Nicolaas Matsier – The Advocate of Holland 



In denial


The Advocate spent his time in a kind of denial. Or perhaps, simply, denial. He walked with his head in the clouds of the law. As the lawyer he was in heart and soul, he persisted in his denial. Admittedly, it was a new situation in which he now found himself, he truly wasn’t blind to circumstances, he was forced to conclude that the impossible had simply happened. But it was precisely that impossibility that he could not deal with.

How long had he been living in denial? The question ate itself into him like a worm. But the answer eluded him. Gradualness, perhaps it was the gradualness of it. How many drops had fallen? He knew his Latin sayings. Gutta cavat lapidem, non vi, sed saepe cadendo. A small blow, among so many others. The drop of water wears away the stone. Not by force. But by falling time and again.

He’d never ever attached much significance to it. Just a saying, stored in his head. It was in the world outside that all kinds of thing had been set in motion. But it was impossible, surely, to count moments? They flowed into each other, succeeded each other, without ceasing. And suddenly there was no escaping it any longer and they’d hardened into the simple, solid fact of his arrest and imprisonment. A stupid fact, but a fait accompli.

He’d been pushed aside. Here, in his own domain, the Binnenhof – the ancient complex in which parliament was housed. A place he’d so long been part of, as a public figure. Not that he’d ruled the roost exactly – not entirely, anyway, but he’d pulled a lot of strings. Now he’d been pushed aside. Shut away. Made invisible.

August has given way to September, the month of his birth. He has oceans of time. Empty time! It annoys him that he has nothing to busy himself with. He is bored stiff. Never before has he been bored. He’s never had time. A novel experience, but he can’t find it interesting. The Advocate’s days creep past.

Has he never seen this coming, then? No one would believe that, nor can he, if he’s honest. The estrangement between him and Maurice of Nassau, didn’t that start with the Battle of Nieuwpoort? A battle Maurice never wanted to wage, but was forced into by the States General. Led by the Advocate. And the rift had only deepened, right up to the Twelve Years’ Truce. They’d found themselves on different sides when the Gomarists occupied the Cloister Church. The Synod had been another source of friction. The bickering about it had been going on for years now, and showed no signs of stopping. Then there was all that bother with the mercenaries. Without wanting to, he’s set off a train of troubled, gloomy thoughts.

Take the appointment, a few years after the Battle of Nieuwpoort, of Jacobus Armenius as professor of theology at the University of Leiden. Alongside the Calvinist theologian Franciscus Gomarus. Nothing wrong with that, surely?

That had been the Advocate’s doing. Well, perhaps that was overstating things. But he’d had a hand in it, through his son-in-law Cornelis van der Mijle. Van der Mijle was on the Board of Governors. But what had he, Oldenbarnevelt, not had a hand in?

Armenians and Gomarists – back then no one had heard of them. There’d been no sign of them anywhere, the words didn’t even exist! Or had he just failed to see these new beings, despite their existence, because they didn’t yet bear those names?

To say nothing of their successors, the Remonstrants and the Counter-Remonstrants. Though he’d spotted the latter very quickly. He’d seen them, he’d realised what they could do and he’d fought them with every administrative weapon at his disposal. Tooth and nail, right from the start.

Their consistories! Another new-fangled word he’d taken an instant dislike to. There were a lot of new words around these days. Words that were soon on everyone’s lips. All those consistories! All those classes! They knew a thing or two, those fanatical Calvinists, when it came to organising their young church.

Each church, even in the tiniest hamlet, had its council, or consistory, and together, all those church councils formed a class. And all those classes liked nothing better than holding synods. They revelled in it – assembling and organising and magnifying differences of opinion! His profound revulsion did not prevent the Advocate from admiring those hardnosed Calvinists, at least technically, for their mastery of the art of assembly. They’d helped bring all these new concepts into the world, concepts that were soon on everyone’s lips.

