Oldenbarneveldt, Johan Van (1547–1619)

views updated May 11 2018


OLDENBARNEVELDT, JOHAN VAN (15471619), Dutch statesman who laid the foundations of the Dutch Republic. Johan van Oldenbarneveldt was born into a patrician family at Amersfoort in the province of Utrecht in 1547. His father was a difficult man who never took the family place on the town council and who was surrounded by rumors about his notorious behavior. The young Johan nevertheless received the kind of education thought suitable for young members of the class of town councillors (the regents): he went to the local Latin school, was for some years the pupil of a lawyer in The Hague (the administrative center of the province of Holland), and spent four years abroad, studying law at the universities of Louvain, Bourges, and Heidelberg. These were decisive years that molded Oldenbarneveldt's character and views. His stay at The Hague introduced him into the world of politics and acquainted him with the work and mentality of councillors and lawyers. The study of law that followed reinforced these earlier experiences. Throughout his career Oldenbarneveldt was obsessed with justifying his political turns and innovations by means of texts, and he reduced problems to practical and legal issues. In a religious respect, these educational years also proved to be of lasting importance. In 1568, during his stay at Heidelberg, Oldenbarneveldt became a Calvinist.

Oldenbarneveldt returned from his grand tour in 1570 and went to The Hague to earn a living as an expert on feudal law and laws connected with dikes and drainage. It was a lucrative business. When, however, in the spring of 1572 the Dutch Revolt entered a new phase and one town after another in Holland and Zeeland took the side of the rebellious William I of Orange (William the Silent) and his adherents, Oldenbarneveldt decided to openly support the rebels' cause. Unsettled times followed, in which military and political events happened in quick succession. Oldenbarneveldt himself attracted attention because of his sheer competence in administrative issues and hard work. In 1576 he became pensionary, or legal advisor, of Rotterdam, and in March 1586 the States of Holland appointed him as their "advocate," a post that went back to Burgundian times but had gained greatly in importance since 1572. Not yet forty years old, Oldenbarneveldt was henceforth the principal figure in the States of Holland as well as their spokesman in the States General.

Lacking charm, tact, and adroitness, Oldenbarneveldt was never a charismatic personality. Contemporaries found him "very stiffe" or even "somewhat violent, imperious and bitter." But he was industrious, intelligent, and, above all, opportunistic. When he took office in 1586, the Dutch rebels found themselves in a lamentable situation, deprived of their assassinated leader William I of Orange, divided among themselves and half-conquered by Alexander Farnese, duke of Parma. Oldenbarneveldt, however, proved in his new position to be an outstanding statesman with a clear political objective: to organize an independent Dutch state with the province of Holland firmly in possession of all real power. In the following years he succeeded in driving the new governor-general of the Netherlands, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, away without losing the support of Queen Elizabeth I and in transforming the traditional Dutch institutions into efficient and flexible instruments of government. He thus not only managed to organize the new Dutch Republic in a more or less satisfactory way but also created the financial and political framework that allowed the young stadtholder Maurice of Nassau to achieve his decisive military victories of the 1590s. These safeguarded the frontiers and integrity of the new state. Realizing, however, the sharply escalating burden of military expenditure, Oldenbarneveldt tried from 1606 onward to bring the war to an end. With patience and versatility he controlled the negotiations with the Spanish delegations that eventually led to the Twelve Years' Truce of 1609.

Left on its own, the new Dutch Republic experienced during this truce one of the most profound crises in its history. It started innocently, with a theological debate between the Arminians or Remonstrants (moderate Calvinists) and the Gomarists or Counter-Remonstrants (strict Calvinists). But the controversies resulting from this debate became intertwined in a short time with religious fervor, polarized discussions about the relations between the state and the Calvinist church, popular mistrust about Oldenbarneveldt's alleged pro-Spanish and pro-Catholic sympathies (Had he not been the staunchest advocate of a peace with Spain?), and a bitter personal row between the advocate and the stadtholder, Maurice, who supported the Gomarists. For a time, Oldenbarneveldt gravely underestimated the seriousness of the situation. He sympathized for political reasons with the Arminians and tried to achieve his goals as he had always done, by manipulating the States of Holland and States General. But, confronted with popular opposition and riots, a divided body politic and, since 1616, a hostile stadtholder, Oldenbarneveldt fought a losing battle. He had never been a popular politician. In the end he was, notwithstanding his impressive record of service, just a civil servant of the States of Holland and thus no match for his opponent, stadtholder Maurice. As a nobleman by birth, son of William I of Orange, and a successful and famous military commander, Maurice was a clear favorite of the people. So when Maurice proclaimed Oldenbarneveldt's "Scherpe Resolutie" (Sharp Resolution) of August 1617, which had, among other things, empowered the towns of Holland to raise special troops to maintain order, an "affront to the true Reformed religion and our person" and publicly chose the side of the Gomarists or Counter-Remonstrants, Oldenbarneveldt's days were numbered. On 29 August 1618 he was arrested. After a trial that dragged on for months, Oldenbarneveldt was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. On 13 May 1619, the 72-year-old advocate, who had laid the foundations of the Dutch Republic and who had dominated Dutch politics for thirty years, was beheaded before a large crowd at the Binnenhof in The Hague.

See also Dort, Synod of ; Dutch Republic ; Dutch Revolt (15681648) ; William of Orange .


Israel, Jonathan I. The Dutch Republic. Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 14771806. Oxford and New York, 1995.

Tex, Jan den. Oldenbarnevelt. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K., 1973.

Paul Knevel

Oldenbarneveldt, Johan van

views updated Jun 11 2018

Oldenbarneveldt, Johan van (1547–1619) Dutch political leader in the Revolt of the Netherlands. With William I (the Silent), he founded the Dutch Republic. He helped to arrange the union of the provinces at Utrecht (1579), and supported Maurice of Nassau as stadtholder when William was assassinated (1584). From 1586 he was the dominant figure in Holland and, with Maurice, practically the ruler of the United Provinces. He was instrumental in securing the truce with Spain (1609), which implied Dutch independence. He fell out with Maurice over religious differences and after an unjust trial was executed.