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William III of England

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William III and II (14 November 16508 March 1702; also known as William Henry and William of Orange) was Prince of Orange from his birth, King of England and Ireland from 13 February 1689, and King of Scotland from 11 April 1689, in each case until his death. He won the English, Scottish and Irish Crown following the Glorious Revolution, during which his uncle and father-in-law, James II, was deposed. In England, Scotland and Ireland, ruled jointly with his wife, Mary II, until her death on 28 December 1694. He reigned as "William II" in Scotland, but "William III" in all his other realms.

William was appointed to the Dutch post of Stadtholder on 28 June 1672, and remained in office until he died. A Protestant, William participated in many wars with the powerful Roman Catholic King of France, Louis XIV. He was heralded by many as a champion of Protestantism; it was partly due to such a reputation that he was able to take the Crown of England, many of whose people were fervent anti-Catholics (though his army and fleet, the biggest since the Armada, were a more important reason for his success).


Early reign

William, the son of William II, Prince of Orange and Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange, was born in The Hague. Eight days before he was born, his father died from smallpox; thus, William became the Sovereign Prince of Orange at the moment of his birth. He was also related to the English Royal Family; his mother was the daughter of King Charles I.

William II was the Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland and Overijssel. All five provinces, however, suspended the office of Stadtholder upon William II's death. During the "First Stadtholderless Era," power was de facto held by Johan de Witt. In about 1667, as William III was nearing the age of eighteen, the pro-Orange party attempted to restore the Prince to power by securing for him the offices of Stadtholder and Captain-General. So as to prevent the restoration of the influence of the House of Orange, de Witt procured the issuance of the Eternal Edict (or Perpetual Edict), which declared that the Captain-General or Admiral-General of the Netherlands could not serve as Stadtholder in any province. Furthermore, the office of Stadtholder itself was abolished in the province of Holland. (Other provinces soon followed suit.)

The year 1672 was calamitous for the Netherlands, becoming known as the "disaster year." France, under Louis XIV, invaded the Netherlands; the French also had the aid of the English. The great French army quickly overran most of the Netherlands, though Holland managed to remain safe. De Witt failed to secure peace with France, and was overthrown. (Afterwards, he and his brother, Cornelis de Witt , were brutally murdered by an angry mob in The Hague.) In the meantime, the Eternal Edict was declared void, and William III was elected Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. He was also appointed Captain-General and Admiral-General of the Netherlands. Gelderland and Overijssel did not elect William to the post of Stadtholder until 1675.

William III continued to fight against the invaders from England and France (see Third Anglo-Dutch War), afterwards allying himself with Spain. He made peace with the nation he would later come to rule, England, in 1674. To strengthen his position, he endeavoured to marry his first cousin Mary, the daughter of James, Duke of York (the future James II). The marriage occurred on 4 November 1677; the union was an unhappy one and fruitless. Finding a war with both England and the Netherlands disadvantageous, the King of France, Louis XIV, made peace in 1678. Louis, however, continued his aggression, leading William III to join the League of Augsburg (an anti-French coalition which also included the Holy Roman Empire, Sweden, Spain and several German states) in 1686.

In 1685, William's father-in-law came to the English Throne as James II, a Roman Catholic who was unpopular in his Protestant realms. William attempted to conciliate James, whom he hoped would join the League of Augsburg, whilst at the same time trying not to offend the Protestant party in England. But by 1687, it became clear that James II would not join the League. To gain the favour of English Protestants, William expressed his disapproval of James's religious policies. Seeing him as a friend, many English politicians began to negotiate an armed invasion of England.

Glorious Revolution

William was at first opposed to the project of invasion. Meanwhile, in England, James II's second wife, Mary of Modena, bore a son (James Francis Edward), who displaced William's wife to become first in the line of succession. Public anger was also inspired by the trial of seven bishops who had publicly opposed James II's religious policies and had petitioned him to reform them. The acquittal of the bishops signalled a major defeat for the Government of James II, and encouraged further resistance to its activities.

Still, William was reluctant to invade, believing that the English People would not react well to a foreign invader. He therefore demanded that the most eminent English Protestants first invite him to invade. On 30 June 1688—the same day the bishops were acquitted—a group of political figures known as the "Immortal Seven" complied, sending him a formal invitation. William began to make preparations for an invasion; his intentions were public knowledge by September 1688. With a Dutch army, William landed in England on 5 November 1688. James's support dissolved almost immediately; Protestant officers defected from the English army, and influential noblemen across the country declared their support for the invader. Though the invasion and subsequent overthrow of James II is commonly known as the "Glorious Revolution," it was in reality a coup d'état.

