A Great, Neglected Victory

National Maritime Museum, London
‘William of Orange sets out to invade the British Isles,’ 1688; painting in the style of Abraham Stock; illustrations from Lisa Jardine’s Going Dutch

A tiny corner geographically, the Dutch Republic during the seventeenth century made an immense impression on Europe and the wider world. With a population of around two million, only about one tenth that of France, its strength in shipping, trade, finance, and technology helped it become a major European land and sea power and a preeminent colonial empire, especially in Asia but also in South and West Africa and the Americas. In painting, engraving, and a range of other arts it eclipsed every other nation. Yet it was not its wealth or power or artistic splendor that chiefly impressed contemporaries but rather Dutch society’s highly innovative character, its difference from the others in almost every way. One modern historian with considerable justification dubbed it the “New World of the Dutch Republic.”1

Even the most casual visitors, whether they were British, French, German, or Italian, were struck by the unfamiliarity, originality, and effectiveness of nearly everything they saw. What the Dutch had that no one else then possessed to a comparable degree was a highly urbanized society based on a social system in which neither nobility nor servile dependence any longer played a significant part; and individual liberty, religious toleration, and a freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, prevailed to an extent unmatched even by England until after the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688—which was itself initiated by William III (1650–1702), the Prince of Orange and the presiding figure of Dutch politics at the time. These Dutch freedoms went together with a republican constitution, albeit one with a hereditary and monarchical strand in the form of the stadholderate, a presiding office held by the princes of Orange.

In the cities of the United Provinces, as the republic was officially known, individual freedom and careful regulation of banking, insurance, and commercial practice ensured that free-market forces were cultivated in an orderly manner. Financial markets strictly supervised by the city governments, first and foremost Amsterdam, had created a maritime, trading, and financial system with a dynamism and global reach that the world had never seen before. Many commercial and financial institutions new in seventeenth-century London, including the stock exchange, were based on models developed in Amsterdam earlier in the century.

Although educated visitors usually mixed their admiration with a hearty dose of scorn for Dutch society’s legalized egalitarianism, lack of respect for monarchy and aristocracy, absence of clearly demarcated social hierarchy, and unparalleled weakness of ecclesiastical authority, everyone was curious about and often envious of the country’s manifest successes. Most visitors realized that there was much they could learn from the Dutch and usefully apply back home. “Adoptions and assimilations of Dutch ideas and mores” by the English, we are frequently reminded in Lisa Jardine’s interesting and lively Going Dutch, assumed many and often surprising forms. But looked at cumulatively, as a vast panorama of cultural borrowing, shared taste, and exchange, the Dutch experience was a phenomenon that proved fundamental in world history, one that, as Jardine affirms, crucially “shaped the fortunes and futures of both the English and Dutch nations.”

She is right to say that the story of this shaping as a whole, taking politics, finance, learning, science, art, gardens, and musical culture together, has never adequately been told and that many features of this complex history of imitation, absorption, and appropriation remain unfamiliar and sometimes even unresearched. To demonstrate this she has brought all her proven talents—a curiosity capable of overstepping familiar categories to open up fresh perspectives, a keen sense of the picturesque yielding many well-chosen and amusing anecdotes, sidelights, and vignettes, and, above all, fluent, highly readable prose. This is a book for the general reader even though it also contains unfamiliar detail useful to the scholar and some little-known but highly pertinent quotations derived from unpublished sources.

Jardine’s scintillating panorama opens with an account of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 seen less from the narrow viewpoint of British concerns than from an international and global perspective, highlighting the decisive role not just of William and his Dutch entourage, but also of the Dutch army, navy, urban regents, financiers, and cultural agents of all kinds in determining the final outcome. The Glorious Revolution put an end to a long era of internal conflict, royal absolutism, and periodic instability in England reaching back to the fifteenth century, and finally stabilized the English constitution on an essentially new basis—one that rapidly, even startlingly, enhanced Britain’s power in the world.

Parliament, the monarchy, the Church of England, the status of Dissenting religious minorities, press freedom, and financial institutions were all placed essentially on their modern foundations in a very short period between 1688 and 1713. During those years, England was transformed from a second-rate power, to all appearances trailing behind the greater monarchies of (until 1640) Spain, France, and even Sweden, into the most successful and powerful state, economy, and empire and most admired constitution of the eighteenth century. Having secured toleration on a new basis in Britain, William III also made a sincere effort to extend it to Ireland, but he was defeated by the narrower, more bigoted views of the Irish Protestants.2 Overall, though, the results were extremely impressive.

