William III of England

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History 1500-1750; Monarchs of Great Britain

King William III
William III
Stadtholder of Guelders, Holland, Zealand, Utrecht and Overijssel, King of England, Scotland and Ireland
Reign 12 February 1689 - 8 March 1702
(with Mary II until 28 December 1694)
Born 14 November 1650
The Hague
Died March 8, 1702 (aged 51)
Buried Westminster Abbey
Predecessor James II
Successor Anne
Consort Mary II (joint monarch)
Royal House Stuart
Father William II, Prince of Orange
Mother Mary Stuart

William III of England (The Hague, 14 November 1650 – Hampton Court, 8 March 1702; also known as William II of Scotland and William III of Orange) was a Dutch aristocrat and a Protestant Prince of Orange from his birth, Stadtholder of the main provinces of the Dutch Republic from 28 June 1672, King of England and King of Ireland from 13 February 1689, and King of Scotland from 11 April 1689, in each case until his death.

Born a member of the House of Orange-Nassau, William III won the English, Scottish and Irish Crowns following the Glorious Revolution, during which his uncle and father-in-law, James II, was deposed. In England, Scotland and Ireland, William 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. Among Unionists in Northern Ireland, he is today informally known as King Billy.

William III was appointed to the Dutch post of Stadtholder on 28 June 1672, and remained in office until he died. In that context, he is sometimes referred to as 'William Henry, Prince of Orange', as a translation of his Dutch title, Willem Hendrik, Prins van Oranje. A Protestant, William participated in many wars against the powerful Catholic King Louis XIV of France. Many Protestants heralded him as a champion of their faith; it was partly due to such a reputation that he was able to take the crown of England, many of whose people were intensely fearful of Catholicism and the papacy, although other reasons for his success might be his army and a fleet four times larger than the famed Spanish Armada. His reign marked the beginning of the transition from the personal control of government of the Stuarts to the Parliamentary type rule of the House of Hanover.

Early life

William of Orange, the son of William II, Prince of Orange and Mary, Princess Royal of England, was born in The Hague, The Netherlands. 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.

On 23 December 1660, when William was just ten years old, his mother died of smallpox at Whitehall Palace, London while visiting her brother King Charles II. In her will, Mary designated Charles as William's legal guardian. Charles delegated this responsibility to William's paternal grandmother, the Princess Dowager Amalia, with the understanding that Charles's advice would be sought whenever it was needed. This arrangement did not prevent Charles from corresponding with his nephew.

From 1659 to 1661, Protestant scholar Samuel Chappuzeau was employed as his tutor. In 1666, when William was sixteen, the States General of the United Provinces officially made him a ward of the government, or as William himself called it, a "Child of State". This was supposedly done in order to prepare William for a role in the nation's government, although what this role would be left unspecified. When his time as the government's ward ended three years later, William returned to private life.

Silver crown coin of William III, dated 1695.  The Latin inscription is (obverse) GVLIELMVS III DIE GRAB[tia] (reverse) MAG[nae] BR[itanniae], FRA[nciae], ET HIB[erniae] REX 1695. English: "William III, By the grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, 1695."  The reverse shows the arms, clockwise from top, of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, centered on William's personal arms of the House of Orange-Nassau.
Silver crown coin of William III, dated 1695. The Latin inscription is (obverse) GVLIELMVS III DIE GRAB[tia] (reverse) MAG[nae] BR[itanniae], FRA[nciae], ET HIB[erniae] REX 1695. English: "William III, By the grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, 1695." The reverse shows the arms, clockwise from top, of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, centered on William's personal arms of the House of Orange-Nassau.

Early office

William II held the office of Stadtholder of Holland, Zealand, Utrecht, Guelders 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 Grand Pensionary Johan de Witt. In about 1667, as William III approached 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, which declared that the Captain-General or Admiral-General of the Netherlands could not serve as Stadtholder in any province. (Furthermore, the province of Holland abolished the very office of Stadtholder and the four other provinces soon followed suit.)

The year 1672 proved calamitous for the Netherlands, becoming known as the "disaster year." The Netherlands was invaded by France, under Louis XIV, who had the aid of England, ( Third Anglo-Dutch War), Münster, and Cologne. The French army quickly overran most of the Netherlands, though Holland managed to remain safe behind the Dutch water line. 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. Today, many historians believe that William may have been complicit in the murder. The victory for the Orange party was complete; the Eternal Edict was declared void, and William was elected Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. He was also appointed Captain-General and Admiral-General of the Netherlands. Gelderland and Overijssel, which already had a relative of William's for Stadtholder, did not elect William to the post until 1675.

William III continued to fight against the invaders from England and France, afterwards allying himself with Spain. After Admiral Michiel de Ruyter had defeated the Royal Navy, William 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 of England). The marriage occurred on 4 November 1677; after a difficult start the marriage was a success although 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 (and uncle) 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 would not join the League. To gain the favour of English Protestants, William expressed his disapproval of James's religious policies in November 1687. Seeing him as a friend, many English politicians began to negotiate an armed invasion of England.

Glorious Revolution

William at first opposed the prospect of invasion, but in April 1688, when England concluded a naval agreement with France, began to assemble an expeditionary force. Still, he was hesitant about such an operation, believing that the English people would not react well to a foreign invader. He therefore in April demanded in a letter to Rear-Admiral Arthur Herbert that the most eminent English Protestants first invite him to invade. In June, 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 also increased due to 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.

