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3.5 The Dutch Golden Age

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⏱️  2 min read

written by

Catherine Brown

catherine brown

May 11, 2020


The Dutch Republic

The Dutch Republic defied the pattern of absolutist, centralized control that dominated other European nations during the 17th century. Spain ruled the Netherlands when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V inherited the Spanish throne in 1516, beginning Habsburg rule in Spain. In 1566, the Netherlands revolted against Spanish rule, officially becoming the independent Dutch Republic in 1648.

The Seven Northern Dutch provinces signed the Union of Utrecht, creating a defensive alliance against the Spanish, but they were politically independent with no absolute ruler. Instead, the States General was the legislative body, which was made up of nobles. Thus, the Dutch Republic was really more of an oligarchy, with power concentrated in the hands of wealthy merchants. 

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Calvinism in the Dutch Republic

After the split from Catholic Spain, Calvinism became the dominant religion. Religious tolerance and freedom of religion for Catholics, Lutherans, Anabaptist and Jews helped the Dutch avoid the internal religious conflicts of other European nations and contributed to commercial economic growth.

Dutch Economy

In the 17th century, the Dutch Republic was the leading commercial power in Europe, with Amsterdam serving as Europe’s financial center. The Dutch had the largest fleet in the world with 10,000 ships, and they replaced the Italians as the premier bankers of Europe, with the Amsterdam Public Bank attracting foreign merchants who could use bills of exchange as currency.

Finally, with the dominance of shipbuilding and its massive fleet, the Dutch formed the Dutch East India Trading Company, which displaced the Portuguese in control of the East India spice trade and proved to be stiff competition for the English East India Company. Dutch painting reflected the Republic’s wealth as well as its tolerance. Portraits by painters such as Jan Vermeer portrayed middle-class families, popular commodities and seascapes. 

In the second half of the 17th century, England emerged as the dominant commercial power, and the Dutch Republic gradually declined. Wars against England and France drained the Dutch economy, and the Dutch West India Company failed to take control of Brazil from Portugal.

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Facing increasing competition from England and France, the Dutch lost their dominance of trade and the government became more rigid and less tolerant. England stabilized under constitutionalism after the Glorious Revolution, and France stabilized under the absolutist control of Louis XIV, allowing these nations to emerge as world leaders.

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