Early in 1672, France, England and the German bishoprics of Munster and Cologne declared war on the Republic. The country was attacked from all sides. Panic broke out and many feared total defeat.

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Expansion plans of the Sun King

Louis XIV crossing the Rhine at Lobith, 12 June 1672. Adam Frans van der Meulen, c. 1672-1690

The French king Louis XIV aimed, along with the English, to reduce the mighty Dutch Republic to a second-rate power. They planned to attack the Republic by land and sea. This was a condition of the 1670 Treaty of Dover. The bishoprics of Munster and Cologne were a necessary logistical addition. In April 1672, Louis declared war on the Republic. He advanced around the Southern Netherlands, then still under Spanish rule. Marching through the territory of Cologne, he proceeded along the Rhine and in June he crossed the river. The French progress was rapid: Overijssel, Gelderland and Utrecht were occupied. At the last minute, the French were stopped when the Dutch opened the dykes and inundated the land at the border of Holland province. This was the famous waterline.

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Gruesome

Allegory of the French invasion of the Netherlands in 1672. Johannes van Wijckersloot, 1672

The mutilated bodies of the De Witt brothers, hanging at Groene Zoodje in The Hague, 1672. Attributed to Jan de Baen, c. 1672

While the central provinces were occupied by French troops, soldiers from Munster and Cologne held the east and north. None of these were particularly friendly. In the west, panic reigned. The ruling elite took the blame and the mob demanded the restoration of the House of Orange (since 1650, apart from in Friesland, there had been no stadholder).
In August 1672, the 22-year-old prince of Orange, William III, was appointed. Opponents of the House of Orange, Grand Pensionary Johan de Witt, who had led the regime until then, and his brother Cornelis, also opposed to the Oranges, were treated brutally. An angry mob found and lynched the brothers and mutilated their bodies. Because of the wars and the lynching, 1672 became known as the disaster year.

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Victory at Sea

Battle of Kijkduin, 21 August 1673. Willem van de Velde II, c. 1675

When hostilities started in the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674), the Republic had to rely on its navy for victory. Unlike the army, the Dutch had maintained their strength at sea, although they were not at full capacity. It was Admiral Michiel de Ruyter who reigned supreme. He managed to inflict considerable damage on the combined Anglo-French fleet. The Battle of Kijkduin in 1673 (at the tip of North Holland) was the final encounter. Yet again, De Ruyter managed to prevent enemy troops from landing. The heavily mauled Anglo-French fleet was forced to withdraw.

Meanwhile, Stadholder William III had succeeded in assembling a considerable army. He expelled the remaining enemy troops from Dutch soil and so prepared the way for peace negotiations. All the combatants agreed to the peace, yet in retrospect the war represented the start of a steady decline for the Dutch Republic. The country’s domination of the European economy and politics now came to an end.

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Main players of the disaster year

Prince William III as Mars. Romeyn de Hooghe, 1672

King Louis XIV as a lion. Romeyn de Hooghe, 1672

King Charles II as a tiger. Romeyn de Hooghe, 1672

Archbishop of Cologne as a donkey. Romeyn de Hooghe, 1672

The De Witt brothers as a fox and a wolf. Romeyn de Hooghe, 1672

Bishop of Munster as a pig. Romeyn de Hooghe, 1672]

Turn each of these portraits round and an animal appears that depicts the true nature of the subject. The star of the show is the celebrated William III: he turns into the god of war, Mars. His opponent, Louis XIV, is a lion, paying out cash to obtain allies. Charles II of England is shown as a changeable tiger. The bishop of Munster appears as a greedy pig, while the elector of Cologne is a stupid donkey. Finally, the De Witt brothers appear as a smart fox and an evil wolf. These cartoons were drawn by Romeyn de Hooghe, who showed his sympathy here for the stadholder and against the De Witt brothers.