Dutch Royalty: an unprincipled exception

Meet the Dutch Royalty:

From left to right: Princess Alexia, king Willem Alexander, Princess Amalia (first in line), Queen Maxima and Princess Ariane.

You’ll notice they resemble more a wealthy family than a royal family. This is mostly a Dutch ‘do normal then you do crazy enough’ cultural thing. But, also, Dutch royalty historically never had that much of a defining presence.

The first WIllem in the line of Dutch kings was Willem the First. He was the son of Willem V, whose reign as the last Stadtholder (‘cityholder’) ended when French revolutionaries occupied the Netherlands. The Stadtholders was the de facto leader of the Dutch provinces from the 16th century onward. Sort of like a king, just more low-key. You know, ‘do normal then you do crazy enough.’  Originally Stadtholders were in service of the Habsburg house, but following the independence war with Spain they found themselves on top of the Dutch food chain. Considering the Dutch golden age, Dutch naval dominance and Dutch overseas colonies, they did pretty well.

Now, Willem I knew the tradition of Stadtholders and knew that, following the defeat of Napoleon, the position was his, but he was a man of bigger dreams. He looked at the history of kings and queens in Europe and thought to himself: why couldn’t the Netherlands have a king? And why couldn’t it be me? So he pitched to the victors over Napoleon the idea of a strong United Kingdom of the Netherlands, as to deter France from similar shennanigans in the future. The Prussian, English and Russians agreed.

Thus it was that Willem I pronounced himself first King of the Netherlands (which included Belgium and Luxembourg). This happened in 1815, when liberalism was already creeping through the West and England had more than 800 years of monarchy behind it.

Nonetheless, Willem I was quite the monarch. If there ever was a guy who thought that secure power is righteous, it was everyone-answers-to-me Willem I. He invested in railroads, waterworks, steam engines, the metric system, roads, industry. With very squinted eyes he was the 19th century Steve Jobs king. Everything reactionaries love about monarchs, Willem I embodied.

Unfortunately, mr Willem’s rule did not go down well with everyone. Especially the Belgians, who still had that French-freedom-fever, figured they could do without some roleplaying king. They rebelled. Willem I sent his troops.

Willem I. Apart from the camel toe: pretty cool portrait

Problem 1: The Belgium revolt was supported by the last French king, who sent troops that defeated the Dutch. Problem 2: Willem did not accept defeat. He persisted, in spite of not getting the international support he hoped he’d get, in spite of the treasury slowly emptying, in spite of his war effort failing. Like women who want men they can’t get, Willem I wanted power he couldn’t get. And so it was only under great and prolonged pressure that the great conservative king Willem I had to accept the secession of Belgium.

With his failure came new pressure by haters and all of this proved too much for Willem I: he abdicated. I am not sure how accurate the below portrait of Willem I in his final days is, but it does seem to aptly characterize his situation:

“I’m not angry, just disappointed”

His son and successor, Willem II, did not enjoy his father’s legacy. He sat on an uneasy throne and saw revolutions happening all around. So, he famously turned from conservative to liberal, overnight (the Dutch version of liberalism! Closer to libertarianism). The constitution was rewritten, parliament became head of the state, and Willem II felt he could breathe easier.

From there on the monarchy has mostly been ceremonial with lots of hand-waving and ribbon-cutting, though I hear they do good diplomacy behind the scenes. One attempted revolt by 1920’s socialists was a fail and affirmed the royal house’s popularity with the Dutch.

Back to our current king Willem-Alexander, who prefers that name above the title one would historically expect him to take: king Willem IV. Isn’t he in an interesting position?

Let’s pitch my thoughts on his situation. The royal family is popular in the Netherlands, except among rabid leftists. But, everything is in flux, nothing is static. Official Cathedral position is that the royal house is a horrible unprincipled exception, that poor taxpayers bleed millions of euros to fatten the purses of the royal family and that every time the royal house tries to come off as generous it is only further proof of how horribly evil they are. Right now the Dutch culture war is entrenched around Sinterklaas, but who says a new front can’t be opened? On the radio you hear occasional whispers — ‘we should really have this discussion‘. Also, I feel like I see less orange each year on king’s day. Though that might just be the weather.

In the king’s most recent Christmas speech he called for more openness towards our fellow countrymen, for ‘not a better I, but a great we’. He helpfully offered that ‘Twitter can make a debate bitter”. Clearly, Willem-Alexander does not see the same danger I see.

Eh, who knows. King’s day was good at least. Also good: memes of tourists still arriving for Queen’s day, which used to be 3 days later.

Why is everybody staring at us?

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