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Constantijn Huygens Lord of Zuilichem (1596–1687)

by Adelheid Rech

Constantijn Huygens & Related Topics

"Constantijn Huygens is almost unknown to English readers and students—if he is known at all, it is in that peculiarly frustrating and gratifying fashion, as the father of a famous son, Christiaan Huygens, the physicist.

Hollanders were better known outside their country than Constantijn Huygens. He has been a victim of his country's decline in international importance, and it is our loss not to know Huygens, for he was one of those many-faceted personalities who flash back to us the brilliance of their age […] and epitomize the great period of Holland in which he lived." – so Rosalie L. Colie in her profound study 'Some Thankfulnesse to Constantine.'1

The present study hopes to remedy a small part of this lacuna and bring one of the most outstanding personalities of the Dutch seventeenth century closer to today's readers although it is naturally impossible to do justice to every facet of Huygens' life and work. "'Indeed, whoever wishes to understand our seventeenth century must … keep his Huygens always by his hand'. This true virtuoso, 'secretary to two princes of Orange, diplomat, a polyglot man of the world, a highly sensitive connoisseur of both the ancients and moderns, a fine musician, a deeply religious man … and much more besides'"2 reflects in his life an entire century—Netherlands' true "Golden Age."

Birth and Childhood

William of Orange William of Orange
Adriaen Thomas Key
c. 1570–1584
Oil on panel, 56 x 47 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Constantijn Huygens, engraving Constantijn Huygens
by Christiaan Huygens, Jr.
C. de Visscher

Huygens was born on 4th September 1596 in The Hague, Nobelstraat (near the Grote or Saint Jakobs Kerk), as the second son of Christiaan Huygens sen. who was a personal secretary to William of Orange (1533–1584, also called "William the Silent"). William of Orange was hailed as the pater patriae and first stadtholder of the young "Republic of the Seven Northern Provinces' (the northern part of the former Spanish Netherlands). After William's assassination in Delft, Christiaan had become one of the five secretaries to the "Raad van State" (the Council of State) demonstrating his unconditional loyalty to the House of Orange through a careful choice of his sons' names. The first-born son Maurits (b. 1695) was named after his godfather Maurits, the son and successor of William of Orange as the stadtholder. Constantijn got his own name from the "constancy" of Breda (city in Brabant and Christiaan's hometown) for having supported the House of Orange in its struggle against the Spaniards. Christiaan declared in a letter to the Burgomasters and Councillors of Breda, that "in view of their worshipful Constancy" he wished his son "to bear the memory thereof in his name."3 Clearly, the Huygenses did not come from a low social standings. As Huygens' father jokingly phrased it: "we are born from respectable folk, are not washed to shore on a straw, or pissed down at the horse-fair." Theirs was a world of culture and civility.

Suzanna Hoefnagel Suzanna Hoefnagel (1561–1633)
Michiel van Mierevelt
c. 1629–1632
Oil on panel
Huygens Museum Hofwijck
(on loan by Frans Hals Museum Haarlem)
Cristain Huygens sr. Christiaan Huygens sen.
(1551-7th February, 1624)
Unknown artist
c. 1580
Oil on panel
Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

Constantijn's mother was Susanna Hoefnagel who came from a family of wealthy merchants in Antwerp, and was niece of the painter Joris Hoefnagel. His father Christiaan came from Brabant, and although the Huygenses were not of noble birth Christiaan's position and close relationship to the House of Orange assured his sons a successful career. Constantijn's father took extraordinary care in his sons' education in all fields laying the ground for true and faithful servants of the House of Orange and the young Republic. The Huygens family was completed by the four daughters Elizabeth (b. 1598), Geertruyd (b. 1599), Catharina (b. 1601), and Constantia (b. 1602), of whose Elizabeth and Catharina died young, at fourteen resp. seventeen.

Huygens' translations of some metaphysical poems by John Donne (1572–1631)

Rosalie L. Colie:

"Huygens' translation into Dutch of nineteen poems by John Donne was his chief service as link between the literatures of England and his country. The translations were purely a literary labor of love. Huygens chose to translate Donne, whom he had met on his third journey to England, because he recognized in the man's work an especial brilliance which might, if it could be communicated to Dutch literature, to some extent change the color of Dutch poetry.

