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Allegory of the Disaster Year by Jan van Wijckersloot (1673): A young Orangist shows a sleeping regent an allegorical drawing, with the Dutch lion weak and defenceless, his seven arrows (the provinces) dispersed, the sword broken and the fence breached. A French cockerel, perched on top of three fleurs-de-lis and four conquered arrows, crows triumphantly.

In Dutch history, the year 1672 was rampjaar, the "disaster year." That year, following the outbreak of the Franco-Dutch War and the Third Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch Republic was simultaneously attacked by England, France, and the prince-bishops Bernhard von Galen, bishop of Münster, and Maximilian Henry of Bavaria, archbishop of Cologne. The invading armies quickly defeated the Dutch States Army and conquered part of the Republic.

A famous Dutch saying coined that year describes the Dutch people redeloos, its government radeloos, and the country reddeloos -- irrational, desperate, and beyond rescue, respectively. Fed up with reduced military spending, the cities of the remaining coastal provinces of Holland, Zealand and Frisia underwent a political transition: the city governments were taken over by Orangists, opposed to the republican regime of the Grand Pensionary Johan de Witt, soon ending the First Stadtholderless Period.

Despite the initial shock and successful invasion of the eastern Dutch Republic, the English, French and German forces were eventually driven back. The English were defeated by the navy under Michiel de Ruyter in 1674, resulting in the Treaty of Westminster and eventually leading to the Glorious Revolution. The French were pushed back with the help of the Spanish forces in the Spanish Netherlands, though some Spanish cities were ceded to France. The conflict eventually ended with the Treaties of Nijmegen in 1678-9.

Situation in the Republic[edit]

Prince's Day by Jan Steen (ca. 1665): Supporters of the Prince of Orange drink to the health of the Nassau line on the Prince's birthday.

During the Eighty Years' War there had been tension in the provinces between adherents of a government ruled by the burgher oligarchy, called regents, and those who favoured a government led by the Prince of Orange. These tensions had escalated in 1650 when William II, Prince of Orange had tried to conquer Amsterdam, the main bastion of the Regents of the De Graeff- and Bicker- clan. After negotiations he succeeded in removing a number of his adversaries from office.

When William died from smallpox later that year, the republican party came back into power. The Act of Seclusion declared that they would not appoint his son, William III of Orange, or anybody else to the office of Stadholder, stating that a supreme head of government would be harmful to 'True Liberty'. Johan de Witt was appointed Grand Pensionary of Holland and led the States of Holland, the most important province within the Union.

The takeover by the regents did not go without protest from the Orangists, but with the economy booming and peace on the Union's borders they had little opportunity to remove the government from office. To appease the Orangists, and because of their own business interests, the Dutch Regents tried to keep the peace within Europe.

Foreign affairs[edit]

When the Republic had been fighting for its independence from Spain, it had allied with France and England. In 1648, as part of the Peace of Westphalia, the Republic had made peace with Austria and Spain. France had only made peace with Austria and continued fighting Spain until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. A condition of that peace was that Louis XIV would marry Maria Theresa, daughter of Philip IV of Spain. Maria Theresa would renounce her share of the inheritance in exchange for a large dowry. The dowry was never paid by the Spanish.

During the 1650s and 1660s the existing tensions between Dutch trade interests and English trade interests grew. The First Anglo-Dutch War was fought between the republics, resulting in a victory for the English. In a secret appendix to the Treaty of Westminster, the Act of Seclusion, Holland declared that it abolished the office of Stadholder and would never allow the States-General of the Netherlands to appoint a member of the House of Orange to the office of Captain-General. Oliver Cromwell, who was Lord Protector of England at that time, insisted on this condition because William II had assisted Charles I during the English Civil War. While supporters of the Dutch Regent favoured diminishing the influence of the House of Orange, by agreeing to the English conditions they intermingled internal and foreign affairs and infuriated the pro-Orange faction.

When Charles II was crowned king of England in 1660 during the English Restoration, the Act of Seclusion was declared void, but to the dismay of Holland, Charles affirmed those clauses of the peace which negatively impacted Dutch trade interests.

