Scientists also ended up in prison

Scientists also ended up in prison

How the jurist Laurens Pieter van de Spiegel ended up behind bars as a political prisoner

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He was the most senior administrator in the Dutch Republic when he fell from grace in 1795. The seizure of power by the Patriots, supported by the French Army, brought Laurens Pieter van de Spiegel’s reign to a sudden end. The Grand Pensionary was now seen as a danger to the state, and he disappeared behind bars for many years. How did things come so far for this jurist and regent, and how did his story end?

A brilliant career

Laurens Pieter van de Spiegel was born in Middelburg in 1737, the scion of a distinguished family. Having enjoyed a good education and completed his legal training at Leiden University, he could start his career as burgomaster of Goes in Zeeland. He then became the Grand Pensionary of Zeeland; that is to say, the leader of the province. Van de Spiegel was both a scholar and an administrator. He wrote letters and treatises on the functioning of law, politics and government. After his death, his legal discourses were published and would form a standard work for jurists for years to come.

Van de Spiegel was a supporter of the stadholder, Prince William V. At a time when the Patriots, sworn opponents of the House of Orange, were rising up against the Orangist regime, Van de Spiegel also ran into trouble. William V even considered it necessary to flee The Hague for a time, but was restored to power in 1787 with the aid of a German army. In the same year, the Orangist Van de Spiegel was appointed Grand Pensionary of Holland and thereby became the leader of the Dutch Republic.

The revolution

In 1795, however, the power of the stadholder and his supporters was brought to an end. Aided by the French Army, the Patriots seized power and founded the Batavian Republic. The stadholder lost no time in fleeing abroad, never to return. Van de Spiegel was arrested. He was seen as deeply suspect because of his contacts, who included the Paris-based spy Etta Palm and Ocker Repelaer, former head of the army. Van de Spiegel was imprisoned for four years, first in the Binnenhof, then in Huis ten Bosch Palace, and subsequently in the Prison Gate.

In the Prison Gate

As was common practice at that time, distinguished regents were not kept in dark, stuffy cells, but were allowed to sit out their detention in comfortable rooms. Van de Spiegel was locked up in the Women’s Chamber in the Prison Gate. He was allowed to have his bed and a quantity of books from home brought to his cell. He spent his days writing a mediation on the century in which he had lived (later published as Reflections of a statesman [Nadenkingen van een staatsman]), kept a diary, and wrote poetry.

'The cell was pretty bearable, although he was often disturbed by the cries and screams that came from other cells.'

In his diary, Van de Spiegel described his daily routine at the Prison Gate. At eight o’clock in the morning, he was given breakfast. Three hours later, he was served a small glass of Dutch gin (jenever). At two o’clock, he was brought his luncheon, which consisted of meat or fish with vegetables. At four o’clock it was time for tea, after which the maid came to make up the bed. At nine o’clock in the evening, it was finally time for supper.

Dying abroad a free man

Van de Spiegel was no longer permitted to live in freedom in his home province of Zeeland or Holland. After spending half a year in the Prison Gate, Van de Spiegel was transferred to Woerden Castle, where two rooms were made available for him. He was imprisoned there until the end of 1798. Now a free man, he moved to Germany, where he died a year later as a consequence of a brain haemorrhage.