His sense of the unity of Donne's mind and work may have been the impulse which made him try his hand at the translations. ... Donne's obscurity, the difficult interrelation of thought and word that Jonson found so irritating, were for Huygens felicitously successful examples of what he himself was trying to do. ... Against this background Huygens made his translations of Donne: he began with four poems in 1630, and three years later translated fifteen more. He may have had a manuscript of the poems ever since 1622, or "some of my special Lords and Friends in England" may have sent them to him at the very time he began to work on them. ... Donne's work was poetry, entirely poetry; and among the most difficult poetry in the English language. For Huygens to have attempted the translation at all was gratuitous knight-errantry, and the success of the translations far outweighed their inevitable shortcomings.

Huygens' translations of Donne's images and conceits were simpler than their originals, but they were never fuzzy or obscure. He understood Donne's intentions. He saw straight into the "marrow, kernel, pit" of Donne's thought and assumed as his first obligation translation of essential meaning rather than of poetical decorations. Wherever he could not fuse meaning and word in his Dutch as Donne inextricably could in his English, Huygens chose to express meaning first, as the truer indication of Donne's greatness.

Huygens translated Donne because of his great and deep interest in English poetry and his desire to share his pleasure with his own circle—and most important of all, because he loved Donne's work. ... He was a loyal and conventional man, true to his master, his God, and himself. But with this he had a taste for the curious, the new, the suggestive; a true Renaissance virtuoso, he recognized quality in regions not always essentially congenial to him. He was less "inter-inanimated" by his own wit than Donne; but like Donne, he had a predilection for bizarre and stimulating metaphor, for audacious conceits, for daring locutions. ... Donne could have—and would have—asked no higher praise from a Hollander who admired him and translated his poems because he loved them and found pleasure in them in another country, 'in the field, at sea, in carriages, or on horseback.'"

from: R. L. Colie, 'Some Thankfulnesse to Constantine'. A Study of English Influence Upon the Early Works of Constantijn Huygens, The Hague 1956, 53–71.

Constantijn's father devoted considerable time to his two little boys. For instance, he made a Latin grammar for them and chose the authors that should be read. For those subjects he himself was unable to teach, tutors were employed, usually promising young men of wealthy families still in their studies. The boys received lessons in logic and rhetoric, in mathematics and even law, as well as riding, fencing, dancing and, like all Dutch children, ice skating. To guarantee them a prestigious diplomatic career Christiaan arranged studies in modern languages, beginning with French, the language of the court and diplomacy. In sum, Constantijn had been essentially trained from birth to be a perfect courtier.

Six years after Constantijn's first Latin lessons, at the age of 11, he began to study Greek which he never abandoned during his life. In the same year he wrote his first verse in Latin, but his parents were mindful that he did not become a bookworm. His first Latin verse dates from 1607, when he was just twelve years of age. He received his first lessons in Italian in 1614 from an Italian protegé of Henry Wotton, English Ambassador to The Hague, during their visit in Holland where they were neighbors of the Huygens family. Later, in his autobiography, Huygens wrote affectionately about his childhood education:

In 1599 and 1600 I started to learn reading and writing. I easily took in the material because we were always invited playfully and my father never called us with a serious expression on his face. This was the method my good father employed because he wanted to prevent in every possible way that our tender childish souls would come to hate learning.

Education and First travels

When Constantijn was just two years old, his mother realized that her son was able to sing back to the tunes she sang so she taught him to sing a rhymed version of the Ten Commandments, which was in use for the congregational singing in the Calvinistic churches—the only form of music the Calvinists allowed for religious services. When he was five, his father took over the musical lessons for the boys, using the modern musical system with seven notes rather than the traditional hexachord system. Music was to play a most significant role throughout Constantijn's life. In the years to follow Huygens became bound to England not only through his personal acquaintances. Both countries excelled in a visually and technologically oriented culture, although the English contributed to it through their texts and the Dutch through their images.

In May 1616, Maurits and Constantijn were sent to the University of Leiden to study the law. Here Constantijn began his first studies in English, which would be of great benefit to him in the near future. In those times it was far from unusual that young men remained at the university for many years. Maurits left in 1617, returning to The Hague to begin his service to the State. Only one year later Constantijn finished his studies in Leiden with a Latin dissertation in law. He was sent to Zieriksee to deepen his studies in law with a prominent attorney, but with scarce enthusiasm. Fortunately, more compatible arrangements were made for him.

