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The History of the Netherlands

This page will help you learn more about the Netherlands than you ever wanted to know. ;-) Enjoy!
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Why would I want to learn more about Holland then?

How should I know? You are the one who accessed this page, aren't you?! :-) Nah, seriously. Why should anyone be interested in learning more about my country?

Well, I could tell you about my personal love for it, or something, but somehow I don't think that's going to convince anyone. So I'll have to do this differently. How about some cool facts about my country's history? If you've read this, I guarantee you, you'll want to learn more about the Netherlands. And whaddaya know: I've got the answers to all your questions right here, in this document! :-)
Well, if this didn't get your attention, I can only say there's much more to come. And if this did get your attention, I can only say there's much more to come. In any way, keep on reading!


'Quel autre pays ou l'on puisse jouir d'une liberte si entiere?' *
(Descartes about the Netherlands)

The first traces of human presence in the territory now known as the Netherlands can be dated back to 250,000 years b.C., though the population at that time was of course very small. Most discoveries were done in areas of the Netherlands now relatively sparsely populated, such as Limburg, Drenthe and Friesland. Nowadays, the west of the country has reached population densities of up to 1,000 people per square kilometer (= 1,600 people per square mile), whereas Drenthe only has 166 people per square km, and Friesland 179. The reason the west of the Netherlands was so scarcely populated until about a 1,000 years ago is that it was difficult to live there since the area consisted largely of swamps and fenland. The Netherlands is a perfect example of a landscape made by humans who defied nature, and this struggle between man and nature lasted for thousands of years, as will soon become clear.
Holland Map
Figure 1. The provinces of the Netherlands in 1998.

Since 250,000 years ago the country has experienced a great deal of historic events. It was fought over, conquered, lost, and fought over again for thousand of years, up until May 5, 1945, when the allies freed the Dutch from the Nazi occupation. The Nazis were the last who tried to keep this country and its people under control, but many tried that before them. Before the low countries had formed the union it is today, the Romans, the French, the Normans and the Spanish invaded the Netherlands. It is because of these and other events that the spirit of complete freedom was first born there, and that thought of individual freedom still stands today. The Netherlands has played its part in history, and though it may not always have been glorious, this small country has had its impact on the rest of world history.

* 'In what other country can one enjoy such a complete freedom?'

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Romans, Germans, French (57 b.C. - 1555 AD)

In 57 b.C. the written history of the Netherlands began when troops of the Roman emperor Gaius Julius Caesar beat the Germanic and Celtic tribes living the the area now known as Belgium. Caesar wrote about his victories in the Commentarii de Bello Gallico, and this was the first time someone wrote about this part of Europe.

Caesar did not, however, conquer the area of what is now the Netherlands completely. The borders of the Roman empire were established along the Rhine, where the Romans also built the first roadworks and cities. One of those cities was Noviomagus, nowadays known as Nijmegen (in the southeastern part of the province of Gelderland). In the northern part of the country was an area populated by the Frisians, and the Romans did try to subject these people to their rule as well, but they failed time and again. In fact, even the taxes the Frisians had to pay were no longer collected after they had revolted in the year 28.

The Romans were also the first to build artificial water works in the Netherlands, such as dams and grachten (canals). But this influence of the Romans in the Netherlands gradually became less as Rome's power declined, and in the year 406 the Romans had to give up their Rhine border definitively. It is this year that marks the end of Roman influences in the Netherlands.

The Germanic tribes quickly took the place of the Romans, but their culture was completely different from Rome's culture: the Germanic people were more or less agricultural and not united in any way until later, when two major groups of people emerged: the Saxons and the Frankish. The Germanic Saxons lived in the east of the Netherlands, but mostly outside of the current Dutch borders (in Germany). The Frisians, who had been living on artificially created mounds (terpen) to protect them from the water, still held their ground in the north of the Netherlands and got high living standards because of their trading skills. The Frankish conquered a large area after the Romans had left: they expanded from the below the large Dutch rivers (Rhine, Waal, Maas) all the way through Gaul, an area which now includes France and the northern part of Italy.
For centuries, the large rivers had served as a natural border for the successive empires, first the Romans and later the Frankish. Near the fortress of Levefanum, a city was built with the name of Dorestad (today it is called Wijk bij Duurstede). This city was for many years the center of Northwest-European commerce, and that is why it was fought over many times. In 689, a Frankish army sent by Pippijn II beat the Frisians at Dorestad, but the Frisians recaptured it after Pippijn's death. The Frankish armies again conquered this city in 734, and the Frankish empire expanded to this new border. Pippijn III crowned himself to king of the Frankish, and when he died in 768 his successor was his son Karel (Carl) the Great. He beat the Saxon armies definitively in 785 and by the year 800, he had arranged for himself to be crowned emperor by the Pope in Rome.

Carl died in 814 and was succeeded by his son Lodewijk (Ludwig). In 843 his empire was divided between his three sons in the Treaty of Verdun. Lotharius received the middle part and thus also the area now known as the Netherlands. In 855, after Lotharius had died, there was another division. The Dutch region was now part of an area called Lorraine (named after Lotharius). After many more divisions and unifications a German king conquered Lorraine in 925 and from then on, Lorraine was formally a part of the Holy Roman Empire until 1648.

Between approximately 850 and 1000, the Normans played an important role in Dutch history: they came from Denmark and frequently raided the Dutch cities. These attacks were especially heavy between 879 and 882, when some of the Norman kings even acquired some ground in the Netherlands after being baptized. After 892, when there was a crop failure, the Normans moved their attention to England for most of the time. The area now known as the Netherlands only had to deal with occasional raids from then on. The last raid was in 1006-1007 (when the city of Tiel was plundered) but after that, the Normans, now mostly Christians, were no longer a threat to the country.

The areas that form the provinces in contemporary Holland, were already beginning to take shape around the year 1000. The German emperors allowed smaller districts to be consolidated into larger kingdoms ruled by counts (graven). This process continued until the end of the eleventh century, when the bishop of Utrecht had become the most powerful sovereign in Holland. (It was around this time that the name Holland was first used: Dirk V, a descendant of a Norman, called himself 'Count of Holland'. Holland is the western part of what is today called the Netherlands (although both names are nowadays (usually) appropriate when naming the country).) Besides Utrecht, there were three other principalities looking for power: Brabant, Holland, and Gelre. Brabant was what is now Belgium, Holland was a small coastal area in the west of the country, and Gelre was what is now the province of Gelderland as well as a few territories to the north and the south of the province.

When the German was no longer able to pay sufficient attention to these principalities (due to problems in his own country), they slowly gained more power. After the Concordat of Worms (1122), which allowed 'the people' to choose the bishop of a principality, had gone into effect, the power of the principalities grew even more and by the year 1200, they felt strong enough to make their own agreements with neigboring countries that were not under the influence of the German emperor. Go back to the contents section
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Literature and Links


Tips for Reading this Document

There are several ways to learn more about the history of the Netherlands when using the document. First of all, you can of course read through it completely, but you should then perhaps consider downloading and/or printing it. The second way you can use this page is by going to the contents section and then look for the chapter(s) you would like to read. And finally, you can also click on each of the underlined terms you will find throughout this text, which will bring you to the word in the Glossary you selected, where you can learn more about it.

This page was created to heighten the knowledge and understanding of the Netherlands, a country frequently overlooked by non-Dutch people. It has a fascinating history and the country has at times played a crucial role in world history; I would therefore like to invite everyone to look at this page and find out just what happened to this small but proud country and its people.

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