The 'Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 – by which England came to be ruled jointly by a Dutch monarch and his English Stuart wife – was neither glorious nor, if truth be told, a revolution. It was a full-scale Dutch invasion, provoked by a dynastic dispute between the royal houses of Stuart and Orange: Charles II’s nephew, the Protestant William III of Orange, deposed the reigning Stuart King, the Catholic James II, and installed James’s daughter Mary and himself in James’s place.


Historians have traditionally tended to characterise this as a consenting rather than a conflictive encounter between the two nations, broadly acceptable to the English administration and her population at large. Here was no conquest; here was a meeting of peoples and beliefs. This in spite of the fact that William’s fleet consisted of an astounding 500 ships, an army of more than 20,000 highly trained professional troops, and a further 20,000 mariners and support staff – and that Dutch troops were posted at a number of key locations across London for more than a year after his arrival.

Such a view depends to a large extent on an extraordinary Anglo-Dutch social, scientific and cultural collaboration which developed over the three quarters of a century which preceded the Anglo-Dutch reign of William and Mary. The Prince of Orange arrived in England in November 1688 with a formidable army. But he also came ready-equipped with a complete cultural outlook and set of attitudes which were already curiously close to those of the nation he invaded, and vice versa. A robust set of common interests had developed over at least the preceding half century between a certain sort of Englishman and his Dutch counterpart. While there was always an edge of suspicion (there had, after all, been three Anglo-Dutch wars since the 1650s), there was a remarkable amount of recognisably shared experience.

One specific area of close Anglo-Dutch collaboration and exchange was that of gardening and garden-design. Gardeners and garden enthusiasts shuttled across the ‘Narrow Sea’ that separated London from The Hague, exchanging horticultural and botanical knowledge and sharing the surveying and engineering expertise required to create the landscapes and water features currently in vogue. Dutch tourists admired the estates of the nobility and gentry in England, while their English counterparts expressed awe and admiration at the gardens reclaimed from sea water and sand along the coast outside The Hague.

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A small, but significant incident in the course of William’s advance on London underlines the emollient effect on Anglo-Dutch relations of this shared ‘mentality’. As the prince travelled towards the capital at the head of his army, he made a detour to admire Wilton House near Salisbury, the country seat of the Earl of Pembroke. Wilton was renowned for its magnificent gardens, designed in the 1640s by Isaac de Caus.

Engravings of the Wilton gardens had appeared Europe-wide in a book entitled Hortus Pembrochianus, first published in 1645–6, and reprinted several times – in one case, without any of the accompanying text, but simply as a set of spectacular landscape engravings. Though in the midst of a military campaign, on foreign soil, William took the earliest possible opportunity to see the gardens for himself.

Constantijn Huygens junior – William’s private secretary and brother of the distinguished Dutch scientist, Christiaan Huygens – accompanied the prince throughout the invasion and recorded the incident in his diary. He reports that, though the weather was abominable, nothing could dampen the Dutch ruler’s enthusiasm. Rejoining Huygens the following day, William told him that the house and garden were as outstanding as he had been led to believe.

“In the evening the prince was in his room coughing violently, having caught cold,” wrote the private secretary. “He told me I absolutely must go and see the house at Wilton.” Huygens “did want to go to Wilton”, but his horses were not available. He went on foot to see Salisbury Cathedral instead.

There’s no doubt that, while gardening was hugely in vogue across Europe in the last quarter of the 17th century, it was embraced as a peculiarly Dutch pursuit in the northern Netherlands. The Dutch statesman and man of letters, Jacob Cats, had proposed a view of the Dutch as regularly tending their gardens to supplement the dykes which protected the low-lying country from the encroachment of the sea. Indeed, men in politics and power in the Netherlands created grand country estates to match their rising ambitions – and one of the most impressive of these was that of Gaspar Fagel, grand pensionary of Holland from 1672, and close adviser to William III in the period leading up to the invasion.