James at first attempted to resist William, but saw that his efforts would prove futile. He sent representatives to negotiate with William, but secretly attempted to flee on 11 December. He was caught by a group of fishermen, brought back to London, but successfully attempted to escape on 23 December. William actually permitted James to leave the country, for he did not wish to make him a martyr for the Roman Catholic cause.

In 1689, a Convention Parliament summoned by the Prince of Orange assembled, and much discussion relating to the appropriate course of action ensued. William III was insecure about his position; he wished to be King in his own right, rather than a mere consort. The only precedent for a joint monarchy in England was one from the sixteenth century: when Queen Mary I married the Spanish Prince Philip, it was agreed that the latter would take the title of King. But Philip II remained King only during his wife's lifetime, and restrictions were placed on his power. William, on the other hand, demanded that he be King even after his wife's death. Although some individuals proposed to make her the sole ruler, Mary, remaining loyal to her husband, refused.

On 13 February 1689, Parliament passed the Declaration of Right, in which it deemed that James, by attempting to flee on 11 December 1688, had abdicated the government of the realm, and that the Throne was thereby vacant. The Crown was not offered to James's eldest son, James Francis Edward (who would have been the heir-apparent under normal circumstances), but to William and Mary as joint Sovereigns. It was, however, provided that "the sole and full exercise of the regal power be only in and executed by the said Prince of Orange in the names of the said Prince and Princess during their joint lives."

William and Mary were crowned together at Westminster Abbey on 11 April 1689 by the Bishop of London, Henry Compton. Normally, the coronation is performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, but the Archbishop at the time, William Sancroft, refused to recognise James II's removal. On the day of the coronation, the Convention of the Estates of Scotland—which was much more divided than the English Parliament—finally declared that James was no longer King of Scotland. William and Mary were offered the Scottish Crown; they accepted on 11 May. William was officially "William II," for there was only one previous Scottish King named William (see William I).

Revolution Settlement

William III encouraged the passage of the Toleration Act 1689 , which guaranteed religious toleration to certain dissenters. The Act, however, only extended to a limited group of individuals: non-Christians, those who disbelieved in the Holy Trinity and Roman Catholics were all excluded. Thus, the Act was not as wide-ranging as James II's Declaration of Indulgence, which attempted to grant freedom of conscience to people of all faiths.

In December 1689, one of the most important constitutional documents in English history, the Bill of Rights, was passed. The Act—which restated and confirmed many provisions of the earlier Declaration of Right—established restrictions on the royal prerogative; it was provided, amongst other things, that the Sovereign could not suspend laws passed by Parliament, levy taxes without parliamentary consent, infringe the right to petition, raise a standing army during peacetime without parliamentary consent, deny the right to bear arms to Protestant subjects, unduly interfere with parliamentary elections, punish members of either House Parliament for anything said during debates, require excessive bail or inflict cruel or unusual punishments. William was opposed to the imposition of such constraints, but he wisely chose not to engage in a conflict with Parliament and agreed to abide by the statute.

The Bill of Rights also settled the question of succession to the Crown. After the death of either William or Mary, the other would continue to reign. Next in the line of succession was Mary II's sister, the Princess Anne, and her issue. Finally, any children William might have had by a subsequent marriage were included in the line of succession. Non-Protestants, as well as those who married Roman Catholics, were excluded from the succession.

Rule with Mary II

William continued to be absent from the realm for extended periods during his war with France. England joined the League of Augsburg, which then became known as the "Grand Alliance." Whilst William was away fighting, his wife, Mary II, governed the realm for him, but acted on his advice. Each time he returned to England, Mary gave up her power to him unbegrudgingly. Such an arrangement lasted for the rest of Mary's life.

Although William was accepted as Sovereign by most in England, he faced considerable opposition in Scotland and Ireland. The Scottish Jacobites—those who believed that James II was the legitimate monarch—won a stunning victory on 27 July 1689 at the Battle of Killiecrankie, but were nevertheless subdued within a month. William's reputation suffered following the Massacre of Glencoe (1692), in which hundreds of Scotsmen were murdered for not properly pledging their allegiance to the new King and Queen. Bowing to public opinion, William dismissed those responsible for the massacre, though they still remained in his favour; in the words of the historian John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, "one became a colonel, another a knight, a third a peer, and a fourth an earl."