The methods and techniques used to effect this transformation, and the resources harnessed to drive the process, were in large part introduced, directly or indirectly, from abroad; and in Britain’s emergence to world leadership, the role of Dutch models, techniques, and capital eclipsed by far the input from any other quarter, though it is important not to underestimate the contributions of the Huguenots in many spheres of British endeavor. Yet in both Britain and America there has always been a certain reluctance to fully admit the extent of the debt to the Dutch and the scale of the cultural—and for that matter also the military—“invasion” accompanying the events of 1688. In some respects the story was not deemed particularly flattering to British pride and imperial pretensions, and especially not in the cultural context of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Especially glossed over until the last few years has been the arrival of the Dutch navy and army on the southwestern English coast, at Torbay, in November 1688, after they had been carried with extraordinary speed by the “Protestant wind” of that year beyond the reach of the English fleet, which was bottled up in the Thames estuary by the same wind and thus unable to get out to fight the Dutch. The Dutch expedition amounted to a full-scale invasion of the British Isles, and was opposed and condemned by the crown and Church of England. It was a foreign invasion resisted, albeit not very effectually, by England’s rightful king, James II (reigned 1685–1689), and its army and navy.

Without his seasoned troops, which were soon to be seen bivouacking in Hyde Park and Kensington, William would never have been able to take control of the country, exile the reigning king, direct Parliament to do his bidding, and arrange for himself and his consort, Mary—James’s daughter—to be proclaimed joint king and queen of England, as well as of Scotland and Ireland, in his father-in-law’s place. “The departure from Holland and arrival in England of this great fleet,” writes Jardine, “had been contrived with exceptional care, down to the very last detail.” Indeed, it had. With well over four hundred vessels and with some 3,600 cavalry and their horses, as well as 14,000 regular infantry and thousands more crewmen and volunteers, it was an armada that positively dwarfed the Spanish Armada of 1588 in both size and firepower.

It is true that the Prince of Orange would never have succeeded in this remarkably bold, not to say extremely risky, venture without a good deal of discontent with the reigning Stuart monarchy in England, and deep resentment over its increasingly absolutist pretensions and Catholic inclinations. Equally, he could not have succeeded without the support of sections of the English aristocracy and Church. But those who betrayed James and supported William were unwilling to do so openly during the first three weeks or so after the Dutch forces, supplemented by Huguenots and, later on, some hired Danish regiments, made their landing. Many wanted to see which way the wind would blow. James was the legitimate, rightful king of England, Scotland, and Ireland and disposed of the largest, most professional standing army any English monarch had ever commanded. Most of those who were to betray him in the name of the Protestant cause and the constitution did so only after they saw his authority begin to crumble as the Dutch army advanced slowly but inexorably from the west toward London, in what Jardine calls “a brilliantly stage-managed sequence of events.”

Moreover, even if the Dutch “invasion” of Britain was not unpopular at first, it certainly became so by the early months of 1689. And what was chiefly unpopular about it, as we see from the reports of prominent figures in William’s entourage back to Holland, was the change of regime enforced by the continuing presence of the Dutch army and the sudden prominence at court and in the country of a great many highly influential foreigners. Equally, in the more fiercely contested and prolonged later part of the struggle for the British thrones in Ireland between 1689 and 1691, William won not by exerting any great appeal to local sentiment or by mobilizing British support, but chiefly by maximizing his use of Dutch (and Danish and Huguenot) troops, artillery, equipment, money, and techniques and minimizing his use of British soldiery whose loyalty to himself and the new regime he rightly regarded as rather doubtful.

However, the cultural invasion, as Jardine emphasizes, long preceded the Dutch military invasions of England in 1688 and Ireland in 1689–1690. It may be that the astoundingly vigorous demand for Dutch art and design had a quite different social basis in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England than in the Netherlands itself. In Holland, then the most urbanized and commercial society in the world, it had become usual, quite differently than in the rest of Europe, for merchants and affluent tradesmen and sometimes even prosperous farmers to hang oil paintings on their walls and develop a degree of sophistication in aesthetic matters never previously known anywhere among these classes. There was little of this in Britain. Art-collecting and the art market were driven by the court and aristocracy and remained almost exclusively a preserve of the nobly born elite, who continued to dominate English culture and society as well as politics down to and far beyond the American Revolution. But this did little or nothing to limit either the scale or the range of the British appetite for Dutch painting.

