That time the Dutch ate their prime minister

The Dutch may seem civilized now, but anyone with some knowledge of European history knows that was not the case in the past. 

Europe, including the Netherlands, was not an easy place to live in back in the day, as it was filled with wars, conflicts, and assassinations and was, in general, a complete geopolitical mess. One story from the past that best exemplifies this is the tragic story of Johan de Witt.

Historical background

Back in 1672, the Netherlands, which was at the time known as the Dutch Republic, was engaged in war with England and France. Johan de Witt was the prime minister of the country during this period. Many of the Dutch Republic inhabitants were disappointed with his leadership and wanted the famous William III of the House of Orange-Nassau to take control. The year is also known as the disaster year in Dutch history or Rampjaar.

Johan de Witt in better days. Image: Adriaene Hanneman/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

The House of Orange was at the time the closest thing the Republic had to a royal family. On the other hand, Johan de Witt, alongside a strong and wealthy merchant class, represented republican interests. With the pressures of the attacks from the French and English forces, the Dutch were undeniably in a stressful position.

The (violent) downfall of Johan de Witt

On June 21 of the same year, an assassin stabbed De Witt, hurting him gravely. De Witt then resigned from his leadership position, but that was not enough for the people conspiring against him. His brother Cornelius was arrested for treason, taken to a prison in The Hague (which is now a museum — more on that later), and tortured.

As it was the custom at the time, torture was just a normal part of being in prison, used to extract a confession. Sure, it didn’t really matter if the confession was true or not — as long as the person confessed, the torture was justified.

Cornelius, being a strong lad and also not really conspiring against his own brother, refused to confess. He was sentenced, however, to exile. Johan went to the prison to help out his brother to prepare for the trip. As they both departed, they got captured by a militant mob, which shot both of them, and then left them to the crowds.

The crowds did what crowds do best, namely lose all semblance of sense or sanity. The two brothers were stripped naked, mutilated, and according to some reports, had their livers removed and eaten. “C’est la vie, c’est la guerre,” as the French say.

Murder of the Witt brothers. Image: Hague Historical Museum/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

It’s important to note that back in the days of public lynchings, crowds always liked to pick a souvenir. Maybe pop some teeth off and put them in your pockets, or perhaps a finger or two. Heck, why not be a legend and take the whole arm? Sure, eating the liver sounds a bit intense, but hey, war makes people do desperate things.

It’s unknown whether William III of Orange was involved in the assassination or not. Whatever the case, he wasn’t the one eaten by a crowd, so for him, it must have been an overall success.

The prison museum in The Hague. Image: Ellywa/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

In any case, nowadays, curious visitors can go to the prison where Cornelius was tortured. It’s called Gevangenpoort, and it’s now a museum in The Hague. Part of it is dedicated to its glorious prison days and part of it acts as a refurbished art gallery. It is situated right next to the square where both the brothers were killed, and you can even find a commemorative statue of Johan de Witt there, in a more dignified state than in his last moments.

Have you heard of this classic historical Dutch story before? Let us know in the comments!

Feature Image: Hague Historical Museum/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in August 2020, and was fully updated in April 2021 for your reading pleasure. 

Vlad Moca-Grama
Vlad was born and raised in Brasov, Romania and came to the Hague to study. When he isn't spending time missing mountains or complaining about the lack of urban exploration locations in the Netherlands, you can find him writing at Dutch Review.

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  1. I’ve never heard that story before, but that’s probably because I’m a Western Australian. I do know a lot more about the earlier connections this part of the world has with the Dutch through historical figures such as Willem de Vlamingh and Dirk Hartog and, of course, the infamous Batavia mutiny. It’s a bit odd that children on our west coast are taught about the early Dutch explorers whereas kids from the east all think Captain Cook discovered Australia!

    • Hey null, Thank you so much for pointing it out! We actually do mean William of Orange. But William III of Orange and not the original Willem van Oranje who defeated the Spanish. We adjusted the article to make it a bit more clear 🙂


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