Sir John van Olden Barnavelt

by John Fletcher, Philip Massinger
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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2260

First produced: 1619

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First published: 1883

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Historical tragedy

Time of work: 1618-1619

Locale: The Netherlands

Principal Characters:

Grave Maurice, Prince of Orange

Sir John Van Olden Barnavelt, Advocate of Holland and West Friesland

Leidenberch, Secretary of the States of Utrecht

Grotius, Pensionary of Rotterdam

Hogerbeets, Pensionary of Leiden


Bredero, and

Vandort, Lords of the States

Barnavelt's Wife

Barnavelt's Daughter

Four Dutch Women

An English Gentlewoman


In SIR JOHN VAN OLDEN BARNAVELT, Fletcher and Massinger apparently intended to present the character of a noble and virtuous man of high station who was brought to ruin by ambition. This intention is never realized dramatically. We are told of Barnavelt's service to the state, of the love the common people had for him, and of his many fine personal qualities; but we are never shown these things. Thus Barnavelt emerges from the play as a proud and crotchety old man whose unreasonable machinations lead eventually to a well-deserved beheading. Hence he never achieves tragic dimensions. Any other positive effects the play might have achieved are inhibited by distinctly second-rate plotting and versification. But Jacobean audiences seem to have reacted to the play quite favorably. The historical Barnavelt had been executed in May, 1619, and to them the reenactment of the end of his career was an exciting contemporary chronicle, rendered all the more interesting because a number of dangerous political questions were raised. For this reason, perhaps, the play was not printed during the seventeenth century. It survived in the form of a heavily censored manuscript prompt book, which was not generally available until its publication in 1883.

The Story:

Although hostilities with Spain had ended with the Twelve Year Truce in 1609, the infant Dutch states were still upset in 1618 by internal political and religious strife. To Modesbargen, Leidenberch, and Grotius, the silver-haired patriot Barnavelt declared his dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs, for with the support of the army, the Prince of Orange was becoming known among the people as the father of his country and the chief champion of the new freedom. The contributions of the older patriots, particularly Barnavelt, were being forgotten; he hinted darkly that he, who had done so much to bring about the Spanish defeat, would see his country overthrown again before he would allow his honor to be so sullied.

Although Modesbargen reminded Barnavelt that his services had been well rewarded and that his present course of action could lead only to his ruin, Grotius and Leidenberch enthusiastically supported him, and Modesbargen agreed eventually to help Barnavelt in any way that would not prejudice the state.

The conference was interrupted by two captains, one of whom was to be judged by Barnavelt for having spoken scornfully of the Lords of the States. Coldly, Barnavelt relieved the captain of his command, telling him that he could look to the Prince of Orange for maintenance. Although Leidenberch privately promised the cashiered officer that he would intervene for him, the captain, who knew that Leidenberch's genial manner covered a cold and relentless nature, announced that he would seek to reestablish himself by bribing Barnavelt's wife or by furnishing a fresh wench for his son.

In a second conference with his friends, Barnavelt avowed himself, like them, an Arminian, and urged that they enroll companies of citizens in the provincial cities for the defense of the sect against its enemy, the Prince of Orange, whose regular troops were garrisoned at Utrecht. Modesbargen again protested, this time that religion should not be made a cloak for subversive political activity, but Barnavelt cynically replied that any weapon could be used that would serve their cause. He then persuaded Bredero and Vandort, two Lords of the States, to order the Prince of Orange locked out of a meeting of the Lords which was about to take place.

When the prince arrived and found the doors of the council chamber barred against him, he had difficulty in restraining his attendants, who realized the enormity of the insult, from forcing their way in. His humility and modesty prevailed, however, and he remained without until Barnavelt and the Lords appeared. He inquired why he had lost his seat. In reply, Barnavelt spoke harshly, charging him with haughtiness. Bredero and Vandort were shocked and offended not only by Barnavelt's outspokenness and offensive tone but also by his assumption of the right to speak for them. Instead of joining Leidenberch and Modesbargen in following Barnavelt to his home, they remained behind and assured the prince of their loyalty to him. With their assent the prince resolved to move against the towns in which Barnavelt's supporters had raised citizen companies.

