Johan van Oldenbarnevelt

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Johan van Oldenbarnevelt
Signature Johan van Oldenbarnevelt.PNG

Johan van Oldenbarnevelt (born September 14, 1547 in Amersfoort , † May 13, 1619 in The Hague ) was a Dutch statesman and is considered the founder of the Republic of the United Netherlands .


Origin and beginning of political career

Even if he later repeatedly claimed that he came from a noble family, Oldenbarnevelt was a simple citizen. Born in the small town of Amersfoort near Utrecht , he converted to Calvinism in 1568 and studied in Heidelberg , a stronghold of this radical Protestant faith. Back in the Netherlands, he specialized as a lawyer in dike law. At this time the Netherlands rebelled against their Catholic sovereign, King Philip II of Spain. Oldenbarnevelt joined the insurgents. When they broke the dikes of the besieged city of Leiden in 1574 in order to be able to come to the aid of those trapped across the water, Oldenbarnevelt was entrusted with the supervision of this company. He won the trust of the leader of the insurgents, Prince William of Orange . He was inducted into the estates of the Province of Holland, the States of Holland, and in 1586 Country Counselor, Legal Adviser to the States.

Counselor of Holland

At this point in time, the rebels were in a desperate situation: two years earlier, their leader, William of Orange, had been murdered. The Spaniards had recaptured all of the southern provinces of the Netherlands (which at that time included what is now Belgium and Luxembourg and part of northern France), including the seat of government Brussels and the trading metropolis of Antwerp , by far the largest Dutch city. It seemed only a matter of time before the divided northern provinces fell back to the Spaniards.

However, Oldenbarnevelt managed to get the English Queen Elizabeth I to intervene. She sent an expeditionary force led by her favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester . Later, Oldenbarnevelt also won the France of Henry IV - the famous Henri Quatre - as an ally. Internally, he stabilized the situation by giving the rebellious provinces a focus of power: the states of Holland, the government of the most populous and prosperous province. The function of country advocate did not seem particularly important at first, but Oldenbarnevelt gradually expanded this position. Finally, everything came together with him. With a current term one could therefore refer to him as the head of government of the Netherlands.

Rise to a politician of European stature

In the 1590s, Spain not only waged war against the Dutch, but also against the English and French. This caused his powers to be overstrained. The emerging Republic of the United Netherlands took advantage of this by recapturing a number of important cities and regions. These military operations were directed by the young governor Moritz von Oranien , a son of Prince Wilhelm. His large army could only be financed because the Netherlands experienced an enormous economic boom, mainly thanks to the 150,000 or so Calvinist refugees who had emigrated to the north from the Spanish-ruled south of the country. Oldenbarnevelt fueled this upswing by, for example, supporting the draining of lakes and coastal waters, promoting expeditions such as the Willem Barents' search for a north-eastern sea route to Asia, and in 1602 enforcing the merger of competing trading companies to form the United East India Compagnie (VOC), the first joint stock company of the History.

The armistice with Spain

Nevertheless, the war against Spain was so costly that Oldenbarnevelt finally initiated peace negotiations. This estranged him from part of the population, especially the Calvinists who had fled Flanders and Brabant, who viewed this as treason. Moritz von Orange was also against it. Ultimately, they could not agree on a peace, among other things because the Spaniards demanded complete freedom of belief for Catholics and an end to Dutch trade with the East Indies . However, a compromise was reached: in 1609, the two countries signed a twelve-year armistice. The Dutch trade continued to expand after that, as it no longer had to suffer from privateers from the Spanish Netherlands; in addition, Spain and Portugal were added as new markets. However, many large merchants from port cities such as Amsterdam and Middelburg resented Oldenbarnevelt for having committed to the Spanish not to found a West Indian company during the armistice. Trade with South America was thus reserved for the Spanish and Portuguese.

Religious tension

As soon as the external threat disappeared, religious tensions in the Netherlands became evident. A dispute had broken out among the Calvinists between the moderate Jacobus Arminius and the orthodox Franciscus Gomarus . After the followers of Arminius had summarized their confession in a remonstrance , they were called remonstrants , their opponents, the followers of strict doctrine, counter-demonstrators . Oldenbarnevelt did not take sides in this religious dispute. However, he rejected the demand of the counter-demonstrators to convene a national synod in order to have the views of the outnumbered Remonstrants stamped as heresy. He viewed such an all-Dutch synod as a violation of the sovereignty of the province of Holland. According to Oldenbarnevelt, both currents should coexist.

Power struggle with Moritz of Orange

However, the conflict escalated and there were real street battles. For tactical reasons, Prince Moritz openly took a position for the contraremonstrants in 1617. He wasn't really interested in questions of faith, but he was firmly convinced that Oldenbarnevelt was leading the country into civil war. This impression seemed to be confirmed when the states of Holland passed a “sharp resolution” less than two weeks later, which allowed the city councils to recruit mercenaries to protect public order. As commander in chief of the army, Moritz viewed this as high treason. The following year he moved out with his armed forces and disbanded the newly recruited troops. With this, Oldenbarnevelt had lost the power struggle with Moritz.

Arrest, trial and execution

On the morning of August 29, 1618, Oldenbarnevelt was arrested while entering the government buildings in The Hague. The same happened to his closest confidants, such as the famous legal scholar Hugo Grotius , whom Oldenbarnevelt had chosen as his successor. In a classic military coup, Moritz now deposed all of Oldenbarnevelt's supporters and assigned the vacant posts to his own followers. Oldenbarnevelt was brought before a special court, which was largely composed of bitter opponents of the fallen politician. On May 12, 1619, the death sentence was brought to him, and on the morning of the following day the 71-year-old was beheaded in front of the knight's hall in the Binnenhof .

The beheading of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt in the inner courtyard of The Hague , 13 May 1619.

Oldenbarnevelt's legacy

As expected, a national synod held in Dordrecht rejected the views of the remonstrants, who were then only able to hold their services in secret. The Landsadvokat was renamed Ratspensionär in order to erase the memory of Oldenbarnevelt. However, the political structures he had created remained. Although the position of governor had been significantly strengthened by the coup, after the death of Prince Moritz in 1625, the states of Holland were gradually able to regain their central position of power until they came under leadership of the republic in the first period without governor (1650–1672) dominated again by pensioner Johan de Witt .


A passenger ship of the Stoomvaart Maatschappij "Nederland" , which was put into service in 1930, was named after Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. It had sailed under the name Lakonia under the Greek flag since 1963 and sank in the same year after a fire.


  • Christoph Driessen : History of the Netherlands. From sea power to trend length , Regensburg 2009
  • Jonathan Israel : The Dutch Republic, Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall , Oxford 1995
  • Ben Knapen: De man en zijn state. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt , Amsterdam 2005
  • Jan den Tex: Oldenbarnevelt , Cambridge 1973

See also

Web links

Commons : Johan van Oldenbarnevelt  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Illustration by Frans Hogenberg from 1619: Illustration of the Iustitien Geschehen In S'Graven Haege, 13 May 1619 To Iohan Von Olden Barnevelt ... ( digitized version )
  2. Prentenkabinet Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen , BdH 20120 (PK), Rotterdam.
predecessor Office successor
Paulus Buys Counselor of Holland
Andries de Witt