The Prime Minister Who Got Eaten By His People

You know what they say about pursuing a career in politics. It is a vocation fraught with hazards. The public is so fickle and can love you one day, only to chew you up and spit you out the next.

If only Johan de Witt had heeded that warning.

If only he had realized that the part about getting chewed up wasn’t figurative.

Johan de Witt

1672 was not the best of years for the Dutch Republic. It was at war with England and France, and many blamed its leader, Johan de Witt, for the country’s problems. Bearing the title “Grand Pensionary,” de Witt sounds like the chairman of the Tea and Crumpets Committee at the nursing home. He was, however, the equivalent of the republic’s prime minister.

De Witt had governed for nearly 20 years, and folks decided it was time for a change. Many favored the young Prince of Orange Willem III, who would later be King William III of England. De Witt and his supporters were opposed to royal rule, however, and stood in the way of Willem’s ascension.

An assassin tried to take De Witt out of the picture on June 21. His brother Cornelis was charged with bogus accusations of treason and ordered to be exiled from the country. Clearly, the De Witt family was not going to establish a thriving political dynasty.

Johan lived a short distance from the prison where his brother was being held. On August 20, he paid a visit to Cornelis to help him plan for his exile. Having both of the De Witt boys in one place was too tempting of a target for their political opponents.

Johan and Cornelis were shot by the Hague’s civic militia and then turned over to a conveniently-formed mob. The rabble stripped the clothing from the De Witt brothers and strung them up on the city’s public gibbet.

As uncivilized as this may seem, it was downright civil compared to what happened next. Seeing their deposed prime minister swaying in the breeze unleashed an animalistic frenzy among the mob. The bodies were pulled down and torn apart.

Overthrowing a government, killing, and mutilating political leaders is no small amount of effort, so it should be no surprise that the folks in the mob started to feel a wee bit peckish. Fortunately, with pieces of shredded prime minister so accessible, the solution to their hunger presented itself. The mob started feasting on the mortal remains of the De Witt brothers. Some enterprising folks made an impromptu barbecue and treated participants to bits of roasted liver. Others couldn’t wait for a hot meal, such as the fellow who was seen walking away while munching on an eyeball.

The royalists got their way. Willem, now stadtholder, was in charge. He declined to prosecute the ringleaders in the De Witt killings. Some suggest this is proof of his complicity in the incident. Others say that the messy affair left a bad taste in his mouth and he simply couldn’t stomach any more killing.

See what we did there?

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