In Ireland, where the rebels were aided by the French, fighting continued for much longer, although James II had been forced to flee the island after the Battle of the Boyne (1690). The victory in Ireland is commemorated annually by the Orange March. After a French fleet was defeated by the Anglo-Dutch Navy at La Hogue in 1692, the naval supremacy of the English became apparent, and Ireland was conquered shortly thereafter. At the same time, the Grand Alliance fared poorly on land. William lost Namur, a part of his Dutch territory, in 1692, and was disastrously beaten at the Battle of Landen in 1693.

Mary II died of smallpox in 1694, leaving William III to rule alone. Although he had previously mistreated his wife and kept mistresses, William deeply mourned his wife's death. Although he was brought up as a Calvinist, he converted to Anglicanism. His popularity, however, plummetted during his reign as a sole Sovereign.

William is assumed by most modern scholars to have been bisexual. He had several male favourites, including a Rotterdam bailiff Van Zuylen van Nijveld. He granted English dignities to two of his Dutch courtiers: Hans Willem Bentinck became Earl of Portland, and Arnold Joost van Keppel was created Earl of Albemarle.

Later years

In 1696, the Dutch province of Drenthe made William its Stadtholder. William continued to wage war against France until 1697, when the Treaty of Ryswick was agreed to. His arch-rival, Louis XIV, agreed to recognise him as King and give no further assistance to James. The Jacobites did not pose any further serious threats during William's reign.

As his life drew towards its conclusion, William, like many other European rulers, was concerned with the question of succession to the Throne of Spain, with which were associated vast territories in Italy, the Low Countries and the New World. The King of Spain at the time was Charles II, an invalid with no prospect of having children; amongst his closest relatives were Louis XIV (the King of France) and Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor. William sought to prevent the Spanish inheritance from going to either monarch, for he feared that such a calamity would upset the balance of power. William and Louis XIV agreed to the First Partition Treaty , which provided for the division of the Spanish Empire: Duke Joseph Ferdinand of Bavaria (whom William himself chose) would obtain Spain, whilst the remaining territories would be divided between France and the Holy Roman Emperor. The Spaniards, however, were shocked by William's boldness; they had not been previously consulted on the dismemberment of their own empire, and strove to keep the Spanish territories united.

At first, William and Louis ignored the wishes of the Spanish court. When, however, the Bavarian Prince selected to inherit Spain died of smallpox, the issue was reopened. In 1700, the two rulers agreed to the Second Partition Treaty (also called the Treaty of London), under which the territories in Italy would pass to a son of the King of France, and the other Spanish territories would be inherited by a son of the Holy Roman Emperor. This arrangement infuriated both the Spanish—who still sought to prevent the dissolution of their empire—and the Holy Roman Emperor—to whom the Italian territories were much more useful than the other lands. Unexpectedly, the invalid King of Spain, Charles II, interfered as he lay dying in late 1700. Unilaterally, he willed all Spanish territories to Philip, a grandson of Louis XIV. The French conveniently ignored the Second Partition Treaty and claimed the entire Spanish inheritance. Furthermore, Louis XIV alienated William III by recognising James Francis Edward Stuart—the son of the former King James II, who had by then died—as King of England. The subsequent conflict, known as the War of the Spanish Succession, continued until 1713.

The Spanish inheritance, however, was not the only one which concerned William. His marriage with Mary II had not yielded any children, and he did not seem likely to remarry. Mary's sister, the Princess Anne, had borne numerous children, all of whom died during childhood. The death of William, Duke of Gloucester in 1700 left the Princess Anne as the only individual left in the line of succession established by the Bill of Rights. As the complete exhaustion of the line of succession would have encouraged a restoration of James II's line, Parliament saw fit to pass the Act of Settlement 1701, in which it was provided that the Crown would be inherited by a distant relative, Sophia, Electress of Hanover and her Protestant heirs if the Princess Anne died without surviving issue, and if William III failed to have surviving issue by any subsequent marriage. (Several Roman Catholics with genealogically senior claims to Sophia were omitted.) The Act extended to England and Ireland, but not to Scotland, whose Estates had not been consulted before the selection of Sophia.

Like the Bill of Rights before it, the Act of Settlement not only addressed succession to the Throne, but also limited the power of the Crown. Future Sovereigns were forbidden to use English resources to defend any of their other realms, unless parliamentary consent was first obtained. To ensure the independence of the judiciary, it was enacted that judges would serve during good behaviour, rather than at the pleasure of the Sovereign. It was also enacted that a pardon issued by the Sovereign could not impede an impeachment.


In 1702, William—who did not remarry—died of complications resulting from a fall off his horse. It was believed by some that his horse had stumbled into a mole's burrow and as a result many Jacobites toasted "the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat."

William was buried in Westminster Abbey alongside his wife. The reign of William's successor, Anne, was marked by attempts to extend the provisions of the Act of Settlement to Scotland. Angered by the English Parliament's failure to consult with them before choosing Sophia of Hanover, the Estates of Scotland enacted the Act of Security, forcing Anne to grant the Royal Assent by threatening to withdraw troops from the army fighting in the War of the Spanish Succession. The Act provided that, if Anne died without a child, the Estates could elect the next monarch from amongst the Protestant descendants of previous Scottish Kings, but could not choose the English successor unless various religious, political and economic conditions were met. In turn, the English Parliament attempted to force the Scots to capitulate by restricting trade, thereby crippling the Scottish economy. The Scottish Estates were forced to agree to the Act of Union 1707, which united England and Scotland into a single realm called Great Britain; succession was to be under the terms established by the Act of Settlement.

William's death also brought an end to the Dutch House of Orange, which had governed the Netherlands since the time of William the Silent (William I). The five provinces over which William III ruled—Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland and Overijssel—all suspended the office of Stadtholder after William III's death. The remaining two provinces—Friesland and Groningen—were never governed by William III, and continued to retain a separate Stadtholder, Johan Willem Friso. Under William III's will, Friso was to inherit the Principality of Orange. The Principality, however, was also claimed by the Prussian King Frederick I.

Johan Willem Friso died in 1711, leaving his claim to his son, William. Under the Treaty of Utrecht, which was agreed to in 1713, Frederick I allowed the King of France, Louis XIV, to take the lands of Orange; William Friso, or William IV, was left with the meaningless title of "Prince of Orange." William IV was also restored to the office of Stadtholder in 1747. (From 1747 onwards, there was one Stadtholder for the entire Republic, rather than a separate Stadtholder for each province.)


William's primary achievement was to hem in France when it was in a position to impose its will across much of Europe. His life was largely opposed to the will of the French King Louis XIV. This effort continued after his death during the War of the Spanish Succession.

Another important consequence of William's reign involved the ending of a bitter conflict between Crown and Parliament that had lasted since the accession of the first monarch of the House of Stuart, James I, in 1603. The conflict over royal and parliamentary power had led to the English Civil War during the 1640s and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. During William's reign, however, the conflict was settled in Parliament's favour by the Bill of Rights 1689, the Triennial Act 1694 and the Act of Settlement 1701.

Style and arms

The joint style of William III and Mary II was "William and Mary, by the Grace of God, King and Queen of England, France and Ireland, Defenders of the Faith, etc." when they ascended the Throne. (The claim to France was only nominal, and had been asserted by every English King since Edward III, regardless of the amount of French territory actually controlled, see English Kings of France) From 11 April, 1689—when the Estates of Scotland recognised them as Sovereigns—the style "William and Mary, by the Grace of God, King and Queen of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defenders of the Faith, etc." was used. After Mary's death, William continued to use the same style, omitting the reference to Mary, mutatis mutandis.

The arms used by the King and Queen were: Quarterly, I and IV Grandquarterly, Azure three fleurs-de-lis Or (for France) and Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or (for England); II Or a lion rampant within a tressure flory-counter-flory Gules (for Scotland); III Azure a harp Or stringed Argent (for Ireland); overall an escutcheon Azure billetty and a lion rampant Or.


  • "William III (England)." (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ed. London: Cambridge University Press.
  • McFerran, Noel S. (2004). "The Jacobite Heritage."
  • British Broadcasting Corporation. (2004). "William III."
  • William of Orange features prominently in the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson.

Preceded by:
James II/VII
King of England
with Mary II
Succeeded by:
King of Scots
with Mary II
King of Ireland
with Mary II

Last updated: 02-08-2005 12:54:20
Last updated: 02-28-2005 02:16:10