Visit Holland - The Netherlands

History

The great river of Western Europe whose head waters are collected in the Lake of Constance, and lose themselves in the German Ocean by a thousand channels, was for centuries the highway of Western commerce and civilization. It was for a long time the north-eastern boundary of the Roman Empire, and many of the cities which studded its banks were the outposts of garrisons of the Roman army. In later times certainly, perhaps even in earlier ages, these cities were enriched by the merchandise which was carried down the stream.

As the Rhine approaches the borders of the country now known collectively as Holland, it begins to divide its stream, and the divisions are multiplied at short intervals. The flow of its waters once rapid is now sluggish. The delta of the Rhine is an accretion from the soil which the stream has collected during its course. The first Napoleon laid claim to the territory of Holland on the ground that its surface was a deposit from the distant regions in which the earth was collected, was hurried along by, the rapid river, and dropped by, the sluggish water courses into which the Rhine divided itself. “Now,” he argued, “the uplands are mine by right of conquest. The lowlands, which owe their existence to the river which I have appropriated, are mine by right of devolution.” One may dispute the logic of the great captain, but the accuracy of his geology, is incontestable. Holland is the creation of the Rhine.

The rest of the Netherlands, now known politically as the Belgium kingdom, is not so obviously the product of great rivers. But the greater part of it is an unbroken flat, suggesting that its area was once a shallow sea from which the waters have retreated. The inhabitants of Holland were, for the most part, of Teutonic origin, as were also those of the western seaboard of the Netherlands. The south-western district was inhabited mainly by a people of Celtic origin. These two races were known as Flemish and Walloon.

In the dawn of history, i.e., for this country, in the days when Julius Cæsar was engaged in extending the Roman Empire over Northern Gaul, and the western tribes of the great Teutonic race, the greater part of modern Holland was an extensive morass, covered by almost impenetrable forests. From time to time the barrier which the river was depositing against the ocean was invaded by furious storms, and the land was submerged. But the river was always building up what the sea was occasionally destroying, and the earliest instincts of the Hollanders were directed towards the protection of the land on which they dwelt, the land which the sea was always threatening. This land, enclosed between the two principal arms of the Rhine, was called Batavia, and its inhabitants got the name of their country.

After the conquest of the Belgian races, the Batavians became the allies of Rome, at first of the fortunes of Cæsar, and afterwards of the legions which were posted on the German frontier. They remained faithful to the Roman Empire till its final extinction, with only one interval, that occupied with the revolt of Claudius Civilis, a Romanised Batavian, who sought to bring about the political independence of his race. But the revolt was unsuccessful. The Batavian people despaired of success, and fell away from their national leader. He resolved on making terms with his old comrades, and his recent enemies, and to relinquish the cause of those who had no heart to defend it themselves. So he sought a negotiation and an interview. How it was concluded we do not know, for the narrative of the historian is abruptly broken off here, and the sequel of the fortunes of Civilis is irreparably lost to history.

The Batavians aided the Emperor Julian in his victory over the Germans at Strasburg (A.D. 357). Shortly after this, the inhabitants of the Rhine island, the so-called Batavians, disappear from history, and are merged in the Frisian, perhaps in the Frankish tribes who were now swarming over the Rhine into Northwestern Europe. The Frankish sovereigns, at any rate, were the nominal sovereigns of what is now Holland. One of these sovereigns, Dagobert II., founded the first Christian church at Utrecht.

Out of the Brabant town of Landen came the family from which Charles the Great was descended. The great-grand father of Charles the Great began the conquests of the Frisians; his grandfather all but completed it. The founders of the first two French dynasties were Germans, their language was German, and their administration was entirely Teutonic. The third dynasty, which is of more obscure origin, and survives to our day, is said by some early historians to have also been Teutonic.

The modern Holland, the Batavian inhabitants of which were merged in the Frisian race inhabiting the extreme north-east of the present kingdom, was continuous with Friesland. The great tract now known as the Zuyder Zee was land originally, or had been fenced from the irruptions of the German Ocean. This ocean burst over the land in the thirteenth century, and buried towns and villages permanently beneath its waters. These Batavians and Frisians came under the control of the great Charles, who left them their native customs, they obeying those chiefs whom the Emperor of the West put over them. The laws of the Frisians declare that the race shall be free, as long as the wind blows out of the clouds and the world stands. More than seven centuries after the reign of Charles the Great had come to an end, this charter of freedom was the rallying cry of the Dutch patriots.

The principle upon which the empire of Charles the Great was founded was that the chiefs of the several races subordinated to the central imperial authority should be the emperor’s delegates and dependents, but that the several races should be governed civilly by their own traditions or customs. The emperor should have the control of such military forces as the several states or races could furnish, and the deputy, count, or duke as he might be called, was to be answerable to the head of the state for his tribute, or his militia, or for both. In the hands of so vigorous, so shrewd, and so capable a man as Charles the Great, a system of government like this was possible. It was possible in his descendants or successors only if they inherited his capacity as well as his empire. But the descendants of Charles's sons proved themselves as incapable as the descendants of Clovis were, and in a far briefer period of time. Within three-quarters of a century, the emperors of this dynasty ceased to rule, sank into petty chieftains, and were finally superseded in their French dominions by the third dynasty to which I have alluded.

