A Short History of the Netherlands

You would not recognize a 100BC map of the area that we currently call Netherlands. It was a true wetlands with a combination of river outlets in the form of estuaries and because of the lowness of the land, many inundations by the North Sea.

In the 1st century BC, Rome conquered the southern half of the territory while the northern half remained under local tribal control.

As Roman influence decreased several centuries later, various Germanic tribes began invasions of the land. Franks took over the land in the 5th century AD and brought Christianity with them. In 800, what we now call Netherlands (although smaller in area than the 2019 nation) came under the control of Charlemagne; he built one of his palaces in Nijmegen and established the capital of his empire in Aachen (now in Germany). Keep in mind that Netherlands means “low lands.”

When Charlemagne died in 814, his empire was split between his three sons, but none of them had the administrative ability of their father and within a few years, central control vanished so that local control was in the hands of dukes and counts who did not wish to owe allegiance to anyone higher on the pecking order. We call this lack of central order “feudalism.”

The land was agriculturally very productive and relative prosperity was accompanied by forward-thinking land owners who used the agricultural wealth along with the development of crafts and began trading to such distant areas as Asia and North Africa. Unlike most of the rest of northwest Europe, feudalism was not as strong, possibly because of an early urban development in the Netherlands.

This rich area did not go unnoticed. Neighboring powers, first the Dukes of Burgundy and later the Hapsburgs attempted to take over the Netherlands. The Burgundian house for many years was more powerful that the French monarchy and in 1477, Mary of Burgundy married Archduke Maximilian Hapsburg. As was typical of Hapsburgs wherever they gained control, they attempted to impose taxes in the Netherlands to finance their continual expansion of territory and expensive way of life.

As a quick aside, without boring you with an extended family tree that has no real meaning to you, remember Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian as two very important families got together through an arranged marriage. Another one at about the same time was Isabella I of Castile who married Ferdinand II of Aragon. Together, they united most of Spain, drove out the remaining Muslims (Moors) and the Jews in 1492 and that same year, gave Christopher Columbus the necessary money to finance his impossible dream of sailing west (off the edge of the flat world) to get to East Asia.

In 1555, the grandson of both couples above, Emperor Charles V, determined that he was soon to die (he did die in 1558) that his Holy Roman Empire (that was not holy, roman, or truly an empire) was too large and divided it between two sons. It included Spain and part of present-day Portugal, the Netherlands (most of present-day Netherlands and much of Belgium), Duchy of Burgundy (that was about 1/3 of present-day France), most of present-day Germany, the Arch-duchy of Austria, parts of northern Italy, and the southern Italian kingdoms of Naples, Sardinia, and Sicily. His control also extended to the Spanish possessions in North and South America including much of the West Indies, as well as the Philippine Islands.

To further muddy the waters, this was right in the middle of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther had nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517 and his attack on the Catholic institution (remember that Catholic means “universal”) that was a direct attack on Hapsburgs. Hapsburgs were devout Catholics and not only were they fighting Protestants in the Netherlands and northern Germany, but also a reinvigorated French monarchy that was expanding in area and power. A third negative force was the westward expansion of the Muslim Ottoman Empire that even attacked Vienna (the capital of Austria) in 1529. Charles’ economic power was the capitalist area of the Netherlands and the flow of gold and silver from the “New World.”

Now back to 1555. Because he was tired of the 35 years of war with all of his enemies, Charles agreed to the Peace of Augsburg, giving Protestants a measure of independence. In addition, this was the time of the announcement of the splitting of his controlled lands between his son, Philip, who became King of Spain (he is the one who raised the famous Spanish Armada against Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1588) and his brother Ferdinand, who was Archduke of Austria and took the remaining Hapsburg lands.

Charles V was a fascinating individual. Although Hapsburg intermarrying created some really strange creatures for almost a millennium, he appears to have avoided almost everything except the “Hapsburg chin.” He was fluent in French and Dutch which were his native languages, passable Castilian Spanish, as well as some Basque and German. Supposedly he said: “I speak Spanish/Latin to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.”