An English attempt to take over Dutch trade and colonies led to the Second Anglo-Dutch War. After the previous war Johan de Witt had supervised the expansion and improvement of the Dutch navy at the cost of neglecting the Dutch army. With the new fleet and the help of France, with whom they had allied again, the Dutch ultimately defeated the English at sea through the Raid on the Medway and put pressure on the English ally Münster. First Münster and then England were forced to make peace. While France had helped to put pressure on England and Münster they had not committed a major part of their army or fleet. After the death of Philip IV, Louis XIV claimed part of the inheritance for his wife. According to local law in parts of the Spanish Netherlands daughters of an earlier marriage took precedence before the sons of a later marriage. The way Louis XIV explained this, Maria Theresa, daughter of the first marriage of Philip IV, should inherit the Spanish Netherlands because Philip's son, Charles II was from Philip's second marriage. This went against the interests of the Dutch Republic, who preferred having a weak state as their neighbour.

Because of this, Johan de Witt allied with the defeated English and Sweden, who had an army nearby in Germany, in the Triple Alliance. In secret clauses of the treaty they agreed to use force if Louis XIV would not come to terms with Spain.

Renversement des Alliances[edit]

France made peace with Spain, but because the secret clauses of the Triple Alliance were soon made public, Louis XIV felt insulted by the "perfidious" Dutch, who according to him had broken their faith. Immediately after the peace agreement, France made steps to isolate the Republic. Sweden and Münster were quickly bribed, but the English public distrusted Louis XIV. The king, on the other hand, saw war with the Dutch as being in his best interests. A defeat of the Republic probably would lead to the fall of the republican government, so that Charles's nephew, William III of Orange, could take power. And a war would be a good opportunity to crush the Dutch competition in trade and colonies. Additionally, Louis promised Charles a notable sum of money, so he could rule without having to consult the English parliament.

In 1670, after mediation of Charles' sister Henrietta Anne Stuart, wife of Louis's brother the Duc d'Orléans, France and England signed the secret Treaty of Dover.

To war[edit]

The Dutch were aware that negotiations between England and France were going on, but specific details were not known. Johan de Witt counted on the unpopularity among the English public of a war with a fellow Protestant nation and tried to improve relations with the French. The discussion on the issue of the Spanish Netherlands, however, yielded no consensus between the two countries. France saw the Rhine as its natural border and between France and the Rhine lay the Spanish Netherlands and the Dutch Generality Lands. This made the Dutch feel threatened by the French ambitions. According to the French ambassador, the Dutch acted from the motto: Gallicus amicus, non vicinus, or "The Frenchman is a good friend, but a bad neighbour". The Dutch again reinforced their fleet, but made insufficient preparations with their army. The reasons for this were a shortage of money and the Regents' distrust of the army, which had often been an instrument of the Orange party. With war becoming more and more likely, pressure increased on the Dutch government to appoint William III, who had not yet come of age, to the office of Stadtholder and Captain-General. At last, in February 1672, Johan de Witt agreed to appoint William as Captain-General for the duration of one war campaign.


On 12 March 1672 Robert Holmes attacked a Dutch trade convoy, the Smyrna fleet. France, the Electorate of Cologne and the Bishopric of Münster declared war in April. By moving through the possessions of Münster and Cologne and a few other French allies, the army of Louis XIV, led by Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé and Turenne was able to pass through the Spanish Netherlands, bypass the Dutch defence in the south, and invade the Dutch from the east in June.

At the IJssel it came to a short battle that was easily won by the French. Now the whole of the Republic lay open for the French and also Groenlo was taken. Panic broke out in the cities in Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. Lower and middle-class people stood up against the government, demanded appointment of the Prince and punishment of those responsible for the war and the state of the army. The government of the regents fell, Johan de Witt and others resigned and partisans of William III took over. One of the first acts of William III was to strike out the word 'honourably' in the resignation of Johan de Witt.

Lynching of the De Witt brothers[edit]

The bodies of the De Witt brothers, by Jan de Baen.

