If you have ever read Alexander Dumas père’s last great novel, The Black Tulip, you will know that the frame upon which he hangs his novel* is the story of the brothers Johan and Cornelius de Witt. I had no idea that they were real people – they meet a particularly gruesome end at the hands of a raging mob in The Hague – but they are, and Dumas neatly creates his story around their final days.
Johan de Witt was, in the early 1670s, the Dutch Grand Pensionary who had previously presided over the passing of legislation ending the hereditary office of Stadhouder, or president. The heir to that title was William of Orange (later William III of England) who argued bitterly for its reinstatement, but Johan de Witt refused.
Cornelius was inspector of dikes, an extremely important post in a country which is predominantly under sea level. He was accused of conspiring to assassinate William to remove the threat to his brother’s position, which was something of a trumped up charge; his accuser, a butcher, was apparently paid to denounce him. Cornelius was tortured but refused to confess to a crime that he didn’t commit. Finally, the magistrates sentenced the brothers to exile, reluctant to convict Cornelius of a crime they had no evidence for and to which he wouldn’t admit.
Sadly, the populace of The Hague found this sentence unsatisfactory. When the brothers were being removed to exile, the town gates were barred and the pair were lynched by an angry mob. William was reinstated as Stadhouder and eventually succeeded to the throne of Britain, through his descent from Charles II.
It’s a terrifying story, but what a wonderful start to an adventure novel.
* This is how the Introduction put it, but it’s very true