The succession of the French monarchs and the succession of German emperors are equally dated from the rise of the house of Charles the Great. The French historians ignored the kings of the first dynasty, for Louis I. is the son of Charles, just as the Norman sovereigns of England ignored the Edwards of the race of Egbert. But they recognized as their kings those Germans who nominally ruled as the successors of the great Charles from the Pyrenees to the Ems, and from the German Ocean to the Tiber. So the Holy Roman Empire dates its origin from the coronation of Charles the Great.

Charles the Simple (these latter descendants of the first German Emperor always had uncomplimentary titles) was ruling in 922 over a fragment of the vast empire which had existed a century before, that portion which is contained in the modern Belgium and Holland. In this year, in accordance with the custom which has been referred to above, the simple king created one Dirk the Count of Holland. The descendants of Dirk were in existence during the war of independence, and took the side of the patriots. But Henry the Fowler, Emperor of Germany, had been recognized as the successor of Charles the Simple. In 925, the subjects of the simple king dethroned and imprisoned him, and the Netherlands, as yet loosely connected with what afterwards became France, were as loosely connected with what is known in history as the Holy Roman Empire. We shall see hereafter how slight the bond was.

Part of the policy of Charles the Great was to invest the bishops of the newly converted Frisians, Saxons and other German tribes with great wealth and great political power. He foresaw in all likelihood how difficult it would be to prevent laymen from making those dignities hereditary, which his policy intended to keep precarious and dependent on submission and good behaviour. But it was otherwise with the clergy. Their offices were elective or subject to the Crown’s nomination. They had no heirs, only successors, and the succession required the royal confirmation. Hence what is known in history as the prince bishoprics were created. These prince bishops for near a thousand years were characteristic factors in the German Empire.

One of these prince bishops was the Bishop of Utrecht. Christianity had been preached especially by English missionaries along the Rhine to the sea. Wilfrid, Willibrod, and Winfrid, the latter known also as Boniface, were the apostles of Germany and the Netherlands. The last of these was the first Bishop of Mainz, and afterwards Bishop of Utrecht. He was slain by the pagan Frisians at the little town of Dokkum in Friesland, and is honoured as the great saint and proto-martyr of Catholic Germany.

In point of fact, the spread of Christianity in these pagan countries entailed great political and pecuniary sacrifices on the converts. Large tracts of land were confiscated in order to form the domain of the new bishops, the dues of the Church were rigorously enacted from landowners whose religion had not hitherto involved such liabilities, and the slaves and vassals of the prince prelates increased with the unsuccessful struggles of the reluctant pagans, for defeat meant confiscation to the wealthy and slavery to the poor. But in the end, after half the population had been slaughtered in war, the other half submitted to a form of Christianity, which was forcible rather than persuasive. The Bishop of Utrecht became the spiritual chief, and in many particulars the temporal chief of all Friesland. It was not till the great war of independence that an attempt was made to multiply bishoprics in the Netherlands, and when it was made it was in the interests of Philip's tyranny and for the purpose of strengthening the Spanish Inquisition. The character of the Church in the Netherlands must be seen, in order to understand the nature of the great struggle which will, by and by, be narrated.

The two potentates of what in after times constituted the, seven United Provinces, the Dutch Republic of later history, and their High Mightinesses, the States-General, were in this early time the Count of Holland and the Bishop of Utrecht. In the rest of the Netherlands, the petty sovereigns became far more numerous. The most important of these were the Dukes of Brabant, and the Earls of Flanders. But there were numerous independent princes of the district now known as Belgium, all privileged to take toll and tax from the people whom they had under their sway. No central authority controlled them, for the German Empire to which they nominally belonged, by reason of its own internal dissensions and its long struggles with the Pope, waxed feebler and feebler, and the French kings had enough to do in their efforts to restrain a turbulent and almost independent aristocracy within their own borders.

This aristocracy was the common and ever-vigilant, ever-conspiring enemy of government, religion, and industry. In these remote times the king was the exponent of the government, the Church of religion, and the town of industry. In order to sustain the first, the doctrine of the divine right of kings was invented; in order to aid the second, the theory of priestcraft, was inculcated and enforced; in order to preserve the third, the charter of the town was purchased. The French and English kings saw how important it was to strengthen themselves against their natural and persistent foes by the aid of the towns, and they granted their towns charters innumerable, the fullest and widest being often conceded by the worst and most unpopular monarchs. If indeed king, Church, and burgher had always been united against the encroachment of the nobles, the victory would soon have been won. But the alliance of what may be called the conservative forces of society against the disturbing and destructive elements was rarely close and still more rarely enduring. The king and the Church were constantly quarrelling, and with varied fortunes, till at last the Church became the willing instrument of despotism, and the king after having reduced the nobles, and employed the Church as his agent began to pillage and harry those who had been the means for achieving his victory over the other two.

Now there was no king in the Netherlands, not even a lord paramount, but a host of small autocrats, quarrelling for ever among themselves, and therefore at their wits’ end for the means of maintaining their own existence and their feuds.

But there is no history in these times, nothing, as Milton said, but the quarrel of the kites and the crows, or as they called themselves in the Netherlands, the Hooks and the Kabejauws, the grotesque factions of these flats and swamps.

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