The Republic was a bizarre freak of nature that did not resemble any other state. All over Europe the road to centralization and modernization was being travelled, except in the United Provinces. Here, the regional autonomy which had been enjoyed before the Burgundian era and the privileges it brought with it were maintained.
The rulers of most European states at that time were (or tried to become) absolute monarchs: Philip II of Spain, Elisabeth I of England, Louis XIV of France, and Frederick-William III of Brandenburg-Prussia. In theory, they had the divine right of kings and because it was often said that the natural state of man was to wage all-out war, it was the task of a responsible king to create a strong central authority to avoid discord and civil war. Therefore, these rulers tried to ignore the States-General as far as possible. This did not apply to the Republic of the Seven United Provinces, where developments took a different direction and sovereignty lay with the Provincial Estates.
However, there were other institutions and persons who could claim to be the sovereign ruler of the Republic. In the Union of Utrecht, sovereignty had been transferred to the States-General in three fields: defense policy, foreign affairs, and (some areas of) finance. This meant that the States-General was more than a permanent delegation of provincial ambassadors, but its autonomy was relative. If, for example, the Estates of Holland were to veto a decision, the States-General could not ignore it, as there had to be consensus.
The Estates of Holland were, in turn, dominated by Amsterdam. The luxurious mansion at Plein 23 in The Hague, at a stone’s throw from the buildings of the States-General, was an informal though no-less-real center of power of the Republic and was one of the focal points of the consensus culture in Holland. Here the Chief Executive or Pensionary of Amsterdam received colleagues and foreign ambassadors.
And then there were the stadtholders. These possessed a curious collection of powers, some of which were reminiscent of the former rights of the Counts of Holland: they selected the municipal magistrates from a short list of candidates and they had the command of the army. Because the post of stadtholder was more or less hereditary within the Orange-Nassau family, he could claim with some right to be the sovereign ruler, although he was, in fact, subservient to the States-General. Informally, the Oranges could also exercise a lot of influence because they were very wealthy, as evidenced by their chic Noordeinde Palace near The Hague.
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