The angry mob remained unsatisfied and their frustrations with the hopeless military situation led them to search for scapegoats. In August Cornelis de Witt, the less gifted and less popular brother of Johan de Witt, was put in prison in The Hague on suspicion of treason and plotting to assassinate William. When Johan de Witt went there to visit his brother, the small cavalry security force present was sent away on the pretext of having to stop a group of marauding peasants, which was never found. Around the prison a crowd had gathered, demanding the punishment of the brothers. The prison was stormed — according to some contemporary accounts, after Orangist Cornelis Tromp, an enemy of Johan de Witt, had given the sign — by civil militia; the brothers were taken out, murdered by the militia members and their bodies mutilated and partly eaten by the crowd. The names of a few of the murderers became known but they were protected, and in some cases even rewarded by Prince William. Most modern historians suspect that the murder of the brothers was the result of a conspiracy involving various persons including William.

The Waterline[edit]

The Storming of Coevorden, 30 December 1672 by Pieter Wouwerman (ca. 1672-82). The Disaster Year ended on a positive note, as Coevorden was recaptured from the troops of the Bishop of Münster on December 30, 1672.

The French had advanced from the IJssel to Utrecht. There negotiations started. Louis XIV and Charles II of England had intended that William become Sovereign Prince as head of a Hollandic rump state principality, a joint protectorate (with the British occupying key Hollandic cities and the isle of Walcheren), and Louis halted his army to allow the Orangists to take over Holland and come to an arrangement with him. He offered the Dutch peace in exchange for either the southern fortresses, religious freedom for Catholics and six million guilders or his keeping his present conquests and sixteen million guilders. These demands, especially the financial part of them, led to public outrage, and the Dutch mood abruptly changed from defeatism to a dogged determination to resist the French.

While the negotiations took place, the French failed to prevent the Dutch from starting to inundate the Dutch Water Line and Williams III's small army from withdrawing behind it. Before they came to understand the nature and importance of this defence system their further advance was blocked by an impassable water and mud barrier. This small success for the Dutch was followed by others. The Dutch fleet under admiral Michiel de Ruyter had already defeated the Anglo-French fleet at the Battle of Solebay, and on 28 August 1672 the German Bishop of Münster, Bernhard von Galen, withdrew from the siege of Groningen, an event which is still celebrated annually in Groningen.

On the diplomatic front, the Holy Roman Empire and Spain took the side of the Netherlands. In 1673 Bonn fell to a Dutch army.[1] This made the French retreat from most of the Republic. England, Münster and Cologne made peace in 1674; the French fought on until 1678. (For the rest of the war, see Franco-Dutch War)


The experience of the Rampjaar had a considerable influence on the direction of Dutch foreign policy. William III saw it as his life's work to defend the Republic and Europe against French hegemony. In all the wars of Louis XIV the Dutch would support his adversaries. In 1688, when faced with an English king who again seemed to side with the French, the Dutch mobilised their full resources in order to invade Britain and overthrow the Catholic Stuart Dynasty (the Glorious Revolution) - a decision which involved a major gamble whose magnitude is not fully appreciated since it paid off. It was considered worthwhile, since, after the Rampjaar, the possibility of a Catholic, and French-dominated, Britain was regarded as a mortal threat to the Netherlands. In England, public opinion was already turning against the French, but the war of 1672 accelerated this. While Charles II and his successor James II of England still had French sympathies, they had to take into account the English public's distrust of France.

The Dutch economy suffered a severe crisis and never fully recovered - though the Dutch Golden Age is usually said to have continued until the end of the century. The art market was as severely affected as other trades - a famous comment by Jan Vermeer's widow described how he was unable to sell work thereafter. The leading marine artists, Willem van de Velde the Elder and his son Willem II, both emigrated to London, never to return.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Dutch troops under Willem III occupy Bonn". Brainyhistory.com. Retrieved 2013-11-24. 
  • Bowen, Marjorie. The William and Mary Trilogy, Vol. 1: I Will Maintain. Alberta: Inheritance Publications, 1993. pp. 353–359, 382.
  • Kenneth Harold Dobson Haley. An English diplomat in the Low Countries : Sir William Temple and John de Witt, 1665-1672 (Oxford 1986)
  • Herbert H. Rowen. John de Witt, Statesman of the "True Freedom" (Cambridge, 1986)
  • Israel, J. I. (1998). The Dutch Republic Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806, 1st paperback (1st - 1995), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-820734-4.