Colourful history of the House of Orange

21st July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The Dutch monarchy has had a turbulent history, from its roots in the houses of Orange and Nassau right up to the present day. Mindy Ran reports.

The House of Orange-Nassau is the reigning dynasty in The Netherlands. Like most other royal dynasties that have survived until this century, its past is full of blood-thirsty wars and its future uncertain.

Queen Beatrix

Since the late 19th century The Netherlands has been a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional and hereditary monarchy. The current monarch, Queen Beatrix, has executive power: she reigns but does not rule.

Yet it was not until 1815 that The Netherlands became officially a "kingdom", although its roots to the houses of Orange and Nassau began in the medieval principality of Orange, in southern France.

In 1555 Philip II of Spain was the unlucky inheritor of The Netherlands along with the rest of the Spanish Empire. Unlucky because, as an ardent Roman Catholic, he stirred up both anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish opposition. This was the strongest among the Dutch nobility and the Prostestants in the Calvinist north.


Opposition became revolution and revolt. In 1568 the Eighty Years' War began with William I, Prince of Orange, leading the bid for independence from Spain. William I, also known as William the Silent, was the count of Nassau and held estates in the Netherlands. He became Prince of Orange in 1544 and used this title against the Spanish to create a separate Dutch nation in the northern Netherlands.

Although William I had initially been a favourite of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and named stadshouder (governor) of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht, he resisted attempts by Philip of Spain to introduce monarchical absolutism and to repress Protestantism. His major opponent at the time, Cardinal Granvelle, dubbed him "The Silent" because of his ability to speak yet not reveal his true thoughts.

Perhaps it was William's own religious past, first as a Lutheran, then Catholic and finally Calvinist that led to his belief in religious peace and tolerance. And, between 1576 and 1579, he was able to hold together a union of all the Low Countries in resistance to Spain, based on that principle.

Peace in north, war in south

The union was short-lived. In 1579 his policy collapsed. The predominantly Catholic southern provinces reconciled with Philip and became known as the Spanish Netherlands. At the same time the northern provinces continued to fight. The seven northern provinces (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Groningen, Friesland and Overijssel) proclaimed their independence from Spain in 1581. It was a claim that was unrecognised until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

In the meantime, William was outlawed and a price put on his head. William the Silent was assassinated in Delft in 1584. It was his son, Maurice of Nassau, with the help of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, who solidified the independence of the Dutch republic.

As the second son of William I, Prince of Orange, Maurice did not officially inherit the title until the death of his elder brother in 1618. Although he had been named stadshouder after the assassination of his father. He gained power under the political guidance of the Land's Advocate of Holland Johan van Oldenbarnevelt.

Victim of a truce

Maurice was able to drive the Spanish out and later negotiated a ceasefire. While the author of this truce had been van Oldenbarnevelt, he also became its victim. Maurice betrayed him and ordered his execution in 1619. When war once again broke out with Spain, Maurice had little power and was succeeded by his younger brother Frederick Henry.

Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange and Count of Nassau, had more success than his brother. He was able to not only halt the advance of the Spanish, but to capture numerous cities from Spain between 1627 and 1645. It was his spirit of independence, drive and power that helped create the "golden age" in The Netherlands and greatly expand its influence.

There was no stadshouder between 1650 and 1672 or 1702 and 1747. It was a descendant of Fredrick Henry, William IV and later his son William V who governed as stadshouders until 1795. In the meantime, the principality of Orange had been ceded to France. Yet, both of these Williams continued to carry the title of Prince. Their branch of the family is the house of Orange-Nassau, and their descendants are the current royal family.


William V was forced into exile by the French conquest in 1795. It was his son, another William, who became William I, the first King of The Netherlands in 1815. The United Netherlands included both Belgium (the southern provinces which has passed from Spain to Austria) and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. He reigned with a heavy hand that on the one side spurred economic growth and the expansion of trade and industry, but on the other was so offensive that it led to the Belgian Revolution of 1830.

Revision of the constitution happened in 1839 as a result of the recognition of Belgian independence. William I renounced the throne when he was forced to accept a constitutional monarchy. On 7 October 1840, his son William II became the second king.

