The statue of a man in a chair gazing across the Hofvijver at the Binnenhof in The Hague is a memorial to the 16th century Dutch statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. Read on for more about the man and the statue…
Johan van Oldenbarnevelt was an important figure in Dutch history. Born in Amersfoort (near Utrecht) in 1547, he was put to death in 1619 at age 71 when he was beheaded in front of a crowd at the Binnenhof.
In 1564, van Oldenbarnevelt moved to The Hague to intern at a law office. In the following years he continued his law studies at schools in Belgium, France, Germany and Italy. By 1570 he returned to The Hague where he was a lawyer at Hof van Holland. Two years later he moved to Delft to support Prins Willem of Oranje, the leader of the Dutch rebellion against Spain. He was appointed to the city council. In 1576, he moved to Rotterdam and rose quickly in prominence; by 1579 he had been appointed Commissioner of Finance for the Dutch Navy. Over the next several years, his partnership with Prins Willem of Oranje flourished and his position in government grew stronger.
In the power grab which followed the assassination of Prins Willem of Oranje in 1584, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt supported the transfer of leadership of Holland to Willem’s second oldest son, the 16-year old Maurits, as Willem’s eldest son was incarcerated in Spain at the time.
In 1586, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt was named as an attorney to the commissioning board for the States of Holland, a position he held until his death. Over the next decade, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt developed a successful relationship with the new prince while also establishing himself as a top leader within government. He understood the relationship between money and power and realized in order for Holland to control its own destiny as an independent republic, strong enough to defend itself from foreign incursion, it would need to amass wealth. To this end, he was instrumental in founding the Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.) in 1602.
But with the turn of the century, tensions started to arise between Johan van Oldenbarnevelt and Prins Maurits of Oranje began to develop, not the least of which were due to van Oldenbarnevelt’s introduction and support of measures which resulted in a migration of power away from the House of Oranje (and ultimately, Prins Maurits) and into the hands of the Staats-Generaal, in which Van Oldenbarnevelt wielded much influence.
By 1609, religious divisions in the Dutch Reformed Church began playing a major role in politics. Riots frequently occurred in cities throughout the republic. To combat this, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt supported a move which allowed cities to organize their own militias by paying independent contractors (i.e. mercenaries) to maintain peace and suppress opposition protests. The move further diluted Prins Maurits’s power as the leader of the national military and was an affront to his supporters who were leading many of the protests. It was the final straw for the prince.
On 26th August 1618, Prins Maurits initiated a coup and Johan van Oldenbarnevelt was arrested. Over the ensuing months, the prince had several government officials aligned with Van Oldenbarnevelt relieved of their positions, appointing replacements who supported his leadership. This eventually altered the composition of the governing body to the point where those aligned with the prince became a majority. Once this happened, Van Oldenbarnevelt was tried and found guilty of treason against the state. The verdict was announced on 12th May 1619 and the following day, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt was beheaded in front of a crowd at the Binnenhof. He was 71 years old at the time.
Johan van Oldenbarnevelt’s execution is considered a dark stain on the legacy of the Dutch Republic.
In 1953, sculptor Oswald Wenckeback was commissioned to create a memorial statue to the Dutch statesman who played a key role in Holland’s early years as an independent republic. It sits on the west bank of the Hofvijver, opposite the Binnenhof in The Hague city center. The memorial holds monument status.
Johan van Oldenbarnevelt’s life is also honored with a memorial statue in front of the Rotterdam Stadhuis (City Hall) building (below).