The Death of Johan de Witt

Johan de Witt was a prominent figure within the Dutch Republic during the mid-17th century, during a period now known as the Dutch Golden Age. A period of rapid globalisation saw the Dutch Republic establish itself as a major European power, its powerful navy allowing it to claim a significant share of global trade. Johan de Witt served as Grand Pensionary, the most senior Dutch official during this period, for nearly 20 years. Despite his success, his reign came to an end during 1672, referred to as ‘the disaster year’ amongst the Dutch, when was lynched by an angry mob alongside his brother. Both men had their livers removed, which were roasted and eaten by the mob.

De Witt excelled in academia as a young man, studying mathematics and law at Leiden University before being awarded his doctorate from the University of Angers in 1645. After practicing law in the Hague for several years he was appointed pensionary of Dordrecht in 1650. He had four children, three daughters and a son.

A portrait of de Witt in 1652. Image: Christie’s

In 1653, de Witt was elected councilor pensionary of Holland. With Holland being the most powerful province in the Dutch Republic, he became the de facto political leader of the United Provinces as a whole. His role was often referred to as Grand Pensionary by non-Dutch Europeans, broadly analogous with prime minister in other countries but without a head of state above them.

De Witt achieved a number of successes during his period as pensionary, including ending the First Anglo-Dutch War with the Treaty of Westminster. Following the treaty, the Dutch Republic grew rapidly in terms of both wealth and influence under his leadership, strengthening their navy and appointing his key allies to senior naval commands. 

Despite his successes, internal opposition to his rule steadily grew. De Witt’s republican support drew primarily from the merchant class, while an opposing, traditionalist ‘Orange Faction’ grew amongst the middle class that wished to see a member of the Dutch House of Orange appointed head of state. By 1672, this support had massed behind William of Orange, the Stadholder of Holland (broadly analogous to a Duke) and future William III of England. 

In April 1672, both France and England declared war on the Dutch Republic. With Orangist sympathy mounting within the Republic, de Witt was badly wounded in an attempted assassination on 21st June. He resigned as Grand Pensionary a few weeks later. However, his political opponents continued to conspire against him, including arresting his brother and close ally Cornelis on charges of treason. Despite being tortured, Cornelis refused to confess, and was subsequently sentenced to exile.

A painting depicting the murder of the de Witt brothers. Image: Haags Historisch Museum

Johan paid a visit to his brother at the jail where he was being held ahead of his departure into exile. While there, a mob formed outside, while members of the Hague’s civic milita seized the two men. Both were shot before being handed over to the mob. Both had their naked, mutilated bodies hanged from a nearby public gibbet, while members of the Orangist mob cut out their livers before roasting and eating them. Some observers reported a strange discipline within the mob despite the horrific killings and mutilations, suggesting that the attack may have been premeditated rather than a spontaneous act of mob violence.

The States of Holland empowered William of Orange a few days after de Witt’s death. City councils were purged of Republican supporters, while Orangist protests demanded additional measures including the reinstatement of former ‘ancient privilege’ rights held by both civic militia and guilds. After entrenching himself as the effective head of state in the Netherlands, William became King of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1689, following the success of the Glorious Revolution that saw him supplant James II. William’s involvement in the death of de Witt has never been conclusively proven, but he notably failed to prosecute a number of known ringleaders. 

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