William II's reign is noted for the development of a new constitution which created "modern" Netherlands and the political institutions that still govern it today. Hoping to free the country from the past revolutionary anarchy, it was William II himself who took the initiative to enact a new constitution written by the liberal statesman Johan Thorbecke. This constitution firmly established the supremacy of the States-General (cabinet). He was succeeded by his son William III.

King William III was strenuously opposed to the "advanced liberal" constitution of his father, and Johan Thorbecke.

While he later accepted the constitution and consolidated the parliamentary government in The Netherlands, the same did not apply to Thorbecke. Like many of his predecessors and aides to the monarch, Thorbecke became a victim and was forced to resign as head of government in 1853.

William III was able in the beginning to use the cabinet to retain political influence. He was a staunch anti-Catholic who created enormous political fall-out and hostility first by attempting to sell France the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and later through his shambles of a personal life. He had separated from his wife, Sophia of Wurttemberg. He had planned to divorce her and marry his mistress, a French actress. But, in 1879, after Sophia's death, he married Emma of Waldeck-Pyrmont. He was succeeded by their daughter, Wilhelmina.

Queen Wilhelmina began her 50-year reign at the age of ten under the regency of her mother. At 18 she assumed personal rule and married Duke Henry (1876-1934) of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in 1901. Wilhelmina was complex and beloved. She believed equally in the constitution and her "divine right" to rule. She frequently intervened in political affairs.

When the Germans invaded The Netherlands in 1940 she led her government in exile from London which created enormous support for her. The Dutch freedom fighters were able to use her as a rallying point. When she returned to a liberated Netherlands, her health had already declined. Immediately after celebrating the 50th anniversary of her reign, she abdicated to her daughter Juliana in 1948. Her autobiography, perhaps in reference to the weight of her "divine right", was entitled Lonely but Not Alone.

Juliana was perhaps the most beloved of the Dutch monarchs. She abolished much of the former pomp and circumstance of the court in the austere post-war years. She was able to bring a period of transformation to The Netherlands; gently taking the country from a colonial base to a leading power of the European community.

Origin of Queen's Day

It is her birthday, 30 April, that is celebrated as Queen's Day today, in honour of her reign. She married Prince Bernhard of Lippe-Biesterfeld and had four daughters. Juliana abdicated on her 71st birthday in 1980 in favour of her eldest daughter, Beatrix, who holds the crown today.

Beatrix encountered opposition from the beginning. As a princess she studied law at the University of Leiden and received her doctorate in 1961. But it was her 1966 marriage Prince Claus von Amsberg, a German diplomat, that set up a love/hate relationship that still dogs her today.

Civil disobedience was rife in the mid-60s in The Netherlands. Protesting at the groom's former Hitler Youth membership, Provo demonstrators threw smoke bombs at the Royal procession as it moved through Amsterdam. The violent police response triggered a series of riots which hit headlines around the world.

Succeeding to the throne in 1980, Beatrix re-instated much of the costly court rituals abandoned by her mother. As a lawyer she has amassed what some consider to be "too much"; too much power, too much money and too much influence. She has been under constant scrutiny and criticism since her reign began, and it shows no signs of letting up as periodically the whole question of the monarchy is re-examined.

She is troubled by the ill health of her husband and by rumours of her eldest son's, Prince Willem Alexander and heir presumptive to the throne, alleged preference for glamorous and untitled girlfriends. But it is the money and the power which is most suspect and open to criticism.

Recent headlines from the Belgian daily De Morgen claimed that the Dutch royal family "allegedly made financial contributions to a CIA-backed, anti-communist election fund in the early 1960s" in Chile. These allegations came from a former US ambassador to the country, Edward Korry, who claims that donations from both the Dutch and Belgian royal families were used to defeat Salvador Allende in 1964. Although Allende was eventually elected in 1970, he was overthrown and assassinated by the infamous Augusto Pinochet.

This monarchy, as well as the others that currently reign, will continue to be scrutinised. The real question is whether, in this day and age of immediate news and media, it will survive the scrutiny. 

Mindy Ran is an American-born freelance journalist living in Amsterdam and working for several major international media in print, radio and television

Subject: Dutch monarchy

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