Many Dutch painters and engravers came to live and work in England, especially London, after 1600 and by the time of the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, following the Civil War and the Cromwellian years, “artistic taste and artistic practice on either side of the Narrow Sea were strenuously entwined.” Perhaps the immigrant artist who had the most illustrious career was Haarlem-trained Sir Pieter Lely, who settled in London around 1643 and who, despite having previously worked for the Commonwealth and painted a portrait of Cromwell, was appointed Charles II’s principal painter and, in 1662, naturalized by Parliament. Provided with an annual pension of 200 pounds sterling, he fitted out the fashionable quarters and studios in Covent Garden and at Kew where he completed dozens of splendid portraits of members of the royal family, returning Royalists, and scions of the nobility.

Royal Cabinet of Paintings, Mauritshuis, The Hague
Gerrit Dou: The Young Mother, 1658

William III (who reigned until 1702) was keenly interested in art as well as international politics and military strategy. Scarcely had he expelled James II and replaced him as king than he carefully surveyed the English Royal Collection spread among the various palaces of the Stuarts, made a selection, and had many of the choicest pieces, especially paintings originally acquired from Holland by Charles I and Charles II, sent back to Het Loo and the other residences of the House of Orange in the Netherlands. From there, after his death in 1702, many were subsequently dispersed to royal and princely palaces in Prussia and elsewhere on the Continent.

Among the famous pictures that had hung for decades in England and subsequently remained in Holland was Gerrit Dou’s The Young Mother, today in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. This highly regarded canvas had been part of the so-called “Dutch Gift” presented to Charles II by the States General in 1660–1661. The “Dutch gift” was the result of a scheme, conceived in Amsterdam, to establish harmonious relations with the restored English monarchy. As a prelude to a special treaty of friendship designed to defuse colonial and trade rivalries between the two nations, the aim was to overwhelm Charles II and the once again flourishing and confident Stuart court with a gift so magnificent that he would forget Dutch reluctance to assist him during Cromwell’s ascendancy.

At the ceremony of presentation at the Banqueting House, Whitehall, in November 1660, the king inspected the pictures and “heartily thank’d [the Dutch ambassadors] for so worthy a present,” warmly expressing “his willingness to enter into a nearer alliance with them.” However, it was all mere words. In 1662 and 1663, as the latest study of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1664–1667) notes, vigorously “anti-Dutch mercantilist ideas became more and more central to English politics.”3 After a further rise of tension in 1664, the English crown seized New Netherland (the present-day American states of New York, Delaware, and New Jersey) from the Dutch by force, and by 1665 the two powers were formally at war.

The “Dutch Gift,” in any case, was merely the most sensational of a long series of injections of Dutch art and taste into England. William III’s grandfather, Prince Frederik Hendrik, the stadholder between 1625 and 1647, had employed the debonair and strongly Anglophile Sir Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687) as his art agent and chief diplomat in his many contacts with the art-loving court of Charles I. The English-speaking Huygens (pronounced “Huggins” by the English), though a fervent admirer of Rubens, was also highly appreciative of the abilities of younger Dutch artists, especially Rembrandt and Jan Lievens, and did much to encourage them, promote their rep- utations, and recommend their skills abroad, in particular in Britain.

Knighted for his services by James I, Huygens authorized and arranged the transfer or sale of numerous important pictures along with much else to London and took a keen interest in the literary and musical life of England no less than of his own country. A leading connoisseur of architecture and gardens, especially tree-lined parks, he was able to put some of his classicizing ideas into effect with his designs for the Mauritshuis, originally a town residence for the Stadholder’s cousin, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604–1679), who served the Dutch West India Company as its distinguished governor of Dutch (i.e., northern) Brazil during the years 1637–1644. Huygens innovated in similar ways with his own oft-visited and widely admired suburban retreat at Hofwijk, near The Hague.

