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JOHAN VAN OLDENBARNEVELDT (1547-1619)

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Originally appearing in Volume V20, Page 71 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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JOHAN VAN OLDENBARNEVELDT (1547-1619), Dutch statesman, was born at Amersfoort on the 14th of September 1547. The family from which he claimed descent was of ancient lineage. After studying law at Louvain, Bourges and Heidelberg, and travelling in France and Italy, Oldenbarneveldt settled down to practise in the law courts at the Hague. In religion a moderate Calvinist, he threw himself with ardour into the revolt against Spanish tyranny and became a zealous adherent of William the Silent. He served as a volunteer for the relief of Haarlem (1573) and again at Leiden (1574). In 1576 he obtained the important post of pensionary of Rotterdam, an office which carried with it official membership of the States of Holland. In this capacity his industry, singular grasp of affairs, and persuasive powers of speech speedily gained for him a position of influence. He was active in promoting the Union of Utrecht (1579) and the acceptance of the courtship of Holland and Zeeland by William (1584) On the assassination of Orange it was at the proposal of Oldenbarneveldt that the youthful Maurice of Nassau was at once elected stadholder, captain-general and admiral of Holland. During the governorship of Leicester he was the leader of the strenuous opposition offered by the States of Holland to the centralizing policy of the governor. In 1586 he was appointed, in succession to Paul Buys, to the post of Land's Advocate of Holland. This great office, which he held for 32 years, gave to a man of commanding ability and industry unbounded influence in a many-headed republic without any central executive authority. Though nominally the servant of the States of Holland he made himself politically the personification of the province which bore more than half the entire charge of the union, and as its mouthpiece in the states-general he practically dominated that assembly. In a brief period he became entrusted with such large and far-reaching authority in all the details of administration, as to be virtually " minister of all affairs." During the two critical years which followed the withdrawal of Leicester, it was the statesmanship of the advocate which kept the United Provinces from falling asunder through their own inherent separatist tendencies, and prevented them from becoming an easy conquest to the formidable army of Alexander of Parma. Fortunately for the Netherlands the attention of Philip was at their time of greatest weakness riveted upon his contemplated invasion of England, and a respite was afforded which enabled Oldenbarneveldt to supply the lack of any central organized government by gathering into his own hands the control of administrative affairs. His task was made the easier by the whole-hearted support he received from Maurice of Nassau, who, after 1589, held the Stadholderate of five provinces, and was likewise captain-general and admiral of the union. The interests and ambitions of the two men did not clash, for Maurice's thoughts were centred on the training and leadership of armies and he had no special capacity as a statesman or inclination for politics. The first rift between them came in 1600, when Maurice was forced against his will by the states-general, under the advocate's influence, to undertake an expedition into Flanders, which was only saved from disaster by desperate efforts which ended in victory at Nieuwport. In 1598 Oldenbarneveldt took part in special embassies to Henry IV. and Elizabeth, and again in 16o5 in a special mission sent to congratulate James I. on his accession. The opening of negotiations by Albert and Isabel in 16o6 for a peace or long truce led to a great division of opinion in the Netherlands. The archdukes having consented to treat with the United Provinces " as free provinces and states over which they had no pretensions," Oldenbarneveldt, who had with him the States of Holland and the majority of burgher regents throughout the county, was for peace, provided that liberty of trading was conceded. Maurice and his cousin William Louis, stadholder of Frisia, with the military and naval leaders and the Calvinist clergy, were opposed to it, on the ground that the Spanish king was merely seeking an interval of repose in which to recuperate his strength for a renewed attack on the independence of the Netherlands. For some three years the negotiations went on, but at last after endless parleying, on the 9th of April 1609, a truce for twelve years was concluded. All that the Dutch asked was directly or indirectly granted, and Maurice felt obliged to give a reluctant and somewhat sullen assent to the favourable conditions obtained by the firm and skilful diplomacy of the advocate. The immediate effect of the truce was a strengthening of Oldenbarneveldt's influence in the government of the republic, now recognized as a "free and independent state"; external peace, however, was to bring with it internal strife. For some years there had been a war of words between the religious parties, known as the Gomarists (strict Calvinists) and the Arminians (moderate Calvinists). In 16ro the Arminians drew up a petition, known as the Remonstrance, in which they asked that their tenets (defined in five articles) should be submitted to a national synod, summoned by the civil government. It was no secret that this action of the Arminians was taken with the approval and connivance of the advocate, who was what was styled a libertine, i.e. an upholder of the principle of toleration in religious opinions. The Gomarists in reply drew up a