That Actually Happened – Johan de Witt

A picture of Johan de Witt.

This guy. You’re probably getting bored already. That would be a mistake, because this is about to get so intense, that this is one of the only pictures of him I have that are safe to post.

It should be some kind of crime to make history boring. Suppose I start off by saying “let’s take a serious in-depth look at 17th Century Dutch political history!” I bet you can almost feel your brain trying to shut off, to preemptively protect you from soul-crushing boredom. This is probably because you have been conditioned by your school career so far that history is about names, dates, and broad-strokes narratives that have no relevance or interest to you. Honestly, this is only because names and dates are easy to test in a multiple-choice kind of way. The truth, of course, is murkier, messier, and way more interesting. Once you look closer, though, you’ll find that a lot of the time, not only does history make a lot more sense in detail, but that more outrageously dramatic things have actually happened than anybody could make up. One of my favorite examples is Johan de Witt. In this post, the part of Johan de Witt will be played by swans, retroactive allegories, and other Dutch Golden Age paintings (sometimes all three at the same time).

This is your CONTENT WARNING: sometimes, history is seriously grisly, and one of the main factors in making history boring is sugar-coating everything for kids.


Let’s jump right in the deep end with the 17th Century Dutch political history. It turns out, this is a very good place to start. Things were not going well for the Netherlands in the mid 1600s. Or, rather, maybe they were going TOO well. Dutch merchants were making a butt-ton of money off international trade, and the other European powers wanted a sweet slice of that l33t l00t. As usual, this is where things go abruptly pear-shaped.

The Netherlands also had a very complicated system of government that I still don’t quite understand, but find fascinating. As far as I can tell, it’s that different states in the alliance that made up the Netherlands at the time chose (Elected? Hereditary? Appointed by a council? Who are elected? Who are hereditary?? Different rules in different states?!??) Stadtholders who sat on a national-level council for the whole Netherlands. Who then voted (or something) on what should be law. There was also a King, William III of Orange, who some of the states didn’t accept as King. But a King was sometimes electable as a Stadtholder, anyway. Like Princess Leia?? How on Earth did these guys do so well in the run-up to all this? How does this even function? (Spoiler alert: not well.) Still with me so far? Here’s where we get to Johan de Witt. In 1653, he was elected Grand Pensionary of the States of Holland, which was by far the most powerful bloc in the Netherlands anyway, so he was effectively the person running the country, which he did with quite some success for a good long time.


From Bad to Worse

Because of the political infighting in the council between Stadtholders, and the fact that a lot of the opponents had connections in the Army, Johan de Witt supported actions to defund the Army in favor of the Navy, the strategic reasoning being that since Netherlands are mostly a peninsula and islands, the best defense would be to put all of the funding eggs in the Navy nest. Like so:

Mute Swan eggs in a nest on water.

Richard Mayer [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

It Gets Worse

The Dutch figured everything was fine, because although France, England, and Spain were all competitors with them, none of these countries have any sort of history of getting along well at all. In fact, they often go to war with each other for a century or so at a time, or have massive religious differences (super important since Europe had just ended a huge round of religious wars), and/or send armadas against each other. There’s no way that all three would gang up on the same side just to plunder the Netherlands, right? Until they did. So, Spain, England, and France all joined Team Let’s Loot the Netherlands, and invaded. The navy, although successful at sea, wasn’t so useful when the French army could just march straight North. Surrounded and rapidly overrun by being attacked by all the major powers in Europe at once, things were not looking good for the Netherlands. If this were a kaiju movie, this is the point where things can’t get any worse, so they summon Godzilla.

Mute Swan threat display.

They don’t do this to be pretty. This is a threat display. Get out of the swan’s Personal Space, or get Tyrannosaurus rek’d. Mute Swans also “dance” as pairs, to reaffirm their bonds, and to demonstrate that they’re a couple, holding down a territory for the breeding season, and therefore likely to attack.


It Gets Even Worse

Did I mention that much of the Netherlands is actually below sea level, and on reclaimed land, surrounded by a system of dikes and elaborate civil engineering to keep the sea from flooding it? Such as a whole bunch of really cool mini-windmill water pumps to gradually ladder the water out of fields to higher elevations, and eventually back into the sea. Yeah, there’s that. In desperation, they actually blew holes in their own flood defenses, flooding large swaths of the countryside to slow down the invaders’ advance. The year of the invasion, 1672, is called the Rampjaar or “Disaster Year” for obvious reasons. Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis were blamed for the invasion and mismanaging the government leading up to the war. Cornelis was arrested and jailed for treason, but never confessed, despite being tortured. (The way the judicial system worked at the time, they couldn’t convict without a confession, which means torture, usually.)


MUCH WORSE (Knock Knock… It’s An Angry Mob…)

So, eventually, they had to let Cornelis go, and Johan de Witt came to pick him up from the jail, since Cornelis wasn’t in good enough condition to leave on his own. While the brothers were inside, an angry mob gathered in the streets, dragged them out and killed them both, and then removed some of their internal organs (livers and hearts), cooking and eating them, and leaving their mutilated, butchered bodies to hang in the public square.

Dutch Golden Age painting of a slaughtered pig.

Like this, but with people. Yes, there’s a painting of the aftermath of the riot, if you’ve got a strong stomach and enough morbid curiosity to image search it, because this is the Netherlands, and they painted everything. This painting is The Slaughtered Pig by Barent Fabritius, 1656.



The destruction of the dikes did help stave off the invasion, and the Netherlands survived the Rampjaar of 1672. Rumors persisted that William III of Orange set up the brothers for the mob attack. He went on to become King of England later, in yet another weird historical twist ending. Popular perception eventually softened to the de Witt brothers, and a painting of a swan defending its nest was famously retroactively assigned as an allegory for Johan de Witt defending the country, and the whole messy episode of (possibly conspiratorial) politically-motivated rage-cannibalism became the sort of thing you might never know if you stick to names and dates. So don’t stick to names and dates. Deep-dive into history, and there will be plenty of surprises.

A painting of a swan defending its nest.

The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijin, CA 1650.