Although Barnavelt knew that the Prince of Orange would attempt to disband the companies, he confidently believed that the prince would not risk civil war and that in any event his own reputation would protect himself and his followers from harm. In Utrecht the citizens attempted to persuade the regular garrison to desert the prince and serve Barnavelt's cause; but the soldiers, remembering their loyalty to the House of Orange, resisted the blandishments of the wily Leidenberch. When the soldiers remained firm against threats to oust them from the town, Barnavelt realized that a crisis was nearing. While his followers proceeded to muster the citizen companies, he returned to The Hague to begin a diverting action.

Meanwhile, four Dutch women, all ardent feminists, attempted to convince a visiting English gentlewoman of the advantages of living in a free society, where women could lord it over their husbands and inquire into the doings of their rulers. They were ridiculing the English mercenaries' fidelity to the Prince of Orange when news was brought that the prince had disarmed all of the other towns and was approaching Utrecht. The citizens began to arm themselves, but the gates were guarded by the English, who refused to give over their posts to citizen reliefs. Thus, when the prince arrived before the city, the English admitted him, and his army quickly disarmed the citizens. Leidenberch was taken prisoner and ordered to The Hague. Modesbargen made his escape to Germany.

At The Hague, Bredero, Vandort and other Lords of the States were rejoicing at the news of the prince's victories when they were joined by Barnavelt. The old man accused his colleagues of slighting him in favor of the prince; they replied that in spite of his former services he was now regarded as a suspect, and they advised his reformation. Barnavelt then unleashed all his pent-up fury, reaffirming his undying hatred of the Prince of Orange. The others were retreating before his anger when Barnavelt's son arrived with a report of Utrecht's fall and Leidenberch's capture.

Knowing that their cause was lost, the son advised his father to capitulate to the prince. Once again Barnavelt swore that he would die first.

With the dispersal of the citizen armies, Barnavelt's power was lost, and when the Prince of Orange returned to The Hague his leadership of the state was assured. When the Lords of the States met again, it was Barnavelt who was excluded on the recommendation of Vandort and Bredero.

The subject of the meeting was the extent to which the Arminian heresy still threatened the state. The prince reported that the reduction of the armed towns had done much to stamp out the sect, but that powerful men who were yet untouched were its real source of strength. Pressed by the council to reveal their names, he accused Modesbargen, Grotius, Leidenberch, and finally Barnavelt. Although Leidenberch had been captured, it was felt that a case against the others would be difficult to make without the testimony of Modesbargen; therefore, a captain and a small band were dispatched to Germany to arrest him secretly. Leidenberch, accompanied by his young son, was then brought before the council. Convinced that a full confession was his best course of action, he vowed to reveal everything as he was led off again to his cell.

There he was met by Barnavelt. When Leidenberch admitted that he had told his captors the secrets that had been entrusted to him, the old man reviled him for his weakness and faithlessness. As Leidenberch quailed before him, Barnavelt urged with all of his considerable force that the turncoat's only honorable atonement would be suicide. So powerful were his arguments that Leidenberch that evening took his own life.

Meanwhile, Barnavelt's own position was growing increasingly tenuous; but he was still not without friends. Grotius and Hogerbeets let it be known that if he was arrested they would burn the statehouse about the prince's ears.

Barnavelt himself grew more despondent as he felt the prince's net tightening upon him. In spite of the efforts of his wife and daughter, he could not be cheered; however, when his son brought him the news of Leidenberch's suicide, he realized that any charge the prince might have had against him would collapse for lack of a witness. His mood immediately changed as he regained confidence in his own powers.

