Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

The Politics of Memory in the Low Countries, 1566-1700

This subproject offers a political and transnational perspective on the development and uses of public memories of the Revolt in the seventeenth century.

2008 - 2013
Judith Pollmann
NWO Vici NWO Vici


The Dutch Revolt tore apart the seventeen Netherlands and led to the formation of two states, that were at war until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The northern provinces formed a calvinist republic whereas the Southern Netherlands remained under control of catholic Spain. In the Oath of Abjuration in 1581, the northern provinces (including Flanders, Brabant and Mechelen) had declared themselves constitutionally independent, and the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609-1621) implied de factointernational recognition for the nascent Republic. Long before 1648, it had therefore become evident that the division was likely to be permanent. Due to the political rift between North and South, diametrically opposed views on the origin of the Revolt developed.


This project seeks to explore: 

a) how and why different Netherlandish canons of the history of the Revolt came into being
b) the extent to which these canons exerted influence on the formation of new and irreconcilable self-images in the northern and southern provinces 
c) how the uses of these canons developed throughout the seventeenth century 

Management of memory
From very early on in the Dutch Revolt, the management of memory was a central concern. First, there were memories to be wiped out. To ‘eradicate the memory’ of noble opposition to the policies of the Habsburg rulers, the duke of Alva gave orders in 1568 to demolish the Culemborg palace in which the confederate nobles had hatched their plans. In the Pacification of Ghent of 1576, the warring sides formally agreed that ‘all offences, injuries, transgressions and destructions that happened during the troubles between the inhabitants of the provinces that are included in this treaty […] shall be forgiven, forgotten and taken not to have occurred.’1 Similar clauses can be found in other capitulation treaties agreed in various phases of the conflict. Many in the South wanted to forget they ever sided with the rebels; in the North, few cared to remember that the Revolt had been a civil war. 

But there were also memories to be preserved. In the Republic, the Spanish tyranny exercised by the duke of Alva recurred in national discourses, and became emblematic of new war experiences, such as the French tyranny in 1672. In the South it was considered important to commemorate the iniquities of the calvinist heretics and the ‘reconciliation’ with the house of Habsburg. Through the selective obliteration and preservation of memories of the Revolt at least two versions of the history of the Revolt thus chrystallised.

ad (a) how and why different Netherlandish canons of the history of the Revolt came into being

In the subproject Community and Memory, attention will be paid to the formation and development of local canons in northern and southern cities from a multimedia perspective. But canons did not only develop on a local level. An identifiable canon, narrating the history of the Revolt as a ‘Dutch’ story, also emerged in the Republic. This ‘Dutch’ canon of the Revolt consisted of episodes that were recalled again and again, such as the tyranny of the duke of Alva and the assassination of William of Orange. Whereas local canons arose already in the 1570s, a ‘Dutch’ canon seems to have come into existence later, during the first decade of the seventeenth century. This suggests that the development of such a canon requires an explanation of its own. 

Causes of the Revolt
To arrive at such a historical explanation, we first need to know how the North-Netherlandish canon of the Revolt came into being. Whereas in countries like England, the state performed a central role in the management of memory, the States General were reluctant to do so. Previous studies suggest that the origin of a national canonic version of the history of the Revolt was largely initiated by interest groups (opponents of peace, South Netherlandish exiles, Maurice of Nassau, clergymen, etc.), who supported their political viewpoints and opposition to the policies of the States General with references to the history of the Revolt. At the moment this is a hypothesis that needs testing. 

In the Southern Netherlands, a coherent vision on the causes of the Revolt emerged as well, and perhaps even somewhat earlier than in the North. Insofar it has been studied, historians assume that this ‘southern’ vision of the past developed in the political centre. Still, interest groups, most notably the religious orders and the nobility, influenced the creation of the canon as well. In the South, the memory culture of the Revolt revolved around the defense of the catholic faith against heretics, who were often characterised as ‘Hollanders’. Tales about ‘political’ miracles and other signs of sacred support for the catholic-Habsburg cause played an important role. There is some evidence, furthermore, for the existence of a ‘secular’ memorial culture, involving for example the regime of Alva and the execution of the counts of Egmond and Horne. Whether these memories supplemented the Habsburg version of events, or served as an alternative, has yet to be established. 

ad (b) the extent to which these canons exerted influence on the formation of new and irreconcilable self-images in the northern and southern provinces  

Throughout much of the war, North and South continued to strive for reunification and propagandists appealed to a common Netherlandish identity. However, well before the separation became final in 1648, it had become increasingly difficult to maintain that all inhabitants of the Low Countries shared a common identity. The second aim of this research is to establish how the different northern and southern canons contributed to the formation of a cultural rift between both sides. The canonic version of the past played an important role in the media war between the two sides, but it seems likely that this war also inspired canon formation. 

ad (c) how the uses of these canons developed throughout the seventeenth century  

The third task of this project is to explore the extent to which there are identifiable changes in the uses of the canons of the Revolt in political debates, throughout the seventeenth century. In the course of the seventeenth century, memories of the Revolt were marshalled in support of a range of political and religious causes. Although the central authorities in the South may have attempted to let the political dimensions of the Revolt fall into oblivion, they could not prevent memories of the Revolt from being used for internal political purposes – for example during the conflicts between the Habsburg princes and the political elites in the South around 1630. In the North, the house of Orange derived much of its prestige from its role in the war. After Frederick Henry’s death in 1647, for example, his wife Amalia of Solms commissioned a memorial of Frederick Henry as a glorious saviour of the Republic in the form of a series of paintings. While memories of the Revolt were often used to support Orangist political agendas, conversely, anti-Orangist factions often sought to marginalise the house of Orange, by trivialising its role in the Dutch Revolt. In addition, memories of the Revolt played a central role in confessional sub-cultures and agendas. Protestants in the North regularly attempted to monopolise memories of the Revolt, whilst catholic minorities held on to alternative counter-memories. A better insight into the role that political and religious factions played in canon formation will thus help explain how memories of the Revolt could remain relevant, even when the war had come to an end.

This subproject offers a political and transnational perspective on the development and uses of public memories of the Revolt in the seventeenth century, that will supplement the local and individual perspectives studied by other members of the team, and will show how different memory environments influenced identity formation. By offering a comparison of public memory formation in a decentralised, Republican polity and a monarchical political system, it should also be able to contribute to a better understanding of the way in which political systems affected early modern memory formation in general.


1. ‘Pacificatie van Gent,” in A.S. de Blécourt, N. Japikse, eds., Klein plakkaatboek van Nederland: Verzameling van Ordonnantiën en Plakkaten Betreffende Regeeringsvorm, Kerk en Rechtspraak (Den Haag: J.B. Wolters, 1919), nr XVI, p. 113- 117.

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