History of the Low Countries

By J. C. H. Blom; E. Lamberts et al. | Go to book overview

4 The Dutch Republic, 1588-1780

A. T. van Deursen

By the late sixteenth century, the northern portion of the Low Countries had successfully resisted the formidable power of the Spanish empire. Supported by England and France, the rebellious provinces won crucial military victories over the Spanish, in part because Philip II concentrated his forces against France. A wide range of the local population supported the revolt, but with the cessation of hostilities in the Twelve Years' Truce ( 1609-1621), the Dutch Republic became badly divided along religious lines, and this led to political turmoil. The Dutch Republic's political will to retake the southern provinces from Spain declined for various reasons, and a permanent division between north and south was largely a fact by 1609, although this boundary was not formally recognized until the Peace of Münster in 1648.

The Dutch Republic underwent explosive economic growth during the first half of the seventeenth century, benefitting from the domestic problems which beset its potential trading rivals, France and England. The Republic's wealth also fostered a cultural life that reached unprecedented heights of achievement.

Dutch power declined in the face of a resurgent England and France, and by the mid-eighteenth century the Republic had become a small power which sought to avoid military conflicts. Its economy, too, contracted and only a small elite managed to retain their wealth. The Dutch Republic, led by the stadholders from the House of Orange, became an oligarchy. Increasingly, the Republic's economic woes and the policies of the oligarchy fostered resentment among the middle classes, prompting them increasingly to challenge the Republic's ailing institutions.

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