The Dutch statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt (1547-1619) was the principal architect of the independence of the republic of the United Provinces of the Netherlands after the death of William the Silent.
Johan van Oldenbarnevelt was born on Sept. 14, 1547, in the province of Utrecht, in the small city of Amersfoort, into a family of very minor nobility. At the age of 16 he began the study of law in an attorney's office at The Hague, then in 1566 undertook 4 years of formal legal studies in the universities of Louvain, Bourges, Cologne, Heidelberg, and probably Padua. In 1569 he returned to practice law in The Hague and Delft. He chose the party of the Prince of Orange in 1572 and took part in the vain attempt to relieve Haarlem in 1573 and in the successful relief of Leiden in 1574. From 1577 until 1586 he was the pensionary (chief legal officer) of Rotterdam, but his legal duties were subordinated to political tasks, principally representation of the town in the States of Holland, and he acquired increasing importance as a national leader.
Oldenbarnevelt did not favor the policy followed by William I (William the Silent) of seeking a foreign sovereign for the Dutch provinces, urging instead until the prince's murder in 1584 that he be named sovereign lord. However, Oldenbarnevelt was a member of the delegation which went to England in 1585 to offer Elizabeth I the sovereignty of the United Provinces. She refused but sent the Earl of Leicester to be governor general.
So Oldenbarnevelt turned to William's son, Maurice of Nassau, as a figure around whom to organize resistance to Leicester's attempts to build a political base in the United Provinces independent of the States General and the provincial States. On Oldenbarnevelt's initiative Maurice was given his father's posts as stadholder of Holland and Zeeland in 1585 and later in other provinces. Meanwhile Leicester was repeatedly thwarted in his political initiatives by Oldenbarnevelt, who became advocate of Holland (a post like that of town pensionary on the provincial level) on May 6, 1586. When Leicester quit his post and went home in 1587, Oldenbarnevelt used the opportunity to shift the primary work of central government in the United Provinces from the Council of State, in which successors of Leicester continued to sit, to the States General. However, he staunchly maintained the principle that the ultimate sovereignty lay in each province.
Oldenbarnevelt supported Maurice in his military campaigns, especially during the 1590s. In 1596 he negotiated a triple alliance with England and France, which constituted the first de facto recognition of the Dutch Republic as an independent state. Although he was unable to prevent Henry IV of France from making a separate peace with Spain in 1598, he did help to persuade Elizabeth to remain at war.
The relations between Maurice and Oldenbarnevelt began to cool after the former's victory at Nieuwpoort in the southern Netherlands in 1600. Maurice began to resent supervision by Oldenbarnevelt, who grew haughty and domineering over the years. Oldenbarnevelt was also looking ahead to peace with Spain, while Maurice was still eager for victories and glory. In 1602 Oldenbarnevelt persuaded the small companies competing in the East Indies trade to join in a single Dutch East India Company. In 1609 he obtained conclusion of a Twelve Years Truce with Spain over bitter opposition from strict Calvinists, refugees from the south, and Maurice.
During the truce years the differences between Oldenbarnevelt and Maurice deepened. The advocate of Holland thwarted Maurice's efforts to break the truce in connection with the Jülich succession disputes in 1610 and 1614. However, Oldenbarnevelt's stubborn backing of the Remonstrant or Arminian (moderate Calvinist) side in the religious dissensions gave Maurice a powerful ally in the Contra-Remonstrant or Gomarian (rigorous Calvinist) camp. Under Oldenbarnevelt's prodding and despite the opposition of Amsterdam, the States of Holland decided (1617) to enforce a policy of religious toleration within the Reformed (Calvinist) church and began to recruit provincial soldiers because Maurice would not employ his troops to do so. The States of Utrecht, the only province to follow Holland in refusing a national synod designed to condemn the Remonstrants, also raised a force of provincial soldiers, which Maurice decided to disband on the authority of the States General.
An effort by a delegation from Holland to dissuade his soldiers from this work led to Maurice's decision to have Oldenbarnevelt and three associates (including Hugo Grotius, his successor as pensionary of Rotterdam) arrested (Aug. 29, 1618) and tried for attempted rebellion. The trial was conducted by a special court named by the States General, whose jurisdiction over a servant of the States of Holland Oldenbarnevelt denied to the end. He was found guilty and beheaded on May 13, 1619, in front of the Knights' Hall in The Hague. Maurice had refused to grant a pardon to the 72-year-old statesman unless asked, which the family refused to do as implying admission of guilt.
Modern historians have come to see the trial and execution neither as the straightforward operation of law in a case of manifest guilt nor as an instance of judicial murder, but rather as a tragedy brought on by religious and political passions in a situation where constitutional powers were ill-defined and hotly debated. In the ultimate sense, however, Oldenbarnevelt was a martyr for his political principles.
The classic works of John Lothrop Motley, History of the United Netherlands, from the Death of William the Silent to the Twelve Years' Truce (4 vols., 1861-1868) and The Life and Death of John of Barneveld, Advocate of Holland (2 vols., 1874), remain, despite their fierce and one-sided advocacy of Oldenbarnevelt's cause and their age, full of information and vivid writing. See also Pieter Geyl, The Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century, vol. 1 (1961).