John Oldenbarnevelt was a hero in the long struggle between the Netherlands and Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was he who convinced England and France to the side with the Dutch. He was also a firm supporter of William the Silent, the strong Dutch leader who won crucial victories against Spain.
After William was assassinated, Oldenbarnevelt threw his influence behind Maurice of Nassau to become the new Captain General of the Netherlands. The states agreed. John Oldenbarnevelt then negotiated a peace treaty with Spain by which Spain agreed to recognize the Netherlands as a separate nation for twelve years. So why did Maurice engineer a coup, arrest Oldenbarnevelt, try him for treason and execute him when he was seventy years old?
Religious and political issues were at stake. First and foremost, Oldenbarnevelt was an Arminian. Arminianism is an interpretation of Calvinism that says that our destiny is not completely fixed by God in advance. A man has some choice in whether or not he is saved, if no more than to say "yes" or "no" to God's offer of salvation. Salvation is not entirely by God's command. For years the strict Calvinists and the Arminians fought word battles over this issue.
Politics often mirrors faith. Oldenbarnevelt, champion of man's spiritual freedom, favored a freer nation and a more liberal government. He was for state's rights. The strict Calvinists preferred a centralized government and fewer state's rights.
The two positions could not be reconciled without much generosity on each side. The Arminian states were Oldenbarnevelt's allies. It was they who had supported his peace plan when Maurice wanted to fight on. Alarmed that the Calvanists appeared ready to suppress the Arminian states, Oldenbarnevelt urged them to arm to defend themselves, a move Maurice viewed as treason.
Maurice declared himself on the side of the strict Calvinists, who were the majority in the Netherlands. Eventually the Calvinist states gave him complete authority to deal with the situation. Maurice arranged a meeting with the Arminian political leaders. As each one stepped into Maurice's apartment, he was arrested. The man whom Oldenbarnevelt had raised to power now sought his death.
Maurice put Oldenbanevelt on trial. The same men were both accusers and judges. Although he defended himself well, the unfair proceedure found the nation's grand old statesman guilty of high treason. On this day, May 13, 1619, the politicians sent Oldenbarneveldt to the scaffold where an executioner beheaded him.
- "Arminianism." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- Bangs, Carl. Arminius. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971.
- Motley, John Lothrop. Life and Death of John of Barneveld. London: John Murray, 1904.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles.