The House of Orange: A Union of Nation and Family

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It was a difficult year for the Dutch royal family with questions about real-estate deals abroad and critique of the Queen’s views on social networking. Historically the House of Orange has overcome such controveries.



Jan Kikkert is a leading historian of the Dutch royal house. He makes the point in one of his books that the Dutch have more appreciation for the House of Orange than they do for the monarchy.


Monarchy in the Netherlands is a relatively recent import imposed by the French emperor Napoleon only two centuries ago. Before that the Netherlands was a republic ruled from the start by the so-called Stadholder of the House of Orange. According to University of Amsterdam professor of modern history Niek van Sas, in the early 19th century the stadholders, or servants of the state, became monarchs but their power declined. The monarchy, he says, is not typically a Dutch institution.


William the Silent
The House of Orange entered the world stage over 400 years ago when the Dutch rose up in rebellion against their Catholic Hapsburg ruler, the King of Spain. They were led by William of Orange, or William the Silent – so named for his diplomatic tact. He became known as the father of the fatherland because of his success and the Dutch national anthem, the Wilhelmus, is an homage to him.


William was everything but king. He was a German-born nobleman, Count of Nassau, who inherited the ancient principality of Orange in southern France. Of all William's titles and holdings, his most important political role was that of Stadholder, which made him the emperor's chief governor, magistrate and military commander in the Low Countries. The title of Stadholder passed on to his sons, Maurits and Fredrik Hendrik, both of them skilled military men who completed the process of Dutch nation-building. They also continued their father's policy of allying the House of Orange through marriage to the other powerful Protestant families of Europe: the Hohenzollerns in Prussia and the Stuarts in England.


Over the centuries, the House of Orange has come to be associated with the Protestant cause, and the Dutch Reformed Church. Whenever a member of the House of Orange gets too close to Roman Catholicism, through marriage or because they take part in a Catholic ceremony, it leads to controversy even to this day.

When the Dutch King William III died in 1890, the House of Orange had only one surviving heir in The Netherlands: a 10-year-old girl named Wilhelmina. She became Holland's first queen, and during her 50-year reign she succeeded against all the odds in asserting her personality and her position, even during the years of Nazi occupation in World War II.


When Hitler invaded The Netherlands, Wilhelmina went into exile in England. The Queen’s decision to flee remains controversial to this day, as distressed many people at the time. But Wilhelmina’s messages to the Dutch people on Radio Oranje from London helped to change the way the Dutch people saw the House of Orange. By the time she set foot on the liberated soil of her country again, Wilhelmina had come to embody the Resistance and the Dutch Nation as no member of the House of Orange has done since William the Silent.

During the entire 20th century, the House of Orange was headed by women. The family almost died out with Wilhelmina. Her only child was Juliana, for nearly 30 years the only surviving heir in the Netherlands to the title of Prince or Princess of Orange. Juliana succeeded Wilhelmina in 1948, and she in turn was succeeded by her daugher Beatrix in 1980.


When Juliana presented Beatrix as the new queen on April 30th, 1980, some people in the crowd heckled and interrupted her, reflecting the skeptical mood of the modern, egalitarian age. Time and again, questions are raised, for example about the private wealth of the Orange family. Reputedly they are among the wealthiest royal families in the world. For the moment, there's enough support for the House of Orange to assume that Willem-Alexander will one day be king. But it is not unreasonable to wonder whether the Dutch monarchy will survive the 21st century.


The House of Orange: A Union of Nation and Family was produced by Marijke van der Meer. The documentary was originally broadcast in December 2002.