Monarch Profile: King Willem I of the Netherlands
It is no exaggeration to say that the reign of King Willem I of the
Kingdom of the United Netherlands was the culmination of centuries of
struggle, climaxed by the most critical conflict since the Dutch won
their independence from Spain and which would remain the most critical
until World War II was thrust upon them with the German blitzkrieg in
May of 1940. From the start of the Dutch fight for freedom, that fight
had been led by the Princes of Orange and, as founded, the independent
Netherlands had been a republic but a republic which reserved a special
place of leadership for the Princes of Orange. However, a more strident
republican faction had emerged that sought to exclude the House of
Orange from any position of influence. In response, a royalist faction
rose up to counter them, often called the Orange party for the Orange
sashes they often wore to show their support for their prince. As the
republican faction strove to make the Netherlands more puritanically
republican, so too did the Orange party move to do away with republican
concessions and make the Prince of Orange their king.
|Princes Willem & Frederik|
While on a visit to Berlin he met Princess Friederike Luise Wilhelmine of Prussia, his cousin, and the two were married in 1791. After finishing his education, the Hereditary Prince was made a general in the Dutch army by his father and given a seat on the Council of State of the Dutch republic. Not long after, the Dutch republicans were to learn that the kinship they felt with the French revolutionaries was not returned when the French National Convention declared war on the Dutch republic in 1793. Prince Willem was given command of the Dutch ‘mobile army’ to meet the attacking French and he was soon leading his troops alongside the armies of other powers in the Flanders campaign. It was hard fighting and the Prince tasted both victory and defeat such as when he captured Landrecies and was later smashed along with his allies at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. Still, he made enough of a favorable impression that the Emperor Francis II gave him command of the Austrian forces in the region, to be grouped with his own though, in the end, the huge advantage in numbers possessed by the French revolutionaries with their campaign of mass conscription, proved impossible to overcome.
|Willem, Prince of Orange|
However, in 1806 Napoleon invaded the German states, the same year that Willem V died and his son officially became Prince Willem VI of Orange, and the Prince fought alongside his Prussian relatives against the French as a divisional commander of the Prussian army at the Battle of Jena. However, the Prussians were defeated and the Prince was forced to surrender the next day. He was given his parole, forced to promise not to fight against the French any more and was granted a pension from France as his country was a vassal of the government in Paris. However, he had no intention of keeping his word to the French and when the Austrian Empire went to war with France, he quickly joined their ranks and was wounded at the Battle of Wagram while serving on the staff of the Austrian commander Archduke Charles. Later, he received a great boost from Czar Alexander I of Russia who promised to help restore Dutch independence and make the Prince of Orange king. Prussia and Britain were both expected to agree. After the defeat of Napoleon at Leipzig, an Orange restoration seemed imminent.
|The return of the Prince of Orange|
|King Willem I inspects the army in the 100 Days Campaign|
However, there were problems. The Belgians had hoped to gain their own independence from the wars with France and many were not happy about being subject to a Dutch king. Though his son was popular there, King Willem I was not. The Belgians complained of being underrepresented in the new Dutch government. They resented the King pushing everyone to adopt the Dutch language as, in those days, not only did the Walloon population of Belgium speak only French but the elite, the educated and the businessmen of Flanders spoke French as well. The Belgians were also solidly Catholic and they also resented the special favor shown by their Protestant monarch to the Dutch Reformed Church. This is all, of course, completely understandable just as it is understandable that King Willem I wished to have all parts of his kingdom united, wanting one people, one language, one religion under one monarch. It might not have been so bad if Belgian expectations had not been raised previously. It also did not help that the policies which benefited the Dutch population of traders, bankers and businessmen were often less than helpful to the farmers and laborers of Belgium.
|King Willem I|
This was a particularly bitter pill for King Willem I to swallow as he had been so very proud of his “United Kingdom of the Netherlands” which, after the separation of Belgium, became instead the Kingdom of the Netherlands as it is today though still with the personal union with the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Dutch liberals also took advantage of the opportunity that came with amending the constitution to take into account the loss of Belgium to diminish the King’s powers. It was not an immense change but it did mean that the King could no longer do as he pleased entirely and King Willem I was outraged by this. He was also facing mounting anger over his private life as, since the death of his wife in 1837 (after giving him two sons and two daughters) he had taken up with a countess who, to the outrage of the Dutch public, was a Catholic and a Belgian. He wished to marry her but it was clear the Dutch people would not stand for such a thing. So, with King Willem I refusing to accept the constitutional changes, his people refusing to accept his choice of wife and lingering resentment over the loss of Belgium, King Willem I started the tradition of Dutch monarchs abdicating when he gave up his throne on October 7, 1840.