Fagel was a shrewd political operator, as well as a master gardener. Alongside Hans Willem Bentinck and Gilbert Burnet, he shaped the propaganda promoting the Orange claim to the English throne, and may be credited with the ‘spin’ that ultimately made the invasion acceptable to the English.

In 1676, as his influence over the young Prince William – and hence his power and wealth – grew, Fagel acquired a country estate at Leeuwenhorst near Noordwijk, where he presided over the creation of one of the most remarkable gardens in the northern Netherlands. Throughout the period of feverish planning and preparation for William and Mary to take the throne of England by force in the late 1680s, Fagel would retire to his hothouses and parterres to recuperate.

The international renown of the Leeuwenhorst gardens came not just from the ostentation and complexity of their design, but also from Fagel’s collection of exotic plants. He spent huge sums on acquiring many species newly introduced from the Dutch colonies, which could be seen nowhere else in Europe. He worked in close collaboration with horticulturalists in the service of the Dutch East India Company, paying for plants secured in the Far East to be tended in an intermediate garden at the Cape of Good Hope, to assure their robustness before they were transported to the Netherlands.

Nor did Fagel confine himself to trawling the colonies for new botanical items. In 1684 he asked Bentinck, who was in London on a diplomatic mission, to look out for plants for him there. Bentinck replied that he was only too happy to oblige, and that he had already begun to make enquiries – it would help, he added, if Fagel could send him a list of the species he was interested in. Eventually, the Leeuwenhorst gardens contained plants from the Cape, from Europe, the Mediterranean, North and South America, south and south-west Asia, the Canary Islands, Africa and Japan.

Casting the net far and wide certainly paid dividends for Fagel. In fact, it wasn’t long before overseas visitors were remarking how impressed they were by Leeuwenhorst’s plants and facilities, admirers were hailing the hothouses as the foremost in Europe, and commentators were acclaiming the orchids and pineapples raised there as contemporary marvels.

Although his magnificent estate was rented, Fagel made sure to sign an undertaking with the owner that all the plants introduced and cultivated there belonged to him. However, he wouldn’t have long to enjoy the fruits of his labour, dying on 15 December 1688, just a week before the triumphant William III arrived at St James’s Palace, and then, because smog-congested central London aggravated his asthma, took up residence at Hampton Court Palace.

Fagel’s collection of exotic plants and shrubs was as much a part of William’s ‘invasion’ as the 1688 flotilla of ships

Following his death, Fagel’s family arranged for the entire contents of his garden to be sold to William and Mary and, by 1690, much of that incredible collection was installed at Hampton Court. It is first recorded there on 26 April, when a group of “botanick acquaintances” from Northamptonshire visited Hampton Court gardens by appointment, “to see the famous collection there of the rare Indian plants which mine Heer Fagel had gathered together”.

The process of transplanting Fagel’s garden contents to the palace was a protracted one, since adequate facilities (including hothouses and glasshouses) had to be constructed ahead of the plants’ arrival, to assure the minimum of shock and damage to the fragile blooms. In fact some of the plants were still at Leeuwenhorst two years later.

On 3 March 1692, the remainder of Fagel’s collection, consisting of “orange trees, lemon trees, and other outlandish trees as well as shrubs, plants and herbs”, was valued, and 4,351 guilders paid to Fagel’s heirs. In August and September, when the weather was fine enough not to damage the trees and shrubs, they were transported to The Hague. From there they were shipped to England in October. Garden tubs and their bulb contents which William and Mary had not required were sold to the Amsterdam Botanical Garden in 1691, and transported there in 1692.

