The Story of Nations - Holland/Chapter 3

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In early days, the dukedoms, countships, and other titles of nobility, coupled as they always were with the lordship over estates, and the inhabitants thereof, were merely official, and were not intended to descend from father to son. But they soon became hereditary, and those who held this rank strove with great success to make themselves independent. In France and Germany, at the beginning of the eleventh century, the king and emperor had less power than many of their nominal subjects. After centuries of labour in this direction, the king of France contrived to bring his nobles into subjection. But at the beginning of the present century, there were nigh upon four hundred independent princes and kinglets in Germany.

At a crisis in French history, the Court lawyers of France declared that women could neither sit on the throne nor transmit a title to it through their descendants. The result of the English claim to the throne of France was a war which lasted for a hundred years, off and on, and a claim to sovereignty over France which was only relinquished in the present century. From the accession of Hugh Capet (978) to the present time this family has never lacked male descendants. No other such regal house has existed in Europe. In England the royal house has died out on the male side no less than five times, and the inheritance has passed to or through females.

But the great peerages, duchies, and other titles in the French kingdom were not under the so-called Salic law. It was by female descent that the English King Henry II. (1154-1189) possessed or claimed the whole seaboard of France, from the mouth of the Seine to the mouth of the Rhone. A woman, therefore, could transmit the rights of her ancestor over his subjects to a stranger, and thus the marriages of princes have changed from time to time the political geography of Europe. The domains of the house of Austria were built up by fortunate marriages. It was by such marriages that the Netherlands came first into the power of the Dukes of Burgundy, and thence to the Spanish branch of the Austrian line.

The origin of the house of Burgundy, so powerful during the fifteenth century and so tragically concluded, was a grant of that Duchy, the principal town of which was Dijon, made by John of France (1351-1364), called the Good, most undeservedly, to his youngest son. Towards the conclusion of the fourteenth century, this family had become powerful, and exercised a disastrous influence over the fortunes of France. When Charles the Sixth of France became insane (1392), this Duke of Burgundy became regent. He died in 1404. His son murdered the Duke of Orleans in 1407, and was himself murdered by the Dauphin in 1419 at Montereau. His son, who goes by the historical name of Philip the Good, most undeservedly, ruled his duchy down to 1467.

This Philip the Good, besides his own duchy, had inherited in the Netherlands the counties of Flanders and Artois. He purchased the county of Namur. He usurped the Duchy of Brabant. He dispossessed his cousin Jacqueline of Holland, Zealand, Hainault, and Friesland, these several counties or provinces ,having descended to her by the same kind of succession. His dominions extended from the foot of the Alps to the German Ocean, and comprised what was then the wealthiest part of Northern Europe. The original provinces of the Netherlands were seventeen, and he was now overlord of all.

In these times, it became a current doctrine among princes and their counsellors that subjects, especially those engaged in industry, and on whose industry not only the wealth, but the very existence of the country depended, had no rights against their lords. This was the view entertained by the English James, and constantly asserted by him. In pursuance of this doctrine it was held that no plighted word, no promise, no oath was binding on a sovereign, and that a temporary limitation of his powers, declared by him to be perpetual, was no more valid than a pledge given under threats. James vapoured about his divine rights. His son Charles tried to put the thing into practice, with the most disastrous consequences to himself.

In earlier times, the word or the oath of the king was binding. But the Popes, always for a consideration, assumed the power of freeing the king from his oaths, and of holding him harmless if he committed perjury. The English people did not relish the doctrine, and they took short and sharp measures with the two kings, John and Henry the Third, who availed themselves of these pontifical assurances. John would have been deposed, but for his opportune death. Henry would have been deposed, but he was old, and his son, whose word could be trusted, broke with the custom.

As the political authority of the Pope was lessened, the European princes took the option of keeping the pledges which they had made or inherited with their dominions into their own hands. They did not do it in England, for there were some awkward precedents of resistance and deposition which the most masterful and haughty of the English kings remembered and dreaded. A cynical Frenchman of the eighteenth century was wont to say, that on January 30th every European king woke up in the morning with a crick in his neck. There were other days which the English kings thought of before 1649, when they were tempted to tamper with popular liberties.

At the time when Philip, surnamed the Good, acquired the complete and undivided sovereignty of the Netherlands, that country had reached the height of its prosperity, and the full enjoyment of its chartered liberties. The sovereign had his authority. The nobles had their place in the Council. But the municipal authorities, though checked by these two forces, had a solid and substantial influence over both. The form of these institutions was oligarchical, the fact was that they were popular, for the burghers were too strong and too turbulent to be disregarded.

In the assemblies of the estates, the authority of the prince was represented by the stadtholder, in the absence of the prince. When the Netherlands were united under one sovereign the stadtholder became a permanent institution, as well as a convenient substitute. He checked the overbold demands of the towns, and asked the estates to grant taxes, or more frequently lump sums to their lords. The nobles voted on the request. The cities, if they had received instructions to do so, bargained as to the grant. If they had not, they claimed a day or an adjournment, in order to consult their principals. Unfortunately the deputies came with limited powers, and the cities were jealous of each other. The engrained habit of municipal isolation was the cause why the general liberties of the Netherlands were imperilled, why the larger part of the country was ultimately ruined, and why the war of independence was conducted with so much risk and difficulty, even in the face of the most serious perils.

