The earliest inhabitants of what is now the Netherlands were three tribal groups who settled the marshy deltas of the "Low Countries" in the dawn of recorded history. They were the Belgae of the southern regions; the Batavii, who settled in the area of the Great Rivers; and the fiercely independent Frisii, who had taken up residence along the northern coast. Each tribe posed a challenge to Julius Caesar when he came calling in the 1st century B.C., but the Romans managed, after prolonged and effective objections from the locals, to get both the Belgae and the Batavii to knuckle under.
Having seen off the Romans, the Frisians in the 5th century repelled the next wave of would-be conquerors, hordes of Saxons and Franks who had overrun the Romano-Batavians. Although the Franks in the late 5th century embraced Christianity, not until the late 8th century did the Frisians abandon their pagan gods, and then only when the mighty Charlemagne, king of the Franks and emperor of the West, compelled them to.
Good for Business
By the 13th and 14th centuries, the nobility were busy building most of the castles and fortified manor houses throughout Holland that now attract tourists. Meanwhile, the Catholic hierarchy grew both powerful and wealthy; the bishops of Maastricht and Utrecht played key roles in politics, and preserved their legacy by erecting splendid cathedrals, abbeys, and monasteries.
During the 14th and 15th centuries, Holland's position at the mouths of the great west European rivers made it a focal point in power struggles. The House of Burgundy became the first major feudal power in the Low Countries, consolidating its hold on the region by acquiring fiefdoms one by one through the various means of marriage, inheritance, and military force. Its day soon passed, however, and the Austrian Habsburg emperor Maximilian acquired the Low Countries from the Burgundians by much the same means.
Amsterdam began its rise to commercial prosperity in 1323, when Count Floris VI established the city as one of two toll points for the import of beer. The city's skillful merchants established guilds of craftsmen and put ships to sea to catch North Sea herring. They expanded into trade in salted Baltic herring, Norwegian salted or dried cod and cod-liver oil, German beer and salt, bales of linen and woolen cloth from the Low Countries and England, Russian furs and candle wax, Polish grain and flour, and Swedish timber and iron.
Wars of Religion
Dutch citizens began to embrace the Protestant church at the same time that the Low Countries came under the rule of Charles V, the Catholic Habsburg emperor and king of Spain. Holland became a pressure point and fulcrum for the shifting political scene that the Reformation occasioned everywhere in Europe. The rigorous doctrines of John Calvin and his firm belief in the separation of church and state began to take root.
When Charles relinquished the Spanish throne to his son Philip II in 1555, things took a nasty turn for the Dutch. An ardent Catholic, Philip was determined to defeat the Reformation and set out to hunt heretics throughout his empire. He dispatched the infamous duke of Alba to the Low Countries to carry out the Inquisition's "death to heretics" edict. The Dutch resented Philip's intrusion into their affairs and began a resistance movement, led by William of Orange, count of Holland, known as William the Silent, who loudly declared: "I cannot approve of princes attempting to control the conscience of their subjects and wanting to rob them of the liberty of faith."
Those towns that declined to join the fight were spared destruction when the Spanish invaded. Spanish armies marched inexorably through Holland, besting the defenses of each city to which they laid siege, with few exceptions. In an ingenious if desperate move in 1574, William saved Leiden by flooding the province, allowing his ships to sail right up to the city's walls.
This victory galvanized the Dutch in fighting for their independence. In 1579, the Dutch nobles formed the Union of Utrecht, in which they agreed to fight together in a united front. Although the union was devised solely to prosecute the battle against Spain, consolidation inevitably occurred, and by the turn of the 17th century the seven northern provinces of what had been the Spanish Netherlands became the United Provinces.
The struggle with Spain continued until 1648, but a new, prosperous era was about to begin.
The Golden Age
Over the first 50 to 75 years of the 17th century, the legendary Dutch entrepreneurial gift would come into its own. These years have since become known as the Golden Age. It seemed every business venture the Dutch initiated during this time turned a profit and that each of their many expeditions to the unknown places of the world resulted in a new jewel in the Dutch trading empire. Colonies and trade were established to provide the luxury-hungry merchants at home with new delights, such as fresh ginger from Java, foxtails from America, fine porcelain from China, and flower bulbs from Turkey that produced big, bright, waxy flowers and grew quite readily in Holland's sandy soil -- tulips. Holland was getting rich.
