In 1672 the Dutch Republic was at war with England and France. Many thought that Johan de Witt, the ‘Grand Pensionary’ – in effect, prime minister – of the republic had failed, and wanted strong leadership from the young Prince of Orange: Willem III, later William III of England.
The House of Orange was the nearest the republic had to royalty, while de Witt and his supporters – including many among the powerful merchant class – were republicans.
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An unsuccessful attempt was made on de Witt’s life, and his brother, Cornelis, was arrested on trumped-up charges of plotting to assassinate Willem. It was while visiting his brother in prison that de Witt was eventually killed, on 20 August, by a mob that had gathered outside – both brothers were hanged and mutilated. Willem’s complicity in this is unclear, though he failed to prosecute the mob’s ringleaders. There are accounts of some among the mob taking parts of the bodies, and eating them. One man is even said to have eaten an eyeball. Although the stories may have been exaggerated, people did often take ‘souvenirs’ of executions, such as those who dipped handkerchiefs in the blood of King Charles I.
The savage murder of a man that history has judged a highly competent leader is regarded by the Dutch as one of the most shameful episodes in their history.
Answered by Eugene Byrne, author and journalist for BBC History Magazine in November 2013.