Dutch Stadholders

Groningen Rennenberg 1580
In 1580 Stadtholder Rennenberg of
Groningen, Friesland and Overijssel
switched back to the Spanish side.
In 1700:
Main branchWilliam III
In the northJohan Willem Friso

1 The Stadtholders of the United Provinces

1.1 Etymology of the word Stadtholder

Stadtholder, the Dutch word 'stadhouder' literally translates as 'lieutenant'. The originally French word lieutenant is a concatenation of 'lieu' (place) and 'tenant' (he who holds). It's as simple as that. Compare this to lieutenant-general: the person who holds the office of the general (i.e. the king). Or the rare captain-lieutenant: the person who excercises the office of captain.

1.2 Origins in the conglomerate Burgundian empire

The need for stadtholders was brought about by the conglomerate character of the Burgundian empire. The Dukes of Burgundy were no kings, but only: 'duke', 'count' or 'lord' of their individual territories. They could handle most of their responsibilities from their central seat of government, but that was neither efficient nor effective. They therefore appointed stadtholders / lieutenants. The stadtholders could keep a good eye on developments in a territory and handle daily affairs.

There were therefore multiple stadtholders in the Burgundian empire. In the United Provinces there were also several. In 1580 The Count of Rennenberg (c 1540 - Groningen, 23 juli 1581) was Stadtholder of Friesland, Groningen, Drenthe and Overijssel. Meanwhile John VI of Nassau-Dillenburg was stadtholder of Gelderland. William the Silent was Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht.

1.3 The Stadtholder in French

Writing in French, the Dutch would not refer to their stadtholder as lieutenant. After all, after the Dutch revolt started, the stadholder was no longer a lieutenant of the King of Spain. Governor was the title by which they sometimes referred to their Stadholder. Governor is however a very strange name for a dignitary that had noone above him. It's therefore understandable that the Dutch term 'Goeverneur' is never used for a stadhouder.

2 The 'Orange' Stadtholder of the United Provinces

2.1 The 'Orange' Stadtholder

Soon after 1580 the Stadtholder 'branche' in Gelderland came to the Prince of Orange and the branch in the north came to William Louis of Nassau-Dillenburg. The result was that from that moment forward all stadtholders in the United Provinces were of the House of Nassau. The most prominent branch of this house was headed by William the Silent, prince of Orange.

The Orange stadtholder was captain-general and admiral-general of the union, which the one in Friesland never was. The territories of the Frisian Stadtholder were also rather marginal compared to those of the Orange Stadholder. Therefore it was quite obvious who was meant if there was talk about the Stadholder, or the Stadholder of the United Provinces (which did not exist).

2.2 The Frisian Stadtholder

The Stadtholder of Friesland and Groningen had much less prestige. While the the first Frisian Stadtholder Willem Lodewijk (1560-1620) played a leading role in the Eigthy Years war, his descendant Henry Casimir II (1657-1697) had to do with an appointment as 'third' field marshall. There were high hopes for a prominent role for Johan Willem Friso, but this was only due to him succeeding the Orange Stadtholder.

3 Stadtholder vs States

Most of the Dutch provincial states considered themselves to be above the stadholder and him only to be the first servant of the state. However, this could have very little meaning when the stadtholder had to appoint them to their offices, as was the case in Gelderland and Overijssel. The Stadholder's power varied from province to province and in some of them had a solid foundation in feudal rights. Add to this the fact that the Orange stadholder was a prince in his own right and inherited the function, and one has a recipee for confusion.