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The Early Modern Period

16th - 18th century


The smooth transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age is conventionally fixed on such events as the Reformation and the discovery of the "New World," which brought about the emergence of a new image of man and his world. Humanism, which spread out of Italy, also made an essential contribution to this with its promotion of a critical awareness of Christianity and the Church. The Reformation eventually broke the all-embracing power of the Church. After the Thirty Years' War, the concept of a universal empire was also nullified. The era of the nation-state began, bringing with it the desire to build up political and economic power far beyond Europe. The Americas, Africa, and Asia provided regions of expansion for the Europeans.

Proportions of the Human Figure by Leonardo da Vinci (drawing, ca. 1490)
is a prime example of the new approach of Renaissance
artists and scientists to the anatomy of the human body.



The Netherlands: From the Struggle for Independence to the French Occupation



The Independent Netherlands to the Middle of the 17th Century

The war of the United Provinces against the southern Netherlands ended in 1609. A power struggle then developed between the stadhouder (governor) from the house of Nassau-Orange and the powerful merchants over who would rule the United Provinces.


After declaring independence, the United Provinces had to continue to fight against an invasion of Spanish forces under the command of Alessandro Farnese; internally it took action against the Catholics. In 1584 the Stadhouder William of Orange was murdered by a Catholic fanatic. In 1585, Antwerp was taken by Farnese, and the United Provinces accepted an offer of aid from Elizabeth I of England, who sent 8000 English soldiers under the command of the Earl of Leicester to their aid. The war dragged on with varying intensity until Maurice of Nassau, son of William of Orange, after two years of campaigning finally succeeded in expelling Spanish forces from the Protestant Netherlands in 1607.

Finally, in 1609, the governor-general of the Spanish Netherlands, Archduke Albrecht of Austria and his wife 1 Isabella Clara Eugenia, a daughter of Philip II, concluded a truce.

1 Portrait of Isabella Clara Eugenia, regent of the Netherlands,
by Peter Paul

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In 1621, Philip III of Spain finally recognized the independence of the United Provinces.

The northern Netherlands recovered rapidly from the wars and, due to the powerful 4 middle class in its cities, soon rose to become perhaps the wealthiest nation of Europe in the 17th century.

4 Wedding portrait of a Haarlem merchant, painting by Frans Hals, ñ 1622

see also collection:

Frans Hals

For a time it was the leading 2 naval and colonial power, with territories reaching from North America (New Amsterdam, later New York) and the Caribbean to Indonesia and Japan.

It also dominated culturally, particularly in the field of painting. Political relations within the United Provinces were difficult, however, as they decided in 1590 against having a single head of state.

In 1585, the eldest son of William I of Orange, 3 Maurice, replaced him as stadhouder of the provinces.

2 The fleet of the Dutch East India Company, painting, 1675

3 Maurice of Orange

Holland, financially the strongest of the United Provinces, was dominated by a rich 5 merchant and legal elite, whose leader, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, was the second political head alongside Maurice beginning in 1586.

5 Representatives of the cloth merchants' guild, painting by Rembrandt, 1662

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Although Maurice wanted to continue fighting, van Oldenbarnevelt accepted the truce with the Spanish Netherlands in 1609 in the interests of continuing trade. A power struggle developed, and Maurice ousted van Oldenbarnevelt and had him executed in 1619. The conflict was symptomatic of the unsettled power struggle between the Orange governors and the municipal representatives, which would dominate Dutch history until 1786.

Maurice's half-brother, 6 Frederick Henry (1584-1647), succeeded him as stadhouder in 1625, conquered fortresses in the south from the Spanish during the Thirty Years' War, and turned his court in The Hague into a center for arts and culture.

6 Frederick Henry depicted as messenger of peace  and independence,
painting by  
Jacob Jordaens, 1652

see also collection:

Jacob Jordaens




Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Infantin Isabella Clara Eugenia, 1599, by Sofonisba Anguissola
Isabella and her dwarf, c. 1599
Isabel Clara Eugenia and Magdalena Ruiz
by Alonso Sánchez Coello

Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain, (12 August 1566 – 1 December 1633) was, together with her husband Albert VII, Archduke of Austria joint sovereign of the Spanish Netherlands in the Low Countries and the north of modern France. In some sources, she is referred to as "Clara Isabella Eugenia".

Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain was born in the city of Segovia on August 12, 1566, daughter of Philip II of Spain and his third wife Elisabeth of Valois. Her paternal grandparents were Emperor Charles V and Isabella of Portugal. Her maternal grandparents were Henry II of France and Catherine de' Medici.

Her father, Philip II, was reportedly overjoyed at her birth and declared himself to be happier on the occasion than he would have been at the birth of a son. Philip already had a male heir, Don Carlos of Spain, the child of his first marriage to Infanta Maria of Portugal; however, father and son had never developed a close rapport and frequently lived in conflict with one another.

Isabella's mother, Elisabeth of Valois, had originally been betrothed to Don Carlos, but political complications unexpectedly necessitated her marriage to Philip instead. Despite the significant age difference between them, Philip was very attached to Elisabeth, staying close by her side even when she was ill with smallpox. Elisabeth's first pregnancy in 1564 ended with a miscarriage of twin girls. She later gave birth to Isabella Clara Eugenia on 12 August 1566, and then to Isabella's younger sister Catherine Micaela October 10, 1567. Elisabeth miscarried a son on October 3, 1568, and died the same day.

Isabella grew up with her sister Catalina, beloved by her father and her stepmother Anna of Austria, Philip's fourth wife. Philip ultimately fathered five children by Anna, all of whom died in early childhood except his heir Philip III of Spain. While Philip II is frequently characterized as having been cold and unaffectionate towards his offspring, there exist numerous letters addressed from him to his daughters which contain evidence of a deep attachment between them, each letter lovingly signed "Your good father".

Isabella was also the only person whom Philip permitted to help him with his work, sorting his papers and translating Italian documents into the Spanish language for him. Isabella remained close to her father until his death on 13 September 1598, and served as his primary caretaker during the last three years of his life, when he was plagued by gout and frequent illness.

Since 1568 the age of two, Isabella was promised to marry Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor (July 18, 1552-January 20, 1612), son of Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor and Maria of Spain. Maria was a daughter of her paternal grandparents Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and Isabella of Portugal. Isabella, however, had to wait for more than 20 years before the eccentric Rudolf declared that he had no intention of marrying anybody.

After her uncle, Henry III of France, was assassinated by the fanatical young monk Jacques Clément on August 2, 1589, Philip II claimed the French crown on behalf of Isabella. However, she had no right to this claim, since France was under the Salic Law, which forbade succession in the female line, and at any rate Philip's third wife and Isabella's mother Elisabeth had already ceded any claim to the French crown with her marriage to Philip II. However the Parlement de Paris, in power of Catholic party, gave verdict that Isabella Clara Eugenia is "the legitimate sovereign" of France. The Huguenot leader, Henry of Navarre, the rightful king by traditional French inheritance laws, ultimately made good his claim to the throne, converted to Catholicism, and was crowned in 1594. Isabella however—as the heir general of Henry II—had the strongest claim to the Duchy of Brittany, which had only come into the royal domain through the successive marriages of Anne of Brittany and her daughter Claude (1491, 1499 and 1514), to successive French kings.

After her father had died, Isabella finally found a husband. On 18 April 1599, being 33 years old, she married her cousin Archduke Albert of Austria, the younger brother of her former fiancé Rudolf II. Albert was the joint sovereign of the Spanish Netherlands and the former viceroy of Portugal. As Albert also was the Archbishop of Toledo, he had to be released from his religious commitments by Pope Clement VIII before the wedding could take place. Shortly before Philip II died on September 13, 1598, he renounced his rights to the Netherlands in favor of his daughter Isabella and her fiancé. Isabella later bore Albert three children, Archdukes Philip (born 21 October 1605) and Albert (born 27 January 1607) and Archduchess Anna Mauritia; however, all three died in infancy.