Let’s return to the Netherlands (sometimes called Low Countries – because that is what Netherlands really means). From 1515-23, Charles fought a rebellion of Frisian peasants (led by Pier Gerlofs Donia and Wijard Jelckama). He then totally controlled the Seventeen Provinces [1] (that included Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, as well as French Flanders and the Pas-de-Calais.

Because Charles considered his first nationality to be Dutch and because of the increasing trade and industry that provided great wealth, this area was provided much money to the imperial treasury.

[1] County of Artois; County of Flanders; Lordship of Mechelen; County of Namur, County of Hainaut; County of Zeeland; County of Holland; Duchy of Brabant including Lordship of Breda, Margraviate of Antwerp, counties of Leuven and Brussels, Nivelles, and Gembloux; Duchy of Limburg and Overmaas of Brabant; Duchy of Luxembourg; Lordship of Utrecht; Lordship of Frisia; Duchy of Guelders; Lordship of Groningen; Lordship of Drenthe, Lingen, Wedde, and Westerwold; Lordship of Overijssel; County of Zutphen. All this after Treaty of Venlo 1543.

Charles’ son, Philip II, a typical Hapsburg and ardent Catholic, felt that he could increase taxation in the rich Netherlands. This may have been killing the goose that laid the golden (or in this case, orange) egg. Resisting the higher taxation as well as the increasing oppression instituted by Philip’s Dutch governor, Prince Alba, the Dutch revolted and this began what has been called the Eighty Years War. The main leader, William of Orange (called William the Silent) began this Dutch Revolt, a war with several motives: get out from under the debilitating yoke of Hapsburgs and a destructive iconoclastic Calvinist movement that lasted until 1648. The Calvinist northern provinces (Netherlands) separated from the Catholic southern provinces (present-day Belgium and Luxembourg) that continued under Hapsburg rule until 1714. These northern provinces created one of the first European republics, the United Provinces of the Netherlands (or the Dutch Republic).

Spain at this time had multiple enemies. Not just the Dutch, but also the English (remember the Armada! and Francis Drake) and in the Mediterranean, they fought the resurgent Ottoman Turks. Keep in mind that even though Spanish galleons were bringing back tons of gold and silver from Central and South America, the government really could not make this largesse productive. Having thrown out all Muslims and Jews, who knew how to handle money, Spain began a period of great inflation. As most of the money was used to provide luxuries for the many Hapsburg households and also to keep the continental army in fighting shape, little was done for the rest of the country.

1648 was the date for the Peace of Westphalia. This ended the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the Dutch Republic and also the end of the Thirty Years’ War that involved almost every European nation (Austria, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Netherlands, Switzerland,  Bohemia, Bavaria, Brandenburg, Spain, Transylvania, and the greatest victor: France). One of the results was the declaration of independence for Switzerland.

The 17th century for the Netherlands was the time of discovery as they turned to the sea and discovered new routes and lands making that country the greatest maritime power in Europe with Amsterdam as The financial center of Europe. This, of course, raised the enmity of England at sea and France on the continent. But the Netherlands had its downers as well, primarily because of the Tulip Bubble.

The 1600s marked what is now known as the Dutch Golden Age. During that time, the Netherlands was indisputably the world’s greatest economic power, despite the country’s small size. Part of that success was due to the widespread, rapid financial innovation which enabled, for perhaps the first time in human history, rampant speculative investment…until it all came crashing down. 

A market in bloom. For reasons that remain murky, the 1630s marked a brief period when nothing inspired speculative investment more intensely than tulip bulbs. Countless investors, convinced that bulbs would make them rich, drove up the prices of various types of bulbs to incredible — and unsustainable — levels. 

Why tulips, anyway? Though it’s not easy to get exact financial data, it seems that prices first began to rise in earnest in 1634. The tulip had become a popular status symbol, partly because it was distinctly more colorful and vibrant than the flowers most Europeans were used to, and partly because Dutch citizens, on average, had more disposable income than ever before thanks to a booming Dutch economy.