Synods were springing up everywhere, at every level. A never-ending succession of synods that seemed to be forever meeting and forming resolutions. Regional synods! Provincial synods! Little streams and rivulets, each of them, feeding into an event due to take place very soon – while he was powerless to do anything about it – an event the Advocate had fought fiercely to prevent, an event that flouted both the constitution and the law: in other words the General or National Synod!

He was getting worked up, this was bad for his heart.

He’d known it, of course. That in the period of peace afforded by the Truce, politics had gradually become a strange, unpredictable mixture. There were those who heartily disapproved of the Truce and wanted nothing better than to resume hostilities. Hardline Calvinists, mainly, most notably the exiles from the Southern Netherlands. Plus Prince Maurice, who’d been more or less out of a job since the war ended. Not that he had any grounds for complaint – he’d been royally compensated for his predicted loss of income as a result of the Truce. The Advocate had of course seen to that.

Others, though, were keen to protect trade, which was flourishing as never before. They’d never had it so good. People like himself, city councils, provinces, Remonstrants in general, favoured a lasting peace.

That’s how it had been. A mix that had grown explosive. Brought them to the brink of a new civil war. How long had this been going on? Impossible to say. A gradual succession of incidents, turning points, reversals. Not least: interventions. As he and Prince Maurice had played the game, they’d taken an increasingly tough stance. Nevertheless, the question continued to impose itself. Had he, Oldenbarnevelt, been blind and deaf to what was happening? And if so, since when?

A niggling question but – ultimately – an academic one. The Advocate paced around his chamber, he sat at his table, he lay on his bed. He bore his illegal imprisonment with fortitude, clinging stubbornly to the certainty that he was legally in the right. He couldn’t think of a single reason why he should doubt that. Or why he should give an inch. They, the States General, had no jurisdiction here! They hadn’t a leg to stand on! They couldn’t arrest him here, in his own county! They couldn’t imprison him here! They couldn’t try him here!

But the fact that he had been arrested, that he was now imprisoned, and that preparations were undoubtedly underway for a trial (one they would certainly dub ‘extraordinary’) could not be denied.

He makes all kinds of requests. After each request he is informed by his guards, always many days later, that it cannot be granted. That it cannot be done, this thing he has asked. That it has been refused. In essence he continually makes the same request and they, for their part, work diligently to vary their refusals. It has been concluded, he hears again and again, that he will not need documents, pens, ink or paper.

‘But I must surely – I must surely be able to defend myself?’

‘You will only need to answer the questions put to you, Sir.’

‘But how can I do that without access to the relevant documents?’

He does not get them, the requested papers, documents, books, pamphlets. It is as if he is no longer relevant. Not even in the context of his own trial. As if, for the purposes of that trial, they can manage without him. The only thing he receives after much begging and pleading, is his French psaltery.

Preliminary remarks

The moment has come, at last, after almost thirty weeks of silence from the other side. No answers to the questions he’s asked. No response to petitions or requests. Only: ‘We’ll pass it on, Sir.’ On enquiry: ‘We’ve passed it on, Sir.’ When could he expect a response, then? ‘That’s not up to us, Sir.’

But now the moment has finally come. They’re walking down the narrow corridor in a little group, with Captain Van der Meulen and Lieutenant Nythoff leading the way and two halberdiers bringing up the rear. The corridor’s not a long one, thank goodness. Ridiculous! He, an old man with a stick, under heavily armed guard, following behind those two. The French captain, moving with the smooth grace of a cat, and the German lieutenant, Nythoff, no less agile. Men who, by the look of them, take their training and exercise seriously. Men of speed and vigour.

So there they are, the five of them, engaged in covering the very short distance between his apartment and the little chamber they’re heading for. Yes, apartment, as the Advocate still thinks of it: he refuses to consider himself a prisoner – in a prison. He guards against allowing such words to enter his mind. Each of these, he stubbornly tells himself, are chambers of the High Court of Holland.

