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Oldenbarnevelt, Johan Van

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation

S. Groenveld

Oldenbarnevelt, Johan Van 

(1547–1619), Dutch statesman.

Born on 14 September 1547 in Amersfoort in the province of Utrecht, Oldenbarnevelt was the eldest son of Gerrit Reyerszoon van Oldenbarnevelt and Deliana van Weede, both, it seems, of the lower gentry. Having worked at a lawyer's office in The Hague (1564–1566), he matriculated in the faculty of law at Louvain (1566–1567), Bourges (1567), Cologne (1567–1568), Heidelberg (1568–1569), and perhaps Padua (1569–1570).

As a lawyer in The Hague, he sided with William of Orange when, in 1572, the Revolt of the Netherlands intensified, serving as a revenue agent and occasionally as a soldier. In 1575 the States of Holland appointed him as their advocate before the Court of Holland. At the end of 1576 he was named pensionary (legal official) to the city of Rotterdam. Meanwhile, in 1575, he married Marie of Utrecht, a wealthy woman probably of illegitimate birth.

As pensionary, Oldenbarnevelt often served as one of Rotterdam's deputies to the States of Holland and was frequently deputed by the States to important meetings outside the province. After 1582, as one of Holland's delegates to the States-General, he supported free trade with the southern Netherlands and conferred frequently with William of Orange. Oldenbarnevelt showed himself a true pupil of William following the prince's assassination in 1584.

In 1585 Oldenbarnevelt was a member of the embassy that went to England to offer sovereignty of the rebel provinces to Elizabeth I. The queen declined but instead agreed to send six thousand troops under the command of her confidant, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, who was to act as her representative in the government of the revolting provinces. Oldenbarnevelt, however, intended to prevent Dudley from gaining too strong a position. Before Dudley's arrival, Oldenbarnevelt arranged the appointment of William's son Maurits van Nassau as the stadtholder of Holland and Zeeland. In February 1586 he himself was named grand pensionary of the States of Holland. In this capacity Oldenbarnevelt became the unofficial president of the States of Holland. At meetings of the States-General—held from 1593 daily in a room near where the States of Holland convened—he in effect guided a polity consisting of seven rebel provinces, among which Holland was the wealthiest, most populous, and most influential.

Taking up residence in Utrecht in 1586, Dudley issued edicts forbidding Holland's lucrative trade with the enemy in the southern Netherlands and Spain. He also cultivated good relations with strict Calvinists in Utrecht, although in Holland more moderate Calvinists held sway. His one-sided policy caused many clashes, but Dudley was unable to bend to his will either Oldenbarnevelt or his pupil, Maurits van Nassau. A year after Dudley's departure in 1587, the search for a sovereign prince was abandoned; the United Provinces became the Dutch Republic.

Oldenbarnevelt's greatest political success came in 1609, when the Dutch Republic concluded the Twelve-Year Truce with Brussels and Madrid. In his view the truce would ease the burden of war finance, promote trade, and allow the republic to flourish. Maurits, however, saw things differently, and their disagreements were fought out during the truce.

Oldenbarnevelt did not often speak of his religious beliefs. During his stay at Heidelberg, it is certain that he set aside the Catholicism of his youth for a moderate Calvinism. He laid stress on personal reading of the Bible, rejected mediation by the clergy, but felt troubled about predestination: he was willing to believe that God preordained all faithful Christians to salvation but not that God predestined others to damnation. When theologians assured him that his beliefs sufficed for a layman, he was confirmed as a member of the Heidelberg community.

The ideas of Thomas Lüber were hotly debated at Heidelberg in these years, and Oldenbarnevelt was to be a lifelong Erastian. He preferred an open, popular church, wherein not only Calvinists but also moderate Lutherans, Mennonites, and even Roman Catholics could find a place. Those who nevertheless wanted to remain outside were to be granted toleration on condition they professed their religion in private. Oldenbarnevelt thus felt little sympathy for the strict Calvinists in the republic, although Johannes Wtenbogaert did persuade him to become a member of the congregation in The Hague in 1592.

When the debate between Remonstrants and Contra-Remonstrants intensified during the Twelve-Year Truce, Oldenbarnevelt stuck to his Erastian views. The Contra-Remonstrants favored a resolution of the issues at the national level, but Oldenbarnevelt, knowing that the Arminians were strong only in Holland, insisted on each province taking its own measures, as provided in the Union of Utrecht.

In Holland, then, Oldenbarnevelt took steps he considered necessary. After the Arminians had asked the States for protection, he first organized a colloquy between Arminians and Gomarists (1612). When this failed he ordered that both parties should be tolerant toward each other (1614). The anticlerical Oldenbarnevelt believed that unrest was promoted only by a small group of extremist ministers and that ordinary lay people would obey the civil authorities. In fact, ordinary Gomarist believers began separating themselves from churches dominated by their adversaries and forming their own congregations.

In the summer of 1617 Maurits broke the deadlock by siding with the Gomarists; using his control of the army as a threat, he forced the provinces to agree to the convening of a national synod at Dordrecht (1618–1619), which would pass resolutions confirming the Gomarist, orthodox interpretation of the dogma of predestination. Meanwhile, in August 1618, Oldenbarnevelt was arrested on the basis of a rather vague resolution of the States-General. This body founded a court of justice of its own, where Oldenbarnevelt was charged with high treason. This charge turned out to be unprovable, but the old pensionary was nevertheless condemned, sentenced to death, and then executed on 13 May 1619 in The Hague. Although the verdict did no justice to Oldenbarnevelt's great service to the republic, it was the outcome of a political deadlock to which his staunch character and the Erastian assumptions of his own policy had in no small measure contributed.


Conring, Enno. Kirche und Staat nach der Lehre der niederländischen Calvinisten, in der ersten Hälfte des 17. Jahrhunderts. Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany, 1965.Find this resource:

Deursen, A. Th. van. Bavianen en slijkgeuzen: Kerk en kerkvolk ten tijde van Maurits en Oldenbarnevelt. Reprint, Franeker, Netherlands, 1991.Find this resource:

Gerlach, H. Het proces tegen Oldenbarnevelt en de “Maximen in den Staet.” Haarlem, Netherlands, 1965.Find this resource:

Jones, R. L. Reformed Church and Civil Authorities in the United Provinces in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries, As Reflected in Dutch State and Municipal Archives. Journal of the Society of Archivists 4 (1970–1973), 109–123.Find this resource:

Tex, Jan den. Oldenbarnevelt. 2 vols. Cambridge, 1973.Find this resource:

S. Groenveld