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Going Dutch, by Lisa Jardine

Revolution? A garden party

On 1 November 1688, inviolate England was invaded by a foreign power: 500 ships, 20,000 soldiers and a further 20,000 marines, and a prince named William of Orange, took the throne of England from the ruling king. The foreign power was Holland, and in this intriguing new book Lisa Jardine sets out to explain why nobody in England seemed to mind.

Why was William welcomed as if he were English? It was in part a triumph of propaganda; William had written a letter explaining his plans in lucid and intelligent terms. It was also a triumph of organisation; he had put the entire invasion force together in half a year. As well, there were swirling scandals around the king, James II, whose wife conveniently produced a healthy male heir after numerous stillbirths, an heir people said had been smuggled into the queen's bed in a warming pan. Prior to the birth, if that is what it was, everyone had expected William to be James's heir, including William himself.

Then William may have won English hearts by his passion for gardening, which led him to cut across St James's Park to inspect the layout on his way to his future palace. But Jardine shows in this learned and sophisticated cultural history that there were many other, subtler factors at work. For the preceding century, the English and Dutch had been engaged in a cultural and scientific exchange of artefacts, books and information which laid the foundations for English acceptance of William and his army.

The key figure in these exchanges was Constantijn Huygens, unknown in the 21st century. Jardine is determined to change that. Huygens, we learn, was a polymath with a full humanist education, expert on the viol, a fine art collector, and an amateur scientist fascinated by microscope and telescope. He sounds rather like Jardine herself. The term "great and good" might have been coined for him. He was also a political eminence grise who knew absolutely everyone.

Jardine has numerous beautifully researched tales to tell about the cultural exchanges which Huygens facilitated. We see Rubens and Dudley Carleton engaged in an exchange, a swap of "marbles" or statues for some of Rubens's canvases. The English Civil War prompted the Dutch to scour England for the collections of impecunious and exiled royalists, while those exiles brought more of their treasures to the Dutch market. We can see Rubens's astonishing painting of the head of Medusa, commended by the judicious Huygens for its combination of charm and terror.

Many paintings the Dutch bought after the war were by the Dutch painters whose entry into court circles had been eased by Huygens, notably Van Dyck. Other key figures, such as art agent and musician Nicholas Lanier, and Gaspar Duarte, the jeweller and diamond merchant, cemented trading bonds in art. Huygens knew them all. Huygens's wife, Susanna, had humanist qualifications hardly less extensive than his own. She corresponded with René Descartes, though she died tragically young before she could communicate to him her ideas on his Discourse.

For Jardine, the Dutch are not ashamed of their riches. Huygens himself is unembarrassed about his wealth, power and influence. He built a house that was a virtual palace, and proceeded to furnish it with everything that was luxurious and novel.

He was not atypical. The citizens of Antwerp, too, were enjoying boom years, and Huygens's friend and associate Duarte was also happy to build a big and impressive mansion. To Antwerp came the English eccentrics William and Margaret Cavendish, where they throve on the rich atmosphere. After the dust of the war had settled, they were among the English exiles who imported Dutch neoclassicism and even Dutch craftsmen to renovate their own estates.

They shared with Huygens and his people the sense that such estates and, above all, their gardens, were precarious refuges from the hurly-burly that sought to destroy them, though the English came to this sense of danger via the war and the Dutch via the ever-present menace of the encroaching waters. The poet Andrew Marvell called Holland "the indigested vomit of the sea", but Dutch expertise in land drainage had been used by England since the Thames flood of 1621. Dutchmen and Englishmen also communicated about science; debates about Hooke's discoveries and their significance were carried out across borders, with Huygens taking a key role in the discussion.

Commerce, too, was an occasion for rivalry and exchange, as the Dutch India companies contested their London rivals' expansion. Ultimately, the finest and most resonant result was the colonisation of Manhattan in what was New Amsterdam, now New York. Its magnificent architecture, art collections, and parks would have satisfied English and Dutch pioneers alike.

We tend to think of ourselves as shaped by France and by Italy, and to neglect our nearer neighbour across the Narrow Sea. Yet in the course of this important book, it becomes clear that what we are is the product of what the Dutch were. All the characteristics we think of as "English", from our love of neoclassical architecture through our passion for the empirical method to our mania for gardening, were shared with the Dutch, or bequeathed to us by them. Also acquired, rather less gloriously, were Dutch tax revenues and wealth that were carried to England by William and Mary, creating the basis for English wealth while sapping Dutch power and prestige. This explains why Jardine's subtitle says that England "plundered" Dutch glory, but she herself adds that matters were really more subtle than this. In Jardine's account, we all went Dutch long ago, and the time has come to say so and to retrace our cultural past to the brilliant and stalwart men and women of the Lowlands. This fascinating study will and should inspire further research into our Dutch heritage.

Diane Purkiss's 'The English Civil War: a people's history' is published by HarperPerennial

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