The Correspondence of Johan de Witt

Primary Contributors:

Ineke Huysman, Huygens ING

Johan de Witt, based on a portrait by Jan de Baen, c. 1660–1700 (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, ID SK-A-13; Creative Commons license: CC0 1.0)

Johan de Witt (1625–1672)

Johan de Witt was born in Dordrecht on 24 September 1625, the son of Jacob de Witt (1589–1674) and Anna van den Corput (1599–1645), and the brother of Cornelis de Witt (1623–1672). After attending the Latin school in Dordrecht, he studied law at Leiden University and received a doctorate in law in France, before practising law from 1647 in The Hague. In 1650 he became Pensionary of Dordrecht and in 1653 he was elected Grand Pensionary [raadpensionaris] of Holland. As Grand Pensionary Johan de Witt was the highest-ranking official of the province of Holland, as well as chairman of the States of Holland and West-Friesland and the leading member of Holland’s delegation in the States-General. Johan de Witt was responsible for both domestic and foreign policy, and thus was effectively the most influential person in the Republic for almost twenty years. Johan married Wendela Bicker (1635–1668) in 1655 and the couple had eight children, three of whom died at a young age.

As Grand Pensionary Johan de Witt wrote and received an extraordinarily large number of letters. In consequence, his correspondence is particularly varied and includes letters from statesmen, foreign office-bearers, army commanders, scientists, artists, and family members, as well as countless requests for a recommendation from a diverse range of individuals. Most of the surviving letters date from between 1653 and 1672, while a smaller number of letters belong to the period before 1653. In 1672, when the Dutch Republic suffered numerous defeats as French forces invaded the country, De Witt was blamed for neglect of the army. In the hysteria that followed, Johan and his brother Cornelis were lynched by a mob. On 23 August 1672, three days after their murder, it was decided at the meeting of the States of Holland and West-Friesland that De Witt’s papers should be confiscated. Because of the horrific event and the immediate seizure of the paper legacy of Johan de Witt, the National Archives of the Netherlands (Nationaal Archief) now holds an almost complete archive of the documents of the Grand Pensionary.

Until recently, the letters of Johan de Witt have received little attention, largely as a result of the inaccessibility of the archive. However, with the creation by the National Archive of a new inventory and the provision of full access for research, the Huygens ING began a project in 2016, led by Ineke Huysman, to make the correspondence of Johan de Witt available online. When complete, this digital inventory, which is in the process of being collated in EMLO, will contain not only the letters that have been published previously in the six-part source edition of R. Fruin, N. Japikse, and G.W. Kernkamp (Brieven aan en Brieven van Johan de Witt (1906–1919)) and in the so called ‘Scheurleer’ publication — an eighteenth-century six-volume edition with diplomatic letters from De Witt to and from envoys in England, France, Denmark, Poland, and Sweden — but also the hitherto unpublished letters from the archive.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The metadata for this catalogue in EMLO is being provided by the Huygens ING under the direction of researcher Dr Ineke Huysman. Huygens ING has started digitizing the documents in cooperation with the National Archives of the Netherlands (Nationaal Archief) in The Hague, where most of the manuscripts are preserved (National Archive: inventory Raadpensionaris De Witt, 3.01.17).

Thanks are due to the members of the Johan de Witt project: Eline Buitenhuis, Robert de Best, Geeske Bisschop, Marieke van Egeraat, Xandra Geervliet, Janneke Groen, Jaap de Haan, Floor Hoekstra, Ineke Huysman, Marinka Joosten, Tom Kreischer, Hanna de Lange, Lidewij Nissen, Roosje Peeters, Milo van de Pol, Jean-Marc van Tol, Matthijs Ultee, Ingmar Vroomen, and Jurriaan Wink. The catalogue has been prepared for publication as a part of a collaboration with Early Modern Letter Online [EMLO] and Cultures of Knowledge.


At present, the catalogue contains metadata for 6,999 letters — about twenty per cent of De Witt’s entire correspondence — written mainly in Dutch, French, English, and Latin. These letters, dating between 1649 and 1672, were sent to Johan de Witt by a wide range of individuals, the majority of whom were engaged in diplomatic activity. In the process of digitizing the diplomatic correspondence to De Witt, it has become evident how well informed the Grand Pensionary was with regard to events and activities that took place in the international and public spheres as well as those behind the scenes. About 4,000 of these 7,000 letters have never been published before and the majority of these letters contain intelligence from Germany, Poland, the Spanish Netherlands, and Spain and Portugal. Metadata for letters from secretaries and other members of staff who worked for the official envoys to England, France, Poland, Sweden, and Denmark have been collated. The 3,000 previously published letters are included in the inventory, and links to the digitized editions have been provided. The number of letters brought together in the catalogue at present that relate directly to England is approximately 2,200 and, of these, the texts of only half have been published before.