Father Christiaan followed the urgent suggestion of Noël de Caron, Dutch Ambassador in London, and sent Constantijn 1618 with the company of Dudley Carleton, English Ambassador to the Netherlands and a good friend, to England where he should gain knowledge of diplomatic policy and technique. Young Huygens must have been well prepared for England, especially by Carleton, since he was aware what to expect. The enthusiastic Huygens arrived with the highest expectations. As a visitor he had spare time to improve his English but at the same time to learn all he could get about the country: its literature (at first poems by Philip Sidney, a model of a "verray parfit gentil knight" who had fallen at Zutphen in the Netherlands, later the metaphysical poet John Donne – to Huygens' translations of Donne see right: excursus R. Colie); its sciences (here above all the famous philosopher Francis Bacon who Huygens met on a later journey to England) and last but not least its music and arts. Huygens, a gifted viola da gamba-player from childhood, learned to play the English viola da gamba during his visits at Henry Wotton in the Dutch Embassy, a more complicated instrument producing more varied sounds but "as sweet as an ordinary viola."4 Thanks to Noël de Caron Huygens had the opportunity to meet King James VI, and although the King was not fond of music, Huygens delighted him so much with his most excellent viol playing that the King commanded to play again for him on subsequent evenings. Five years later (1621), on Huygens' next trip to England, James VI knighted him, as an expression of this musical enjoyment. So Huygens was thereafter entitled as "Sir Constantine," a title in which he regarded with a certain pleasure, as he put eques ("knight") on the title-pages of his later publications.

The painter Jacob de Gheyn (II, c. 1585–1629) introduced Huygens to the English arts. Together they visited the picture gallery of Prince Henry (who unfortunately died young) and traveled to Cambridge and Oxford, where Huygens had the chance to meet Sir Thomas Bodley, an old friend of his father and owner of the later world-famous Bodleian Library. In his autobiography, he complained that the artist of his choice, Jacques de Gheyn II, an old family friend and neighbor, was unwilling to serve as his teacher and consequentially he was not given the opportunity to learn the art of rapidly rendering the forms and other aspects of trees, rivers, hills and the like, which northerners (as Huygens justly claims) do even better than the ancients. Huygens instead studied with Hondius, a print-maker whose hard and rigid lines were better suited to representing columns, marble and immobile structures than moving things like grass and foliage, or the charm of ruins.

The English journeys were of considerable importance for Huygens: at first for his diplomatic career, but as well as for his intellectual and poetic apprenticeships. "England was the first foreign country he visited, and experience in one's 'first' country always has a peculiar value. He observed English language and customs with an eye especially acute. More important even than this was the effect upon him of both English literature and English science. Their influence on his ideas and his work was greatest in the early part of his life."5

But not everything went well for the young Constantijn. During his stay in England his younger sister Catharina, who had already been ill when he left, died at the age of seventeen. This was a hard blow for him, and he felt earnestly sick, but recovered gradually thanks to the care of Mr. Caron for his young guest. On the 2nd November 1618 he came home to The Hague, full of experience and new impressions, and ready to begin his service for the House of Orange.

Beginnings as a Diplomat and Marriage

Joost van den Vondel Portrait of Joost van den Vondel
Philip Koninck
Oil on panel, 56 x 47 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

From the very first Constantijn supported his father and with him the House of Orange against their opponents. In 1620 he became the private secretary to François Aerssen, Lord of Sommersdyk (an earlier neighbor of the Huygens family). In 1620 he traveled with Aerssen to Venice who was now the Dutch ambassador there. On this travel Huygens was able to take advantage of his early Italian lessons as he was the only one in the company who was able to speak this language. In Venice he had the chance, apart from his various duties as a private secretary, to study at first hand the famous culture there and could even listen to the music of Claudio Monteverdi, the great Italian Renaissance composer, which made a deep impression on the excellent Dutch amateur musician.

In 1619, with the Hoefnagel relations of Constantijn's mother Susanna and their Amsterdam connections, he became acquainted with Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft, the central figure, together with Joost van den Vondel, in Holland's literary life of that time. He also met Anna Roemers Visscher and her sister Maria Tesselschade, both daughters of the wealthy merchant and poet Pieter Roemers Visscher (author of a well-known emblem-book) and likewise poetesses of great ability. With both these ladies Huygens maintained a lifelong sincere friendship and a poetic correspondence. Together with the singer Francisca Duarte, sister of Gaspar Duarte, a highly cultivated Jewish merchant of Antwerp, they were the central figures of a fine literary and musical party, called later the "Muiderkring" (Muiden Circle) after Hooft's official residence Muiden, near Amsterdam. (To the Muiderkring and Huygens' relationship to the Duarte family see Music in the Times of Vermeer, chapters 3 and 4):

Constantijn Huygens, Self Portrait
Self Portrait
(Inscribed: Constanter
Londini, Junis
Silverpoint on parchement, 9 x 6.3 cm.
Whereabouts unknown

On the back:

Nemo Dissimilem proprio conamine vultum
Increper, heu! paucis adeo, quo aequus amavit
Juppiter, innotuisse ferunt GNWQI SEAUTWN
Constanter S.

