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The Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (or "of the Seven United Provinces") (Republiek der Zeven Verenigde Nederlanden/Provinciën; also Dutch Republic or United Provinces in short, Foederatae Belgii Provinciae or Belgica Foederata in Latin) was a European republic between 1581 and 1795, in about the same location as the modern Kingdom of the Netherlandsmarker, which is the successor state.


Before 1581, the area of the Low Countries consisted of a number of duchies, counties, and independent bishopric, some but not all of them part of the Holy Roman Empire. Today that area is divided between the Netherlandsmarker, Belgiummarker, Luxembourgmarker and parts of Francemarker and Germanymarker. The Low Countries in the 16th century roughly corresponded to the Seventeen Provinces covered by the Pragmatic Sanction of 1549 of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Through marriage, war or sale, these states were acquired by the Habsburg emperor Charles V and his son, king Philip II of Spain. In 1568, the Netherlands, led by William I of Orange, revolted against Philip II because of high taxes, persecution of Protestants by the government, and Philip's efforts to modernize and centralize the devolved medieval government structures of the provinces. This was the start of the Eighty Years' War.

In 1579, a number of the northern provinces of the Netherlands signed the Union of Utrecht, in which they promised to support each other in their defence against the Spanish army. This was followed in 1581 by the Act of Abjuration, the declaration of independence in which the provinces officially deposed Philip II.

The United Provinces first tried to choose their own lord, and they asked theDuke of Anjou (sovereign from 1581-1583) to rule them. Later, after the assassination of William of Orange (July 10, 1584), both Henry III of France and Elizabeth I of England declined the offer of sovereignty. However, the latter agreed to turn the United Provinces into a protectorate of England (Treaty of Nonsuch, 1585), and sent the Earl of Leicester as governor-general. This was not a success, and in 1588 the provinces became a Republic.

Economic perspective

From an economic perspective, the Republic of the United Provinces completely out-performed all expectations; it was a surprise to many that a nation, not based on the church or on a single royal leader, could be so successful. This time period is known in the Netherlandsmarker as the Golden Age. The Dutch dominated world trade in the 17th century, conquering a vast colonial empire and operating the largest fleet of merchantmen of all western nations. The County of Holland was the wealthiest and most urbanized region of Europe. The free trade spirit of the time received a strong augmentation through the development of a modern—much better functioning—stock market in the Low Countries. They established a stock market first in Rotterdammarker and later in Amsterdammarker. In Amsterdam, the modernization of the financial institution took place, and the oldest stock market based on modern trading principles is found here. While the banking system evolved in the Low Countries, it was quickly incorporated into the well-connected English, stimulating the English economic output.

The Republic of the United Provinces was officially recognized in the Peace of Westphalia (1648), and lasted until Frenchmarker revolutionary forces invaded in 1795 and set up a new republic, called the Batavian Republic, which would be replaced by the French-controlledKingdom of Holland.

The Netherlands regained independence from France in 1813. In the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 the names "United Provinces of the Netherlands" and "United Netherlands" are used. In 1815 it was rejoined with Austrian Netherlands, Luxemburgmarker and Liègemarker (before that the 'Southern provinces') to become the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, in order to create a strong buffer state north of Francemarker. After Belgium became independent, the state finally became known as the Kingdom of the Netherlands, as it remains today.

Between 1590-1712, the Dutch also enjoyed having one of the strongest navies in the world. This allowed for their varied conquests, including breaking the Portuguese sphere of influence on the Indian Ocean and on the Orient.


The republic was a confederation of seven provinces, which had their own governments and were very independent, and a number of so-called Generality Lands. These latter were governed directly by the States-General (Staten-Generaal in Dutch), the federal government. The States-General were seated in The Haguemarker and consisted of representatives of each of the seven provinces.The provinces of the republic were, in official feudal order: the duchy of Guelders (Gelre in Dutch), the counties of Hollandmarker and Zealandmarker, the former bishopric of Utrechtmarker, the lordship of Overijssel and the free (i.e. never feudalised) provinces of Friesland and Groningenmarker. In fact there was an eighth province, the lordship of Drenthe, but this area was so poor it was exempt from paying confederal taxes and as a corollary was denied representation in the States-General. Each province was governed by the Provincial States; the main executive official was a stadtholder (stadhouder in Dutch). In theory the stadtholders were freely appointed by and subordinate to the States of each province. However in practice the Princes of Orange-Nassau, beginning with William the Silent, were always chosen as stadtholders of most of the provinces, and Zeeland and usually also Utrecht had the same stadtholder as Holland . There was a constant power struggle between the Orangists, who supported the stadtholders, and the Regents' supporters.

After the Peace of Westphalia several border territories were assigned to the United Provinces. They were federally governed Generality Lands (Generaliteitslanden). They were Staats-Brabant (present North Brabantmarker), Staats-Vlaanderen (present Zeeuws-Vlaanderenmarker), Staats-Limburg (around Maastrichtmarker) and Staats-Oppergelre (around Venlomarker, after 1715).

The States-General of the United Provinces were in control of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the Dutch West India Company (WIC), although some shipping expeditions were initiated by some of the Provinces, mostly Holland and/or Zeeland.


