Any country has some dates in its history on which politics and violence come together. Political murders are a rare phenomenon in Dutch history. Willem van Oranje, leader of the Dutch Revolt in the sixteebnth century, was assasinated in Delft on July 10, 1584. The brothers Johan and Cornelis de Witt were lynched by a mob in The Hague on August 20, 1672 which held them responsible for the French occupation of the Dutch Republic. In recent years my country has witnessed the assasinations of politician Pim Fortuyn (May 6, 2002) and movie director Theo van Gogh (November 2, 2004). Last week solicitor Derk Wierum was shot brutally in front of his home in Amsterdam. Alas it was not the first time in this century a Dutch lawyer was shot, but the death of a solicitor defending a crown witness is an assault on the rule of law and justice.
In the list of Dutch historical figures who became a victim of violence you will find also a lawyer and statesman sentenced to death after a political trial. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt (1547-1619) clashed with prince Maurits, the son of William of Orange. I hesitated to deal here with yet another commemoration based on rounded years, but at last I visited an exhibition in his home town Amersfoort. I looked at some historical spots and archival records, and I will briefly mention some recent publications about Oldenbarnevelt.
A matter of choices
In the lovely old inner city of Amersfoort near Utrecht Museum Flehite has organized the exhibition Johan en Maurits. Van vriend tot vijand [John and Maurits, from friends to enemies]. The exhibition opened on May 13, 2019, exactly four hundred years after the execution of Oldenbarnevelt on the inner court of the Binnenhof in The Hague, the premises of the Staten-Generaal, the governing body of the Dutch Republic. A life of service to the state he helped creating and unifying ended on the scaffold in a country sharply divided between his followers and those agreeing with prince Maurits Oldenbarnevelt had become a public enemy.
Van Oldenbarnevelt stemmed from a fairly average family in Amersfoort. His father was a merchant who acted also as a sequester, an official who took goods into his charge pending judicial proceedings. It is not known where Johan was born, but the house Bollenburg (Muurhuizen 19) where he lived for some time in later years still exists. The Muurhuizen, literally “wall houses” is nowadays a very picturesque street around the inner city with many beautifully restored medieval and Early Modern houses.
The information about his youth comes mainly form a single source, his own statement from 1619 about his life. The full biography on Oldenbarnevelt by J. den Tex [Oldenbarnevelt (5 vol., Haarlem-Groningen 1960-1972) warns for wanting to flesh out such information. After going in 1564 to The Hague to work for a barrister he studied between 1566 and 1569 in Louvain, Bourges, Cologne, Heidelberg and Padua. At Louvain his name was entered wrongly in the student register… In 1570 he became a barrister at the Hof van Holland. Two years later he went to Delft to work for the hoogheemraadschap (water control board) of Delfland. In 1576 he became the city pensionary of Rotterdam. Soon he was chosen also on committees of the States of Holland. After the death of William of Orange in 1584 he supported a transfer of power to his son Maurits. His activity, qualities and insights were duly noticed, for in 1586 he reached the two posts he would hold until his death, landsadvocaat (state solicitor) and raadpensionaris (grand pensionary) of Holland.
Much has been made of the personal differences between Maurits and Oldenbarnevelt. Up to the year 1600 they seemed to make a perfect match, Maurits as a prudent and most gifted tactical military leader, Oldenbarnevelt as the man of grand strategies. Thanks to their combined leadership the Dutch Republic grew from a very low point in the mid-eighties to an emerging European power. A campaign to deal with the pirates of Dunkirk led to a hard fought victory in 1600 on the beach of Nieuwpoort where Maurits won the day with some luck. The incident annoyed him a lot, because he had urged Oldenbarnevelt not to start this adventure.
