A Stadtholder (Dutch: stadhouder, "steward" or literally "place-keeper" or "stead-holder" in older Dutch) in the Low Countries was a medieval function which during the 18th century developed into a rare type of de facto hereditary head of state of the thus "crowned" Dutch Republic. It is comparable with the French title Lieutenant, England's fifteenth century Lord Lieutenant, and the Italian title of Doge.
Stadtholders in the Middle Ages were appointed by feudal lords to represent them in their absence. If a lord had several dominions (or, being a vassal, fiefs), some of these could be ruled by a permanent stadtholder, to whom was delegated the full authority of the lord. A stadtholder was thus more powerful than a mere governor, who had only limited authority, but the stadtholder was not a vassal himself, having no title to the land. The local rulers of the independent provinces of the Low Countries (which included the present-day Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) made extensive use of stadtholders, e.g. the Duke of Guelders appointed a stadtholder to represent him in Groningen.
In the fifteenth century the Dukes of Burgundy acquired most of the Low Countries, and these Burgundian Netherlands mostly each had their own stadtholder.
In the sixteenth century, the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, also King of Spain, who had inherited the Burgundian Netherlands, completed this process by becoming the sole feudal overlord: Lord of the Netherlands. Only the prince-bishopric of Liège remained outside of the Holy Roman Empire's Burgundian Imperial Circle or Kreis, but even the Bishopric of Utrecht was secularised. Stadtholders continued to be appointed to represent Charles and King Philip II, his son and successor in Spain and the Low Countries (the electoral Imperial title would be held by heirs of Charles in the separate Austrian branch of Habsburgs). Due to the centralist and absolutist policies of Philip, the actual power of the stadtholders strongly diminished.
When, in 1581, during the Dutch Revolt, most the Dutch provinces declared their independence with the Act of Abjuration, the representative function of stadtholder became obsolete in the rebellious northern Netherlands — the feudal Lord himself having been abolished — but the office nevertheless continued in these provinces of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. The United Provinces were struggling to adapt existing feudal concepts and institutions to the new situation and tended to be conservative in this matter, as they had after all rebelled against the king to defend their ancient rights. The stadtholder no longer represented the lord but became the highest executive official, appointed by the States of each province. Although each province could assign its own stadtholder, most stadtholders held appointments from several provinces at the same time. The highest executive power was normally exerted by the sovereign States of each province, but the stadtholder had some prerogatives, like appointing lower officials and sometimes having the ancient right to affirm the appointment (by cooptation) of the members of regent councils or choose burgomasters from a shortlist of candidates. As these councils themselves appointed most members of the States, the stadtholder could very indirectly influence the general policy. In Zeeland the Princes of Orange, who after the Dutch Revolt most often held the office of stadtholder there, held the dignity of First Noble, and as such a member of the States of that province, thanks to the fact that they held the title of Marquess of Veere and Vlissingen as one of their patrimonial titles.
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