Friesland in 1700

Map of Friesland in 1680
Map of Friesland in 1680
by B. Schotano a Sterringa

1 Medieval history of Frisia

Medieval Frisia comprised nowadays Friesland; West Friesland; Groningen province; Ostfriesland, Stade and North Friesland. In the dark ages it stood apart from the rest of the continental Germanic territories by speaking Frisian1 and by the absence of feudalism. The latter meant that the basic farmer was not bound to the soil and that there were no hereditary lords between him and the emperor.

There were of course some levels of authority between the farmer and the emperor. Basically these were the parish, the city, the Go(uw) (Westergo, Hunsingo) and the province (Friesland, Groningen province). These loosely organized republics often did not do much more than maintaining the law in their territory and seeing to the dykes being maintained. Next to this they often united the population when a feudal lord sought to invade their territory.

On all these levels of authority there were however no counts or barons. Furthermore the hold on offices in these republics was very temporal. Appointments were either made by regular elections or rotated between the owners of certain farms, and were thus directly dependent on ownership of the soil. The Frisians were aware that their constitution stood apart from other constitutions and called it the Frisian freedom. This freedom thus contained two elements: no feudalism and no life-time appointments (regular elections). Geographic and economic2 explanations have been offered for this singular constitution, but to me the cultural explanation is more convincing.

2 History of Friesland

At the end of the dark ages the province now called Friesland had been conquered by the Dukes of Burgundy. This meant that Friesland got a sovereign, was incorporated into the state of Burgundy, and became a normal county to the casual observer. The 'Frisian freedom' was however deeply nested in the constitution of Friesland, and internally the conquest probably strengthened it.

At the start of the uprising against Spain William the silent was appointed as Stadholder of Friesland and sovereignty thus fully reverted to the province. On his death he was replaced by his nephew Willem Lodewijk of Nassau Dietz and so began the 'rule' of the Frisian stadholders. In the eighty years war Friesland held out against the initial offensive by Spain together with Holland and Zeeland3. Just like Holland it tried to assert its influence over its neighbors in the subsequent counter offensive, but it failed to achieve anything final.

3 The place of Friesland in the Union

Friesland was and still is a province famous for its cattle and its dairy products. In essence this has to do with the soil in parts of its territory. This ground is called 'vette klei' or fat clay and is alluvial or conquered from the sea. It grows grass that enables the cows that graze on it to grow larger than elsewhere and to produce more milk4. This milk also has longer proteins, which makes for excellent butter, cheese and so on. There is little doubt that this circumstance helped to shape its constitutional history. There were also a lot of other agricultural activities apart from dairy farming, but these were not so remarkable. Compared to the rest of Europe there was also a lot of commercial activity in the towns, but it could not compare to the activities in Holland. This probably had to do with the geographical circumstance that Friesland bordered the Waddenzee and Holland the North Sea.

By 1700 Friesland had about 130,000 inhabitants who were relatively well to do. It had some symbols of its independence in having its own stadholder Johan Willem Friso, its own admiralty, Franeker University and so on. As regards power within the Union it ranked second amongst the provinces and contributed about 10-12% of the Union budget (20% of what Holland contributed). This in turn meant that Frisia did have some influence in the United Provinces. In history its constitution is however very important because lots of Frisians had the right to vote.

4 Administrative partition of Friesland

By its constitution Friesland was partitioned in four 'kwartieren' or quarters: Westergo; Oostergo; Zevenwouden and the Cities. As regards local government the province was divided in 30 communities called 'Grieternijen' and 11 cities. These 41 cities and Grieternijen formed as many constituencies.

5 The central government of Friesland.

5.1 The Staten van Friesland

Unlike almost any other continental European stände the Staten van Friesland were an assembly that was elected each year. As regards the city quarter this meant that the town council and town government of each city elected their own representative. As regards the rural area every Grieternij also elected two representatives to the Staten van Friesland: one nobleman and one freeholding farmer. Votes were bound to owning a farm that in the dark ages had been registered as 'carrying' a vote. After the proclamation that the vote for the Staten was due had been made in a village the voters were locked into the church until they had elected two village representatives. The representatives of each village then assembled in the judicial room of the Grieternij and there chose the noble and commoner representative for the Staten van Friesland.