Short as the distance is, they make but slow progress, the Frenchman and the German – a young nobleman who’s part of Prince Maurice’s bodyguard – with the Advocate hobbling along behind them. Walking this slowly hasn’t been part of their training.

Van der Meulen knocks on a door and sticks his head round the corner. Says something to whoever’s inside. Then opens the door wide and gestures in a way that’s more imperative than inviting. The Advocate, entering, doffs his hat. He studies the faces in the room: men seated behind a long table. He is courteously invited to put his hat back on. By whom? There’s about ten of them. But he doesn’t do it, he doesn’t put it back on. Van der Meulen escorts him to a chair without arm-rests. On which – what choice does he have? – he sits down. The captain then returns to the corridor, shutting the door behind him.

There’s no question of any ceremonial introductions. He doesn’t know all of them, but that’s of no concern to them. And he, of course, doesn’t need any introduction. After the courteousness about his doffed hat, there are no more niceties. They immediately get down to business, at a rapid tempo. There’s the first question already.

They clearly don’t know who they’re dealing with! Before a hearing of any kind – as is famously his wont – the Advocate wishes to specify his position. He also wants the status of this most curious extraordinary tribunal to be clarified. ‘Excuse me,’ he says. And then: ‘A point of order!’ He asks to see their commission. More precisely, the document issued by the States General stating the tribunal’s mandate.

The first question, posed by Advocate Fiscal Anthonie Duyck, must therefore hang in the air a little while. Of course Oldenbarnevelt doesn’t get his way. He is given to understand that the extraordinary tribunal cannot comply with the prisoner’s request without first consulting Their Noble Mightinesses of the States General. Which would create an undesirable delay. They need to proceed! Duyck resumes his questioning expression. There is no stopping things now.

The Advocate responds with a request to be allowed to make two preliminary remarks. The request is granted. Exactly as he expected, in fact. The Advocate Fiscal is playing his role. Just like the Advocate. Oldenbarneveld makes his remarks, taking his time about it. They might be in a hurry, he isn’t.

He’s pleased that they don’t interrupt him. He can tell, though, from the eyes and posture of the men gathered there, that they’re only listening because they have to. Nevertheless, he sets out certain facts. At length, as always. He insists on a precision that sometimes gives impatient or inattentive listeners the impression he’s saying everything twice, or even thrice. But for him it’s all about establishing crucial nuances and exercising due care.

So he takes time to indicate once again the yawning chasm…the yawning, unbridgeable chasm between the statutory body of the States General…which has no jurisdiction whatsoever in the sovereign county of Holland…nor, by the way, in any other county of the United Provinces…in short: the unbridgeable chasm between the States General and this extraordinary trial…which is, after all, being held in the county just mentioned, ‘the county’, he stipulates, ‘in which we are now.’

He points out that the only court competent to try cases here in The Hague is the High Court of Holland, Zeeland and West Friesland. ‘As the gentlemen,’ he adds, ‘are, I take it, aware. I will therefore take the liberty,’ the Advocate continues, ‘to address everything I say here to the attention, not so much of the noble gentlemen of the States General or their extraordinary tribunal, as to the attention of the only authority over me that I recognise: that of the High Court of Holland. Which of course does not in any way detract from the fact, as the gentlemen will appreciate,’ he continues amiably, ‘that I have always upheld the authority of the States General – wherever and to the extent that it has been lawfully exercised.’

‘After all,’ he continues, ‘for thirty-one years I have myself regularly represented the County of Holland in the self-same States General. During which time – as I need not tell you, but I wish to stress this point – during which time I have been able to overcome many great difficulties and adversities, by day and often also by night, by the grace of God. In the service of my country.’ He fights back tears as he speaks those last words. That brings his preliminary remarks to a close and the hearing can start. At least they won’t be able to claim that he did not protest.


Translated by Jane Hedley-Prole