by Susan Flantzer
King Willem II of the Netherlands (Willem Frederik George Lodewijk) was the eldest child of King Willem I of the Netherlands and Princess Wilhelmine of Prussia. He was born on December 6, 1792 at Noordeinde Palace, The Hague, Dutch Republic. Willem had one brother and two sisters:
- Prince Frederik of the Netherlands (1797 – 1881), married Princess Louise of Prussia, had issue including Louise, wife of King Carl XV of Sweden
- Princess Pauline of Orange-Nassau (1800 – 1806), died young
- Princess Marianne of the Netherlands (1810 – 1883), married Prince Albert of Prussia, had issue
Willem was the only one of his siblings to be born in their homeland. When he was two years old, his family was forced into exile when the French invaded and occupied the Dutch Republic during the Napoleonic Wars. Willem spent his childhood at the Prussian court where he received military training, served in the Prussian Army and then attended Oxford University in England. In 1811, he entered the British Army and was an aide-de-camp to Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. He was popular with the British troops who nicknamed him “Slender Billy.” Willem returned with his father to the Netherlands in 1813 after the French retreated following their defeat in the Battle of Leipzig. He served in the Allied Army after Napoleon’s escape from his exile in Elba. Willem took part in the Battle of Quatre Bras (June 16, 1815) and the Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815), where he was wounded. In 1815, he officially became heir apparent with the title Prince of Orange when his father was proclaimed King of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.
From December 1813 – May 1814, Willem was engaged to Princess Charlotte of Wales, daughter of the future King George IV of the United Kingdom. Charlotte broke off the engagement, married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, later King Leopold I of Belgium, and tragically died, along with her son, due to childbirth complications. Willem married Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna of Russia, youngest sister to Tsar Alexander I of Russia, on February 21, 1816 at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. The bride’s brother had arranged the marriage to foster the good relations between Imperial Russia and the Netherlands. Willem and Anna had five children:
- King Willem III of the Netherlands (1817–1890), married (1) Sophie of Württemberg, had issue and (2) Emma of Waldeck and Pyrmont, had one child, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands
- Prince Alexander “Sasha” of the Netherlands (1818–1848), unmarried
- Prince Hendrik of the Netherlands (1820–1879), married (1) Amalia of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and (2) Marie of Prussia, no issue from either marriage; Prince Hendrik died from measles
- Prince Ernst of the Netherlands (born and died 1822)
- Princess Sophie of the Netherlands (1824–1897), married Karl Alexander, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, had issue
While Willem was heir to the throne, he was the defense minister in his father’s government. He stayed in the southern provinces in Brussels for six months of the year and in The Hague, the seat of government, for the other six months. In 1829, Willem was appointed Vice President of the Council of State and Chairman of the Council of Ministers. In these positions, he was formally the chief adviser to his father. In 1830-1831, the Belgian Revolution resulted in the secession of the southern provinces from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and the establishment of an independent Kingdom of Belgium. Willem came to the Dutch throne on October 7, 1840 when his father King Willem I abdicated due to constitutional changes he did not agree with, anger over the loss of Belgium, and his desire to make a morganatic second marriage with Henriëtte d’Oultremont after the death of his wife Wilhelmine. King Willem II’s inauguration ceremony took place on November 28, 1840 in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam.
During Willem II’s reign, the power of many monarchs diminished. The revolutions of 1848 and 1849, in which Louis-Philippe of France was deposed and other European monarchs were forced by violence to make concessions, made him fear for his throne. Willem decided to institute a more liberal government, believing it was better to grant reforms instead of having them imposed on him on less favorable terms later. Jokingly, Willem said he turned from conservative to liberal in one night. He chose a committee headed by the prominent liberal Johan Rudolf Thorbecke to create a new constitution which resulted in a constitutional monarchy.
On February 13, 1849, King Willem II addressed the new parliament for the first time. It was noted that he looked ill and his voice was weak. Willem decided to spend some time in his favorite town Tilburg. He said of Tilburg, “Here I can breathe freely and I feel happy” and he commissioned the construction of a palace, which would function as his country residence. On March 13, 1849, Willem said goodbye to his wife and drove in a carriage to Rotterdam to visit a steam yacht under construction. At the top of some stairs, he became confused, his boot became stuck in his cloak, and he fell.
Once Willem reached Tilburg, his health problems got worse. Willem was no longer able to concentrate on state papers. For two days, he was seriously short of breath. On March 17, 1849, Willem’s condition was very critical. Around three o’clock in the afternoon, Willem had such a severe attack of breathlessness that he jumped into his doctor’s arms. The king was put back into his chair, and then he died.
King Willem II was buried at the Royal Vault of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, the Netherlands. In February 1865, Queen Anna became seriously ill and subsequently died at The Hague on March 1, 1865. She remained Russian Orthodox her entire life and her funeral service was conducted according to her religion’s rites. Her remains are buried at the Royal Vault of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, the Netherlands.