The birth of the Kingdom of the Netherlands: 1813-1815
Following his defeat by the Allied armies at the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, Napoleon was forced to retreat westwards and thus to give up control of the northern Netherlands, which formed part of his empire. In mid-November, the hurried departure of French troops and officials led to violent riots in Amsterdam and The Hague. Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp and some other supporters of the exiled House of Orange immediately took advantage of this situation to launch a national revolt against the French. They hoped that by throwing off the imperial yoke and proclaiming independence for itself, the Netherlands could prevent the advancing Allies from occupying the country as enemy territory and would thus be able to determine its own political future.
As head of the provisional government, Van Hogendorp invited the Prince of Orange, then in exile in Great Britain, to come to the Netherlands. On 30 November 1813, the Prince landed at Scheveningen, and two days later he accepted the sovereignty of the Netherlands in Amsterdam, with the guarantee that a constitution would be drawn up. Sovereign Prince Willem, as he was now called, faced an enormous task. First of all, the Netherlands needed an army, for Napoleon was by no means defeated and French troops held out in various Dutch fortified towns against besieging forces for months. Furthermore, a new administration had to be installed as soon as possible.
To ensure a constitutional basis for Willem’s sovereignty a constitution – neither very liberal nor democratic – had been drawn up with some haste. It conferred far-reaching personal powers of appointment and decision-making on the Sovereign Prince, while the people’s fundamental rights remained limited. On 30 March 1814, at his ceremonial investiture in Amsterdam, Willem took the oath on the new constitution.
Foreign policy, too, was demanding attention. From the outset, it was Willem’s ambition to extend his state southwards. To achieve this, he was dependent on the Great Powers, which by now had conquered Belgium from France. Above all, he needed the support of the government in London, given that since the collapse of the Napoleonic empire the Netherlands had become part of Great Britain’s sphere of influence. Eventually Willem’s dream was realized because it suited Britain’s security interests for the northern and southern Netherlands to be united into a powerful state which could serve as a buffer against a possible resurgence of French aggression. The Great Powers reached agreement on the terms of this amalgamation with the signing of the London Protocol of 21 June 1814, which marked the birth of the new united state. However, Great Britain demanded a high price for its diplomatic support for this extension of Dutch territory, by holding on to the strategically important Cape of Good Hope and the profitable colony of Guyana, which it had seized from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars.
On 1 August 1814, Willem assumed authority over Belgium as Governor-General on behalf of the Allied powers. For the time being the northern and the southern Netherlands were governed separately, their only connection being the personal union represented by Willem. A definitive decision on uniting the two territories was to be taken at the Congress of Vienna, which began talks in November 1814, with Great Britain representing Dutch interests. In the end, the Congress determined the borders of the new state and decided that Willem would be its hereditary monarch. In addition, he was granted the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg as his personal possession.
In March 1815, Napoleon returned to France, where he once again seized power. This unexpected development changed the situation completely. The Great Powers declared war on the Emperor and mobilized their forces. Faced with a renewed military threat Willem decided not to wait for the ratification of the Congress of Vienna agreements. On 16 March he proclaimed himself King of the Netherlands on his own authority.
On 18 June, the new Royal Dutch Army, as part of the Allied forces, took part in the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. The shared battle experience was of great importance for the bond between the North and the South, since soldiers from both parts of the Kingdom had fought shoulder to shoulder in defense of its newly acquired independence. Moreover, the Dutch contribution to the victory over Napoleon showed the Great Powers that the new state would be able to play its role as a buffer against France successfully.
Both the unification of the northern and southern Netherlands and Willem’s recently acquired royal status made it necessary to adapt the constitution. But while the draft constitution was unanimously accepted in the North, a majority in the South, prompted by the Roman Catholic clergy, voted against it. Not until the government had manipulated the result – by a method known in the South as ‘Hollandish arithmetic’ – was the King able to declare that the constitution had been adopted. In several ways the 1815 constitution was more liberal than its predecessor. For instance, it enshrined more fundamental rights for the people and extended the powers of parliament somewhat. However, the King’s extensive personal powers remained undiminished. It was on this constitution that Willem took the oath at his ceremonial investiture as King of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in Brussels on 21 September.