William I (Netherlands)

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William I (1772-1843) was King of the Netherlands, 1813-1840. He promoted economic development but alienated the south, which broke away in 1831 to form Belgium. He abdicated in 1840 and was succeeded by his son William II


He was born at The Hague on Aug. 24, 1772, the son of William V, the last stadholder. William I was in exile, following the flight of his father in 1795 to 1813, after the fall of Napoleon. In 1813 he returned to the Netherlands, and was proclaimed prince sovereign. In 1815, by power of the Congress of Vienna, he became king of the United Netherlands, which consisted of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.


William I actively promoted economic modernization. His position as monarch was ambivalent, however; his sovereignty remained real, but his authority was shared with a legislature elected by the wealthy citizens under a constitution granted by the king. Government was in the hands of ministries of state. The old provinces were reestablished in name only. The government was now fundamentally unitary, and all authority flowed from the center. Economic liberalism combined with moderate monarchical authoritarianism to accelerate the adaptation of the Netherlands to the new conditions of the 19th century. The country prospered until a crisis arose in relations with the southern provinces.

Revolt of Belgium

William's policies were increasingly unpopular in the south. The French-speaking Walloons strenuously rejected his attempt to make Dutch the universal language of government. Flemings in the south spoke a Dutch dialect (Flemish) and welcomed the encouragement of Dutch with a revival of literature and popular culture. Other Flemings, notably the educated bourgeoisie, preferred to speak French. Although Catholics possessed legal equality, after centuries as the state church in the south, they resented their subordination to a government that was fundamentally Protestant in spirit and membership. Few Catholics held high office in state or army. Political liberals in the south complained as well about the king's authoritarian methods. All southerners complained of underrepresentation in the national legislature. Although the south was industrializing and was more prosperous than the north the accumulated grievances allowed the multiple opposition forces to coalesce. The outbreak of revolution in France in 1830 was a signal for action, at first on behalf of autonomy for Belgium, as the southern provinces were now called, and later on behalf of total independence. William dithered and his half-hearted efforts to reconquer Belgium were thwarted both by the efforts of the Belgians themselves and by the diplomatic opposition of the great powers.

At the the London Conference of 1830–31, the chief powers of Europe ordered (in November, 1830) an armistice between the Dutch and the Belgians. The first draft for a treaty of separation of Belgium and the Netherlands was rejected by the Belgians. A second draft (June, 1831) was rejected by William I, who resumed hostilities. Franco-British intervention forced William to withdraw Dutch forces from Belgium late in 1831, and in 1833 an armistice of indefinite duration was concluded. Belgium was effectively independent but William’s attempts to recover Luxembourg and Limburg led to renewed tension. The London Conference of 1838–39 prepared the final Dutch-Belgian separation treaty of 1839 and divided Luxembourg and Limburg between the Dutch and Belgian crowns. The Kingdom of the Netherlands thereafter was made up of only the 11 northern provinces.

William abdicated in 1840 and spent his last years in retirement at his private estate in Silesia, where he died in 1843.

See also