It is important here, however, in telling the story of Holland, to mention another fact in the social condition of the country, which found no place in the previous description of its resources and powers. At a comparatively early period, the date of which is uncertain, the Flemish and Dutch fishermen devoted themselves with great success to the herring fishery, and subsequently to improvements in the art of curing them. The merit of these discoveries was ascribed to Beukelszoon of Biervliet in Zealand, who died in 1447. But, on the other hand, the most authentic account of the process makes no mention of the man, but only of the place. It is probable that the reputation of Beukelszoon is due to the fact that Charles V. and his sister paid a visit to his tomb and offered up prayers for his soul.

We cannot in our days imagine how important were the fisheries to our forefathers, and how interested they were in any process which efficiently cured fish. Owing to the absence of nearly all kinds of winter food for animals, except hay, the diet of most persons during the winter was salted provisions. But the discipline of the Church prescribed a fish diet during divers periods of the year, and the consumption of salted fish was enormous. The fisheries of the German Ocean, at first frequented by the Flemings and subsequently almost occupied by the Hollanders, became a mine of wealth, second only to the manufactures and commerce of the Flemish cities. They were also the nursery of the Dutch navy, of those amphibious mariners who struck the first blow for Dutch independence, and became the ancestors of that succession of brave sea captains, who crushed the maritime supremacy of Spain, founded the Batavian empire of Holland in the tropics, engaged in an unequal struggle with England, and sustained for a century the reputation of Holland, after its real commercial greatness had declined. Though Holland was constantly in danger from the ocean, it was from the ocean that she derived her wealth and her means for fighting in the struggle for independence. She chose with reason the symbol which she adopted for her flag—a lion struggling with the waves, and her motto, Luctor et emergo, “I struggle, I rise.”

For a time Philip had been the guardian of his cousin Jacqueline of Holland, and in this capacity he had sworn to maintain the privileges and institutions of the Netherlands. But after he had dispossessed his ward, he notified to the cities and estates, through the Council of Holland, that all these oaths were to be deemed null and void, unless he gave them his new and personal confirmation. He held himself bound by no obligation, and acted to the full on the doctrine that there was nothing binding on a prince—a doctrine by no means extinct in the present generation, as European peoples have found to their cost. It may be well to illustrate the action which he took after he had declared this judgment of his own, as to his true position and rights.

The alliance of the English with the Dukes of Burgundy was essential towards their maintaining the position which they won by the battle of Agincourt and the subsequent successes of the Duke of Bedford, who had married Philip’s sister. After her death Bedford instantly married a Flemish heiress, as his brother Gloucester had sought the hand of another Flemish heiress, to Philip’s great indignation eight years before (1424). But it was not till after the death of Bedford in 1435, that Philip made his peace with the French king and so virtually expelled the English from Eastern France. In the next year he declared war against England, and appealed to the burghers and nobles of Flanders, for means and men. It was granted or promised, but we may be sure with a heavy heart, for a rupture with England was a serious injury to Flemish industry. It will be seen that their hearts were not in the struggle.

In the early summer of 1436 Philip determined to lay siege to Calais, the port which gave the English an entry at once into France and Flanders. He marched with 14,000 Flemish troops to invest the place, and bade the seneschal of Brabant to close the port by the fleet of Holland. But the fleet was long in coming; Calais was strengthened and provisioned, and the seneschal was forced to retire. The English made a sally, the Flemings fled in disorder, the siege was raised, and Philip was forced to disband his army.

The discontent which followed on this unlucky expedition and on the reprisals which were taken in consequence, excited the most violent disturbances in Flanders. The cities of Ghent and Bruges were conspicuous in their indignation. In the former they killed or banished those whom they believed to have caused the miscarriage of the expedition; in the latter where the Duchess of Burgundy and her young son, afterwards Charles the Headstrong, were residing, they detained them as they were flying, and imprisoned their attendants. When Philip gained an entry into Bruges, partly by negotiation, partly by a display of force, the insurrection broke out. For a time the duke was confined in the city, and was in great danger. He escaped however, blockaded the city, and with it put a stop to Flemish commerce. At last half-starved and ruined for a time, with the loss of 20,000 persons by famine and pestilence, the city surrendered, paid an enormous fine to their duke, and practically yielded their municipal privileges to his discretion. The Flemings were beginning to find that their prosperity was risked on the intrigues of royal and princely persons. But for some time Philip abstained from further interference in the war.

In 1448 Philip attempted to impose a new tax on salt, by his own will and without the consent of the Estates. The people of Ghent took energetic steps in defence of their liberties. After a struggle of four years’ duration, Ghent was reduced to submission was heavily fined and deprived of many of its ancient privileges. “The Flemish city which had long been the centre of Flemish liberties, now fell under a heavy and humiliating yoke.” I refer to these facts, in order to show that as the Netherlands were united under one sovereign, the liberties which had been granted to them were imperilled. Meanwhile the Duke of Burgundy had striven to raise a party on his own side among the nobles, by instituting the Order of the Golden Fleece.