The Research Desk column from the July 11, 2016, Weekly issue of
Many Americans may recall a few names from the heroic era of the
Dutch War for Independence: William the Silent, Spanish King Philip II
and the Duke of Alba. Religious and worldly disputes and involvement
in the wars of more powerful neighbors filled long years of struggle.
Dutch medals can clarify this tangled age.
The United Provinces of the Netherlands, “the Dutch Republic,”
evolved under an elected Stadholder into a de facto monarchy under
branches of the Houses of Orange and Nassau. Attempts were made to
abolish the position of Stadholder, including the Eternal Edict of
1667, but the post was always recreated to provide strong leadership
against foreign attack and internal discord that sapped Dutch strength.
Ultimately the Dutch grew close to Britain despite colonial war
losses that saw New Netherland become New York. A British alliance was
needed to repel French attacks that intensified under “Sun King” Louis
XVI and his Dutch agents who styled themselves the Patriot Party.
When Willem Carel Friso of Orange-Nassau became
Willem IV to succeed the childless Willem III, the stadholdership was
gradually restored, province by province, as the wars continued.
In recognition of the alliance, Britain’s King George II named the
young Stadholder the 549th Knight of the Garter. He then appeared on
his medals wearing “the George” insignia of this great Order around
his neck. Willem IV was declared hereditary Stadholder in May 1747,
holding the title until his death on Oct. 22, 1751.
His death was marked by a 41-millimeter silver medal by Johan Georg Holtzhey, presenting a bust in
cuirass and the robes and George of the Garter under a crown of stars
and title “Hereditary Ruler of all the Free Netherlands.”
This likeness was not flattering, showing an exceptionally short
neck that portrait painters had generally tried to minimize. The
reverse bears a cherub supporting two shields atop a baroque tomb
under a crowned mantle. The tomb, inscribed GEN.5’ V.24, refers to the
death of Enoch in the Bible book of Genesis, “and Enoch walked with
God: and he was not; for God took him.” A separate inscription around
translates to “May he live in Eternity among God and all Good Men.”
Under his successor Willem V, the French revolution finally flowed
over the Netherlands, leading to the country’s union with Napoleon’s
French Empire in 1810.