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The advance of the French armies and those of Münster and Cologne to attack the eastern frontier of the United Provinces met with little serious resistance. Fortress after fortress fell; the line of the Yssel was abandoned. Soon the whole of Gelderland, Overyssel, Drente and Utrecht were in the possession of the enemy. Even the castle of Muiden, but ten miles from Amsterdam, was only saved from capture at the last moment by Joan Maurice throwing himself with a small force within the walls. The Prince of Orange had no alternative but to fall back behind the famous waterline of Holland. He had at his disposal, after leaving garrisons in the fortresses, barely 4000 men as a field-force. With some difficulty the people were persuaded to allow the dykes to be cut, as in the height of the struggle against Spain, and the Country to be submerged. Once more behind this expanse of flood, stretching like a gigantic moat from Muiden on the Zuyder Zee to Gorkum on the Maas, Holland alone remained as the last refuge of national resistance to an overwhelming foe. True the islands of Zeeland and Friesland were yet untouched by invasion, but had Holland succumbed to the French armies their resistance would have availed little. At the end of June the aspect of affairs looked very black, and despite the courageous attitude of the young captain-general, and the ceaseless energy with which the council-pensionary worked for the equipment of an adequate fleet, and the provision of ways and means and stores, there seemed to be no ray of hope. Men's hearts failed them for fear, and a panic of despair filled the land.

Had the combined fleets of England and France been able at this moment to obtain a victory at sea and to land an army on the coast, it is indeed difficult to see how utter and complete disaster could have been avoided. Fortunately, however, this was averted. It had [pg.252] been De Witt's hope that De Ruyter might have been able to have struck a blow at the English ships in the Thames and the Medway before they had time to put to sea and effect a junction with the French. But the Zeeland contingent was late and it was the middle of May before the famous admiral, accompanied as in 1667 by Cornelis de Witt as the representative of the States-General, sailed at the head of seventy-five ships in search of the Anglo-French fleet. After delays through contrary winds the enCounter took place in Southwold Bay on June 7. The Duke of York was the English admiral-in-chief, D'Estrées the French commander, and they had a united force of ninety ships. The Dutch, who had the wind-gauge, found the hostile squadrons separated from one another. De Ruyter at once took advantage of this. He ordered Vice-Admiral Banckers with the Zeeland squadron to contain the French, while he himself with the rest of his force bore down upon the Duke of York. The battle was contested with the utmost courage and obstinacy on both sides and the losses were heavy. The advantage, however, remained with the Dutch. The English flag-ship, the Royal James , was burnt; and the Duke was afterwards three times compelled to shift his flag. Both fleets returned to the home ports to refit; and during the rest of the summer and early autumn no further attack was made on De Ruyter, who with some sixty vessels kept watch and ward along the coasts of Holland and Zeeland. The Dutch admiral had gained his object and no landing was ever attempted.

But the battle of Southwold Bay, though it relieved the immediate naval danger, could do nothing to stay the advancing tide of invasion on land. The situation appeared absolutely desperate; trade was at a standstill; and the rapid fall in the State securities and in the East India Company's stock gave alarming evidence of the state of public opinion. In these circumstances De Witt persuaded the States-General and the Estates of Holland to consent to the sending of two special embassies to Louis, who was now at Doesburg, and to London, to sue for peace. They left the Hague on June 13, only to meet with a humiliating rebuff. Charles II refused to discuss the question apart from France. Pietsser de Groot and his colleagues were received at Doesburg with scant courtesy and sent back to the Hague to seek for fuller powers. When they arrived they found the council-pensionary lying on a sick-bed. The Country's disasters had been attributed to the De Witts, and the strong feeling against [pg.253] them led to a double attempt at assassination. John de Witt, while walking home at the close of a busy day's work was (June 21) attacked by four assailants and badly wounded. The leader, Jacob van der Graeff, was seized and executed; the others were allowed to escape, it was said by the prince's connivance. A few days later an attack upon Cornells de Witt at Dordrecht likewise failed to attain its object. That such dastardly acts could happen without an outburst of public indignation was ominous of worse things to come. It was a sign that the whole Country had turned its back upon the States party and the whole system of government of which for nineteen years John de Witt had been the directing spirit, and had become Orangist. Revolutionary events followed one another with almost bewildering rapidity. On July 2 the Estates of Zeeland appointed William to the office of Stadtholder . The Estates of Holland repealed the Eternal Edict on July 3; and on the next day it was resolved on the proposal of Amsterdam to revive the Stadtholder ship with all its former powers and prerogatives in favour of the Prince of Orange. The other provinces followed the lead of Holland and Zeeland; and on July 8 the States-General appointed the young Stadtholder captain-and admiral-general of the Union. William thus found himself invested with all the offices and even more than the authority that had been possessed by his ancestors. Young and inexperienced as he was, he commanded unbounded confidence, and it was not misplaced.

