Peace And Exploration
At the beginning of the 1600s the battle for independence had shifted to the Eastern provinces of the Republic and by 1609 a truce with Spain was signed that would last for 12 years. This relative peace gave the Western provinces the opportunity for economic repairs. During the war many Protestant merchants had fled the Southern Netherlands and settled in the Northwestern provinces of Zeeland and Holland. They brought with them an enormous amount of knowledge about trading with and sea travel towards the Orient as well as considerable funds.
At the time, the spice trade was dominated by the Italians over land and the Portuguese and Spaniards over sea. But the Portuguese were weakened by English privateers and the Dutch saw a golden opportunity that they seized. They would go and get the so valued spices from the Orient themselves.
The Republic set out to find their own best route to the East. First they launched an expedition in 1594 to explore a Northern route. However, the expedition, led by Jacob van Heemskerck and Willem Barentsz, got stuck in the ice of Nova Zembla and was forced to survive on the ice for ten months. Two more attempts were made only to come to the conclusion that finding a "Northern Passage" was an illusion.
In 1595 another expedition had set out on a Southern route to the East Indies, rounding the Cape of Good Hope. The voyage was an economic and human disaster. One ship was lost, the profits were minimal and only about 80 of the original 248 seamen came home sound and safe.
Despite all this, the expedition was considered a great success: it proved that it was possible to sail around the cape to the Indies without being bothered by the Portuguese. Ad so, in 1602 the Dutch East India Company (also known as VOC) was founded starting a period of unknown economic growth and wealth for the young Republic.
Fighting Over Faith
A prerequisite for trade is peace. Great pensionary Oldebarnevelt understood this very well and so he insisted in forming alliances with France, even though it had strong family ties with Spain. Stadtholder Maurits, on the other hand, had based his wealth and power on fighting the war against Spain. With the peace treaty he saw his power and income shrink at a fast pace. Therefore he sought an alliance with the British to keep on fighting against Spain and France.
The once so successful team, that had guided the Low Lands in their rebellion against Spanish rule, had now become bitter enemies and the tension between the two weakened and destabilized the Republic dangerously. It all came to a dramatic conclusion in the summer of 1618
For some time now two theologians –Jacobus Arminius and Franciscus Gomarus– had been fiercely disputing certain aspects of Protestantism. The discussion became a political issue in 1610 when followers of Arminius – also known as remonstrants–asked the government to allow the group to separate themselves from the official State Church. At the same time Gomerus' followers –known as contraremonstrants– demanded that the government would not allow this and would reinforce that the orthodox doctrine was the only officially recognized one.
The discussion between remonstrants an contraremonstrants led to riots in the streets. In response, Oldebarnevelt issued a resolution so that cities themselves could hire mercenaries to control the riots. This, however, undermined Maurits' power even further. Reason enough for Maurits to commit a coup and arrest Oldebarnevelt and his allies, among them the famous lawyer and writer Hugo Grotius. Oldebarnevelt was tried and found guilty of treason. He was beheaded on May 13, 1619.
At the same time between 1618 and 1619 the Synod of Dort was held at which the dispute between the remonstrants and contraremonstrants was finally settled in favor of the contraremonstrants. As a result many of Arminius followers fled the country in fear of persecution.
Hugo Grotius was more fortunate than Oldebarnevelt and was sentenced for life. He was imprisoned in the Castle of Loevestein in relative comfort. He was allowed to write and study, and he was given permission to have his wife Maria and a maid share his imprisonment.
Hugo became famous because of his spectacular escape from Loevestein. His family had send him study books in a large, wooden trunk. The family had said that if he needed more books he could send the ones he had read back in the trunk and they would fill it again with new ones.
At this point Maria had a great idea. She had Hugo train to fold himself up in the trunk and keep quiet for at least a couple of hours. Once he was good at it, she hid the books in his bed and Hugo in the trunk. Then, she demanded to escort the trunk to Hugo's family to refill it will the books her husband had demanded.
In this fashion Hugo was carried out of his prison by the guards themselves. Once arrived at his family's house he instantly fled to Paris were he spent most of his life.
A Sovereign State At Last
Once Maurits had reinforced his power in the Republic he turned his eye to international politics. The truce with Spain was to end soon and he was searching for a way to preoccupy the Habsburger dynasty with a nasty problem in case they would refuse to sign a peace treaty after the truce. He seized his opportunity when protestant Bohemia rebelled against their catholic king Ferdinand II. Maurits convinced his cousin Frederick V to claim the throne, hoping that this would plunge the Habsburger dynasty into a succession war. Such a war would distract the attention from the Spanish Habsburger from their conflicts with the Dutch Republic.
It worked. Soon the conflict spread over a large part of Western Europe. Finally, in 1648 , the Dutch signed a final peace treaty with Spain: the "Peace of Münster". In it, the Spanish recognized the Republic as a sovereign state and, just as important, the Dutch Reformed Church became the State Church. All other religions were no longer recognized and all Catholic possessions – churches, convents and all their assets– were confiscated by the government.
Catholics were allowed to practise their religion as long as they did not do so openly. As a result, many Catholics fled to the Southern Netherlands (now Belgium) that had remained part of the Catholic Habsburg empire. Those that stayed in the Republic now practised their religion in so-called "schuilkerken" (conventicles).
With the political and matters of faith now sorted out, the Republic was ready to focus again on what they did best: trade.