Amsterdam grew into one of the world's great cities. In 1602, traders from each of the major cities in the Republic of the Seven Provinces set up the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (V.O.C.), the United East India Company, which was granted a monopoly on trade in the East. It was wildly successful and established the Dutch presence in the Spice Islands (Indonesia), Goa, South Africa, and China.
Holland was becoming a refuge for persecuted groups. The Pilgrims stopped in Leiden for a dozen years before embarking for America, Jews fled the oppressive Spanish and welcomed the tolerance of the Dutch, and refugees straggled in from France and Portugal. William the Silent had helped create a climate of tolerance in Holland, which attracted talented newcomers who contributed to the expanding economic, social, artistic, and intellectual climate of the country.
Golden Age Holland can be compared to Renaissance Italy and Classical Greece for the great flowering that transformed society. "There is perhaps no other example of a complete and highly original civilization springing up in so short a time in so small a territory," wrote the historian Simon Schama.
The Dutch call 1672 the Rampjaar (Year of Disaster). France, under Louis XIV, invaded the United Provinces by land and the English attacked by sea. This war (1672-78) and the later War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13) drained the country's wealth and morale. The buccaneering, can-do, go-anywhere spirit of traders, artists, and writers began to ebb, replaced by conservatism and closed horizons.
Beating the Dutch -- The 17th-century Dutch got up English noses by competing for maritime trade, and in 1667 by sailing boldly up the Medway near London and trashing the English fleet. So the English added verbal abuse to their arsenal. That's why we have "Dutch courage" (alcohol-induced courage), "Dutch treat" (you pay for yourself), "going Dutch" (everybody pays their share), and "double Dutch" (gibberish). Americans were kinder to their Revolutionary War supporters, speaking of "beating the Dutch" (doing something remarkable).
Decline & Fall
Revolutionary France invaded Holland in 1794, capturing Amsterdam and establishing the Batavian Republic in 1795, headed by the pro-French Dutch Patriots. Napoleon brought the short-lived republic to an end in 1806 by setting up his brother, Louis Napoleon, as king of the Netherlands, and installed him in a palace that had been Amsterdam's Town Hall. Louis did such a good job of representing the interests of his new subjects that in 1810 Napoleon deposed him and brought the Netherlands formally into the empire.
When the Dutch recalled the House of Orange in 1814, it was to fill the role of king in a constitutional monarchy. The monarch was yet another William of Orange; however, because his reign was to be a fresh start, the Dutch started numbering their Williams all over again (which makes for a very confusing history). Then came Waterloo in 1815 and Napoleon's final defeat.
The Netherlands escaped the worst ravages of World War I by maintaining strict neutrality. Holland shared in the wealth as Europe's condition improved, but conditions were very bad during the 1930s, when the widespread unemployment brought on by the Great Depression caused the government to use the army in 1934 to control the unruly masses.
During World War II, Nazi troops invaded the country in 1940. An estimated 104,000 of Holland's 140,000 Jews were murdered, Rotterdam sustained heavy bombings, and the rest of the country suffered terribly at the hands of its invaders. The Dutch operated one of the most effective underground movements in Europe, which became an important factor in the liberation in 1945. Among those murdered in the Nazi terror was a teenage girl who came to symbolize many other victims of the Holocaust: Anne Frank (1929-45).
In the 1960s, Amsterdam was a hotbed of political and cultural radicalism. Hippies trailing clouds of marijuana smoke took over the Dam and camped out in Vondelpark and in front of Centraal Station. Radical political activity, which began with "happenings" staged by a group known as the Provos, continued and intensified. In 1966, the Provos were behind the protests that disrupted the wedding of Princess Beatrix to German Claus von Amsberg in the Westerkerk; they threw smoke bombs and fighting broke out between protesters and police. The Provos disbanded in 1967, but much of their program was adopted by the Kabouters, or Green Gnomes. This group won several seats on the city council, but also eventually faded.
The Provos and Green Gnomes had long advocated environmental programs like prohibiting all motor vehicles from the city. They persuaded authorities to provide 20,000 white-painted bicycles free for citizens' use -- this scheme was abandoned when most of the bicycles were stolen, to reappear in freshly painted colors as "private" property. Some of their ideas very nearly came to fruition. In 1992, the populace voted to create a traffic-free zone in the center city, but this has yet to be realized.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.