There were about 8,500 of these farms, which makes for more than 1 in 10 of the rural inhabitants possibly having the vote, and one could thus be tempted to think that Friesland was very democratic. This is not quite true because a lot of the farms were inhabited by tenants. Big landowners therefore had more than one vote. Furthermore, in the final election for the Staten representatives the majority in the Grieternij was carried by a majority of villages and there were villages with 60 votes but also those with only five5. Some big landowners could therefore gain the majority of villages by owning only the majority in some small villages. Another abuse was the legal detachment of the right to vote from the farm, but this did not go so far that by 1700 these rights were largely detached from owning a registered farm. A relatively mild abuse was treating the voters to food and drink. All these abuses lead to counter measures, but these generally came to nothing.

In February of each year the 82 representatives elected in the Staten van Friesland met in Leeuwarden for a regular session that lasted 6-7 weeks. The deliberations on the subjects at hand were held in a separate sessions for each quarter. It were these quarters that each had one vote and decided by majority on most things, taxes being the main exception. In order to ease the decision making process each quarter had two representatives in the 'Mindergetal', a separate college. These representatives first sounded the opinion on a subject in their quarter and then deliberated on it in the meeting of the Mindergetal, after which they communicated the opinions of the other chambers back to their chamber. As a last step the Mindergetal recorded the votes or opinions on each subject.

5.2 Gedeputeerde Staten van Friesland

The executive of Friesland was formed by the Gedeputeerde Staten van Friesland. In it Oostergo, Westergo and Zevenwouden each appointed two deputies and the cities three. Its most important task consisted of handling daily affairs. Together with the Stadholder it also appointed the Grietman in a vacant Grieternij.

5.3 The Stadtholder of Friesland

By 1700 the office of Stadtholder of Friesland was hereditary in the Nassau Dietz family. Because Johan Willem Friso was still a minor his rights were however exercised by his mother. The stadholder was captain general of the troops paid by Friesland. Together with the Gedeputeerde Staten he therefore appointed the officers over these troops. As regards civic affairs he had a role in appointing the Grietmannen together with the Gedeputeerde Staten. He also appointed the magistrate in 9 of the 11 cities and appointed those who fulfilled the higher offices that were available to the city quarter. The reform of 1748 would lead to an enormous increase in his powers, but is not relevant for our subject.

6 The local government of Friesland

6.1 The cities

In Friesland there were 11 'cities', even though we would only call Leeuwarden a city and call the rest towns. The 'Vroedschap' or council was formed by members appointed for life. In case one of the members had to be replaced the other members6 elected a replacement. Town government was done by the Magistrate. In Leeuwarden and Franeker this magistrate was elected by the Vroedschap. In other cities the Vroedschap drew up a list of candidates from which the Stadholder made a choice. The Magistrate exercised judicial, executive and law-making power, the last of these often together with the Vroedschap.

6.2 Rural areas

The Grieternijen were administered by Grietmannen. The Grietman was appointed for life by the Stadtholder and Gedeputeerde Staten from a list of three persons proposed by the voters in a Grieternij. In the Grieternij the Grietman was the executive as well as the judge. He was assisted by a secretary and some other inhabitants. In itself this position did not bring in much income, but it opened up the way to the higher offices of the province.

7 Het hof van Friesland

Het Hof van Friesland exercised supreme judicial power in Friesland. Just like the other institutions it consisted of regents, but unlike those they were appointed for life. All in all this court functioned quite well by delivering sound and equitable verdicts independent of the ruling oligarchy.

8 Sources

This page is mainly based on: 'De Nederlandse Staat onder de Republiek' by S.J. Fockema Andreae and 'Johan Willem Friso en zijn tijd' by Dr. C.J. Guibal.

9 Notes

1) In the science of languages the Dutch language is akin to German while Frisian is akin to English. Feudalism did not penetrate the area where Frisian was spoken in the dark ages (mainly Friesland, Groningen and the German area of Ostfriesland).
2) A famous Dutch historian once remarked that the seal on the act that proclaimed the Frisian Freedom was made of butter and cheese.
3) Though one can assume that this has nothing to do with military prowess, but rather more with the fact that Spain first wanted to deal with the center of the rebellion that was in Holland and Zeeland.
4) Nowadays fertilizer and industrial fodder cause that cows on other grounds do just as well.
5) One could compare those to the rotten Burroughs in England.
6) Except in Dokkum were all citizens took part in this election.