- Monarchies, States Generals and Parliaments: The Netherlands in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries
In a memorandum to his son Philip in 1539, Charles V had warned his heir that the Netherlands was treacherous political waters, full of truculent cities. There was nothing unique in this evaluation, for other sovereigns, governors general, and [End Page 655] regents routinely expressed exasperation at ruling the Low Country provinces. The Regent Mary of Hungary in May 1531 likened her position to having a rope around her neck because, as she explained later in 1555, "this country does not render the obedience which is due a monarch." The reasons why the Burgundian and Habsburg rulers of the Netherlands found governance so challenging is the subject of H. G. Koenigsberger's new book on parliamentary bodies in the Netherlands. It is a work of synthesis and interpretation, the culmination of a lifetime of study of Habsburg constitutional history. A book about parliamentary history risks coming off as dry institutional history, a Whiggish account of the triumph of representative government. Koenigsberger's book instead recounts a complicated story full of nuance and color. He offers a history of the decisive role parliamentary bodies played in Dutch political life, from their first stirrings in the fifteenth century to their crucial position in the Revolt of the Netherlands in the sixteenth century. But Koenigsberger's book is more than just a history of the States General in the Netherlands, however important that might be given its under appreciation by historians of early modern Europe. Throughout the book, Koenigsberger draws conclusions about the relationship of early modern monarchies to parliamentary bodies more generally, especially in a final comparative chapter on the fate of the States General in the seventeenth century.
Despite his wide scope, Koenigsberger's fundamental aim is to explain how the Estates of Holland and Zeeland became revolutionary in 1572 and the consequences of this development, especially the formation of a "parliamentary" regime in the United Provinces. Because his purpose is both to describe Dutch parliamentary history and use it more broadly to raise issues in the history of European representative bodies — the Cortes in Castile, the Riksdag in Sweden, and so forth — Koenigsberger organizes his study around the dichotomy between regimes that govern by dominium regale and those that govern by dominium politicum et regale. The terminology is borrowed from the fifteenth-century English jurist John Fortescue and refers respectively to monarchies in which the sovereign possesses firm centralized power, especially over the right to tax, and monarchies in which consent from representative bodies was required. France is Koenigsberger's principal example of the dominium regale monarchy since its States General was kept in firm check while England and the Netherlands serve as classic examples of more mixed governance. The Netherlands is especially compelling to Koenigsberger because it was additionally an example of a composite monarchy in which the Habsburg sovereigns ruled by a set of titles specific to different regions: Duke of Brabant, Count of Flanders, Count of Holland, and so on. From the Burgundian Duke Philip the Good forward, the rulers of the Low Countries pressed hard for institutional centralization, but these plans were only partially achieved because they butted heads with stubborn representative bodies intent on preserving their traditional domains of influence, setting into motion the political ingredients behind the Dutch Revolt.
The book is organized by periods and governors, starting with the beginnings of the States General in the Burgundian fifteenth century, when regional [End Page 656] parliamentary bodies assembled to discuss matters concerning coinage and trade. Meetings during which different regional Estates came together were often initiated by towns, but sometimes by the sovereign too, as Philip the Good did in 1427. But the real formation of the States General took place in 1464 when the various provinces gathered to mediate an acute political dispute between a now older Philip and his son Charles...