Huygens intensely enjoyed these meetings with the literati of the young Dutch Republic which is reflected in his own poems. Through his fluency in several languages this homo universalis was able to hold, next to his diplomatic epistolary exchange, an intensive correspondence with literary figures, theologians, philosophers, scientists and composers from all over the Continent.

Launch video

Vechtzangk, voor joffrouw Maria Tesselschade: de vleiende sireen
Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft (1581–1647)
Performed by: Camerata Trajectina
from: Muziek out de Muiderkring

Huygens read and wrote incessantly. His personal library is said to have been half the size of that of the King of France. The smaller part of his library, that in total counted approximately 8.000 books, was sold in the 1688 auction after he had died.6 Huygens possessed a deep fondness for puns: they convey something of the rich and involved cleverness of his verse, the qualities which he developed from his reading of Ben Jonson and John Donne. Although his pointed and satirical shorter poems are sometimes easier to get to grips with, the extracts from longer pieces are often impressive and moving.

In 1621, Huygens became the secretary of the Dutch embassy in England and at the end of the year made his second trip there with another embassy under Aerssen. This was a further indication that he was increasingly seen as worthy of trust. During this stay in England he met among others Francis Bacon and Cornelius Drebbel, the Dutch inventor. Huygens had a deep admiration for both scientists and studied their works thoroughly.7

In the same year he published his first large poem about the place where he grew up: Batava Tempe (from the Vale of Tempe in Thessaly, in the antiquity seen as the most beautiful spot on earth) – Dat is 't Vor-hout van 's-Gravenhage. In 1614, father Christiaan had been moved from Nobelstraat to this fine diplomat's quarter near the Royal palace of the stadtholder. His profound love of gardens (which became especially evident in his later life) is already expressed in his poem, the 'Hollandse Tuin' (the Dutch garden) which deals with the wide avenues of the Voorhout, its limes and little flowers which in Huygens' eyes was perfection, a second Tempe.

The Hague, Lange Voorhout, in the 17th centuryLange Voorhout
Jan van Call
c. 1690
Watercolor and pen on paper, 17.6 x 27.3 cm.
Haags Gemeentearchief
Batava Tempe, Constantijn HuygensBatava Tempe
Constantijn Huygens

On 7th February 1624, father Christiaan Huygens died. This marked a turning point in Constantijn's life, who, although a diligent and serious-minded young man, allowed himself a certain amount of leisure. Now, together with his only one-year-elder brother Maurits, he had to bear the entire responsibility for the family. But on the 26th February Constantijn had again to leave The Hague for his third diplomatic trip to England.

Besides his current career as secretary to Prince Frederik Hendrik of Orange (1584–1647), after the death of his half-brother Maurits in 1625 the new stadtholder, Huygens dedicated himself to his own family. During Constantijn's courtship for a planned but then failed marriage of his brother Maurits with Suzanna van Baerle (b. 1599 Amsterdam), daughter of Jan Hendrik Baerle and Jacomina Ham, a cultivated and humanistic family, he felt in love with Suzanna and wrote many poems for her, calling her his 'sterre' (star). Suzanna hesitated to give her consent for some time, but finally they were married on 6th April 1627.

Constantijn Huygens, Jan van Campen Portrait of Constantijn Huygens and Susanna van Baerle8 Jacob van Campen
c. 1635. Mauritshuis, The Hague
Portrait of Constantijn Huygens and his Five Children, Adraen Hannemann Portrait of Constantijn Huygens and His Five Children
Adriaen Hannemann
c. 1640, Mauritshuis, The Hague

Suzanna gave birth to five children: Constantijn (b. 1628), Christiaan (b. 1629, later the famous physicist), Lodewijk (b. 1631), Philips (b. 1632) and daughter Suzanna (b. 1637). For ten years Huygens lived a virtually perfect life. He enjoyed both a secure profession and a private happiness together with his beloved wife and his prospering children, although he was often away for months in order to accompany Prince Frederik Hendrik on various campaigns or "summer-camps." But Huygens felt that his felicity would not last, and he was right. On May 10th 1637, about three months after daughter Suzanna's birth (13th March 1637) which left the mother fatally ill, his 'Sterre' died.