Contra-Remonstrance in seven articles, and appealed to a purely church synod. The whole land was henceforth divided into Remonstrants and Contra-Remonstrants; the States of Holland under the influence of Oldenbarneveldt supported the former, and refused to sanction the summoning of a purely church synod (1613). They likewise (1614) forbade the preachers in the Province of Holland to treat of disputed subjects from their pulpits. Obedience was difficult to enforce without military help, riots broke out in certain towns, and when Maurice was appealed to, as captain-general, he declined to act. He did more, though in no sense a theologian; he declared himself on the side of the Contra-Remonstrants, and established a preacher of that persuasion in a church at the Hague (1617). The advocate now took a bold step. He proposed that theStates of Holland should, on their own authority, as a sovereign province, raise a local force of 4000 men (waardgelders) to keep the peace. The states-general meanwhile by a bare majority (4 provinces to 3) agreed to the summoning of a national church synod. The States of Holland, also by a narrow majority, refused their assent to this, and passed (August 4, 1617) a strong resolution (Sckerpe Resolutie) by which all magistrates, officials and soldiers in the pay of the province were required to take an oath of obedience to the states on pain of dismissal, and were to be held accountable not to the ordinary tribunals, but to the States of Holland. It was a declaration of sovereign independence on the part of Holland, and the states-general took up the challenge and determined on decisive action. A commission was appointed with Maurice at its head to compel the disbanding of the waardgelders. On the 31st of July 1618 the stadholder appeared at Utrecht, which had thrown in its lot with Holland, at the head of a body of troops, and at his command the local levies at once laid down their arms. His progress through the towns of Holland met with no opposition. The states party was crushed without a blow being struck. On the 23rd of August, by order of the states-general, the advocate and his chief supporters, de Groot and Hoogerbeets, were arrested. Oldenbarneveldt was with his friends kept in the strictest confinement until November, and then brought for examination before a commission appointed by the states-general. He appeared more than sixty times before the commissioners and was examined most severely upon the whole course of his official life, and was, most unjustly, allowed neither to consult papers nor to put his defence in writing. On the loth of February 1619 he was arraigned before a special court of twenty-four members, only half of whom were Hollanders, and nearly all of them his personal enemies. It was in no sense a legal court, nor had it any jurisdiction over the prisoner, but the protest of the advocate, who claimed his right to be tried by the sovereign province of Holland, whose servant he was, was disregarded. He was allowed no advocates, nor the use of documents, pen or paper. It was in fact not a trial at all, and the packed bench of judges on Sunday, the 12th of May, pronounced sentence of death. On the following day the old statesman, at the age of seventy-one, was beheaded in the Binnenhof at the Hague. Such, to use his own words, was his reward for serving his country forty-three years. The accusations brought against Oldenbarneveldt of having been a traitor to his country, whose interests he had betrayed for foreign gold, have no basis in fact. The whole life of the advocate disproves them, and not a shred of evidence has ever been produced to throw suspicion upon the patriot statesman's conduct. All his private papers fell into the hands of his foes, but not even the bitterest and ablest of his personal enemies, Francis Aarssens (see AARSSENS), could extract from them anything to show that Oldenbarneveldt at any time betrayed his country's interests. That he was an ambitious man, fond of power, and haughty in his attitude to those who differed from him in opinion, may be granted, but it must also be conceded that he sought for power in order to confer invaluable services upon his country, and that impatience of opposition was not unnatural in a man who had exercised an almost supreme control of administrative affairs for upwards of three decades. His high-handed course of action in defence of what he conceived to be the sovereign rights of his own province of Holland to decide upon religious questions within its borders may be challenged on the ground of inexpediency, but not of illegality. The harshness of the treatment meted out by Maurice to his father's old friend, the faithful counsellor and protector of his own early years, leaves a stain upon the stadholder's memory which can never be washed away. That the prince should have felt compelled in the last resort to take up arms for the Union against the attempt of the province of Holland to defy the authority of the Generality may be justified by the plea reipublicae sales suprema lex. To eject the advocate from power was one thing, to execute him as a traitor quite another. The condemnation of Oldenbarneveldt was carried out with Maurice's consent and approval, and he cannot be acquitted of a prominent share in what posterity has pronounced to be a judicial murder. Oldenbarneveldt was married in 1575 to Maria van Utrecht. He left two sons, the lords of Groeneveld and Stoutenburg, and two daughters. A conspiracy against the life of Maurice, in which the sons of Oldenbarneveldt took part, was discovered in 1623. Stoutenburg, who was the chief accomplice, made his escape and entered the service of Spain; Groeneveld was executed.
End of Article: JOHAN VAN OLDENBARNEVELDT (1547-1619)
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