In 1609 a truce for twelve years with Spain was reached. Oldenbarnevelt had personally supported François van Aerssen (1572-1641), the Dutch ambassador in France, until 1613 when he did not continue him in his function, Van Aerssen felt disappointed and soon became the personal advisor of Maurits. A prolonged debate about theological matters in the Dutch Republic, in particular about predestination, developed into a full political conflict about the relation between church and state. Maurits decided in 1617 to join sides in public by going to the church of Oldenbarnevelt’s opponents in the Kloosterkerk, next to Oldenbarnevelt’s home in The Hague. The way a national synod should convene at Dordrecht and settle these matters was another matter of disagreement. In several cities riots broke out. In August 1617 Oldenbarnevelt forced the States of Holland in issuing an ordinance permitting individual cities to raise mercenaries to protect citizens. Citizens were not allowed to appeal to the Court of Holland, and soldiers had to obey only the orders of the States of Holland, not those of their commander Maurits. The very balance of power in the Dutch Republic between the individual provinces, the States General and the stadhouder was at stake, and also the adherence to the principles of government laid down in the Union of Utrecht (1579). Oldenbarnevelt favored a situation where towns and provinces could decide themselves on the admission of religious movements, and more specifically he wanted space and tolerance for those who did not join the Reformed protestant majority.
Maurits’ role in the events from 1617 until 1620 is nowadays much clearer than for Den Tex. J.G. Smit could edit 120 letters by Maurits held since 1862 at the Koninklijk Huisarchief [Royal Archive] in The Hague [‘Prins Maurits en de goede zaak : Brieven van Maurits uit de jaren 1617-1619’, in: Nederlandse historische bronnen I, A.C.F. Koch, J.G. Smit and A. Kersten (eds.) (The Hague 1979) 43-173; online, Digitale Bibliotheek der Nederlandse Letteren]. These letters show clearly how Maurits worked slowly but steadily against Oldenbarnevelt after the resolution of August 1617. A year later, after more riots, forced changes in city government and above all the dismissal of the waardgelders in several towns Maurits had Oldenbarnevelt and his chief supporters, one of them Hugo Grotius, arrested on August 29, 1618. Maurits was in contact with some of the men who were later on chosen to judge Oldenbarnevelt.
It is wise to refer here also to the analysis by Jonathan Israel in is major study The Dutch Republic. Its rise, greatness, and fall 1477-1806 (Oxford 1995) of what happened in this year. Finding a legal reason for arresting Oldenbarnevelt might not have been particularly difficult, but on whose authority the arrest had to be done was certainly unclear, as was the choice of a tribunal and the judges. In the end they were chosen from both Holland and the other Dutch provinces. The trial dragged on for months. In the end the verdicts surprised many people. Grotius and Hogerbeets were sentenced to life imprisonment, but Oldenbarnevelt was sentenced to death, with the execution already following the next day, May 13, 1619. Maurits had ignored pleas for leniency towards Oldenbarnevelt. He did not attend the execution and an eyewitness report troubled his mind severely.
Some telling objects
The exhibition in Amersfoort is rather small, but the role of pamphlets and broadsides is made quite clear. The verdict on Oldenbarnevelt was quickly printed and published in several languages. Some of the items on display are most telling. The walking stick of Oldenbarnevelt is perhaps the most famous item associated with any Dutch historical figure. A poem by Joost van den Vondel immortalized both its owner and the stick. Another item is rather grim. The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden recently acquired a sword which belonged to the German executioner Hans Pruym who worked for the city of Utrecht, the very man who decapitated Oldenbarnevelt. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has another sword said to have been used for the execution of Oldenbarnevelt (object no. NG-NM-4245), inscribed with a poem, but there is no provenance record of it before 1745. The story of Oldenbarnevelt’s captivity has long been known partially from a deposition by his servant Jan Francken, edited by Robert Fruin, ‘Verhaal der gevangenschap van Oldenbarnevelt, beschreven door zijn knecht Jan Francken’, Kroniek van het Historisch Genootschap, 6th series, part 5 (1874) 734-785 (online, Hathi Trust Digital Library). This year the original diary long held in private possession finally became visible to the public. It has been shown at the Museum De Gevangenpoort, a prison museum just outside the Binnenhof in The Hague, and is now on display at Museum Flehite.
This engraving has become famous for many reasons. Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen discussed it in their study The bookshop of the world, reviewed here earlier this year, as the very work which laid the foundation for the success of Broer Jansz., a publisher in Amsterdam who succeeded in very quickly publishing this powerful picture. At Museum Flehite it is literally used as a background picture on a wall. These years saw a flood of pamphlets about and more often against Oldenbarnevelt. Fake news was created, too, to undermine his position. A number of these pamphlets has been put on display at Museum Flehite. The death of Oldenbarnevelt was not the end of the political strife. A few years later two of his sons prepared a coup, but they were quickly unmasked and severely punished. This did not help to put Oldenbarnevelt and his party in favorable light. The conflict helped to create a fundamental division in the Dutch Republic between those supporting the Oranje family and those supporting the cities and their governing class.
