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The Formation of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1814–1815)

By: Randall Lesaffer

Among the many territorial questions settled by the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815) was the decision to unite the northern and southern Netherlands into the United Kingdom of the Netherlands under the Dutch sovereign, William Frederick of Orange-Nassau (1772–1843). At the time, and ever since, the decision has been legitimized as part of the strategy of the victorious great powers to contain France and safeguard the balance of power in Europe. To the east of France, Austria and Prussia fortified their defensive positions against a possible new French onslaught. Austria saw its territories in northern Italy greatly expanded while Prussia received new lands in the Rhineland. In between France and the two German great powers, buffer states were established: an extended Piemonte-Sardinia in the south and the united Netherlands in the north. In this manner, the unification was presented as the consequence of decision-making by the great powers. The role of local actors, and especially of William himself, was swept under the carpet. It was a narrative which facilitated the acquiescence of the southern elites, among whom there was little support for the Dutch scenario.

The unification of the Netherlands was indeed a brick in the wall which the Vienna powers wanted to build to prevent new revolutions and wars from spreading from France, but that was not the full story. There were other scenarios for the north side of the French border. One of those was to divide the southern Netherlands—the former Austrian Netherlands and the Prince-Bishopric of Liège, which are together roughly equivalent to today’s Belgium and Luxemburg—between the Netherlands and Prussia, with the Prince-Bishopric and the Duchy of Luxemburg, which had belonged to the Austrian Netherlands, going to Prussia. The Duchy of Luxemburg, with its strategic citadel at its homonymous capital, was especially coveted by Prussia as part of a defensive line against France. The relentless pressure and agile diplomacy of the Dutch sovereign and his major advisers were crucial in securing the victory of the Dutch scenario.

After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig, French troops had withdrawn first from Amsterdam and then from the territory of the northern Netherlands at the end of 1813. Local regents had hastened to restore Dutch independence and invited William Frederick, the son of the last stadtholder William V (1748–1806), to return and assume power as sovereign prince of the Netherlands. Under the new constitution, which was ratified in July 1814, the country became the Kingdom of the Netherlands and William became King William I (1814–1840).

Almost immediately after his return from Britain to the Netherlands at the end of 1813, William and his main ministers began to work towards expanding the border of their country to the south. The  indefensibility of an independent southern state, the unwillingness of the Austrians to invest in the defence of these remote lands, or the failure of the old—underfunded—Dutch barrier were all strategic arguments that helped the Dutch to gain traction for the annexation plan. In early 1814, the Austrian government smoothed the way by affirming that it was willing to relinquish its title to the Belgian provinces.

It was foremost the support of the British government that sealed the deal for the Netherlands. During the negotiations of the peace treaties of the four victorious great powers—Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia—and France, an agreement was reached to expand the territory of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the south. Article 6 of the First Peace Treaty of Paris of 30 May 1814 provided that ‘Holland, placed under the Sovereignty of the House of Orange, shall receive an increase of Territory’ (63 CTS 171). 

It was by this time clear that this ‘increase’ would encompass the major parts of the Belgic provinces, the former Austrian Netherlands and Liège. Luxemburg and its fortress remained the major bone of contention. In the weeks to follow, this principled decision was worked out in a more elaborate agreement among the great powers, with the Dutch diplomats holding the ear of the British. The text of the Protocol, which the four great powers signed at Vienna on 21 June, largely flew from Dutch pens (63 CTS 239). It laid out the conditions for the south’s accession to the north under Dutch conditions.

The Protocol stated the principle of the re(!)-unification of ‘Belgium’ with Holland, thus reverting to the restoration of the unity of the Habsburg Low Countries before the Dutch Revolt (1567–1648) and the secession of the Northern Netherlands from the Spanish Empire. It was legitimized on the basis of the right of conquest by the victorious alliance—against France, which had annexed the Austrian Netherlands and Liège in 1795—and the principle of the balance of Europe. The reunion would take place under a set of principles which had been agreed between Prince William and the British ambassador to The Hague, Richard Trench (1767–1837), the Second Earl of Clancarty. Article 1 of these principles stated that the unification would occur under the Dutch constitution, which would be modified through common accord. They guaranteed the freedom of religion and worship and the equal access to all employment and public office regardless of religion (Article 2). This point was highly contentious with the Catholic Church and the elite of the south, and would lead to the rejection of the constitution by a majority of southern electors in 1815. They provided for a ‘convenable representation’ of the southern provinces in the Estates General. William I would translate this into a 50% representation, while the south had 3.2 million people against 2.2 million for the north (Article 3).  Article 5 opened trade and navigation with the Dutch East Indies to the south. There would be a common treasury, which would assume the outstanding debts of both parts, whereas the public debt of the north was multiple times that of the south.

With this, William I and his ministers assured that their model of the state would be imposed upon the south. The Dutch constitution-to-be was a compromise between the restoration of legitimate monarchy with the preservation of some achievements of the revolutionary era: freedom and equality of religion and a liberal economy based on individual property, freedom of contract, and liberal rights of trade and navigation.

This left the Vienna Congress with the tasks of fixing the borders of the new country and deciding about Luxemburg. In the final settlement the Austrian Netherlands without Luxemburg but including Liège were added to the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Prussia obtained the districts of Eupen, Malmédy, and Stavelot from Liège. Germany would later have to surrender those to Belgium under the Peace Treaty of Versailles of 28 June 1919 (Article 27.1, 225 CTS 188). The Duchy of Luxemburg was separated from the rest of the Austrian Netherlands and became a member of the German Confederation, with William I as its grand duke. This compensated William for losing his hereditary lands in Nassau and his membership in the Confederation for Nassau. More importantly, it made it possible to place the citadel of Luxemburg under the control of the Confederation, and hence Prussia.

The deal was kept secret from the world, and from the southern provinces, although many would have understood the message ringing from William’s appointment as governor-general of the Southern Netherlands by the Austrian government in August 1814. The news of the deal and the future annexation of the south to the north broke in early 1815. The return of Napoleon from Elba in March of that year induced William to make haste in ensuring his recognition as ruler of the southern territories. He declared himself king of the united Netherlands at The Hague and sped to Brussels, where he had himself recognized on 30 March. On 31 May 1815, after the war had erupted with France, the great powers affirmed the union of the Netherlands by treaty (64 CTS 377). It had thereby become a fixed part of the Vienna peace settlement.


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