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Modern Europe

Makeup of the Netherlands

by Drs Dirk van Duijvenbode, 31 January 2002
Owner of the Dutch-language 'List of Dutch Sovereigns' site



Is it called the Netherlands, Holland, the Low Countries or even Friesland? There is a lot confusion about the name of our country. Nowadays we call it "Koninkrijk der Nederlanden" (Kingdom of the Netherlands), shortened as "Nederland". This kingdom consists of three countries:

"Nederland" (the Netherlands, ie the part of the kingdom on mainland Europe)

2  "de Nederlandse Antillen" (the Netherlands Antilles)

3  Aruba (until 1986 one of the Netherlands Antilles; in 1986 this isle off the coast of Venezuela gained a "status aparte")

These three countries have their own governments (and parliaments), but Queen Beatrix [of the Netherlands] is the head of state of each of these countries. Furthermore, there is a "koninkrijksregering" (a government of the kingdom), which consists of representatives of the governments of the three countries. There are only occasional meetings of this "koninkrijksregering".

Until 1975 Surinam was also part of the kingdom, and until 1963 New-Guinea, too. Indonesia (the former Dutch [East] Indies) gained independence in 1949, but formed a union with the Netherlands until 1956.

In English there is no real difference between the name of the kingdom and of the country; in both cases it is translated with the word "Netherlands" (plural). In Dutch there is a difference. The country is called "Nederland" (singular) and the kingdom is called "Nederlanden" (plural); so in fact the name of the country should be translated into English as "Netherland". On Dutch coins, and since January 2002 on the Dutch euros, there is the queen's portrait with the words "BEATRIX KONINGIN DER NEDERLANDEN" (Beatrix Queen of the Netherlands). This plural indicates that term describes the kingdom rather than the country.

In the tenth century, the complete coast of the Netherlands was called "Friesland" (in English, Frisia, but either term can be used). After that the name was reserved only for the northern coast. The western coast (sometimes called "West-Friesland" ("West Frisia") became part of the County of Holland. "Holland" (the same in English and Dutch) is an adulteration of "Hout-Land", which means in English "Wood-Land", because there were a lot of trees in the area.

In the early Middle Ages the country was an assemblage of counties, duchies and dioceses, all of which were a part of the German empire [Holy Roman empire]. The most important part of this area was the County of Holland. Little by little (mostly by marriage) the titles of the remaining regions came to be held by the dukes of Burgundy. So the dukes of Burgundy not only claimed that important title, but also that of Count of Holland, Duke of Brabant, etc. In 1477 duchess Mary of Burgundy married the German Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg. Because of this marriage the Dutch areas became a possession of the Habsburgs. The Habsburgs also held possessions in Austria, and most of the time the Habsburgs also reigned as ruler of the German Empire.

After Maximilian came his son Philip, who married queen Juana of Spain. Their son Charles (Emperor Charles V) was the next ruler. Charles V gave his Austrian possessions and the title of emperor to his brother, and his possessions Spain and the Netherlands to his son Philip (King Philip II of Spain).

The name of this group of areas was now "de Nederlanden", which could be translated as "the Netherlands" or "the Low Countries" (the Dutch word "neder" (or simply "neer") means "down", and "landen" is the plural of "land", which in English is more or less the same word). So "the Netherlands" and "the Low Countries" mean exactly the same thing.

Originally, "the Netherlands" was a name for Germany and the Netherlands combined (as they were under the Frankish Carolingian Empire), and the westerly region (modern Netherlands) was called "the Netherlands at the sea". Gradually "the Netherlands" came to indicate only the western region, so the words "at the sea" were eventually dropped.

It is important to know that until 1579 the name "Netherlands" included also the territory which is nowadays known as Belgium. On 6th January 1579 this southern region of the Netherlands signed the "Unie van Atrecht" (the Union of Atrecht), in which they declared that they were prepared to be loyal to the Roman Catholic Philip II. In reply, on 23rd January the seven northern areas signed the "Unie van Utrecht" (the Union of Utrecht), in which they declared that they were not able to comply to the orders of this Roman Catholic lord. This created a schism, splitting the Netherlands into northern and southern sections (nowadays known as the Netherlands and Belgium).

The Netherlands finally gained independence from the Habsburgs in 1581. In this year the Northern Netherlands deposed their nominal master, Philip II of Spain (who was not king of the Netherlands, but only "lord"). The country was renamed "de Republiek der Zeven Verenigde Nederlanden" (the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands); the words "Zeven" and "Verenigde" were not always used, so there are also shorter versions of this name. In fact, "republic" was a bit a misleading word, because most of the time there was a Prince of Orange ruling the country as stadhouder (royal "head of state"), king in all but name. Sometimes our country was also called "de Zeven Provinciën" (the Seven Provinces).

In 1795 the revolutionary French Republic invaded the Netherlands. The old Republic was reformed on French model by its new masters and was named "Bataafs(ch)e Republiek" (Batavian Republic), because the tribe of the Batavians were believed to be the ancestors of the Dutch people. (The last stadhouder, William V, called himself "Willem Batavus" (William the Batavian.)

From 1806 until 1810, the Netherlands was ruled as a kingdom (with Napoleon's well-meaning brother, Louis (in Dutch: "Lodewijk"), as king. It was called "Koningrijk Holland" (Kingdom Holland). This was a misleading name, because Holland was only one of the seven provinces (there were six other provinces, but apparently they were not important). From 1810 until 1813, the country was part of the French Empire, ruled directly by Napoleon.

Once Napoleon had lost control of Germany, and the British sent a small expeditionary force to aid the Dutch, the French were rapidly forced out. From 1813 until 1815, the country was ruled by Prince William I, son of stadhouder William V. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna decided that the Southern Netherlands would be rejoined to the country (if only to take it out of French control), and that William I would be elevated to the status of king now that his territory had been almost doubled. The country was then called "Verenigd Koninkrijk der Nederlanden" (United Kingdom of the Netherlands).

In 1830, the Southern Netherlands revolted against King William, and in 1831 they proclaimed their independence and called their new country Belgium (in Dutch: "België", in French: "Belgique"). This independence was recognised by the Dutch government in 1839. So from 1839, the country was officially not "Verenigd" (United) any more, and was simply called "Koninkrijk der Nederlanden" (Kingdom of the Netherlands). (Most people probably didn't notice: already in the period 1815-1839 the word "Verenigd" was often omitted.)

The kingdom has remained in this form to the present day. Belgium remains separated from the Northern Netherlands by the Roman Catholic religion.

The English word "Dutch" is perhaps a bit strange, but it is derived from the old Dutch word "Duits" (or "Duyts(ch)"), which means something like "from the people". In older times (until the nineteenth century) the Dutch spoke of "Nederduits(ch)" instead of "Nederlands(ch)". Nowadays they use this adjective "Duits" (without "Neder") only when they talk about their neighbours, the Germans (who call their own country "Deutschland").

Confusing, isn't it? Well, it's also confusing for most of modern Nethelanders. The national anthem, the "Wilhelmus", was written in 1570 as a sort of apology for William I the Silent, to explain the reasons for his rebellion against the king of Spain. This Wilhelmus begins with the words "Wilhelmus van Nassaue - ben ik, van duytschen bloed" (William of Nassau - am I, of dutch blood). During the German occupation in World War II a lot of people felt a bit awkward about singing these words, because they interpreted it as "I am of German blood". However, they still kept singing it, because of its heroic content, it is the chant of the struggle for freedom, and the confidence in the Almighty.



Text copyright © Drs Dirk van Duijvenbode. An original feature for the History Files.