The Quest for a Perfect Stadtholderian Bride
In 1648, the Dutch count Willem Frederik of Nassau-Dietz sent one of his courtiers to France in order to find him a bride. In the instructions for his courtier, he explained that it was about time for him to get married, since marriage was part of human life. After all, the primary task of mankind in general and dynasties in particular was to reproduce.[i] A marriage was the way to achieve that desired reproduction, Willem Frederik believed.
Willem Frederik’s instructions point at the crucial position of women in the network of early modern European dynasties. Without them dynasties would not survive. Women’s contribution to the continuation of dynasties was, however, not limited to giving birth to a new generation. They also contributed in other ways, for example as educators of princely children, as mediators between two or more dynasties or as protectors of the good reputation of a dynasty.
Princesses in the Dutch Republic
Willem Frederik was not only the count of Nassau-Dietz, but he also held the office of stadtholder in several provinces in the Dutch Republic. The stadtholderian office was one of the most important and high-ranking offices in the United Provinces. Even though this prominent position was non-inheritable, scions of cadet branches of the Nassau dynasty had held it ever since the foundation of the Dutch Republic in the second half of the sixteenth century. The members of the ‘Dutch’ Nassau branches thus held a peculiar position in the European society of princes, as they were not kings but rather servants of the state institutions in the United Provinces.[ii]
In my PhD project, I investigate how female consorts contributed to the consolidation of the position of the Nassau dynasty in the non-monarchical setting of the Dutch Republic.[iii] What was expected of the wife of the stadtholder and how did she help to safeguard the office for future generations of the dynasty? The four princesses that are part of my project are: Sophie Hedwig of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (1592-1642), Amalia of Solms (1602-1675), Mary Henrietta Stuart (1631-1660), and Albertine Agnes of Orange-Nassau (1634-1696). These women became part of the Nassau dynasty through marriage and moved from one country or region to another to join their husbands in the Dutch Republic. After their wedding the princesses assisted their husbands in their duties as both stadtholders in the Dutch Republic and noblemen in the European society of princes. ‘Stadtholderian consort’ was not a formal political office in the Dutch Republic and can therefore be compared to the office of ‘first lady’ in presidential systems. Yet, unlike modern-day first ladies, the stadtholderian consorts were not mainly focused on supporting their husbands, but also on facilitating that their eldest son succeeded his father in the role of stadtholder. They wanted their marital family to be a prestigious noble ánd an influential stadtholderian dynasty.
Because no clear-cut instructions for the women have survived, I need to reconstruct their duties & activities through a wide range of sources. Many of these sources are kept in the family archive of the royal family of the Netherlands (Royal Collections The Netherlands).[iv] This also goes for the instructions Willem Frederik gave to his courtier whom he sent to France to find him a bride.[v]
A bride with a beautiful soul … and a lot of money
Willem Frederik’s instructions consisted of no less than 27 articles.[vi] For a large part, these concerned the practical and financial aspects of a potential marriage. After all, a dynastic marriage was also a complicated financial transaction, with money being exchanged in the form of a dowry and agreements being made about the financial support of the princess. The instructions already elaborated upon diverse scenarios, for example the scenario in which the bride survived Willem Frederik without them having produced any offspring. These scenarios would all be discussed by delegates of the Nassau dynasty and the bride’s dynasty in the negotiations preceding the drawing up of a marriage contract.
