Royalist Republicans in the United Provinces

Royalist Republic
The cover of an excellent book.

I have just finished reading Helmer Helmers’ The Royalist Republic (CUP, 2015), which offers a profound challenge to received views of Anglo-Dutch relations during the seventeenth century, in particular the idea ‘still influential among non-specialists – that Dutch republicanism somehow separated Dutch political culture from the kingdoms surrounding it.’ (262)

In his book, Helmers explores the shared literary culture of what he calls the ‘Anglo-Scoto-Dutch public sphere’ during the English Civil War and Interregnum period to show the extent to which early modern English works were read in the United Provinces, while English readers were also familiar with the literary output of the Dutch republic. (24)

This republic meanwhile, according to Helmers, was less straightforwardly republican than is commonly assumed. In fact, he points out that during and after the conflict between Charles I and his Parliament, a considerable part of the Dutch population could be considered as royalists both for political and religious reasons.

However, Helmers dismisses as simplistic Steve Pincus’ equation of the Stuart with the Orangist cause. He shows ‘a structural asymmetry between the political and the religious Anglo-Dutch identities’ and argues that we have to differentiate further to understand the full extent of support for the English monarchy across the Channel. (9)

In terms of religion, ‘Dutch Contra-Remonstrants, Scottish Covenanters, and English Presbyterians cooperated in a propaganda campaign in the Dutch Republic aimed at representing the First Civil War as a battle against “Arminians” who were jeopardising the entire Reformation.’ Prominent Remonstrants, including Hugo Grotius, meanwhile, were ‘defenders of episcopacy and the Church of England.’ (8)

In political terms, Dutch Contra-Remonstrants might have gravitated towards the Prince of Orange in the domestic sphere, but supported the English Parliament during the First Civil War. (9) ‘When these Reformed came round to the Stuart/Orange point of view during the Second Civil War, their support of the restoration of Charles II was difficult to reconcile with their religious views.’ (10)

English Independents, meanwhile, with their preference for a loose congregationalist organisation, had no strong lobby in the United Provinces or elsewhere in Europe and were often viewed with suspicion as disruptive of order.

Besides, it was the Independents in England who had tried and executed the King in an act of violence that had shocked an entire Continent and left the regicides pariahs in Europe. Not just Dutch Catholics, but also Remonstrants and moderate Counter-Remonstrants would thus come to support English royalism, leaving relations between the two trading republics bordering the North Sea in a fragile state.

Helmers illustrates his argument with numerous examples from contemporary pamphlet literature, analysing newsbooks and topical satire as well as poems and plays alongside visual sources.

Particularly intriguing for non-specialists in the field might be the great impact in the United Provinces of the Eikon Basilike and the related cult of King Charles the martyr, while Helmers also points out interesting parallels between Dutch and English depictions of Oliver Cromwell as devil, or of Charles II as either the biblical King David or Samson – images that resembled each other on both sides of the Channel because the United Provinces and England formed one transnational public sphere.

Dutch interest in Charles II, however, quickly subsided after the Restoration when it became clear that he would neither revoke the resented Navigation Act so detrimental to Dutch trade nor offer substantial support to the Prince of Orange. Thus, the Dutch Republic, according to Helmers, could become a ‘counter-sphere’ where ‘fleeing regicides found refuge’. (264)

For someone like me, interested in the transnational networks of English republicans after the Restoration of the Stuarts, this book is a great asset providing important background on the alliances forged between enemies of the English monarchy abroad. It also points ahead to the complex publishing networks that would allow English opposition literature to be printed and distributed on the Continent.

Most of all, however, I see this book as confirmation that the historiography of seventeenth-century England can only gain by abandoning its still lingering anglocentrism for truly transnational and European approaches.



Helmer J. Helmers, The Royalist Republic: Literature, Politics, and Religion in the Anglo-Dutch Public Sphere, 1639-1660(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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