But he had underestimated the potency of his enemies. Just as he reached the height of his elation, he was arrested by the prince's men and brought before the council. Still thinking himself safe, he vigorously denied charges of treason. In the midst of his defense Modesbargen, who had been brought back from Germany, was introduced. Although Barnavelt's case collapsed, the old man's spirit was not broken. He continued to deny his guilt and refused to ask for mercy.

While Barnavelt was held in prison awaiting the passage of his sentence, the Lords of the States were subject to pressure from all sides to release him. Not only was he still loved by the common people, but the heads of foreign states interceded for him. His treason was too blatant to be forgiven, however, and he was sentenced to be beheaded. To the end he maintained his innocence and repeatedly accused the state of ingratitude to one who had served her well. Even though thousands were wagered that the ax would never strike his neck, he was eventually led to the block and executed in full sight of the populace. The decaying body of Leidenberch was exhumed for the occasion and hung nearby. Thus, two of Holland's greatest men paid ambition's price.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

SIR JOHN VAN OLDEN BARNAVELT, though billed as a historical tragedy, really was not based on a historical event by Philip Massinger and John Fletcher, the authors; rather, it was based on an event contemporary with their own times. SIR JOHN VAN OLDEN BARNAVELT, the famous Advocate of Holland, as letters of his contemporaries prove, was executed in May of 1619. A little more than a year later in August of 1620, the play SIR JOHN VAN OLDEN BARNAVELT was being performed by the King's Men—but not until withstanding the tests of censorship in script and on stage. Sir George Buc, Master of Revels, censored the script in 1619; and, during one of the first performances—if not the first performance—given between August 14 and 27, 1619, the play was stopped by the Bishop of London. The actors, however, were soon allowed to perform the play again.

The attempt by Massinger and Fletcher to place the play in front of an audience that had the event still fresh in its mind, led to some dramatic weaknesses that can be assigned to their haste. With the exception of Barnavelt and Grave Maurice, the characters are not well developed; and, there may be, for the reader, a flaw in the character of Barnavelt with his repeated and lengthy demonstrations of constancy as he faces death. With good utilization of the stage, however, this flaw may have been eliminated. There is also a triple repetition of Leidenberch's suicide and far too many scenes with sorrow-laden children. Because of the problems of censorship, an undertone of disparity arises between what appears in the text and what apparently the playwrights would liked to have had appear in the text. The last-minute attempt in Act V to reverse the previous stand on Barnavelt and try valiantly to make him more sympathetic seems to be evidence of this.

There are also, on the other hand, some scenes of strong interest in SIR JOHN VAN OLDEN BARNAVELT. One is in Act III, scene iv, in which Barnavelt visits Leidenberch, his co-conspirator, in jail and urges him to take his life. The Fletcherian versification makes Leidenberch's moment of indecision, as he gazes on his sleeping son, even more poignant. Another meritorious scene is Act V, ii, in which Harlem, Utrecht, and Leyden—the three executioners—throw dice to see who will be at the chopping block to cut off Barnavelt's head. This scene, with its grim humor, is reminiscent of the gravedigger's scene in Shakespeare's HAMLET.

Although writing in haste, Massinger and Fletcher are to be commended for attempting to adapt a contemporary political event to the stage in SIR JOHN VAN OLDEN BARNAVELT. Unfortunately, although the haste and the politics did contribute to some of its weaknesses, the play has the distinction—along with George Chapman's French tragedies and Thomas Middleton's GAME OF CHESS—of being one of the few plays of that time that dealt with a contemporary event.

Sources for Further Study

  • Boston Globe. July 4, 1995, p. 24.
  • The Christian Science Monitor. July 27, 1995, p. B1.
  • Los Angeles Times. June 21, 1995, p. E4.
  • The New York Review of Books. XLII, July 13, 1995, p. 42.
  • The New York Times Book Review. C, June 25, 1995, p. 9.
  • The Washington Post Book World. XXV, June 4, 1995, p. 3.

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