Poet and patron of all the arts, Huygens, who is justly given much attention in Jardine’s book, was an enterprising figure of remarkably broad interests who also invested in at least one major English drainage project carried out along Dutch lines by Cornelis Vermuyden, the famous embankment engineer from Zeeland brought across by James I when part of the Thames overflowed in 1621. Vermuyden was yet another Dutch specialist who settled, married, and prospered in England. He performed his greatest feat in the 1640s when he drained the Great Fen in Cambridgeshire, reclaiming much valuable land for the Earl of Bedford and other investors. “The tendrils of cultural exchange and mutual influence binding Huygens’ virtuoso command of Dutch taste and style to equivalent circles in England,” as Jardine puts it, long continued and to an extent still today “extend into almost every corner of the cultural life of both nations.” Somewhat ironically, the secretary whom William III employed in 1688–1689 to assist in choosing and removing to Holland some of the choicest paintings taken from Whitehall Palace, Hampton Court, Windsor, and Kensington was none other than Huygens’s younger son, Constantijn Huygens the Younger.

The Dutch garden,” Jardine writes, “was a triumph of endeavor and ingenuity over a fundamentally unpromising environment.” Although there were significant differences between Dutch and English gardens in the seventeenth century, as there were between French and English gardens, Dutch expertise in garden layouts, tree culture, experimenting with new seeds and plants brought from outside Europe, and integrating patches of garden into town layouts, as well as drainage and water channels, undoubtedly had a considerable effect on the evolution of garden culture in Stuart England.

One of the finest of the Dutch gardens was at Sorgvliet, near The Hague. It had belonged since 1675 to William III’s favorite, Hans Willem Bentinck (circa 1649–1709), who played a large part in planning the invasion of 1688 and was subsequently rewarded with major estates in England and the title of Earl of Portland. It was no accident that William also named Bentinck “superintendent” of the English royal gardens, assigning him, among other responsibilities, oversight over the parks at Hampton Court. To claim, as Jardine does, that the “Dutch garden mentality…seeped into the English consciousness, shaping an English ideal of landscape beauty compatible with a Dutch one” is too vague, however, and probably an exaggeration. Dutch garden culture was never to any great extent “transposed” into England. But the stress on tree-lined walks and the peculiar combination of formality and parkland typical of the gardens at Hampton Court and many aristocratic country houses at the time suggest at least a brief convergence of garden cultures.

Another topic covered in Jardine’s survey of the Dutch Republic’s impact on England is mutual scientific stimu- lation, as part of the “ongoing to-and-fro exchange of ideas, influence and taste between the United Provinces and England throughout the seventeenth century.” Sir Constantijn’s other son, Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), the inventor of the pendulum clock (1656) and, in 1655, discoverer of the rings around Saturn, which he described in detail in his Systema Saturnium (System of Saturn) of 1659, was one of the best-known scientists of his century, perhaps second only to Newton in stature, and someone who, despite spending much of his career in France, also enjoyed a splendid reputation in England. His experiments and discoveries, like those of the famous microscopist Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) at Delft and the celebrated anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638–1731), were regularly reported to and discussed by the London Royal Society.

Henry Oldenburg, the German-born secretary of the Royal Society in its early years, was a regular intermediary between the worlds of English and Dutch science. Certain fields of scientific inquiry in which the Dutch tended to be ahead, such as devising lenses for microscopes with clearer images and higher levels of magnification, were evidently absorbed into English science with remarkable speed. Here both Christiaan Huygens, working at times with his brother, and the great philosopher Spinoza made notable contributions in the 1660s.

Discussing Christiaan Huygens as she does and, more generally, Dutch science at some length, it is a great pity that Jardine makes no mention anywhere in her book of Spinoza, today recalled as the single most famous inhabitant of The Hague in the decades prior to the Glorious Revolution, and along with Hobbes the most notorious freethinker of the age. For Spinoza, who learned much from Hobbes but also went beyond the great Englishman in some respects—indeed reportedly alarmed him with the unprecedented boldness of his Bible criticism and moral philosophy—was arguably the single most important European thinker of the radical Early Enlightenment.

In any case, he is unquestionably the philosopher who developed to their fullest point in Dutch thought the concepts of toleration, religious freedom, freedom of the press, democratic republicanism, and a purely secular morality detached from theology, concepts that in part derived from, but also took to their furthest logical extension, the tendencies underpinning the exceptional character of Dutch civilization.

Spinoza delivered the ultimate intellectual distillation of what made the Dutch Golden Age, in Koen Swart’s words, a “New World” to the men of his time and much of the next century. As the seventeenth-century philosopher who did most to detach philosophy and science from religion and from the constraints imposed at the time by ecclesiastical authority, whether Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or Jewish, Spinoza marks the intellectual culmination of the trends that made the Dutch Republic a model for those who wanted to break away from ancien régime society and separate fundamental values from religious authority.

