Despite its long and complex history, you might be surprised to know that the Netherlands has only seen the reign of six monarchs, not including the current ruler: King Willem-Alexander. You might be even more surprised to discover that, of those six monarchs, four of them chose to abdicate in favour of their children.
The practice of abdication in the Netherlands lies in stark contrast to many of the other royal houses around the world, who prefer to rule until they die. Case and point: England has seen more than 60 monarchs sit on the throne over the last 1.200 years, only four of which have abdicated. Even the most recent English Queen, Elizabeth II, died on the throne in 2022 at the age of 96.
So what is it with the Dutch monarchs and abdication? In this version of “Most Googled”, we take a look back at the Dutch royal line to see why more than half of the rulers of the Netherlands chose to abdicate, rather than die on the throne.
William I: The first Dutch kingPrior to the founding of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the area that is now the Netherlands had long been a collection of fiefs and provinces, under the rule of the different noble houses. The Dutch Revolt, or Eighty Years War, saw the formation of the Dutch Republic until the French set up the puppet Kingdom of Holland under the control of Louis Bonaparte (brother of Napoleon) which was eventually annexed into the French Empire.
Following the defeat of Napoleon and his first exile to the island of Elba, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, the precursor state to the modern Kingdom of the Netherlands, was founded in 1815. King William I ruled as the first king of the Netherlands, prior to his ascension, the provinces of the Netherlands had been ruled by stadtholders. The last stadtholder had been the father of King William I, who, confusingly, is known as William V by historians.
With the fall of Napoleon and his French Empire, William actually refused the title of King, and instead proclaimed himself “Sovereign Prince of the Netherlands”. However, following Napoleon’s return from exile, William felt his position was threatened and elevated the Netherlands to a kingdom.
AbdicationAt this time, the area of what is now Belgium was part of the Netherlands. William adopted a new constitution following the proclamation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, in which the ruling body of the Dutch states, the States General, was divided into the Eerste Kamer (Senate) and the Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives), representing the bicameral parliament which is still in place in the Netherlands today. However, at this time the early Dutch government was primarily in place to approve the King’s laws and decrees.
The constitution was accepted in the northern provinces but not in the south. William got around this little obstacle by simply counting all abstentions as votes for the new constitution. However, this would eventually lead to the Belgian Revolution of 1830, which lead to the foundation of Belgium as an independent state. Despite a long war that drained the Dutch economy, Belgium never again fell under the control of Dutch rule.
Following the war, William found himself obligated to instate constitutional reforms, something he was loath to do. He also wanted to marry Henrietta d’Oultremont after his wife’s death in 1837, something which incensed the Dutch population as she was Belgian and Roman Catholic (which stood in stark contrast to the King’s strictly protestant House of Orange-Nassau).
For these reasons, coupled with the disappointing loss of Belgium, William decided to abdicate the throne in 1840 and allow his son, William II, to become king. His decision set a precedent which would be followed by the future queens of the Netherlands.
William II and William IIIKing William II only ruled the Netherlands for nine years and is known for instating liberal constitutional reforms to avoid revolutions spreading to the Netherlands in 1848. He died suddenly in Tilburg in 1849. Because of this, we will never know if he would have followed the precedent set by his father and abdicated the throne in his later years.
King William III was in England when his father died and considered relinquishing his claim to the throne. However, he was convinced otherwise by his mother as there was no way to relinquish his claim provided by the Dutch constitution. He frequently contemplated abdicating in favour of his son, William, Prince of Orange, when he turned 18. He was, however, uncomfortable making that decision for himself and remained as king.
William III’s reign was tumultuous, which was largely down to his erratic and often cruel nature. He outlived his son, who went into a self-imposed exile in Paris and died of typhus, liver problems and exhaustion, following a life of debauchery. William III’s younger sons also died before him. The king died in 1890, following a period of illness. His wife, Queen Emma, and the Council of State acted as regents for his sole surviving legitimate child and heir, Wilhelmina.
The Queens of the NetherlandsAfter King William III, all of the following Dutch queens abdicated in favour of their children. The next Dutch monarch, Queen Wilhelmina, relinquished her duties to her daughter Juliana twice during her later years due to ill health and eventually abdicated in 1948 due to old age and illness. She had also come under increasing pressure following the independence of Indonesia, which was seen as an economic disaster for the Netherlands. Furthermore, during World War II Wilhelmina took a leading role while in exile in Britain following the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. However, a return to pre-war politics also contributed to her decision to abdicate. Wilhelmina was the last male-line descendant of the House of Orange-Nassau.
Wilhelmina’s daughter, Queen Juliana followed the precedent set by her mother and great-great-grandfather and chose to abdicate in 1980, the year of her 71st birthday. Juliana continued to undertake work for many charitable causes following her abdication. She died in 2004 at the age of 94. Interestingly, she died exactly 70 years after her grandmother, Queen Emma.
Juliana’s eldest daughter, Queen Beatrix, ascended the throne on Queen’s Day (Juliana’s birthday) in 1980. She abdicated exactly 33 years later in 2013. When announcing her abdication a few months prior she said that it was time to “place the responsibility for the country in the hands of a new generation.” She formally signed the abdication document in Amsterdam and since then, her eldest son, the current Dutch king, Willem-Alexander, has sat on the throne.
Monarch’s reasons for abdicationSo why have the Dutch monarchs mainly chosen to abdicate rather than die on the throne? Well, it seems that the precedent was set by King William I, for political reasons, and to marry outside his station. While his son and grandson did not abdicate, they may have followed this precedent if not for William II’s sudden death and William III’s aversion to making the decision to abdicate, as well as his sons dying before he did. Might he have abdicated if he was outlived by his sons or if his daughter came of age earlier? The evidence seems to suggest that this might very well have been the case.
Queens Wilhelmina, Juliana and Beatrix did follow the precedent of abdication set by William I, albeit for different reasons. Their reasons were ill health, old age and stepping aside in favour of the new generation. So, while there are many different reasons for the abdication of Dutch monarchs, it seems that the precedent set by the first king is what made abdication a more favourable notion to the Dutch monarchs.
Any more questions about the Netherlands?So, there you have it, the reasons why the Dutch monarchs largely choose to abdicate rather than die in power. Have you got any more questions about the Netherlands or Dutch society? Let us know in the comments below!