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Research project

Monarchy in Turmoil. Rulers, Courts and Politics in The Netherlands and Germany, C.1780 – C.1820

How did rulers in the Netherlands and in adjacent smaller German territories adapt their regimes to ongoing change in legitimacy and decision-making during the transition period 1780-1820?

2017 - 2021
Jeroen Duindam

Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands.
Project Website: Monarchie in beroering.

Between c.1780 and c.1820, revolutions and wars transformed the political geography of Europe. By the end of this turbulent phase, a new power balance had taken shape. The majority of smaller players was now side-lined, whereas others achieved great power status. At the same time, notions of political power and the role of the monarch were upturned. Princes were forced to adapt their rule to these transitions; yet their efforts have never been studied in detail. Our project traces princely adaptations and innovations in the Low Countries and adjacent German territories, where a sequence of traditional, Napoleonic and restoration rulers faced particularly far-reaching changes in terms of territory, government, sovereignty and legitimacy.

Traditionally, the princely court had been the focal point of representation and government. Courts gradually lost this position in the nineteenth century, but it remains unclear to what extent this process occurred during the transition period. We examine this question in two domains: court styles and decision-making. Princes in these challenging times were forced to choose between different styles of court life, but needed to carefully consider the impact of their choices on elites and the population. In addition, they were keen to use the strengthened and rationalized state apparatus introduced by the revolution, although this forced them to reconsider their personal role and the role of their household in decision-making.

Research foci have gradually been adapted on the basis of the opportunities and complications generated by the archival materials and the restrictions imposed by the covid-pandemic. Some adaptations and outcomes are outlined in the following passages.

Quinten Somsen. The Court in a Republican and Dynastic setting.

Landgrave Wilhelm IX of Hesse-Kassel (1743-1821) and Stadholder Willem V (1748-1806) in the Dutch Republic shared the same aristocratic background and status, but their positions differed fundamentally. In Hesse-Kassel, supreme territorial authority lay in the hands of the landgrave, whereas the stadholder was only the first office holder of the state within a confederation of seven sovereign provinces. How did this divergence impact the role of the court in these two countries?

Historians assume that the court was less important in the Dutch Republic with its tradition of government through estates and regents than in German principalities where power was concentrated in the hands of the prince. My research demonstrates that this view is only partly justified. The stadholder’s indirect grip on the institutions of state made his court more important as a centre of patronage and informal politics. These two rulers maintained roughly similar households, but the stream of delegations and petitioners in The Hague was far more impressive than the limited numbers of visitors received by the landgrave.

In Hesse-Kassel, decision-making took place in the council and the landgrave tried to limit the circle of ministers and advisors. The stadholder, on the other hand, stubbornly refrained from council meetings, which enhanced the potential of informal influence and pressure at court. Policy was formulated in a dense process of interaction between court and representative assemblies.

Jos Gabriëls. The Kingdoms of Holland and Westphalia among the royaumes frères.

The satellite states within Napoleon’s Grand Empire are a special case: the fact that they always were subjected to the Emperor’s policies profoundly influenced the position of their monarchs, governments and courts. Napoleon’s attempt to obtain hegemony over most of western Europe and to enforce the continental blockade against Great Britain required an unceasing flow of men and money. The relatives he put on the thrones of the newly created or territorially rearranged royaumes frères were supposed to fulfil these needs by modernising their countries in compliance with directives from Paris. To help the Napoleonids meet their obligations towards the Emperor by introducing the necessary reforms, various French experts were appointed to government offices and to the army command. The kingdoms of Holland and Italy were notable exceptions to this rule: during their years as républiques sœurs, they had already been compelled to modernise their states.

As the political centre of gravity in the Napoleonid monarchies lay with the expanded government agencies and the military, the role reserved for the rationalised and bureaucratised households of these parvenu princes was necessarily limited. Still, the circumstances varied by country. In the ancient monarchies of Naples and Spain court life was resumed more or less unchanged, with the old nobility serving as household dignitaries and pursuing traditional protocol. In the recently cobbled together kingdoms of Italy and Westphalia, a new court elite had to be composed and new court practices had to be designed. In Holland, an age-old republic suddenly turned into a kingdom, court and court life did not amount to much, due to an absent queen and an infrequently present king. Finally, in the newly created grand-duchy of Berg a princely household and court did not exist at all. In general, the court in the royaumes frères, although as ever a locus of princely representation, was primarily a staging area of royal (French) friends and kindred spirits, a rallying point for the national elite, and as such a place of sociability.

Joost Welten. William I and Frederick William III: similar challenges, different choices

William I of the Netherlands explicitly used his court to establish authority in the newly acquired - Catholic - Southern Netherlands. To this end, he created a second court in Brussels and resided there as often as at his court in The Hague. Yet he ultimately failed to sufficiently bind the social elite in the Southern Netherlands to his court and to himself. Frederick William III of Prussia made no comparable effort to integrate the newly acquired - predominantly Catholic - territories in the Rhineland into Prussia through his court. Yet he did not experience a crisis of authority in the Rhineland as had William I in the Southern Netherlands.

William I operated within a constitutional framework. He actively used his court to gain influence in the Upper and Lower Houses. Frederick William III operated without either a constitution or a parliament, so there was no reason for his court to influence parliamentary debates or representatives.

A comparison of the courts of both monarchs therefore naturally leads to fascinating questions about the possibilities and limitations of the court as a political factor and as an instrument for unifying states in the early nineteenth century.

Jeroen Duindam: Comparative horizon

Jeroen Duindam will place the results of the projects in a wider European context, including France, Britain, the newly established Kaisertum Österreich and Russia. Exchange with ongoing projects in Berlin[1], Vienna,[2] and London[3] will be of prime importance here. A first orientation in the Viennese archives suggests a surprising continuity (and even expansion) of the court and its practices in the early nineteenth century.

[1] Focused mostly on assembling and editing sources, see https://actaborussica.bbaw.de/index.xql

[2] Several projects, with a shared focus on prosopography, for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries see:  https://viecpro.oeaw.ac.at/?lang=en ; for the period 1790-1835, with prosopography and an added focus on representation and ceremony see: https://www.oeaw.ac.at/en/ihb/forschungsbereiche/geschichte-der-habsburgermonarchie/forschung/wiener-hof-um-1800

[3] For the project on the  papers of George III, see https://georgianpapers.com/

Our project started out by asking how rulers in the Netherlands and in adjacent smaller German territories adapted their regimes to ongoing change in legitimacy and decision-making during the transition period 1780-1820. It selected the following cases:


Project titles/Periods


German territories

Quinten Somsen

Two Late Ancien Régime ‘Monarchies’:

Tradition in the Face of Reform and Revolution

William V Stadtholder of the United Provinces [c.1780-1795]

William IX Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (1785-1803)

Jos Gabriëls

Two Napoleonic Monar­chies:

An Amalgam of Revolutionary Govern­ment and Resus­citated King­ship

Louis Napoleon King of Holland (1806-1810)

Jerome Napoleon King of Westphalia (1807-1813)

Joost Welten

Two Early Restoration Monarchies:

The Bricolage of Modernisation and Tradition

William I King of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands [1813/1815 - c.1820]

Frederick William III King of Prussia [1810 - c.1820]


A conference is organised on 18-20 May 2022 in Leiden, Gravensteen building by the Leiden University Institute for History and Huygens Institute for Dutch History and Culture. See the call for papers. The deadline for paper proposals is 31 May 2021.

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