A Brief History of the Netherlands

By Tim Lambert

The Ancient and Medieval Netherlands

Farming was introduced into the Netherlands in about 4,500 BC. At first, farmers made tools and weapons of stone. However, after 1,900 BC, they used bronze. About 750 BC the inhabitants of the Netherlands learned to use iron.

In the 1st century BC, the Romans conquered Belgium and the southern Netherlands. They built roads and towns. However, they did not colonize the northern part of the Netherlands. Then in the late 4th century, the Romans withdrew from the Netherlands as their Empire crumbled.

Afterward, the Netherlands was left to Germanic peoples, Franks, Saxons, and Frisians. However, in the 8th century AD, the Franks conquered the others and became masters of the region. Meanwhile, the area was converted to Christianity although a missionary, St Boniface was martyred by the Frisians in 754.

In 768 Charlemagne became ruler of the Franks and created a great empire in Europe. Under him, the Netherlands was divided into cantons, each ruled by a count. However, when Charlemagne died in 814 his empire was divided into three parts, roughly modern France, Germany, and the region between At first the Netherlands was part of the Middle Empire. However, in 925 it was absorbed into the German Empire.

During the 9th and 10th centuries, the Netherlands suffered from Viking raids. However, during the Middle Ages town life and trade flourished in the Netherlands. In the 14th century, Dutch towns enjoyed considerable freedom. However, in the 15th century, the Dukes of Burgundy gradually took control of the region.

The Netherlands 1500-1800

Eventually, the Low Countries including the Netherlands became the possessions of the powerful Habsburg family. In 1555 Philip II of Spain became ruler of the region.

Meanwhile, the Reformation was sweeping the Netherlands despite rigorous persecution. Calvinism, the teachings of John Calvin became popular in the Dutch towns. In 1566 Calvinists destroyed religious art in many churches in a movement called the Iconoclastic Fury.

In 1567 King Philip sent his servant the Duke of Alva with an army to suppress the Calvinists and impose his will on the Netherlands. Alva set up the Council of Blood, which tried and condemned to death 12,000 people for taking part in the riots of 1566.

Then Prince William of Orange, known as William the Silent became the champion of Dutch freedom. In 1572 William led pirates called the Sea Beggars against the Spanish. From the sea, they sailed up rivers and captured Dutch towns. The Dutch flocked to join the rebellion. However, the Spanish fought back and a terrible war ensued. In 1579 seven provinces of the Low Countries signed the Union of Utrecht. In 1581 they declared independence from Spain. In 1588 they formed the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands.

However, the Spanish fought to hold onto the region, and in 1584 William the Silent was assassinated. Yet the English sent help and Spain was weakened by the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Phillip finally died in 1598.

During the 17th century, the Netherlands became a prosperous trading nation helped by a 12-year truce with Spain from 1609 to 1621. The Dutch East India Company was formed in 1602. The Dutch West India Company was formed in 1621 and in 1625 the Dutch founded n (later New Amsterdam). In 1652 they founded a colony in South Africa. Meanwhile, Dutch sailors went on long voyages. In 1606 Willem Jansz discovered Australia and in 1642 Abel Tasman discovered Tasmania.

Meanwhile, the Spanish finally recognized the independence of the Netherlands in 1648. However, trade rivalry with England led to three wars in 1652-54, 1665-67, and 1672-74. However, William of Orange, Stadtholder (ruler) of the Netherlands made peace with England and married Princess Mary of England. In 1688 William became king of England.

In the late 17th century science, art, and philosophy flourished in the Netherlands. However, as an economic and political power, Holland declined in the 18th century. The Dutch were involved in the War of the Spanish Succession against the French. The long war left the Netherlands exhausted. Increasingly Britain and France dominated world trade.

The Netherlands in the 19th century

At the end of the 18th century, Europe was thrown into turmoil by the French Revolution. In 1795 the French invaded The Netherlands and founded the Batavian Republic. In 1806 Napoleon made his brother Louis king of the Netherlands. However, the brothers fell out and Louis was forced to abdicate in 1810. The Netherlands was then absorbed into the French Empire.

However, by 1813, Napoleon was facing defeat and in that year William of Orange returned to the Netherlands. In 1814 he was made King William I. In 1815 Belgium and The Netherlands were joined together as one country under King William I. However the two countries were too different to be united. In 1830 the Belgians rebelled and in 1839 the great powers forced William I to give Belgium its independence.

William I died in 1840 and in 1848 his son introduced a new liberal constitution. For the rest of the 19th century, the Netherlands was a prosperous and stable country. However, everybody did not share the prosperity. Some industrial growth took place. (In 1839 a railway was opened from Haarlem to Amsterdam). However, conditions in 19th-century factories in the Netherlands were terrible.

The Netherlands in the 20th century

During the First World War, The Netherlands remained neutral but the German Kaiser fled to the Netherlands in 1918 and was granted asylum there. During the 1930s like the rest of the world, the Netherlands suffered from the Depression and there was mass unemployment. Yet despite the depression living standards rose during the 1920s and 1930s.

When the Second World War began Dutch remained neutral but on 10 May the Germans invaded. On 14 May the Germans bombed Rotterdam. The Netherlands was forced to surrender. However, Queen Wilhelmina escaped.

During World War II the Netherlands suffered terribly. Thousands of Dutchmen were deported to work in Germany and 23,000 people who resisted the Germans were shot. The worst suffering was during the Winter of Hunger in 1944-45 when the Germans looted the Netherlands for food, reducing the people to near starvation. Furthermore, the Nazis murdered a huge number of Jews. In 1940 about 140,000 Jews lived in The Netherlands but less than 25,000 survived.

The Netherlands recovered from the war and a new welfare state was created. In 1949 the Dutch colony of Indonesia became independent. It was followed by Suriname in 1975.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands was a founding member of the EU in 1957. In 1999 the Netherlands joined the Euro. In 1985 Wubbo Ockels became the first Dutch astronaut.

The Netherlands in the 21st century


Like the rest of the world, the Netherlands suffered in the recession of 2009 but it soon recovered. Today the Netherlands is a prosperous country. Flower growing is still an important industry. In 2023 the population of The Netherlands was 17.6 million.

Last Revised 2024