After the fall of the Napoleonic Empire, William Frederick, prince of Orange, was invited to rule the country. He was the son of the previous stadholder, William V.
Sunday morning, 21 November 1813, marks a crucial moment in Dutch history. On behalf of the prince of Orange – then living in England – a provisional government was created to reassume power from the French. This ‘Hoog Bewind’ consisted of Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp, Frans Adam van der Duyn van Maasdam and Count Leopold of Limburg Stirum, and convened in the home of the plan’s initiator, Van Hogendorp, on the Kneuterdijk in The Hague. The triumvirate, as the gentlemen were called, did not have to wait long for the prince. After eighteen years in exile, on 30 November 1813 he once again set foot on Dutch soil. His installation as ‘sovereign prince’ took place in Amsterdam a few days later.
In the wake of the French defeat, the leaders of Europe decided to divide up the continent once more. In this process the Northern and the Southern Netherlands were consolidated. Thus combined, the two small countries could form a buffer against France. The Kingdom of the Netherlands became a reality in 1815. William I, who had been granted great powers in the constitution of 1814, promptly declared himself its king. While he did not tolerate opposition, operating as an absolute monarch, he was not averse to hard work. The French had left the country in a ruinous state. The king took great efforts to get the economy going again; he toiled tirelessly and even invested in it personally. The South had to produce, the North had to conduct trade, and the colonies had to provide luxury goods.
Napoleon ruled over France one more time after returning from the island of Elba where he had been living in exile. He was back in France in March 1815. The army sided with him, and King Louis XVIII was forced to seek refuge elsewhere. The European Great Powers were unwilling to wait and see what would happen, and resolved to stop Napoleon once and for all. The English, Dutch, Prussians, Austrians and Russians despatched armies to the French borders. The attack was planned for early July.
However, Napoleon was one step ahead of them; on 15 June the French army invaded Belgium and assaulted the Prussian army. The French dealt the Prussians a heavy blow. The French troops then marched on Brussels. They were stopped at the hamlet of Quatre-Bras by Dutch forces under the command of the prince of Orange, King William I’s eldest son.
This decisive battle was fought on Sunday, 18 June 1815. The English commander, the duke of Wellington, had taken a position on a ridge near the village of Waterloo, south of Brussels. The Prussian army had retreated eastwards after its defeat two days earlier, pursued by a part of the French army. Napoleon launched his attack on the Anglo-Dutch army at Waterloo at one o’clock in the afternoon, and by the evening seemed almost sure of victory. But the tide turned with the arrival of the Prussians at Waterloo. After shaking off the French, they had marched straight to the battlefield, sealing Napoleon’s fate. This battle has become proverbial for total defeat: ‘he has met his Waterloo.’
The Battle of Waterloo is the largest painting in the Rijksmuseum. It is not actually a depiction of the battle itself, but rather a group portrait centred around the duke of Wellington on horseback, with the wounded prince of Orange on a stretcher off to the left. The prince was so proud of his part in the battle that he continued to sleep on an iron camp bed for many years. He received this painting as a present from his father, King William I.