But the instructions also demonstrate that Willem Frederik did not want to take any chances regarding his future spouse. Before starting the negotiations, Willem Frederik’s courtier had to thoroughly examine the potential bride’s character, lifestyle, and body. The first articles of the negotiations show Willem Frederik’s priorities: he asks his courtier to send him a portrait of the potential bride. This had to be a realistic portrait, ‘[…] without giving her a lustre that is not really there’.[vii] He did not seek a perfect appearance; he would contend himself with a ‘mediocre beauty’ as long as the princess was virtuous – he was primarily looking for ‘beauty of the soul’. This had its limits: he was not looking for a bride who was ‘[…] disfigured, humpbacked, cross-eyed or blind in one eye’.[viii]
The courtier went to France to find out if one woman in particular met Willem Frederik’s expectations of a bride. It concerned, according to the instructions, the eldest daughter of the Marquis de la Force.[ix] This woman had drawn his attention, because she could make a considerable contribution to Willem Frederik’s fortune.[x] The Frisian Count also explicitly stipulated that he wanted her parents to make her their heiress. This way, the fortune of the Marquis’ family could be eventually added to the fortune of the Nassau-Dietz dynasty. Moreover, this would give Willem Frederik and his family the opportunity to get a foothold in France. Although the order of the instructions suggests that Willem Frederik was dreaming of a bride with a beautiful soul, it is safe to assume that the money, domains, prestige, and connections she brought along were at least just as important as her body and soul.
Did Willem Frederik manage to find and marry his ideal bride? He never married De la Force, even though his instructions to arrange the marriage were already quite detailed.[xi] Instead of a French bride, Willem Frederik married a Dutch princess, Albertine Agnes of Orange-Nassau. She would prove to be an asset to the Nassau-Dietz dynasty, not only because she gave birth to an heir. She would temporarily take over Willem Frederik’s duties as a stadtholder after his untimely death in 1664. She helped her marital dynasty to survive a politically challenging period.[xii] As such, she is one of the many examples that demonstrate that dynastic marriages and the activities of high-ranking women have shaped the political history of early modern Europe.
By Lidewij Nissen, Radboud University, The Netherlands.
Lidewij is a PhD candidate at the Radboud Institute for Culture & History of the Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. She is interested in the history of European dynasties, noble families and princely courts in the early modern period. Her PhD project studies the activities and responsibilities of the female consorts of the stadtholders in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic.
[i] These instructions can be found in: Koninklijke Verzamelingen (KV)/Royal Collections The Netherlands, The Hague, A25 Archive of Willem Frederik of Nassau-Dietz, nr. 133 Instructions for the court steward, without date.
[ii] See also: Olaf Mörke, ‘Stadtholder’ oder ‘Staetholder’? Die Funktion des Hauses Oranien und seines Hofes in der politischen Kultur der Republik der Vereinigten Niederlande im 17. Jahrhundert (Münster: Lit, 1997).
[iii] My project is funded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and is carried out under the title ‘The ‘First Ladies’ of the Dutch Republic: The Political Agency of the Stadtholders’ Wives in the Seventeenth Century’ (project number PGW.18.023).
[iv] The correspondence of the seventeenth-century stadtholderian consorts has been digitised in a project of Huygens Institute in cooperation with the Royal Collections The Netherlands, Early Modern Letters Online and the associated Women’s Early Modern Letters Online. As a result, the letters can be accessed online. See: http://emlo-portal.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/collections/?page_id=2756.
[v] KV, The Hague, A25, nr. 133.
[vi] Willem Frederik’s instructions and his quest for a bride are also discussed in: Luuc Kooijmans, Liefde in opdracht. Het hofleven van Willem Frederik van Nassau (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, 2000). See pp. 125-127 and pp. 166-169 for more about the instructions.
[vii] ‘sans […] lui donner le lustre qui ne se treuve point’. KV, The Hague, A25, nr. 133.
[viii] ‘[…] qu’elle n’est pas desfigurée du corps, bossue, louche ou borgne […]’. KV, The Hague, A25, nr. 133.
[ix] The instructions mention the name of Anne de la Force. It is rather difficult to find out precisely which woman it concerned.
[x] It was also important that the De la Force family was a Huguenot family. The House of Nassau had already entered into several marriage alliances with Huguenot families.
[xi] He had even mapped out the possible routes his potential bride could take from France to the United Provinces.
[xii] See also: Sunny Jansen, De vrouw die Friesland redde. Albertine Agnes en het Rampjaar 1672 (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Balans, 2022).