Huygens grief was beyond all imagination. Earlier he had begun to write a poem about the happiness of his marriage, describing it as the period of one day, called Daghwerck. Huys-raed ('The Day's Work. The Order of the House'). Now he was not longer able to continue. The last part became a lament of his loss and an unrestrained loneliness and unease as is clear from the touching lines below:

Kent wat ick lijd', en troost: Mijn wederwilligh spreken
En sal den stracken draed van uw gesegh niet breken;
Tot spreken hoort noch kracht; de mijne gaet te niet:
Spreeckt, vrienden, ick besw....

Maer, Leser, 'tkan bestaen, veel minder war genoegh;
Waer 'tkind volmaeckt, ten sou syn' vader niet gelijcken.

(Know at last what I suffer. Console me My voice
Protesting will never cut the thread of your discourse.
Speech requires strength, all strength I had has now left me.
Speak, friends, I succ....

Reader, enough, much less would be too long:
Flawed poem, child of the imperfect man.)

Ten years later, in 1638, following the encouragement of his friends, he was able to publish this memorial to Suzanna and the happiness of his married life. Since October 1627 Huygens and his family had lived in a house at Lange Voorhout. In March 1634, Frederik Hendrik had given Huygens a building lot at the 'Plein', close to the government's buildings in the 'Binnenhof' and near to the 'Mauritshuis' (designed 1638 by Johann van Campen and Pieter Post for Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, nephew of Frederik Hendrik and Maurits, called 'de Braziliaan'). Huygens begun immediately with the plans for a stately home, according to the advice of Pieter Post and Jacob van Campen, the painter of his double portrait and one of Holland's leading architects in that time (he was also the architect of the impressive city hall of Amsterdam).

Huygens as a Translator


Huygens' extraordinary gifts as a linguist are well known, as is the fact that he began to write poems in Latin at the age of 11 and in French at 16, two years before he tried his hand at Dutch verse. It has been calculated that of the more than 75,000 lines of verse in Worp's edition of Huygens' Collected Poems, 64.3% are in Dutch, 26.4% in Latin and 8.7% in French, with Italian, Greek, German and Spanish making up the remaining 0.6%. His skill as a multilingual versifier can be breathtaking: in one of his more playful polyglot moods he presents his friend Jacob van der Burgh with an "Olla podrida" poem, dated 11 March, 1625, with lines in Dutch, Latin, Greek, Italian, French, Spanish, German and English. His voluminous correspondence, too, contains letters in half a dozen languages and shifts effortlessly from one language into another, sometimes within one and the same letter. Although as a reader Huygens would seem to have had less need of translations than virtually anyone else in seventeenth-century Holland, his personal library is known to have held a variety of translations, among them two Dutch versions of Virgil (Vondel's prose translation of 1646 and Westerbaen's Aeneid of 1662), Martial's epigrams in English, and Vitruvius.

Huygens as a Translator
Theo Hermans


  1. Rosalie L. Colie, "Some Thankfulnesse to Constantine," A Study of English Influence upon the Early Works of Constantijn Huygens, The Hague 1956, 1.
  2. ibid. 1 with note 1 Huizinga 1941.
  3. Peter Davidson and Adriaan van der Weel, A Selection of the Poems of Sir Constantijn Huygens (1596–1684), Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996, 9.
  4. To Huygens' experiences with the "Engelsche Viool'" see: Tim Crawford, 'Constantijn Huygens and the Engelsche Viool', in: Chelys, publ. Viola da Gamba Society of Great Britain, London, XVIII, 1989, 41–60.
  5. Colie op. cit. p. 10.
  6. The remainder of his library was distributed among his eldest sons and parts of it was sold in the 1695 auction soon after Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695) had died and in the 1701 auction some years after the death of Constantijn Huygens Jr. (1628–1697).
  7. To the influence of Bacon and Drebbel on Huygens' occupations with philosophy and the natural sciences see Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983, chapter 1 "Constantijn Huygens and the New World" (1–25).
  8. To the attribution of this painting and its history, see: Julius S. Held, "Constantijn Huygens and Susanna van Baerle: A Hitherto Unknown Portrait," The Art Bulletin: A Quarterly Published by the College Art Association, New York, December 1991, Vol. LXXIII, no. 4, 653–668.
    To the musical aspect in this painting see: Frits Noske, "Two Unpaired Hands Holding a Music Sheet: A Recent Discovered Portrait of Constantijn Huygens and Susanna van Baerle," in: Tijdschrift van de Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis, XLII-1, 1992, 131–140.
    To the acquisition of this painting by the Mauritshuis The Hague see: Gary Schwartz, "How Sterre came home," Schwartzlist no. 226. http://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/schwartzlist/?id=53

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