Late medieval fortification in the harbor of Hoorn

Late medieval fortification in the harbor of Hoorn

Holland faced yet another problem: their ruler no longer resided close by in The Hague. Their present ruler, the Duke of Burgundy, lived in far-off Brussels, and therefore consultations could only take place in the States-General. Gone were the many informal contacts which, in the fourteenth century, had taken place between the Count and the people of this then independent region. The tacit alliance between the Count and his subjects, inherent in the consultation culture of Holland, had been traded in – or so it seemed – for an alliance between the Duke of Burgundy and the nobility.

For Holland, this was a step backwards, for although the Dukes conducted a modern commercial policy, their behavior was atavistic in other respects. Despite the fact that the crossbow and gunpowder had destroyed the military importance of knights, the Dukes of Burgundy still raved about the ideals of chivalry, fantasized about crusades and were mad about knightly jousts. The most remarkable aspect of this nostalgia was the way they strove to acquire the title of king, which implied giving commands and was at odds with Holland’s consensus model

The Emperor had actually agreed to end the fiction that the Low Countries were part of the German Empire and was just about to recognize Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy, as King of the Netherlands. The model for this was the Duchy of Lotharius II, who had briefly reigned as King of Burgundy, Lorraine, and the Low Countries in the ninth century. There was still talk about Charles’ coronation when he was killed in 1477, leaving the territory to an unmarried daughter, Mary, who, because of her extensive inheritance, was nicknamed ‘The Rich’.

The events of that year were of decisive importance for the uniting of these territories into one single state. A meeting of the States-General was quickly convened to discuss the crisis. The regional representatives – loyal nobles, devoted clergy and staunch burghers – recognized the advantages of a single-headed authority and accepted the female successor as ruler. At the same time, they demanded the abolition of the unpopular central institutions. Mary agreed to this. She guaranteed the privileges of all the regions and towns and set up a single centralized administrative body. This ‘Great Privilege’ is actually the oldest constitution of the Low Countries. Notable about it is that it contained a stipulation which seemed unnecessary at that time: that any region could decide unilaterally to leave the union.

Mary then married the crown price of the German Empire, Maximilian, ensuring that the emperor would continue to regard the Low Countries as a unit. It was a diplomatic achievement of the highest order: although she had paid a price, she had obtained the commitment of the emperor and the regions to the concept of unity.

Her successors, ruling over this nascent unified state, renounced the title of king. Instead, they replaced the very traditional and lengthy summing up of the titles of the rulers of all the regions united in the personal union, with the simple title of Lord of the Netherlands.

By coincidence, between the years 1515-1555, the Lord of the Netherlands was no other than the King of Spain, Charles V of the House of Hapsburg. As he was born in the Flemish town of Ghent and grew up in Brabant, he was genuinely interested in the fortunes of the Low Countries. For this reason he strongly promoted the setting up of an efficient administration. Many of the institutions which Mary had been obliged to disband, were set up again. The Great Council of Mechelen, the highest court in the Low Countries, dates from 1504 and as such it is the forerunner of the Dutch High Council of State, which exists to this very day. In 1531, the Council of State followed. This was chaired by the Lord of the Low Countries (or his representative, the Viceroy); here the stadtholders outlined their policies. Initially only the nobles could sit on the Council of State. Later, it was open to burghers, a change that would distance the aristocracy from the Lord in the long run. From that year on, the executive committee was in the hands of lawyers from the Secret Council, who dealt with appeal cases and appointed officials. And finally, from 1531, there was also a Financial Council and five Auditor’s Offices that saw to the budget. The jewel of the unification was the Pragmatic Sanction of 1549 in which Charles V laid down that the former lands of Burgundy, as well as Friesland, Overijssel, Groningen, Drente, and Gelre, would definitively remain under one and the same ruler.

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