Among respectable society, Spinoza’s reputation was as black in England as in Holland and the rest of Europe. But it was different among the radical fringe. Those who were more or less his direct disciples and made extensive use of his work in Britain included the deist Charles Blount (1654–1693), the highly unorthodox Anglo-Irish republican John Toland (1670–1722), and that quintessential English gentleman scholar (except that he was an atheist) Anthony Collins (1676–1729). The most important of those who continued the debate in the Dutch Republic about Spinoza’s legacy after his early death was the French Huguenot refugee and the philosophe de Rotterdam Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), but there were also many others.

If Spinoza is unaccountably missing, neither does Jardine say much about the fierce political wrangling between Whigs and Tories in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution, a rivalry often corrupt and unedifying and sometimes plain scurrilous that became part of the routine of parliamentary politics. Jardine does not make it clear that it was especially followers of the Whig political tradition, with its relatively liberal views on religious matters and suspicion of monarchy, who were attracted to the Dutch model. The Tories, with their Anglican stress on hierarchy and subordination and their greater fondness for monarchy, fostered the strongly countervailing antipathy to the Dutch that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was an equally or perhaps even more striking feature of English culture. Of the followers of James II—Jacobites—who persisted in rejecting the revolution, a majority, unsurprisingly, were “divine right” Tories who stressed the God-given origins of monarchical legitimacy as well as of social hierarchy and the moral order.

But there was also a class of radical Whig Jacobites less concerned with the reputed legitimacy of the Stuarts than with exposing what they considered the fraudulent nature of the Williamite revolution of 1688, its “unfulfilled expectations and betrayed promises,” as it has been aptly put.4 They regarded William as an impostor who had broken his promises and hence the mandate he had brought with him from Holland, and as a usurper who now aspired to preside from the throne over what one of them, Robert Ferguson, called “our unthinking soft-headed, Church of England monarchical men,” even if large numbers of the latter remained permanently alienated.

That Jardine omits any discussion of the deep splits in post-1688 British politics and ideological debate is unfortunate for the overall structure of her argument. This failure to take account of the Revolution’s opponents and bring out the importance of the strong and enduring antagonism toward the Dutch in Britain—something that was at its most intense in but by no means exclusively confined to Tory circles—produces an exaggerated, oversimplified picture of shared tastes, harmony, and convergence of ideas. There were after all three hard-fought and extremely nasty Anglo-Dutch wars in the seventeenth century (1652–1654, 1664–1667, and 1672–1674) and another in the eighteenth century (1780–1784), all four of which arose out of long-running disputes. These conflicts were characterized by an element of English aggression triggered by exasperation, resentment, and downright hostility toward Dutch commercial prosperity, maritime success, and imperial pretensions.

A final flaw in the balance and veracity of the picture presented here is the fact that Jardine’s book is based on English-language primary and secondary sources alone. Her failure to make use of Dutch-language sources is a not inconsiderable weakness that everywhere detracts by causing gaps and a pervasive unevenness in the quality of her account; it is also one reason for the relatively large number of factual inaccuracies. Thus, for example, it was not the “States General” but the States of Holland that excluded the House of Orange from holding high offices in that province “ever again,” and this happened not in 1653 as suggested but in May 1654 and not exactly “under pressure from Cromwell.” Likewise, it is not true that the Dutch were “deeply concerned” in 1685 that James II strengthened the position of practicing Catholics in Britain. There is no Dutch evidence for this and anyhow the position of Catholics was generally better in the United Provinces than in England throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is a magnificent subject tackled by a talented historian. But it has to be said that the execution does not match up to the concept or what the topic deserves.

  1. 1

    K.W. Swart, The Miracle of the Dutch Republic as Seen in the Seventeenth Century (London: University College London/H.K. Lewis, 1969), p. 3.

  2. 2

    Wout Troost, William III, the Stadholder-King: A Political Biography, translated from the Dutch by J.C. Grayson (Ashgate, 2005), p. 292.

  3. 3

    Gijs Rommelse, The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667): Raison d’état, Mercantilism and Maritime Strife (Hilversum: Verloren, 2006), p. 199.

  4. 4

    Mark Goldie and Clare Jackson, “Williamite Tyranny and the Whig Jacobites,” in Redefining William III: The Impact of the King-Stadholder in International Context, edited by Esther Mijers and David Onnekink (Ashgate, 2007), pp. 177–199, quote on p. 181.