Johan de Witt

Dutch History; the gruesome murder of prime minister Johan de Witt.

After a disastrous defeat in the ‘raamjaar’, Johan de Witt and his brother was murdered and eaten by an angry mob, but is this true?

A largely forgotten figure, Johan de Witt was once a key figure in Dutch politics. He was elected Grand Pensionary (the equivalent of a modern Prime Minister), in 1653 and served as the head of the Dutch government during the Dutch Golden Age until just before his death in 1672.

Born at Dordrecht on September 24, 1625, to a wealthy merchant family, Johan de Witt was educated at Leiden University where he distinguished himself as a great mathematician and displayed remarkable talents in jurisprudence. He went on to practice law as a lawyer in The Hague as an associate with the firm of Frans van Schooten.

In 1650, William II, Prince of Orange died, Johan was among the people who created a fully republican regime and was appointed pensionary of Dordrecht.

Johan proved himself to be an excellent statesman and was eventually elected as Grand Pensionary, three tears later. At the time, the Dutch were at war with the English, however, in less than a year of fighting, the Treaty of Westminster was signed and the war was over. One of the clauses of the Treaty forbade the Dutch ever to appoint William III  (of Orange) as Stadtholder. Oliver Cromwell insisted on this clause as William was a grandson of Charles I of England and there was a possibility that he could gain political power in future.

In the years that followed,  Johan de Witt managed to strengthen the Dutch economy and his great diplomatic skills led to the forming of the Triple Alliance between the Dutch Republic, England, and Sweden. This alliance forced Louis XIV  of France to halt his offensive on Spanish Netherlands.

However, in 1672, also known as the “Year of Disaster”  (raamjaar) in Dutch history, Louis XIV of France declared war and conquered a large portion of the Dutch Republic. This was the beginning of the end for Johan de Witt. Now the Dutch people turned to William III of Orange for leadership and de Witt was denounced as a traitor.

An unsuccessful attempt was made on Johan de Witt’s life, and his brother, Cornelis, was arrested on trumped-up charges of plotting to assassinate William III and was sent to Gevangenpoort at The Hague. It was while visiting his brother in prison that Johan de Witt was eventually killed, on 20th August 1672, by a mob that had gathered outside – both brothers were hanged and mutilated.

Johan de Witt

©Moord op de Gebroeders De Witt, door Pieter Frits (1627-1708). Haags Historisch Museum

When his brother went over to the jail (which was only a few steps from his house) to help him get started on his journey, both were attacked by members of The Hague’s civic militia in a clearly orchestrated assassination. The brothers were shot and then left to the mob. Their naked, mutilated bodies were strung up on the nearby public gibbet, while the Orangist mob partook of their roasted livers in a cannibalistic frenzy. Throughout it all, a remarkable discipline was maintained by the mob, according to contemporary observers, making one doubt the spontaneity of the event. [1]

William’s complicity in this is unclear, though he failed to prosecute the mob’s ringleaders. There are accounts of some among the mob taking parts of the bodies, and eating them. One man is even said to have eaten an eyeball. Although the stories may have been exaggerated, people did often take ‘souvenirs’ of executions.

The brutal murder of Johan de Witt that history has judged a highly competent leader, is regarded by the Dutch as one of the most shameful episodes in their history.




[1] Jonathan I. Israel (1995) The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477-1806 Oxford University Press


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