Religious Bigotry in the Kingdom of the Netherlands

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF VINCENT VAN GOGH

By Jean-Pierre Isbouts, Fielding Graduate University

Back in the 16th century, the birth of the European Reformation coincided with the strong desire of the northern part of the Netherlands to break away from the Spanish Empire and establish a democratic republic—one of the first in Europe, and indeed the world. After a bitter Eighty Years’ War, these people succeeded in their quest and formed the Seven Provinces of Holland, which went on to become one of the most powerful seafaring nations of the 17th century.

Painting of Napoleon on horseback reviewing soldiers before a battle
The Napoleon era was the period for the reunification of the north and south of the Netherlands when a new political territory called the Kingdome of the Netherlands came into existence. (Image: Horace Vernet/Public domain)
Portrait of Cornelis de Houtman
Cornelis de Houtman’s discovery of a new trade route to East India resulted in Holland’s monopoly on the spice trade. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Dutch Achievements

In 1596, a mariner called Cornelis de Houtman charted the first sea route to the East Indies, today’s Indonesia, thus securing for Holland a virtual monopoly on the spice trade. 

A decade later, another Dutch captain, Willem Janszoon, discovered a large landmass that became known as Terra Australis Incognita, or the ‘Unknown Land in the South’. Today, we call that land mass Australia.

The Dutch were justifiably proud of their achievements, which were celebrated in elaborate, hand-colored maps—as well as paintings by the artists of the Dutch Golden Age, such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. 

Its far-flung trade network made Holland one of the leading Protestant powers of its day. And in a sharp break with their former Spanish overlords, the Dutch embraced the faith tradition espoused by John Calvin, known as Calvinism, albeit with a profound Dutch flavor.

Establishing the Kingdom of the Netherlands

Artist impression of the ship Duyfken, Willem Janszoon’s ship
Willem Janszoon, a Dutch captain, discovered Australia during one of his voyages. (Image: Fred. B Sibed/Public domain)

The southern part of the Netherlands below the rivers, however, wasn’t so lucky. This territory, which then included Brabant as well as today’s Belgium and Luxembourg, remained firmly in the grip of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty. That also meant that it remained staunchly Catholic. 

That situation would not change until the 19th century, after the Netherlands had been conquered by Napoleon. Only in 1815 were the north and south formally reunited in a new political entity: the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Not Friends After All

In practice, of course, this union meant little. By then, the north still cherished its legacy as one of the greatest sea powers in history, whereas the south, and particularly Brabant, remained a rural region of little consequence. In fact, it now became little more than a colony to the new government, which was located in the city of The Hague. 

The House of Orange, the Dutch royal house, was fervently Protestant and looked on the Catholic peasants of Brabant with barely disguised contempt. Among other restrictions, the king did not allow the south to build Catholic churches with public funds.

That is why most of the churches in this region, not only in Zundert but in other cities as well, were not built until the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century.

This article comes directly from content in the video series In the Footsteps of Vincent van GoghWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Religious Bigotry Didn’t Help

Little surprise, then, that the Protestants from the north were viewed with deep suspicion by the people in the south. People are always surprised to hear that such sharp divisions could exist in a tiny country like the Netherlands, but they were very real. 

For example, if one went to school in the late 1950s—at a proper Catholic school, of course—they would be under strict orders not to mingle with the boys from the Protestant school. This illustrates the intense prejudice between these two regions, even within living memory. 

Today, it appears that most of these divisions have melted away—not only because of the rapid commercial integration, but also because Holland is now an overwhelmingly secular country. Most of its churches are empty, or have been converted to offices, or even apartment buildings. .

Common Questions about the Religious Bigotry in the Kingdom of the Netherlands

Q: What were some examples of seafaring achievements after the establishment of the seven provinces of Holland?

The Seven Provinces of Holland went on to become one of the most powerful seafaring nations of the 17th century. In 1596, a mariner called Cornelis de Houtman charted the first sea route to the East Indies, today’s Indonesia, thus securing for Holland a virtual monopoly on the spice trade. A decade later, another Dutch captain, Willem Janszoon, discovered a large landmass that became known as Terra Australis Incognita, or the ‘Unknown Land in the South’. Today, we call that land mass Australia. The Dutch were justifiably proud of their achievements.

Q: How was the Kingdom of the Netherlands established?

The north and south parts of the Netherlands were not unified until a foreign power conquered those territories in the 19th century. Only after Napoleon had conquered them in 1815 were the north and south formally reunited in a new political entity: the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Q: Why didn’t the unification of the north and south of the Netherlands go well?

The northern part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands still cherished its legacy as one of the greatest sea powers in history, whereas the south, and particularly Brabant, remained a rural region of little consequence. Moreover, the Dutch royal house was fervently Protestant and looked on the Catholic peasants of Brabant with barely disguised contempt. Among other restrictions, the king did not allow the south to build Catholic churches with public funds. Understandable, the Protestants from the north were viewed with deep suspicion by the people in the south. So, in practice, this union meant little.

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