The Constitution of Holland

County of Holland
Map of Holland in 1682
Holland in 1682 by Nicolaas Visscher

1 The place of Holland in the Union

The contemporary province of Holland and West Friesland consisted of the present provinces of Noord Holland, Zuid Holland and some land south of the latter. It accounted for about half of the population of the Union and easily more than half of its wealth. Needless to say that this gave it an overbearing influence in the Union, and this makes its political structure relevant for the international politics of the time. Within Holland power was concentrated in its capital the Hague, but rested for a big part with the magistrate of Amsterdam which accounted for roughly half the wealth of Holland.

2 Institutions of Holland

2.1 The Staten of Holland

The states of Holland were a 'parliament' meeting about four times a year in what is now the first chamber of the Staten Generaal of the kingdom of the Netherlands. In it the cities and the Ridderschap (knighthood) were represented. Originally these two stände had an equal weight, but somewhere over time the members had taken to voting by representative, and because the Ridderschap had only one representative this had been to its disadvantage. The representative of the Ridderschap did however preside over the meetings of the 'Staten van Holland', and this gave it somewhat more influence.

Because of its possessions in Holland the head of the Orange family, who had a subscription to the stadholdership of the province, was also the first nobleman. When a stadholder was present he therefore also decided about the very profitable and exclusive membership of the Ridderschap.

The cities represented in the 'Staten van Holland' were (the first six 'big cities' in traditional order): Dordrecht, Haarlem, Delft, Leiden, Amsterdam, Gouda, Rotterdam, Gorinchem, Schiedam, Schoonhoven, Den Briel, Alkmaar, Hoorn, Enkhuizen, Edam, Monnikendam, Medemblik and Purmerend (notice that the village of 'The Hague' was not represented). Each of the cities had one vote, but of course this did not mean that each city had an equal influence in the Staten.

2.2 The Gecommiteerde Raden van Holland (executive)

For a 'government' the province had two colleges called 'Gecommiteerde Raden'. The most important one resided in the Hague and consisted of a member of the Ridderschap, members for the six big cities and some members representing the smaller cities in turn, it also had the Grand Pensionary present. The Gecommiteerde Raden of the North resided in Hoorn and only had representatives of the seven cities north of the IJ.

3 Officials of Holland

3.1 The Grand Pensionary of the states of Holland

In the political arena of the day the members and those whom they represented in the States had soon felt the necessity of assistance by lawyers. These public servants called 'pensionaris' were soon speaking in this assembly and leading it for all practical purposes. The pensionaris that stood out among these 'servants' was the pensionaris of the Ridderschap, who was also pensionaris of the Staten van Holland as a whole, and therefore called 'Raadspensionaris' or Grand Pensionary

What made the Grand Pensionary powerful was:

  • He presided all meetings off the states of Holland.
  • He had the right to move all resolutions.
  • He formulated the decisions of the state.
  • He was responsible for the execution of these decisions.
  • He sat for Holland in the assembly of the States General
  • Most decisions of the union were first taken in Holland. If its states agreed then they would bring the decision for deliberation into the Staten Generaal.
  • By evolved custom the ambassadors of the union and foreign powers corresponded first with the pensionary of Holland in important matters, before treating with the union.

All this caused the pensionary to be not only a kind of prime minister in Holland, but also to be the de facto secretary of state (foreign minister) of the union. A secretary of state that was also kind of prime minister could actually himself carry out most of the decisions he took in this regard. (Quite different from secretaries of state of other nations).

3.2 The Stadholder of Holland

The powers of the stadholder were not much more than the sum of their powers in all the provinces were they held this office. For Holland these were primarily their military powers as Captain General of the province, but above all their influence on the appointments of officials. One has to note here that the military powers of the Stadholder could also be derived from an appointment as Captain General of the Union.

4 Sources

See the introduction of the correspondence edited by Van 't Hoff on the sources page for the powers of the Grand Pensionary. For the rest see: 'De Nederlandse Staat onder de Republiek by S.J. Fockema Andreae.