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Thursday, June 24, 2010


Aelbert Cuyp, The Maas at Dordrecht



I drove south towards the delta of the great rivers with the intention of going to Brielle. This is a small harbor on the island of Voorne-Putten, located on the river known as Nieuwe Maas (the new Maas), one of the two great branches of the river Meuse, (Maas), that winds its way through Belgium, through the city of Liege, and pours out into the North Sea. The importance of Brielle is based on the role of the little town during the Dutch revolt against the Spanish Hapsburgs, and the subsequent eighty years war against Spain. On April 1, 1572, the Protestant "pirates" known as Watergeuzen (Sea Beggars) captured the town in their flat-bottomed boats, thus securing a free port through which the islands of the province of Zeeland could be supplied from the North Sea. As the Protestants throughout the provinces of Holland and Zeeland realized the strategic nature of this victory, they began openly to support William of Orange and his rebel armies against the Spanish Duke of Alba, and the nature of the conflict changed, beginning to favor the rebels. The Dutch still celebrate this event every year on April 1st., and during the night before, known as "Kalknacht (chalk night)," deface the city with white chalk, and the students sing the famous rhyme: "Op 1 april verloor Alva zijn bril" which means, "On April 1st, Alva (Alvarez de Toledo, Third Duke of Alba) lost his glasses ('bril' means eye-glasses in Dutch)."

But I did not go to Brielle. Somewhere around the enormously complex ring of freeways that surround the great port of Rotterdam, the Rotterdamring, designed to steer all traffic around that enormous city, I lost my way, and decided then, opportunely, to visit the ancient city of Dordt, or Dordrecht instead, a felicitous choice.

Views of Dordrecht: Aelbert Cuyp's painting of ca.1620, and photo of the Groote Kerk

Dordrecht is considered by the Dutch to be their oldest city. It is surrounded by the great rivers, the Rhine, the Maas, the Meerwede, and the confluence forms the famous Holland Diep, which was the point where the German occupiers of the Netherlands took their last stand at the very end of the second world war. Dordrecht was bombed, but the old cathedral still stands, with its leaning tower, a symbol of the Calvinist Reformed Church in the city that confirmed its orthodoxy. (See my entry of June 10, 2010, where I outline the significance of the Synod of Dordt, of 1618-19). In fact, it was the proceedings of the Synod of Dordt, the significance of the triumph of Calvinism in the United Provinces, that motivated my interest in the city. In the Cathedral, the Groote Kerk (Great Church) there is an exhibit on the Synod, and two miniature models of the proceedings of the Synod show the delegates from the various Protestant regions and cities of Europe (England, Switzerland, Geneva, Heidelberg, Hesse, Bremen, Krefeld) that attended, all dressed in their black suits and hats, and prominent white collars. There Arminianism was condemned, and strict Calvinism informed the period of the Dutch Empire's greatest age.

But when you travel, you always discover the unexpected. Next to the Government House (the Stadhuis) there is a large monument to the brothers De Witt. Jan and Cornelis De Witt, were prominent Dutch statesmen of the seventeenth century. In 1672, the nation experienced a series of foreign policy disasters that led to the weakening of De Witt's rule. During the so-called "rampjaar," which in Dutch means "year of disaster," France and England attacked the Republic in the course of the Franco-Dutch War, and the supporters of the family of Orange took power by force and deposed Jan de Witt. Recovering from an earlier attempt on his life, he was lynched by an organized mob after visiting his brother Cornelis de Witt in prison. He had been duped into this trap by a forged letter requesting the visit. After the arrival of Jan de Witt, the city guard was sent away on a pretext to stop farmers who were supposedly engaged in pilfering. Without any protection against the assembled mob the brothers were doomed. They were dragged out of the prison and killed next to a nearby scaffold. Immediately after their death the bodies were mutilated and fingers, toes, and other parts of their bodies were cut off. The heart of Cornelis de Witt was exhibited for many years next to his brother's by one of the ring-leaders of the mob. Some historians have theorized that his adversary and successor as leader of the government, the Stadtholder William of Orange, King William III of England, was involved in the conspiracy to kill the brothers De Witt.

Monument to Jan and Cornelis De Witt in the City of Dordrecht

As was the case with another great Dutch statesman, of an earlier period, Jan van Oldenbarnevelt, there is a recurrent division in the nation's political history between the statesmen of the province of Holland, the most wealthy and powerful of the seven original provinces, and the family of Orange. William of Orange, known as William the Silent, was the leader, by default, of the revolt against Spain. He was the Stadholder of Holland, and the holding of this position by his family eventually became hereditary. His son, Prince Maurice of Orange, prevailed against Oldenbarnevelt, where the conflict took on the color of the dispute between the Remonstrants (Arminians) and the Calvinists, as a consequence of the Synod of Dordt. Oldenbarnevelt was decapitated. In the case of the brothers De Witt, another William of Orange, also Stadholder of Holland, appears to have conspired to eliminate the De Witt brothers and hence weaken the power of the province of Holland and enhance his own. This William became William III of England, as a consequence of his marriage to Mary Stuart, daughter of King James II of England. And again, two great secular statesmen, by instinct republican, representative of all the progressive forces in the nation, were butchered by the Dutch mob, their bodies left to be devoured by dogs, as common criminals. The House of Orange is still the royal family of the Netherlands.

Jan de Baen, The bodies of the brothers De Witt

The city of Dordrecht is a port-city on the great rivers that constitute the delta of South Holland. Only four years into the Dutch revolt against Spain, in 1572, representatives of all the cities of Holland, with the notable exception of Amsterdam, but with the spirited participation of the "pirates" (Watergeuzen), gathered in Dordrecht to hold their First Assembly of Free States (Eerste Vrije Statenvergadering), known as the Union of Dordrecht. This secret meeting constituted a rebellious act against the monarchy, as only the King (now Phillip II) or his Stadholder (now the Duke of Alba) were legally permitted to call a meeting of the Estates. During the meeting, the organization and financing of the rebellion was debated, and William of Orange was elected Stadholder and leader of the revolt. As well, the Union published a manifesto of total freedom of religious worship and practice. It was an initial step towards total independence of the northern Netherlands from Spanish and Habsburg domination.

The Union of Dordrecht was held in an Augustinian monastery which has always been known as "het Hof" (the Court). Below is a photo of the Hof taken in 1935, before the bombardment of the city.

The Hof in Dordrecht, 1935

Despite the great historical significance of this city, it does not wear its history well today. It is totally off the beaten tourist trail, which runs along a North/South axis from Amsterdam to The Hague. It is considered here as a large industrial city, almost a part of the great urban region of Rotterdam. There are many Moroccan immigrants, which is also a characteristic of industrial Rotterdam, and in general the city appears poorly and sidetracked by the development of the modern age. Nevertheless, to look at the old church from beyond the distance of the old harbor and the canals of the shoreline is a reminder of what the paintings of its native son, Aelbert Cuyp, have made famous. What is totally forgotten is its turbulent religious history and its crucial role in the triumph of Dutch Calvinism.

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