Spanish Netherlands
Beginning in 1601, the couple ruled the Spanish Netherlands together, and after Albert's death Isabella was appointed governor of the Netherlands on behalf of the King of Spain. A false anecdote links Isabella, the siege of Ostend, and the horse coat colour isabelline. The reign of Albert and Isabella is considered the Golden Age of the Spanish Netherlands.

The reign of the Archdukes Isabella Clara Eugenia and Albert of Austria is a key period in the history of the Spanish Netherlands. After four decades of war, it brought a period of much-needed peace and stability to the economy of the Southern Netherlands. In addition to economic prosperity, the actions of the Archdukes stimulated the growth of a separate South Netherlandish identity. The Archdukes consolidated the authority of the House of Habsburg over the territory of the Southern Netherlands and largely succeeded in reconciling previous anti-Spanish sentiments.

When it became clear that independence would not be possible, the Archdukes' goal became to reincorporate the Southern Provinces into the Spanish monarchy. In pursuit of that goal and to get their political agenda to all Flemish social classes, the Archdukes used the most diverse mediums. The visual arts, with the baroque popularized in the wake of the Catholic Reformation, was the perfect tool. Thus Isabella and her husband stimulated the growth of this artistic movement, which resulted in the creation of the Flemish Baroque.

Their patronage of such artists as Peter Paul Rubens, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Coebergher, the De Nole family, the Van Veens and many others were the beginning of a Golden Age in the Southern Netherlands. This, coupled with the political configuration of the period, made the Archdukes' Court at Brussels one of the foremost political and artistic centers in Europe of that time. It became the testing ground for the Spanish Monarchy's European plans, a boiling pot full of people of all sorts: from artists and diplomats to defectors, spies and penitent traitors, from Spanish confessors, Italian counselors, Burgundian functionaries, English musicians, German bodyguards to the Belgian nobles. The Treaty of London and the Twelve Years' Truce were brought about thanks to the active involvement of the Archdukes in the negotiations. Brussels became a vital link in the chain of Habsburg courts and the diplomatic conduits between Madrid, Vienna, Paris, London, Lisbon, Graz, Innsbruck, Prague and The Hague could be said to run through Brussels.

When Albert died in 1621, Isabella joined the Third Order of St Francis and was appointed the governor of the Netherlands on behalf of the King of Spain. She was succeeded as Governor by Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand, the third son of her half brother Philip III of Spain in 1633.




Frederick Henry, prince of Orange, count of Nassau

Frederik Hendrik, Prince of Orange by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt

prince of Orange
Dutch Frederik Hendrik, Prins Van Oranje, Graaf Van Nassau
born Jan. 29, 1584, Delft, Holland
died March 14, 1647, The Hague

the third hereditary stadtholder (1625–47) of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, or Dutch Republic, the youngest son of William I the Silent and successor to his half-brother Maurice, prince of Orange. Continuing the war against Spain, Frederick Henry was the first of the House of Orange to assume semimonarchical powers in foreign as well as domestic policies.

Early life
Frederick Henry was born less than half a year before the murder of his father, William the Silent, the principal leader of the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain.

As a younger son, he was destined by his mother, a daughter of the Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny, for a career in her native France; but his half brother, Maurice of Nassau—who had succeeded their father as stadtholder—as well as the States General, insisted that Frederick Henry serve his country. He was accordingly educated at the University of Leiden and made a member of the council of state at the age of 17. He began to take part in most of Maurice’s military expeditions and was sent on various foreign missions. During the politico-religious crisis of the years 1617–19, precipitated by a doctrinal conflict within the Reformed (or Calvinist) Church, Frederick Henry, like his mother, kept cautiously to the middle of the road, in contrast to Maurice.

Until the age of 40, Frederick Henry was reputed to be “too fond of women to tie himself permanently to one of them” but under strong pressure from Maurice, who had no legitimate offspring, and, almost at the latter’s deathbed, he married. His wife, a lady-in-waiting to the exiled queen of Bohemia, soon acquired a fair amount of political influence as well as a universal reputation for venality, but she also managed to endow The Hague in the 17th century with some semblance of Baroque court life.