A quick look at recent publications about Oldenbarnevelt leaves me with sometimes mixed feelings. Jan Niessen, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt 1547-1619, vormgever van de Republiek (Utrecht 2019) is rather short. The translation of Jan Francken’s diary by Thomas Rosenboom does some service in retelling his story in modern Dutch [Het einde van Johan Oldenbarnevelt, beschreven dor zijn knecht Jan Francken (3rd ed., Amsterdam 2019)], but a new edition of the text from the original diary which surfaced this year is necessary. The book of Ben Knapen, De man en zijn staat. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt 1547-1619 (7th ed., Amsterdam 2019) offers a political study of Oldenbarnevelt by a historian and politician. Broeders in oorlog, vijanden in vrede. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt en Maurits van Nassau, redders van de Nederlandse Republiek by Mike Hermsen (Zutphen 2019) focuses on the two statesmen and their contribution to the Dutch state, with a fine choice of illustrations. Wilfried Uitterhove’s De zaak Oldenbarnevelt : val, proces en executie (Nijmegen 2019) focuses not only on the final years, but also in particular on the documents concerning the trial. Ronald Prud’homme van Reine, Onthoofdingen in de Hofstad. De val van de Oldenbarnevelts (Amsterdam 2019) looks also at the plot of the two sons. Bollenburg, het huis van Oldenbarnevelt by Jojanneke Clarijs (Bussum 2017) appeared a few years earlier to commemorate the recent restoration of this house.
The main historiographical gap is still the lack of a full biography of prince Maurits on the scale of Den Tex’ work for Oldenbarnevelt. The study by J.G. Kikkert, Maurits van Nassau (Bussum 1985; 3rd ed., Soesterberg 2016) is very much in favor of Maurits. Arie van Deursen, Maurits van Nassau, 1567-1625. De winnaar die faalde (Amsterdam 2000) did not quite live up to high expectations. Some of the documents about Oldenbarnevelt’s life and the trial were edited already long ago, for example the questionings at the trial, Verhooren van Johan van Oldenbarnevelt (Utrecht 1850; online, Hathi Trust) and the Gedenkstukken van Johan van Oldenbarnevelt en zijn tijd, M.L.van Deventer (ed.) (3 vol., The Hague 1860-1865; online, Hathi Trust). The document on the left, an account of the costs for the trials against Oldenbarnevelt, Grotius, Rombout Hogerbeets and Gilles van Ledenberg, was edited by J.J. de Geer van Oudegein, ‘Onkosten der judicature van Van Oldenbarnevelt’, Kronijk van het Historisch Genootschap 17 (1861) 336-340 [online, Hathi Trust]. This account is now – together with yet another copy of it – one of the special items in the archival collection of castle Hardenbroek for which I am busy finishing a new and very extensive finding aid at Het Utrechts Archief.
Another element that for many years hampered scholars to do research on Oldenbarnevelt was exactly the fact his archive held at the Dutch National Archives was only fully described as late as in 1984 by H.J.Ph.G. Kaajan, Inventaris van het archief van Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, 1586-1619 (finding aid no. 3.01.14 (PDF), followed in 1987 by a finding aid for the Oldenbarnevelt family archive [H.J.Ph.G. Kaajan, Inventaris van het archief van de familie Van Oldenbarnevelt, (1449) 1510-1705) (finding aid no. 3.20.41 (PDF)]. Kaajan drily notes in his introduction Oldenbarnevelt’s handwriting was terrible. The modern edition of his state papers and family papers by S.P. Haak and A.J. Veenendaal, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. Bescheiden betreffende zijn staatkundig beleid en zijn familie 1570-1620 (3 vol., The Hague 1934-1967) can be consulted online, too.
Doing full justice to two historical figures can be seen as a metaphor, but in this case there are certainly spurs – both new objects and archival records – to delve again into the early history of the Dutch Republic which was shaped decisively by Maurits and Oldenbarnevelt. It is always a good sign when an exhibition makes you think again about its subjects and the objects put on display.