Gaspar Fagel’s collection of exotic plants and shrubs, removed wholesale from Holland to Hampton Court Palace, was as much a part of William and Mary’s Dutch ‘invasion’ as the 1688 flotilla of ships which landed at Torbay. Determinedly ferrying their precious cargoes of exotic plants and elaborate garden designs across broad and narrow seas, the industrious Dutch distributed their own peculiar, highly developed system of cultural and aesthetic ideas, carried more or less explicitly along with the material objects themselves. Long before the house of Orange set its sights on the throne of England, the British had absorbed, and come to take delight in, a controlled garden landscape and the associated idea of a conscientious struggle to master the forces of nature.

So when William III interrupted his military campaign, breaking off to wander in the gardens at Wilton, he must have felt in familiar surroundings, and an accompanying sense of comfort. In terms of ambiance and lifestyle, he was coming home. The outstretched hands of the welcoming orange-sellers among the crowds thronging the streets of London, as he made his way along Knightsbridge towards Whitehall, will have reassured him further: the studied, self-conscious garden symbolism of the house of Orange was already recognisable and firmly in place in England.

Turning the tide on sea water: the Dutch country garden’s battle to overcome the elements

In England in the third quarter of the 17th century, a ‘Dutch garden’ meant cultivated flower beds laid out with ornamental lakes, ditches and canals.

The Dutch country house garden, however, was understood from the outset as an exercise in overcoming hostile elements. Gardens cultivated by leading Dutch figures such as the influential statesmen Sir Constantijn Huygens and Hans Willem Bentinck were bold public statements of a characteristically Dutch determination to secure and maintain a fertile, cultivated land in the face of sand, high winds and, above all, the threat of encroaching salt water.

A leading historian of 17th-century Dutch horticulture has characterised the early development of the gardens of William III’s grandfather, Frederik Hendrik at his palace at Honselaarsdijk as “a constant struggle with water”.

This was not simply a matter of plants and trees failing to flourish in waterlogged or marshy locations. Their proximity to the sea meant there was a danger of the even more devastating effects of sea water on trees’ roots – the merest suspicion of salt could prevent delicate saplings from thriving.

The royal accounts record repeated expenditure on digging additional drainage channels and sewers in an effort to control the flow of “redundant water which spoils the trees”.

Trading insults: how Dutch has crept into the English language

The Netherlands hasn’t just left its mark on Britain’s gardens, but also on its language. English is littered with expressions that suggest a familiarity with all-things Dutch – and most are disparaging:

→ Going Dutch – splitting the cost

→ Dutch courage – drink-induced bravery

→ Dutch comfort – solace provided by alcohol

→ Dutch leave – absence without official permission

→ Dutch uncle – a candid critic

→ Dutch wif– a large bolster

→ Double Dutch – incomprehensible use of language

→ I'm a Dutchman! – an expression of incredulity

Modern English also boasts a number of expressions that describe objects or activities historically modelled on Dutch examples:

→ Dutch auction – one in which the bid decreases as the auction proceeds

→ Dutch cap – women’s lace-edged cotton hat, with turned-back sides

→ Dutch oven – a dome-shaped baking oven

→ Dutch sauce – egg-based Hollandaise

→ Dutch doll – a jointed wooden doll

→ Dutch pink – a yellow lake pigment

→Dutch gable – a stepped gable on a house

→Dutch tile – a glazed ceramic tile

The Cockney phrase for a wife – ‘my old Dutch’ – is probably a contraction of Duchess. The origin of ‘Dutch cap’, meaning a diaphragm vaginal contraceptive, is anybody’s guess.

Lisa Jardine CBE is director of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at Queen Mary, University of London. She is a regular writer and presenter of BBC Radio 4's A Point of View. Her book Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland's Glory is published by HarperPress

BOOKS Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland's Glory by Lisa Jardine (Harper Press, April 2008); Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine and Science in the Dutch Golden Age by HJ Cook (Yale University Press, 2007); Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age by A Goldgar (University of Chicago Press, 2007)

On the podcast Lisa Jardine asks to what extent the English establishment welcomed 1688’s ‘Glorious Revolution’.


This article was first published in the April 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine