by Susan Flantzer
King William III of England was born on November 14, 1650 at Binnenhof in The Hague in the Dutch Republic, now in the Netherlands. He was the only child of William II, Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, and Mary, Princess Royal, who was the eldest daughter of King Charles I of England. William’s father died at age 24 of smallpox eight days before William’s birth, so from birth, William was the sovereign Prince of Orange. His 19-year-old widowed mother wanted to name her son Charles after her brother (King Charles II of England), but her mother-in-law insisted that her grandson be named William Henry (in Dutch Willem Hendrik), and she got her way. During William’s minority as Prince of Orange, his mother had to share his guardianship with his paternal grandmother Amalia of Solms-Braunfels and Friedrich Wilhelm, Elector of Brandenburg, whose wife Louise Henriette of Nassau, was the elder sister of William’s father.
The infant William III, Prince of Orange had an impressive royal genealogy. He was the great-grandson of William I, Prince of Orange, better known as William the Silent, the founder of the House of Orange-Nassau and the ancestor of the monarchy of the Netherlands. His maternal grandparents were King Charles I of England and Princess Henrietta Maria of France. His great-grandparents on his mother’s side were King James I of England/James VI of Scotland (son of Mary, Queen of Scots) and Princess Anne of Denmark (daughter of King Frederik II of Denmark), and King Henri IV of France and Marie de’Medici.
William’s early education, conducted by tutors, was designed to prepare him to carry out the destiny of the House of Orange-Nassau and to bring him up in the Reformed Church which used the theology of John Calvin. From 1659-1666, William attended the University of Leiden although he never formally enrolled as a student. On December 23, 1660, his mother died at the age of 29 of smallpox while visiting her brother King Charles II in London.
In 1667, William was admitted to the Council of State of the Dutch Provinces. He made his first visit to England in 1670 where he met Mary, his eight-year-old first cousin, daughter of his uncle James, Duke of York (the future King James II of England), who was later to become his wife. William was appointed Stadtholder of the United Provinces in 1672, an office that had become practically hereditary in his family. However, 1672 is known in Dutch history as Rampjaar (disaster year). The United Provinces were invaded by France under King Louis XIV in Franco-Dutch War. William led the Dutch forces against the French and in 1678 he forced a peace with France in which the Dutch received all the terms they wanted.
During the war with France, William’s uncle King Charles II of England was acting as a mediator between France and the Netherlands. Savvy William negotiated a political marriage with England by marrying his first cousin Mary, the elder surviving daughter of James, Duke of York, later King James II of England/James VII of Scotland. 27-year-old William and a weepy 15-year-old Mary, prodded on by her uncle King Charles II, were married at St. James’ Palace in London on November 4, 1677. William and Mary made a formal entry into The Hague on December 14, 1677. Mary soon became pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage which may have prevented any successful pregnancies. It is suspected that she had at least two more miscarriages. Her inability to have children was Mary’s greatest unhappiness. Despite their physical mismatch, Mary was quite tall (5 feet 11 inches; 180 cm) and towered over the undersized and asthmatic William (5 feet 6 inches; 167 cm), William adored Mary and Mary was devoted to William. Unlike his uncles, Charles II and James II who had many mistresses, William reputedly had only one mistress, Elizabeth Villiers.
In 1685, William and Mary’s uncle King Charles II died without any legitimate children despite having at least 14 illegitimate children. Mary’s father, who had converted to Roman Catholicism, succeeded his brother as King James II. Mary and her younger sister Anne were James’ only surviving children and were first and second in the line of succession followed by William who was third as the only child of King Charles I’s eldest surviving daughter. King James II was now set on a course of restoring Catholicism to England. He issued a Declaration of Indulgence removing restrictions that had been imposed on those that did not conform to the Church of England. England might very well have tolerated King James II knowing that his heirs were the Protestant daughters of his first wife Anne Hyde, Mary and Anne. However, on June 10, 1688, James’ second wife Maria Beatrice of Modena, who had no surviving children, gave birth to a son, James Francis Edward. Immediately, false rumors swirled that the infant had been smuggled into the queen’s chambers in a warming pan.
On November 5, 1688, William III, Prince of Orange, the nephew and son-in-law of King James II, landed in England vowing to safeguard the Protestant interest. He marched to London, gathering many supporters. James panicked and sent his wife and infant son to France. He tried to flee to France about a month later, but was captured. William had no desire to make his uncle a martyr, so he allowed him to escape. James was received in France by his first cousin King Louis XIV, who offered him a palace and a pension.
Back in England, Parliament refused to depose James, but declared that having fled to France, James had effectively abdicated the throne, and that therefore the throne had become vacant. James’s elder daughter Mary was declared Queen Mary II and she was to rule jointly with her husband William, who would be King William III. This overthrow of King James II is known as the Glorious Revolution. James was determined to regain the throne and landed in Ireland with a French force in 1689. He was defeated by his nephew William at the Battle of the Boyne on July 1, 1690 and was forced to withdraw once again to France where he lived in exile for the rest of his life.
William and Mary were crowned at Westminster Abbey on April 11, 1689. Since they were joint sovereigns, a duplicate coronation chair and a duplicate set of regalia were required for the coronation ceremony. At previous coronations, monarchs had sworn to uphold the laws made by their ancestors. However, William and Mary swore to rule according to “the statutes in Parliament agreed upon and laws and customs of the same” and promised to uphold the Protestant reformed religion.
On December 16, 1689, Parliament passed the Bill of Rights 1689 which limited the powers of the monarch and set out the rights of Parliament. The Bill of Rights 1689 along with the Act of Settlement 1701 are still in effect in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth realms although both have been amended by the Perth Agreement 2011 which took effect on March 26, 2015. The Bill of Rights also confirmed the succession to the throne. Following the death of either William or Mary, the other was to continue to reign. Next in the line of succession would be any children of the couple, to be followed by Mary’s sister Anne and her children. Last in the line of succession stood any children William III might have had from any subsequent marriage. Beginning in 1690, William was often on military campaign in Europe and left Mary to reign. She was not keen on assuming such power, but did so with the advice of a nine-member Cabinet Council.
Mary died of smallpox at Kensington Palace in London on December 28, 1694 at the age of 32. The same disease had killed both of William’s parents. William was devastated by Mary’s death and said “from being the happiest” he was “now going to be the miserablest creature on earth.” William continued to reign alone for the remainder of his life.
Perhaps the greatest blow in William’s last years was the death of the 11-year-old William, Duke of Gloucester, the only surviving child of his sister-in-law and his heir presumptive Princess Anne in July of 1700. This death and the failure of the Protestant Stuarts to produce heirs meant the end of the Protestant Stuart dynasty, as the legitimate descendants of King Charles I were either childless or Roman Catholic. The Act of Settlement 1701 secured the Protestant succession to the throne after William’s sister-in-law and heir presumptive Princess Anne. The act excluded the former King James II (who died a few months after the act received royal assent) and the Roman Catholic children from his second marriage and also excluded the descendants of King James II’s sister Henrietta, the youngest daughter of King Charles I. Parliament’s choice was limited to the Protestant descendants of Elizabeth of Bohemia, the only other child of King James I not to have died in childhood. The senior Protestant descendant was Elizabeth of Bohemia’s youngest daughter Sophia, Electress of Hanover. The Act of Settlement put Sophia of Hanover and her Protestant heirs in the line of succession after Anne. Ultimately, Sophia died on June 8, 1714, before the death of Queen Anne on August 1, 1714, and Sophia’s son became King George I and started the Hanover dynasty.
On February 20, 1702, William went riding on his horse Sorrel at Hampton Court Palace. The horse stumbled on a molehill and fell. William tried to pull the horse up by the reins, but the horse’s movements caused William to fall on his right shoulder. His collarbone was broken and was set by a surgeon, but instead of resting, William insisted on returning to Kensington Palace that evening by coach. A week later, it was discovered that the fracture was not mending well and William’s right hand and arm were puffy and did not look right. His condition continued to worsen and by March 3, William had a fever and had difficulty breathing. King William III died on March 8, 1702. When the servants undressed William’s body, they found Mary’s small gold ring on a black ribbon around his neck. He had made it into a locket after Mary’s death and it contained a lock of Mary’s hair. While Mary had been buried with pomp, William was buried at Westminster Abbey in a private, modest ceremony at midnight on April 12, 1702.
Wikipedia: King William III of England
Recommended Book: William and Mary by John Van der Kiste, 2003