Johan de Witt was Grand Pensionary of Holland, an office with powers similar to that of a Prime Minister cum Foreign Secretary all rolled into one. He led the country during the first stadtholder-less time from 1650 to 1672 when Republicans saw their chance to get more power for themselves and their families at the expense of the hereditary House of Orange.
Johan was born in 1625 in Dordrecht into the influential de Witt family. When Dordrecht was the centre of things, the family had been very powerful in Holland. But their influence had waned together with the city's, and by this time power lay with the de Graeff family in Amsterdam. Johan de Witt was able to overcome this minor obstacle by actively pursuing marriage into the de Graeff clan.
In 1650, he became the leading deputy for Dordrecht in the States of Holland. It carried him into the right place at the right time when the young stadtholder William II of Orange suddenly died that same year. In 1653, the combined power of the Dordrecht families and the de Graeff clan made him Grand Pensionary of Holland. By dint of power distribution between the provinces, this made him in fact Prime Minister of the United Provinces of the Netherlands of which Holland was by far the most powerful.
In this position, he was pursuing a peace treaty with England (Treaty of Westminster of 1654). It included the proviso that the provinces would not allow William III of Orange to become stadtholder. This addendum was instigated by Oliver Cromwell who wanted to have the toddler son of William II as a grandson of Charles I kept out of any power for fear of a counter coup. To consolidate his own power, Johan de Witt did everything anyhow to keep all members of the House of Orange out of public offices.
He was also leading the negotiations of a peace treaty with England in 1667 (Treaty of Breda) with favorable terms for the provinces. His term in office was greatly helped by economic growth through increased trade from the colonies. With money flowing into the provinces and military and naval successes at his back, he made his final move in 1667 to oust the House of Orange permanently from power by abolishing the office of stadtholder.
The whole intrigue fell apart on him in 1672 in what would become known as the rampjaar (year of disaster). First England and then France declared war on the Netherlands. As if this wasn't enough, the bishops of Munster and Cologne invaded the Netherlands from the east. With the country virtually locked in, the frightened population turned to William III of Orange to get them out of trouble. Johan de Witt had to resign and William was appointed stadtholder, the one thing de Witt and the Republicans had tried to prevent.
Following the change in power, Johan’s older brother Cornelis de Witt was apprehended and imprisoned on charge of planning to assassinate William III. A fake letter called Johan to the prison in The Hague where Cornelis was being held. After he had entered the building, the prison guards miraculously disappeared and an angry mob of citizens entered instead.
The brothers were dragged from the prison and quite literally dismembered. The hearts of both of them were on display in a jeweller's shop for years; and it seems that parts of them were eaten by the mob. The recipe on how to properly serve Prime Minister for dinner has not survived, though, probably because all politicians leave a bad taste in your mouth and are definitely toxic.
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