The Netherlands have been inhabited since the last Ice Age. The most famous remnants from the early age in the Netherlands are the hunebeds (Dutch for dolmens), large stone grave monuments from the neolithic, which can be found in Drenthe.
In the first century BC, the Romans came to the Netherlands. For the majority of the Roman occupation, the boundary of the Roman Empire lay along the Rhine. Romans built the first cities in the Netherlands, most importantly Utrecht, Nijmegen, and Maastricht. The northern part of the Netherlands, outside the Roman Empire, where the Frisians lived (and still do), was also heavily influenced by its strong southern neighbour.
After the fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent period of turmoil, the Netherlands was divided in three parts, the Frisians living by the coast, the Saxons in the east, and the Franks in the south. The Franks managed to overcome their neighbors. Under Charlemagne, a Frankish empire was built, having its heartland in Belgium and northern France, and spanning France, Germany, northern Italy, and several other regions. The Frankish empire was divided and reunited several times, in the end giving rise to two major powers, France and the Holy Roman Empire in Germany. The Netherlands were part of the latter.
The Holy Roman Empire did however not remain a political unity. Local vassals made their countships and duchies into private kingdoms and felt not much obliged to the emperor, who over large parts of the nation governed only in name. Large parts of what is now the Netherlands were governed by the count of Holland, the duke of Gelre, the duke of Brabant and the bishop of Utrecht, but Friesland and Groningen in the north kept their independence, being governed by the lower nobility. Most of what is now the Netherlands and Belgium was united by the duke of Burgundy.
Through inheritance, the area became a possession of the Habsburg dynasty under Charles V of Spain in the late 15th century. In the Netherlands, some part of the population joined with the Reformation and became protestants. This was not liked by Charles's son and successor Philip II, who also was very distant in attitude (never visiting the Low Countries himself), whereas his father had been raised in Ghent,(Belgium) and had become lord of the Netherlands before he became king of Spain. Philips's attempts to enforce religious persecution of the Protestants and his endeavours to centralise government, justice & taxes led to a revolt. William of Orange, a nobleman, took the lead in what is called the Eighty years' war (1568-1648).
In this period, the Dutch also started large-scale overseas trade - they hunted whales near Svalbard, traded spices with India and Indonesia, started colonies in Brazil and New Amsterdam (now New York), South Africa, St. Maarten, etcetera. The wealth, accumulated from all this trade, led to the 17th century being called the golden age for the Netherlands. Quite remarkable was, that in those days the Netherlands were a republic, being governed by an aristocracy of city-merchants ("Regenten") rather than by a king or nobility. In principle every city & province had it's own government & laws. There was much independence of the various cities and districts.
At the end of the 18th century, unrest was growing in the Netherlands. Fights were starting between the Orangists, wanting stadtholder William V (a descendant of William of Orange) to get more power, and the patriots, who under influence of the French Revolution wanted a more democratic government. When the French republican armies invaded the Netherlands in 1789 the Patriots won, creating the Batavian Republic which however did not last long. French influence was strong, and Napoleon turned the Netherlands (together with Belgium and a part of Germany) into the Kingdom of Holland, with his brother Louis Napoleon as king ("Konijn van Olland"). This also did not last very long, because when Napoleon noticed that his brother put the Dutch interests before the French, the Netherlands became part of the French empire.
After the Napoleonic era, the Netherlands became a monarchy, with the prince of Orange as king William I. His kingdom originally consisted of what is now the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, but the Belgians had a feeling that they were second-class citizens, and declared their independence in 1830. After a war of only a few days, King William had to give in. In 1848, unrest broke out all over Europe. In the Netherlands, little unrest happened, but the effects were large. The liberal Johan Rudolf Thorbecke was asked by the king to create a new constitution, which basically turned the Netherlands into a democracy.
By the end of the 19th century, when internationally countries were claiming colonies, the Netherlands extended their hold of Indonesia. Max Havelaar by Multatuli, the most famous book in the history of Dutch literature, complained about the exploitation by the Dutch of the country and its inhabitants.
In World War I, the Netherlands remained neutral. In World War II, the Netherlands were conquered by the Germans in May 1940 in only six days. Later, the Japanese conquered Indonesia. Both nations preferred to get the 'wrong elements' out of their areas - for the Germans, these were the Jews, Roma (gypsies) etcetera, for the Japanese the Europeans.
After World War II, Indonesia declared its independence. The Dutch did not agree with this, preferring just an increased amount of internal autonomy, and sent soldiers to fight the so-called 'first and second police action'. However, the determination of the Indonesians and international pressure, especially from the United States, forced the Dutch to recognize Indonesia's independence. Only the eastern half of New Guinea remained Dutch for a more few years. Although it was originally expected that the loss of Indonesia would lead to an economic downfall, the reverse appeared true, and in the 1950s the Netherlands quickly increased in wealth.
A modern, industrialized nation, the Netherlands is also a large exporter of agricultural products. The country was a founding member of NATO and the EC, and participated in the introduction of the euro in 1999. In recent years, the Dutch have often been a driving force behind the unification of European countries in the European Union.
Homosexual marriage (homohuwelijk, or gay marriage) was permitted from 1 April 2001, probably unique in the world at this time. According to provisional figures from the Netherlands Central Bureau of Statistics, for the first six months gay marriages made up 3.6 percent of the total number of marriages: a peak of around 6 percent in the first month followed by around 3 percent in the remaining months: about 2100 men and 1700 women in total.