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Stadtholder Frederick Henry

The government of the Dutch Republic (also known as the United Provinces) was unlike most of the other states represented at the Congress of Westphalia, because there was no crowned head — king or emperor — leading it. It was, instead, a republic, directed by provincial representatives in the States General, and heavily dependent on the consensus of all seven provinces. Frederick Henry was not a monarch, but rather the “stadtholder,” or “steward,” of six of the seven provinces. Stadtholder had originally been the office of a person who ruled in the absence of the duke or count; after the expulsion of the Habsburgs at the beginning of the Dutch Revolt, the office remained as a sort of executive power. The role was technically appointed by representatives of each province, but the senior member of the House of Orange soon came to hold the office in five of the seven provinces.

The stadtholder — from 1625, Frederick Henry — wielded some power in political matters, and was also head of the army, obviously an important post during the war. Through a combination of patronage and intimidation, the stadtholder was an important member of government, but, in this period, he was never more than an adjunct to the States General. What made the stadtholder especially important in diplomacy was that monarchies such as France and Spain tended to look to him as the government’s representative in foreign affairs, which Frederick Henry naturally encouraged. Spain promised him extensive power in the United Provinces if he would recognize some kind of nominal Spanish overlordship, and France tried to offer him fiefs and support against the States General if he would agree to French acquisition of the Spanish Low Countries. Neither of these offers worked, partly because Frederick Henry was not interested in betraying his country, but also because he simply lacked the power to make such decisions.

During 1646, opinion in the Dutch Republic turned against the war. Frederick Henry, whose power rested largely on his command of the army, resisted any cut in military spending, and especially any end to the war (he hoped ultimately to conquer the Spanish Netherlands, those provinces in the Low Countries which Spain had managed to reconquer after the Dutch revolt in 1570). However, he was old and sick by then, and died early in 1647, which gave the peace party the opportunity it needed. His son William II forcefully continued his father’s policies, but he was too uncertain in the first year of his reign to counter the momentum toward peace.