It’s Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477-1806
This is a heavy book – over eleven hundred pages, with narrative chapters; chapters on social history, architecture, art and the economy. It’s not easy reading. I only picked it up because in 1672 the dutch killed and ate their prime minister, and that seemed like an idea worth exploring.
Seriously, it’s a dry book, detailed enough to get lost in but fast enough to not burst into life at the more colourful events (of which dutch history has many). Dutch history is the history of a rich and complex society about which most of Britain (including myself) now knows much less than it should. I’ve previously struggled with Lisa Jardine’s book on the topic. I thought I would focus on a few things that did come across strongly.
- Being from Northern Ireland, I’d happily leave William of Orange alone – but he’s actually a fascinating character. Manipulative, populist and authoritarian. His rise feels like something from a much later period of history (Napoleon III?).
- In fact the whole of dutch history feels like something from a much later period – with a necessary focus on party politics, economics and industry. I’m not sure you can get away with a Great Man approach to history here.
- Dutch history seems to be a constant series of division and factionalism: north/south, catholic/protestant, rural/urban, coastal/inland, republican/Orangist, the Reformed church vs Arminius, religious tolerance vs repression.
- There’s an oddly familiar feel to the Dutch Republic. Liberal, but only in part. It manages to create and house free-thinkers like Spinoza and Descartes, and then force them out or keep them quiet when they go too far.
- The strength of the Republic feels constantly precarious, and despite the book being loaded with information it can be difficult to really see how it became and remained so powerful for so long.
- These ethereal connections that held it together seem to eventually collude in it’s downfall with the decline of the navy as William III let the British Navy take over.
I’m glad I struggled through it, but I’m still looking for a genuinely accessible introduction to the Netherlands.
In 1683 John Locke fled into exile in Holland, after being connected to a scheme to assassinate Charles II. While there he denied involvement or knowledge in such a plot and refused to implicate his friends. His excuse, which amuses me, was that he was simply in Holland because he preferred the beer! It seems pretty plausible to me.
(Unfortunately, I haven’t actually been able to find a primary source for that; it was mentioned in the introduction of my Penguin Classics’ collection of his Political Writings, and I have found mention elsewhere online. Annoyingly many of his letters have been collected by a fellow called E.S de Beer, so google searches have been pretty difficult. The man did seem to know his beer – as noted in this beer blog, with John Locke organising various types of British ale into categories.)
If you’ve ever (as an english speaker) listened to someone speaking dutch, you might be surprised to find much common links between the two countries. In the 17th century however, there was a huge crossover of ideas and culture – eventually culminating in William of Orange taking the British throne. Lisa Jardine argues in Going Dutch that William’s Glorious Revolution was more of a hostile military occupation than the standard portrayal. William brought tens of thousands of men, his personal guard patrolled the streets of London. He was easily assimilated however, because of a long recent history of shared culture between the two nations.
Jardine goes through each aspect of this shared culture in detail – letters and collaboration between scientists, taste in artwork, styles of landscaping gardening, and the roles of prominent families like the Huygens family. The detail is fascinating, if often overwhelming, occasionally repetitive and sometimes over-reliant on the aforementioned Huygens family (and on Robert Hooke, who Jardine had also written a biography of).
I did have a few other issues with the book, the tone suggests a groundbreaking change in how we should view the Glorious Revolution but the actual content is much more grounded. While the extent of the dutch connection might be forgotten, I’m not sure anyone really believes William’s propaganda as fact. The subtitle “How England Plundered Holland’s Glory” is also over the top, and not really justified by the content of the book.
Ignoring this, it’s an enjoyable overview of cross-channel culture during the 17th century. There’s plenty to enjoy and it does point towards art, architecture*, landscape and more for anyone wanting to explore their dutch heritage.
*It reminded me of this documentary by Jonathan Meades, which investigates the same topic with a slightly different tone.