Meanwhile, despite the strong opposition of Amsterdam and some other towns, the fuller powers asked for by De Groot were granted, and he returned to the camp of Louis to endeavour to obtain more favourable terms of peace. He was unsuccessful. The demands of the French king included concessions of territory to Cologne, to Münster and to England, and for himself the greater part of the Generality-lands with the great fortresses of Hertogenbosch and Maestricht, a war indemnity of 16,000,000 francs, and complete freedom for Catholic worship. On July 1 De Groot returned to the Hague to make his report. The humiliating terms were rejected unanimously, but it was still hoped that now that the Prince of Orange was at the head of affairs negotiations might be resumed through the mediation of England. William even went so far as to send a special envoy to Charles II, offering large concessions to England, if the king would withdraw from the [pg.254] French alliance. But it was in vain. On the contrary at this very time (July 16) the treaty between Louis and Charles was renewed; and the demands made on behalf of England were scarcely less exorbitant than those put forward by Louis himself—the cession of Sluis, Walcheren, Cadsand, Voorne and Goerce, an indemnity of 25,000,000 francs, the payment of an annual subsidy for the herring fishery, and the striking of the flag. If all the conditions made by the two kings were agreed to, the sovereignty of the remnants of the once powerful United Provinces, impoverished and despoiled, was offered to the prince. He rejected it with scorn. When the Estates of Holland on the return of De Groot asked his advice about the French terms, the Stadtholder replied, "all that stands in the proposal is unacceptable; rather let us be hacked in pieces, than accept such conditions"; and when an English envoy, after expressing King Charles' personal goodwill to his nephew, tried to persuade him to accept the inevitable, he met with an indignant refusal. "But don't you see that the Republic is lost," he is reported to have pleaded. "I know of one sure means of not seeing her downfall," was William's proud reply, "to die in defence of the last ditch."

The firm attitude of the prince gave courage to all; and, whatever might be the case with the more exposed provinces on the eastern and south-eastern frontiers, the Hollanders and Zeelanders were resolved to sacrifice everything rather than yield without a desperate struggle. But the fact that they were reduced to these dire straits roused the popular resentment against the De Witts and the system of government which had for more than two decades been in possession of power. Their wrath was especially directed against the council-pensionary. Pamphlets were distributed broadcast in which he was charged amongst other misdoings with appropriating public funds for his private use. While yet suffering from the effects of his wounds De Witt appeared (July 23) before the Estates and vigorously defended himself. A unanimous vote declared him free from blame.

Cornelis de Witt was, no less than his brother, an object of popular hatred. In the town of Dordrecht where the De Witt influence had been so long supreme his portrait in the Town-hall was torn to pieces by the mob and the head hung on a gallows. On July 24 he was arrested and imprisoned at the Hague on the charge [pg.255] brought against him by a barber named Tichelaer, of being implicated in a plot to assassinate the prince. Tichelaer was well known to be a bad and untrustworthy character. On the unsupported testimony of this man, the Ruwaard, though indignantly denying the accusation, was incarcerated in the Gevangenpoort, to be tried by a commission appointed by the Estates. Great efforts were made by his friends and by his brother to obtain his release; but, as the prince would not interfere, the proceedings had to take their course. John de Witt meanwhile, wishing to forestall a dismissal which he felt to be inevitable, appeared before the Estates on August 4, and in an impressive speech voluntarily tendered his resignation of the post of council-pensionary, asking only for the redemption of the promise made to him that at the close of his tenure of office he should receive a judicial appointment. The resignation was accepted, the request granted, but owing to opposition no vote of thanks was given. Caspar Fagel was appointed council-pensionary in his place.