All the letter records provide links to digitized copies of the original documents. Furthermore, many records contain links to more than one manifestation, and these include links to digitized editions or to the metadata of other printed editions, as well as links to the online catalogue at the National Archive in The Hague. It should be noted that the manuscript images available at present are provisional. As the project was not able to produce high-quality images in time for the launch of the catalogue, the decision was taken to include lower-quality images in the first instance in order to provide users with access to the manuscripts sooner rather than later; in due course, these preliminary images will be replaced by official high-quality versions.

Letter from Charles Stuart II to Johan de Witt, 4 September 1660 (National Archive, The Hague, Archive Raadpensionaris De Witt, 3.01.17, 2450)

Scope of Catalogue

The Johan de Witt archive covers 37.4 meters of shelving at the National Archive in The Hague. An estimate indicates that the total number of letters addressed to or sent by De Witt will amount to approximately 35,000. These may be divided roughly into four categories:

— Letters from Johan de Witt (originals, drafts): c. 6,000 letters (to be published);
— Letters from regents and institutions sent to De Witt: c. 13,000 letters (to be published);
— Diplomatic letters sent to De Witt: c. 7,000 letters (available online);
— Letters from private persons sent to De Witt: c. 9,000 letters (to be published).

The main criterion for admission to this De Witt catalogue is that the letter was addressed to or written by Johan de Witt. Letters addressed to the States of Holland, of which there are tens of thousands in De Witt’s archive, are not included. However, the letters addressed to De Witt personally usually contain more information than the letters sent simultaneously to the States of Holland.

Further resources

Selected Print Editions

Fruin, R., G. W. Kernkamp, and N. Japikse, ed., De Brieven aan en Brieven van Johan de Witt, 6 vols (Amsterdam, 1906–1919).

Scheurleer, H., ed., Brieven, geschreven ende gewisselt tusschen den Heer Johan de Witt […] raeckende de negociatiën van de heeren C. Boreel en C. van Beuningen, in Vranckrijck (part 1) (The Hague, 1723).

Scheurleer, H., ed., Brieven, geschreven ende gewisselt tusschen den Heer Johan de Witt […] sijnde de verdere negociatiën van den heer C. van Beuningen, in Vranckrijk, ende die van den heer P. de Groot, in Sweden (part 2) (The Hague, 1723).

Scheurleer, H., ed., Brieven, geschreven ende gewisselt tusschen den Heer Johan de Witt […] behelsende de negociatiën van den heer W. Nieupoort, in Engelandt (part 3) (The Hague, 1724).

Scheurleer, H., ed., Brieven, geschreven ende gewisselt tusschen den Heer Johan de Witt […] behelsende de negociatiën van de heeren L. de Nassau, S. van Hoorn, M. van Gogh, J. Meerman en J. Boreel, in Engelandt, 1 juli 1660-27 december 1669 (part 4) (The Hague, 1724).

Scheurleer, H., ed., Brieven, geschreven ende gewisselt tusschen den Heer Johan de Witt […] behelsende de negociatiën van de heeren C. van Beuningen, N. Kaiser, G. van Slingelandt, P. Vogelsangh, en F. van Dorp, in Sweden, Denemarcken ende in Poolen (part 5) (The Hague, 1725).

Scheurleer, H., ed., Brieven, geschreven ende gewisselt tusschen den Heer Johan de Witt […] behelsende de negociatiën van de heeren G. van Slingelandt, P. Vogelsangh, P. de Hubert, W. van Haeren, I. van den Honert, J. IJsbrandts, N. Heyns, G. van Reede van Ameronge, in Sweden, in Denemarcken ende in Poolen, (part 6) (The Hague, 1725).


Selected Bibliography

Israel, J., The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477–1806 (Oxford, 1995).

Panhuysen, L., De ware vrijheid: de levens van Johan en Cornelis de Witt (Amsterdam, 2005).

Rowen, H., John de Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland, 1625–1672 (Princeton, 1978).

For additional bibliographical information, see the page at the Huygens ING and the entry in Wikipedia.


Additional resources

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