Stay-at-home, 17th-century style. In February of 1637, however, the prices suddenly collapsed. It’s still not clear why, but a leading theory holds that one particular group of buyers couldn’t make it to a tulip auction, and that sudden decrease in interested buyers “popped” the bubble and drove everyone to try to sell their own bulbs as quickly as possible.

Why couldn’t those buyers make it to the auction? They were likely kept at home by an outbreak of a disease we know today as the bubonic plague.

The 18th century saw Netherlands losing in the continuing competition with the absolutist powers of France, Austria, Russia, and Prussia in Europe and the United Kingdom on the high seas. If you will remember your American history, the New Amsterdam of Peter Stuyvesant, along with Harlem, became New York.  In the series of European revolts in 1830, the Belgian provinces revolted and eventually became the Kingdom of Belgium and Luxembourg separated in 1890. It was during the second half of the 19th century that the Netherlands became a liberal and modern state – at least at home. During the expansionist time, the Royal Dutch navy conquered a southeast Asian archipelago, then called Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. The Dutch also established a foothold in South America (Suriname and Guyana) and the Dutch West Indies (St. Maarten, Aruba, Netherlands Antilles), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Malacca (on the west coast of Malaya), Formosa (now Taiwan), New Holland (now known as Western Australia), footholds in Iran and Pakistan in South Asia, the Dutch Gold Coast (now Ghana), the Virgin Islands (now BVI), and Tobago.

During World War One, the Netherlands remained neutral. The nation also declared neutrality at the outbreak of World War Two, but Hitler invaded and occupied the country even though the Dutch resisted. Since the war, there has been continuous economic growth and the Netherlands is today one of the most developed and wealthiest country in the world.

One of the major rivers flowing into the North Sea – besides the Rhine – is the Elbe. This is historically important because on 25 April 1945, the Allies (Great Britain, the now victorious France, United States, and the Soviet Union agreed to that river as the dividing line between the free democratic West and the stultifying Communist East Germany.

Why Dutch are the tallest people in Europe

  • Diet of meat and dairy as well as cultural preference

What are Dutch known for?

  • Tulips, windmills, cheese markets, wooden shoes, Amsterdam canals, Old Masters, Delft Blue earthenware, innovative water management, millions of bicycles.

Dutch cuisine

  • Many vegetables and little meat; breakfast and lunch are bread with toppings like cheese and dinner is meat and potatoes with seasonal vegetables.

Official name is Kingdom of the Netherlands. The 12 provinces are similar to the states in the United States and Mexico. Holland is two of the provinces: Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland.

The others:  Flevoland, Gelderland, North Brabant, Overijssel, Drenthe, Utrecht, Groningen, Friesland, Zeeland, Limburg.

Together, Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland are simply referred to as “Holland.” Holland is located on the northwest coast of the country and contains the densest population and most of the country’s major cities including the capital city, Amsterdam. So, if you’re ever confused if Amsterdam is in Holland or The Netherlands, the answer is that it’s in both. It’s just like asking if Denver is in Colorado or the United States.

People from Germany are German and people from France are French, so why wouldn’t people from The Netherlands be Netherlanders? It would only make sense. Instead, people from The Netherlands are Dutch.

The term “Dutch” comes from the Germanic period before northern Europeans split into different tribes. Initially, “Dutch” just meant “popular” or “common” and was used to describe people who were not part of the learned elite who typically spoke Latin instead of Germanic. During the 15th century when the different countries were being formed, the term “Dutch” was used to describe people from Germany as well and became a synonym for “low-German.” This is why immigrants who arrived in America during the 17th century were referred to as “Pennsylvania-Dutch” although they were from Germany and not The Netherlands.

Eventually, English speakers began to refer to people from Germany as “Germans” and continued to use “Dutch” for people from The Netherlands. It’s much easier to say than “Netherlanders.”