(ORDO NEWS) — Even after a successful political career, Johan de Witt went down in history as the victim of one of the strangest murders in history and one of the few recorded cases of cannibalism in the 17th century. A key figure in Dutch politics, Johan de Witt became Prime Minister of the Dutch Republic in 1653.
Taking his place in what historians call the “golden age of the Netherlands” was always risky, but the Dutch Republic turned out to be much more dangerous than de Witt had imagined, and he soon found himself biting off more than he could chew. Even after he was re-elected a total of three times, he was attacked by an angry mob that tore him apart and ate his remains.
Early life of Johan de Witt
De Witt was born into a famous family on September 24, 1625. His father was the mayor of their hometown, Dordrecht, and his background meant that he was likely to excel in whatever business he chose. By studying mathematics and writing one of the first texts on analytic geometry, Johann de Witt could look forward to a bright future.
Following in his father’s footsteps, he took a firm stand against the House of Orange, an aristocratic princely dynasty also known as the House of Nassau. Together with the republican merchant class, he joined in the conflict against the monarchists, which had been going on for many years and showed no signs of slowing down.
Power, politics and Johan de Witt as Grand Pensionary
When de Witt came to power, thanks not only to his intelligence but also to the fact that he stayed close to his father, the United Provinces were at war with England and France, which was a turbulent time for the predecessor state of the Netherlands.
Amsterdam was the center of world trade, and the Asian trade routes were controlled by the Dutch East India Company, making the Dutch Republic one of the most powerful powers in all of Europe.
Despite various political problems with other European countries, de Witt used his political talent to negotiate peace. He also skillfully pitted England and France against each other, the two most ardent enemies of the Dutch Republic.
At the same time, de Witt strongly opposed the Orange Monarchy and did not allow the Prince of Orange to achieve any political influence in his territory. In fact, throughout his reign as Grand Pensionary, Johan de Witt maintained his opposition to Orange, which was ultimately instrumental in his downfall.
The Franco-Dutch War led to the fall of Johan de Witt
The struggle between France and the Dutch Republic eventually reached a stalemate, and the Franco-Dutch War began against Louis XIV of France.
The reason was the fact that both countries were interested in maintaining control over the seas. In 1665 Johan de Witt managed to maintain control of his maritime interests, but by 1672 the war had flared up and it was a disastrous year for Johan de Witt.
England and France, the two main enemies of the Dutch Republic, were able to invade the country without much effort or hindrance due to the lack of a Dutch land army.
As a result, the Dutch people suffered numerous losses, and de Witt was cited as the cause of this failure, believing that de Witt failed to strengthen the land army and instead focused his attention mainly on the navy.
For the townspeople, this failure demonstrated the weakening of power and the lack of effective leadership of Johan de Witt, whom they trusted with power for almost 20 years. The situation has completely deteriorated.
Wilhelm III and the tragic lynching of Johan de Witt
Wilhelm III broke into the country and took advantage of the fall of Johan de Witt. In response, the people called on William III of the House of Orange to succeed him, regarding William as a stronger leader capable of protecting the Dutch from their enemies.
To demonstrate his newfound abilities, William III put Johann de Witt’s brother Cornelius on trial for treason. He was subsequently tortured and imprisoned in Gevangenpoort prison.
After his forced retirement, Johan went to visit Cornelius in prison in The Hague on August 20, 1672. Involuntarily, he fell right into the trap. In the prison, an organized lynch mob was waiting for his arrival.
“Everyone wanted to take a drop of blood from a fallen hero and tear off a piece of his clothes,” wrote the French writer Alexandre Dumas in his novel The Black Tulip.
The mob broke into the prison and attacked the two brothers. Pulling them out into the street, they hung them by their feet on the city’s public gallows, one of the most humiliating forms of punishment and execution in the 17th century.
“Having torn, tore and completely stripped two brothers, the crowd dragged their naked bodies to a makeshift gallows, where amateur executioners hung them by their legs,” wrote Dumas.
Then the distraught crowd literally tore the brothers apart. According to Dumas:
“Then the most notorious villains of all who did not dare to strike at living flesh arrived in time. They cut off the dead part, and then went around the city, selling small pieces of the bodies of Johan and Cornelius for ten sous apiece.”
The untimely death of Johan de Witt: cannibalism in the Dutch Republic
The story goes that the mob tore the flesh from the bodies and began to sell and eat the remains. The brothers’ limbs and clothing were auctioned off to the bystanders, and body parts were proudly displayed in pubs.
Believe it or not, some parts of the bodies of Johan and Cornelius have survived to this day and are stored in the Historical Museum of The Hague, where the prison gates stand.
The relic box, apparently collected by de Witt’s supporters, contains Johan de Witt’s finger and tongue, as well as a poem and other documents.
What started as a successful career ended in one of the most brutal assassinations of a politician in European history.
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