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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.

  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.

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