Quick Read: Did the Dutch eat their Prime minister?

Grand Pensionary of Holland, Johan de Witt, was one of the foremost European Statesman of the 17th Century. He guided the United Provinces in the First and Second Anglo-Dutch wars and consolidated the nation’s naval and commercial powers.

In 1672 de Witt was killed, along with his brother, by an angry mob. Some accounts indicate that the mob was cannibalistic.

De Witt

De Witt was a staunch opponent of the House of Orange, and a member of the republican States party. When the Prince of Orange William II died suddenly in November 6, 1659, leaving only a posthumous child, the States party gained significant influence in the United Provinces, providing Johan de Witt a path into government.

Johan was appoint Grand Pensionary at the young age of 28, a position he would hold for nearly 20 years. In 1653, the country was on the brink of ruin through war with England (1652-1654) over trade, and he resolved to bring about peace.

Although de Witt was forced to make concessions to England, he refused Cromwell’s proposition to form a union in the Treaty of Westminster. Included in this Treaty was the Act of Seclusion, in which they promised not to elect Anyone from the House of Orange as Stadtholder, as Cromwell was suspicious of their relationship with the Stuarts of England.

De Witt would stablise his country and strengthen the commercial supremacy of the Netherlands in the East Indies. However, the accession of Charles II in England led to the rescinding of the Act Of Seclusion and old hostiles were renewed.

In 1672, often referred to by the Dutch as the disaster year, France suddenly declared war and invaded the United Provinces alongside the English. The Dutch people called for William III to lead the country, and there were violent demonstrations against Johan De Witt in which he was grievously injured.

De Witt resigned the post of Councillor Pensionary, however this failed to satisfy the people and his brother Cornelius was arrested on a charge of conspiring against the Prince of Orange. Cornelius was sentenced to exile.

When de Witt visited his brother before he was banished, a vast crowd congregated and seized the two brothers. They were hanged and mutilated.

Murder of the Witt brothers. Image: Hague Historical Museum

There are accounts body parts being taken by the mobs, and even eating them. Although these stories may have been exaggerated, it was common for people to take ‘souvenirs’ from executions. A blood-dipped handkerchief from the execution of England’s King Charles I was sold at auction in 2008.

The Corpses of the De Witt Brothers

Nowadays, visitors can go to the prison where Cornelius was tortured, which is now a museum. The prison is situated directly next to the square where both the brothers were killed, and a statue of Johan de Witt there serves as a reminder of one of Dutch history’s most gruesome episodes.

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