The enemies of John de Witt were not content with his fall from power. A committee of six judges were empanelled to try his brother Cornelis for his alleged crime. On August 17, to their eternal disgrace, they by a majority vote ordered the prisoner, who was suffering from gout, to be put to the torture. The illustrious victim of their malice endured the rack without flinching, insisting on his absolute innocence of any plot against the prince's life. Nevertheless, early on August 19, sentence was pronounced upon him of banishment and loss of all his offices. Later on the same day Cornelis sent a message to his brother that he should like to see him. John, in spite of strong warnings, came to the Gevangenpoort and was admitted to the room where the Ruwaard, as a result of the cruel treatment he had received, was lying in bed; and the two brothers had a long conversation. Meanwhile a great crowd had gathered round the prison clamouring for vengeance upon the De Witts. Three companies of soldiers were however drawn up under the command of Count Tilly with orders from the Commissioned-Councillors to maintain order. At the same time the schutterij —the civic guard—was called out. These latter, however, were not to be trusted and were rather inclined to fraternise with the mob. So long as Tilly's troops were at hand, the rioters were held in restraint and no acts of violence were attempted. It was at this critical [pg.25] moment that verbal orders came to Tilly to march his troops to the gates to disperse some bands of marauding peasants who were said to be approaching. Tilly refused to move without a written order. It came, signed by Van Asperen, the president of the Commissioned-Councillors, a strong Orange partisan. On receiving it Tilly is said to have exclaimed, "I will obey, but the De Witts are dead men." The soldiers were no sooner gone than the crowd, under the leadership of Verhoef, a goldsmith, and Van Bankhem, a banker, forced the door of the prison (the schutterij either standing aloof, or actually assisting in the attack), and rushing upstairs found John de Witt sitting calmly at the foot of his brother's bed reading aloud to him a passage of Scripture. Hands were laid upon both with brutal violence; they were dragged into the street; and there with blows of clubs and repeated stabs done to death. It was 4 p.m. when Tilly departed, at 4.30 all was over, but the infuriated rabble were not content with mere murder. The bodies were shamefully mis-handled and were finally hung up by the feet to a lamppost, round which to a late hour in the evening a crowd shouted, sang and danced. It is impossible to conceive a fate more horrible or less deserved. The poor dishonoured remains were taken down when night fell by faithful hands and were at dawn in the presence of a few relatives and friends interred in the Nieuwe Kerk.

That William III had any complicity in this execrable faict , as it was well styled by the new council-pensionary Fagel, there is not the slightest evidence. He was absent from the Hague at the time and wholly preoccupied with the sore necessities of the military position; and it is said that he was much affected at hearing the dreadful news. But his naturally cold and self-contained nature had been hardened in the school of adversity during the long years of humiliation which had been imposed upon him by John de Witt and his party. He had endured in proud patience awaiting the hour when he could throw off the yoke, and now that it had come he could not forgive. Under the plea that the number of those implicated in the deed was so large that it was impossible to punish them and thus stir up party passions at a time when the whole energies of the nation were needed for the war, he took no steps to bring the offenders to justice. Unfortunately for his reputation he was not content with a neutral attitude, but openly protected and rewarded [pg.257] the three chief offenders Tichelaer, Verhoef and Van Bankhem, all of them men of disreputable character.

Thus two of the greatest statesmen and patriots that Holland has produced, John van Oldenbarneveldt and John de Witt, both perished miserably, victims of the basest national ingratitude; and it will ever remain a stain upon the national annals and upon the memory of two illustrious Princes of Orange, Maurice and William III, that these tragedies were not averted.


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