Prime Minister Mark Rutte considers him to be the most important Dutch statesman. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt helped create the Dutch Republic. The Hague’s Historisch Museum now offers a short introduction to van Oldenbarnevelt in its exhibition “Man, Might, Murder”.

Enter the exhibition on the period building’s first floor. On your right you see a chair, table, letters. Van Oldenbarnevelt is 71 years old and writing farewell letters. He may have sat in this very chair, at this very table. Throughout this exhibition, visitors come across many personal belongings and items linked to van Oldenbarnevelt.

These include documents, letters and spectacles, as well as walking-sticks. Among the walking sticks may be the one he used, to climb the scaffolding to meet his executioner. The exhibition’s last room even shows a real executioner’s sword. Though the one used to behead van Oldenbarnevelt, will be displayed at The Hague’s Prison Gate Museum from February 2019.

Who could have predicted such an end when Johan van Oldenbarnevelt was born? The family lived in Amersfoort and were not even aristocrats. But van Oldenbarnevelt was extremely intelligent – and ambitious.

He studied law at universities in Leuven, Bourges, Heidelberg, Padua. Van Oldenbarnevelt became involved in the Dutch revolt against Habsburg Spain. He joined William the Silent’s army.

Van Oldenbarnevelt settled in The Hague and reinvented himself. He bought a manor, obtained a title and became Pensionary of Rotterdam. This job meant he became an official member of the States of Holland.

His power and influence increased. Van Oldenbarnevelt was not afraid to deal with aristocrats like Francois d’Anjou, or the Earl of Leicester. After the murder of William the Silent, he ensured Prince Maurice became the Republic’s military leader. The exhibition contains an impressive portrait of Prince Maurice.

Van Oldenbarnevelt became Land’s Advocate; a position he held for over thirty years. He wielded more power than a modern Prime Minister. Among many achievements the exhibition lists is the fact that Van Oldenbarnevelt ensured that Europe acknowledged the Republic as an independent state.

And then things went wrong. Walls and exhibits in the next room show the use of fake news and alternative facts. These were also used in disputes among two Protestant denominations.

The disputes between Remonstrants and Contra-Remonstrants erupted into a full-blown power struggle. Van Oldenbarnevelt and Prince Maurice ended up on different sides. Things came to a head in 1618: Prince Maurice committed a successful coup.

Van Oldenbarnevelt was among those arrested. He and his loyal servant were kept in solitary confinement in a building, now part of The Hague’s Binnenhof. Months later, trumped up charges and a kangaroo court ensured van Oldenbarnevelt was convicted and publicly executed a day later.

The news shocked Europe. In London, it inspired a playwright who once collaborated with William Shakespeare. Barely three months after the public execution, John Fletcher and Philip Massinger’s play “The Tragedy of Sir John Van Olden Barnavelt” was approved by a London censor. A few years later, van Oldenbarnevelt’s sons tried to murder Prince Maurits. Their fate is described at the end of this exhibition.

Interested in a short introduction to the man who helped create the Netherlands? Haags Historisch Museum: “Johan van Oldenbarnevelt; man, might, murder” welcomes visitors till 14th of April 2019.

Words by Kate D

More information can be found here