The denomination linked closely to the official States, and adopted as de facto state religion, was the Lower German Dutch Reformed Church, the later Reformed Church of the Netherlands. The public exercise of Catholicism was strictly forbidden, Catholics were viewed by the government with suspicion and were supervised, Catholic chapels and road-side crosses were all destroyed, shrines demolished, and even in the southern and utmost eastern parts of the country, which remained almost entirely Catholic during the whole period of existence of the Dutch Republic, public servants had to be Calvinist Protestants (or Jewish) and take an oath which ordered them to act against the "papist religion". However after the end of the 17th century the situation changed to a state of restricted toleration of Catholic worship, as long as it took place secretly in non-recognizable churches or in sheds. However until 1795 the Catholics of the Netherlands had to pay huge taxes and large sums of "recognition money" in order to make local government tolerate them. All ancient churches, monastery buildings and stripped cathedrals remained in the hands of the Protestants, even in entirely Catholic provinces and regions of the Netherlands.

Because of the enormous shortage of priests—most had fled, were expelled or defected to the Protestant religion—and the fact that the entire Dutch Republic's Catholics were very inefficiently governed by an Apostolic Vicariate as the so-called Dutch Mission, during the late 17th century and even onwards more and more badly catechized and economically discriminated Catholics in the north and west slowly fell away to the Protestant state church and even to Anabaptist communities. In the provinces of Holland and Zeeland, the majority however had become officially Calvinist, but in 1648 some regions in the northern and western parts of the country, and many in the centre and the centre-east, had very confused but still mostly Roman Catholic populations. By this also can be explained why during the Franco-Dutch War occupation (1670s) of huge parts of the Netherlands by Catholic troops of the Prince-Bishopric of Münster and Francemarker, and the temporary restoration of Catholicism in the parish churches and cathedrals, still huge masses of Dutch faithful attended the celebrations of Mass conducted by foreign priests, serving as chaplains in the invading armies. However by 1795 Calvinist Protestant policies dominating the country for almost two hundred years, had left their marks: vast previously Catholic regions—even during the Protestant Reformation—had been converted to Reformed Protestantism, while Catholic shrines, monasteries, abbeys and other cultural institutions associated with the papacy and Catholic doctrine, had been razed to the ground—mostly from 1630 to 1690.

The Dutch Republic did not allow public exercise of Anabaptism and Lutheranism either, except in foreign embassies and in isolated villages, like Giethoornmarker (Anabaptists) and among the German traders in major cities of the Republic. Public policy against non-Calvinist Protestants however was less harsh than policy towards native Dutch Catholics.

In the Union of Utrecht, January 20, 1579 personal freedom of religion was declared. The union of Utrecht was an important step in the establishment of the Dutch Republic. As mentioned above establishing a complete freedom of religion took more time. The establishment of a Jewish community in the Netherlands and New Amsterdam during the Dutch republic is an example of the freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion and redistributing the amassed church wealth should not be confused. In many parts of Europe the amassed church wealth was regularly confiscated by the rulers.


The framers of the U.S. Constitution were influenced by the Constitution of the Republic of the United Provinces. In addition, the Act of Abjuration, essentially the declaration of independence of the United Provinces, is strikingly similar to the later American Declaration of Independence though concrete evidence that the former directly influenced the latter is absent.

John Adams went so far as to say that “The origins of the two republics are so much alike that the history of one seems but a transcript from that of the other.” The seven arrows in the lion's left claw in the Republic's coat of arms, representing the seven provinces, was a precedent for the thirteen arrows in the eagle's left claw in the Great Seal of the United States.


Long term rivalry between the two main factions in Dutch society, the Staatsgezinden (Republicans) and the Prinsgezinden (Royalists or Orangists) sapped the strength and unity of the country. Johan de Witt and the Republicans did reign supreme for a time at the middle of the Seventeenth century (the First Stadtholderless Period) until his overthrow and murder in 1672. Subsequently, William III of Orange became stadtholder, after a stadtholderless era of 22 years, and the Orangists regained power; his first problem was to survive the Franco-Dutch War (which was related to the Third Anglo-Dutch war), when France, England, Münster and Cologne united against his country.

Wars to contain the expansionist policies of France in various coalitions, after the Glorious Revolution mostly including England, burdened the Republic with huge debts, although little of the fighting after 1673 took place on its own territory. After William III's death in 1702 the Second Stadtholderless Period was inaugurated. The end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1713 marked the end of the Republic as a major military power.

Fierce competition for trade and colonies, especially from England, furthered the economic downturn of the country. The three Anglo-Dutch Wars and the rise of Mercantilism hurt Dutch shipping and commerce.

The establishment of the Bank of England, at a time when the Dutch were fighting against the French on Dutch soil, meant that money could be borrowed from London at lower interest rates , and at greater reliability and protection. Gradually, London displaced Amsterdam as the leading European financial centre.

See also


Further reading

  • Israël, J.I. The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806 Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995
  • Reynolds, Clark G. Navies in History. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998
  • Schama, Simon The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Random House USA, 1988

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