Gerard van Honthorst.
Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, with His Wife Amalia van Solms and Their Three Youngest Daughters.

At Maurice’s death, in 1625, Frederick Henry became stadtholder in five of the seven United Provinces; a sixth, Groningen, was added in 1640. Even in Friesland, the eventual succession to the office of stadtholder was assigned to Frederick Henry’s son, William (born 1626). Although in theory no more than the appointed “servants” of the different assemblies of the estates, provincial and general, the princes of Orange, by establishing hereditary succession to the various stadtholderships, were clearly on their way to acquiring the status of sovereigns. In view of Frederick Henry’s anomalous, somewhat awkward position as a minor princeling at the helm of the government of a federation of oligarchic republics, anachronistically flourishing in a world drifting toward absolutism, his ambition was normal.

As a strategist, Frederick Henry proved himself to be the foremost disciple of his brother, Maurice, and the Dutch wars against the Spanish continued to be considered a kind of military academy for young European noblemen. The Prince’s universally recognized strength lay in capturing fortified “places”; once he was even heard to exclaim: “God deliver us from pitched battles,” and every one of his yearly campaigns had the conquest of some important town or fortress as its aim. Hence, the borderline between the modern kingdoms of Belgium and The Netherlands came to be drawn largely according to Frederick Henry’s successes and failures.

By far the most spectacular of these sieges was that of ’s-Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-duc), but if the capitulation of this city marked Frederick Henry’s proudest moment, it also demonstrated the inherent weakness of his position. Although his contemporaries present the prince as little short of omnipotent in the Dutch Republic, his power was based on the delicate balancing of various elements. To counterbalance the oligarchy in the province of Holland, which contributed more than 58 percent to the federal budget, the prince needed the support of the six minor members of the United Provinces and that of the Puritan masses of the country, including those in Holland.

Although not irreligious, Frederick Henry was, like his father, a champion of as far-reaching a religious tolerance as circumstances allowed. In this respect he displayed, paradoxically, a much closer affinity with his political opponents, the Holland oligarchy, than he did with his traditional supporters. Yet as far as policymaking was concerned, this affinity was of little avail; for the Hollanders remained stubbornly opposed to a costly war, which, moreover, if waged too successfully, threatened to reintegrate the port of Antwerp as a formidable rival for Amsterdam into the political body of the free Netherlands. To make his yearly campaigns politically acceptable absorbed almost more of Frederick Henry’s energies than the campaigns themselves. Clever tactician that he was, he managed, however, unlike his brother, Maurice, before and his son, William II, after him, to avoid an open conflict with the States of Holland.

Until about 1640, Frederick Henry alone was responsible for the United Provinces’ foreign policy. From the dynastic point of view, his activities were crowned by the marriage in 1641 between his heir, William II, and Mary, the eldest daughter of Charles I of Great Britain. Consequently, during the English Civil Wars, the stadtholder sided unconditionally with the King, whereas the Holland oligarchy tended to favour Parliament.

French alliance
More important was Frederick Henry’s French policy, culminating (1635) in the so-called treaty of partition between the two countries and stipulating a partitioning of the southern Netherlands, if conquered by arms from the Spanish. The treaty further provided for the yearly payment of a considerable French subsidy, thus enabling the prince to continue the war in spite of the reluctance of the war-tired assembly of Holland to finance it. But the very first campaign of the French and Dutch armies combined under Frederick Henry’s command nearly ended in disaster, and, in spite of his conquests of the cities of Breda and Hulst, the alliance never regained its momentum. The trend toward peace with Spain became more and more irresistible, and, largely through the influence of his wife, even Frederick Henry was eventually won over to the peace party. Prematurely aged after long years of suffering from gout, he did not live to see the peace officially concluded in January 1648. He died in March 1647 and was interred with great pomp in the family vault at Delft.

Jan J. Poelhekke

Encyclopaedia Britannica



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