tiny Dutch Republic began. An important economic factor was also the fall of Poland, which lost Ukraine to Russia and was not able anymore to supply grain to the Netherlands.

The southern provinces continued under Spanish Hapsburg rule until the death of Charles II in 1700. In cultural terms, the Low Countries are a dividing line in European history. Dutch and Flemish are Germanic tongues, while the French spoken by the Walloons of Belgium is a Romance language. Calvinism in Holland became a close and hostile neighbor to Roman Catholicism in Belgium.

The office of stadtholder was made hereditary in the family of the Prince of Orange. It was not until 1750 that William IV of Orange-Nassau was proclaimed hereditary stadtholder and the Oranges first claimed power. The southern provinces were successively under the domination of Spain, France, and Austria, till 1792, when the whole fell into the hands of the French. Holland maintained its independence, and rapidly increased in trade and affluence till 1793, when, after the French revolution, the National Convention declared war against this country, which fell an easy prey to the power of France.

The office of stadtholder was abolished, and the Batavian republic established. The Netherlands were also formed into a new state, called the Belgic republic. Holland was soon after erected into a kingdom by Bonaparte, and given to his brother Louis, who, offending him, was deprived of his dominions, which were then annexed to France; but no sooner had the allied powers gained an ascendancy, than the Dutch shook off the yoke and established their independence.

Since 1814, Holland is a constitutional monarchy; the Kind is the head of state, and together with the ministers forms the government. William I proclaimed himself King of the Netherlands on 16 March 1815 and sought to secure his family’s interests by introducing hereditary kingship.

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Page last modified: 13-05-2018 17:48:59 ZULU