International Commonwealths: Public Diplomacy in 17th Century Europe

By Basil Bowdler (@BasilBowdler)

When allegations of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum and US general election of 2016 surfaced, it struck many as a new and disturbing development in public politics. But in reality, foreign powers have been attempting to manipulate public opinion to their own ends for much longer. In seventeenth-century Europe, as public opinion was first emerging as an arbiter in politics, foreign diplomats and agents exploited the print revolution and an explosion in access to news in order to sway newly empowered citizens to suit their own ends.

Nowhere was this clearer than in the upstart Dutch Republic. At war for all but 16 years between 1568 and 1700, the astonishing rise of the Dutch was accompanied by an acute sensitivity from the Regents who presided over the young state as to their standing in the eyes of foreign powers and their own citizens. The decentralised nature of the Dutch state, a patchwork of competing jurisdictions, exacerbated the already difficult task of enforcing censorship in the pre-modern world. It was a situation that foreign diplomats gleefully exploited. In 1685, fearing war with France, the Stadholder of the Republic and Prince of Orange William III clashed with the City of Amsterdam as he attempted to raise additional forces to defend the Republic. As debate waged between the Prince and the City, the French ambassador d’Avaux circulated assurances that France had no designs on the Republic – an attempt to undermine the spectre of foreign invasion exploited by William and leave the Republic weak. [1]

But the Dutch were not the hapless victims of predatory foreign manipulation. The output of the Dutch printing press was extraordinary, producing perhaps 300 million books during the seventeenth century, including the notorious works of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. [2] The Dutch press was also a major player in the war of words that raged during the British Civil Wars. [3] Diplomats to the Republic from the court of Charles II, concerned about the freedom with which English politics were openly discussed by the Dutch public, repeatedly used their influence, and at times naked coercion, to control the output of the Dutch press. [4] Yet the same writers and publishers that diplomats and agents attempted to control proved a crucial gauge on the public mood and a means to influence it. The relationship between writers and diplomats was thus fraught with tensions, but also the potential to shape public opinion and the course of politics.


The Prince of Orange his Declaration: Shewing the Reasons why he invades England with a short Preface and some Modest Remarks on It (1688). This short pamphlet was amongst the most influential works produced across Europe in the 17th century.

Images loomed as large as texts in this risky game. Diplomats and kings alike widely circulated their portraits abroad to augment their reputations. The exiled Stuart court sought to elicit sympathy and support for Charles II by disseminating images of his beheaded father, many of which were produced by Dutch artists. Conversely, when Charles declared war on the Dutch in 1672, the fact that Dutch Regents had authorised insulting portrayals of Britannia, the embodiment of England, was explicitly cited as a cause for war. [5]

These developments came to fruition in a daring Dutch invasion of England, better known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’. On the eve of William III’s invasion, reconciled with the Amsterdam burgomasters after the conflict of three years past, 50,000 copies of the Prince’s Declaration flooded the streets of England, casting the Dutch as liberators come to save the English from tyranny. Going through 21 editions in English, Dutch, French and German, the Declaration was everywhere in 1688, and one of the most widely printed tracts of the entire century: other best-selling prints rarely ran to more than 3,000 copies. [6] Visual depictions of William’s progress through Europe, and the products of the printing press the Dutch carried with them, kept up a relentless propaganda campaign. The campaign was so successful that, paradoxically, it obscured the decisive role of the Dutch in one of the greatest turning points in English history.

Diplomacy in the pre-modern world was not, then, the exclusive preserve of shadowy elites who conducted their business behind closed doors. It was also a public and highly participatory process – one which tied together the citizens and subjects of Europe into an expansive whole.


[1] Arthur der Weduwen, Selling the Republican Ideal: State Communication in the Dutch Golden Age (St Andrews, 2018: unpublished PhD thesis), 269.

[2] Andrew Pettegree & Arthur der Weduwen, The Bookshop of the World: Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age (Landysul, 2020), 1.

[3] Helmer Helmers, The Monarchist Republic: Literature, Politics, and Religion in the Anglo-Dutch Public Sphere, 1639-1660 (Cambridge, 2015)

[4] Helmer Helmers, ‘Public Diplomacy in Early Modern Europe: Towards a new history of news’ (Media History; Vol.22, No.3-4; 2016), 401-20; Jason Peacey, “My Friend the Gazetier’: Diplomacy and News in Seventeenth-Century Europe’ in Joad Raymond & Noah Moxham (eds.) News Networks in Early Modern Europe (Leiden, 2016), 426-8.

[5] Helmers, ‘Public Diplomacy in Early Modern Europe’, 411.

[6] Louis G. Schwoerer, ‘Propaganda in the Revolution of 1688-89’ (The American Historical Review; Vol.82, No.4; 1977; 843-874), 854; Jonathan I. Israel, ‘The Dutch role in the Glorious Revolution’ in ibid (ed.) The Anglo-Dutch Moment: Essays on the Glorious Revolution and its world impact (Cambridge, 1991), 121-2

Image 1: Vanitas with a Royal Crown, Vincent Laurenszoon van der Vinne, available through Wikimedia Commons here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_Laurenszoon_van_der_Vinne_-_Vanitas_with_a_Royal_Crown.JPG

Image 2: Title Page of William III’s Declaration, available at http://www.rarebooks.co.nz

1 thought on “International Commonwealths: Public Diplomacy in 17th Century Europe

  1. The Dutch’s liberal policy of minimal censorship and a large trade network made the Dutch Republic a perfect location to publish and distribute anti-monarchist material. Then it is interesting to see the legacy of the “Glorious Revolution” and Great Britain’s constitutional monarchy inspire Rousseau,Voltaire, and other philosophes in the Enlightenment. Once again the Dutch Republic became the center of these philosophes to publish their material outside of royal French censorship.

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