On 30 June 1688 — the same day the bishops were acquitted — a group of political figures known as the " Immortal Seven" complied to William's earlier request, sending him a formal invitation. William's intentions to invade were public knowledge by September 1688. With a Dutch army, William landed at Brixham in southwest England on 5 November 1688. He came ashore from the ship Den Briel (" Brill") carried aloft by a local fisherman Peter Varwell to proclaim "the liberties of England and the Protestant religion I will maintain". William had come ashore with 15,500 foot soldiers and up to 4000 horse. Gilbert Burnet, the Bishop of Salisbury, was more precise and claimed the figure to be 14,352. On his way to London William stayed at Forde House in Newton Abbot and is alleged to have held his first parliament nearby (Parliament Cottages, as they are now known, can still be seen today). James's support began to dissolve almost immediately upon his arrival; Protestant officers defected from the English army (the most notable of whom was Baron Churchill, James's most able commander), 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 more nearly a coup d'état, with one faction ultimately successful in deposing James II and installing William of Orange in power.

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. A group of fishermen caught him and brought him back to London. He successfully escaped in a second attempt on 23 December. William actually permitted James to leave the country, not wanting 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 felt insecure about his position; though only his wife was formally eligible to assume the throne, he wished to reign as King in his own right, rather than as a mere consort. The only precedent for a joint monarchy in England dated 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 remain as King even after his wife's death. Although the majority of Tory Lords proposed to acclaim her as 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, thereby leaving the Throne 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" of Scotland, for there was only one previous Scottish King named William (see William I).

Revolution Settlement

William III of England encouraged the passage of the Act of Toleration 1689, which guaranteed religious toleration to certain Protestant nonconformists. It did not, however, extend toleration to Roman Catholics or those of non-Christian faiths. 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 of Parliament for anything said during debates, require excessive bail or inflict cruel and 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, but acted on his advice. Each time he returned to England, Mary gave up her power to him ungrudgingly. Such an arrangement lasted for the rest of Mary's life.

Although most in England accepted William as Sovereign, 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 seventy-eight Highland Scots were murdered or died of exposure 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 French aided the rebels, fighting continued for much longer, although James II had perforce to flee the island after the Battle of the Boyne (1690). The victory in Ireland is commemorated annually by the The Twelfth. After the Anglo-Dutch fleet defeated a French fleet at La Hogue in 1692, the allies for a short period controlled the seas, and Ireland was conquered shortly thereafter. At the same time, the Grand Alliance fared poorly on land. William lost Namur in the Spanish Netherlands 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 (the best-known of which was Elizabeth Villiers), William deeply mourned his wife's death. Although he was brought up as a Calvinist, he converted to Anglicanism. His popularity, however, plummeted during his reign as a sole Sovereign.

During the 1690s rumors of William's homosexual inclinations grew and lead to the publication of many satirical pamphlets. He had several male favourites, including a Rotterdam bailiff Van Zuylen van Nijveld, and two Dutch courtiers to whom he granted English dignities: Hans Willem Bentinck became Earl of Portland, and Arnold Joost van Keppel was created Earl of Albemarle. William was especially close to his fellow Dutch countrymen and made little headway into his new dominions as a monarch, always something of an outsider to his British subjects. He himself expressed it this way: "I clearly perceive that this people was not made for me, nor was I made for this people".

Later years

A Statue of King William III marking the centre of Petersfield, Hampshire
A Statue of King William III marking the centre of Petersfield, Hampshire

In 1696, the Dutch province of Drenthe made William its Stadtholder. In the same year, Jacobites made an attempt to restore James to the English throne by assassinating William III, but the plot failed. Considering the failure, Louis XIV offered to have James elected King of Poland in the same year. James feared that acceptance of the Polish Crown might (in the minds of the English people) render him ineligible as King of England. In rejecting this offer, James made what would prove a fateful decision: less than a year later, France ceased to sponsor him. In accordance with the Treaty of Ryswick ( 20 September 1697), which ended the War of the Grand Alliance, Louis recognised William III as King of England, and undertook to give no further assistance to James II. Thus deprived of French dynastic backing after 1697, 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, felt concern over the question of succession to the throne of Spain, which brought with it vast territories in Italy, the Low Countries and the New World. The King of Spain, Charles II, was 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, while France and the Holy Roman Emperor would divide the remaining territories between them. The Spaniards, however, expressed shock at 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, Joseph Ferdinand died of smallpox, the issue re-opened. 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 died in 1701 — 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 Princess Anne died without surviving issue, and if William III failed to have surviving issue by any subsequent marriage. (Several 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 died of pneumonia, a complication from a broken collarbone, 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." Years later, Sir Winston Churchill, in his epic the History of the English Speaking Peoples, put it more poetically when he said that the fall "opened the trapdoor to a host of lurking foes".

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-Nassau, 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 stood to inherit the Principality of Orange as well as several lordships in the Netherlands. He was an agnatic relative of the princes of Orange-Nassau, as well as a descendant of William the Silent through a female. However, the Prussian King Frederick I also claimed the Principality as the senior cognatic heir, stadtholder Frederick Henry having being his maternal grandfather and William III his first cousin.

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 of Prussia (who kept the title as part of his titulary) allowed the King of France, Louis XIV, to take the lands of Orange; William Friso, or William IV, who had no resources to fight for lands located in southern France, was left with the title of "Prince of Orange" which had accumulated high prestige in the Netherlands as well as in the entire Protestant world. 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.)


Statue of an idealised William III by John Michael Rysbrack erected in Queen Square, Bristol in 1736
Statue of an idealised William III by John Michael Rysbrack erected in Queen Square, Bristol in 1736

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 in England involved the ending of a bitter conflict between Crown and Parliament that had lasted since the accession of the first English 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.

William endowed the College of William and Mary (in present day Williamsburg, Virginia) in 1693.

Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, is named after him.

The modern day Orange Institution is named after William III, and makes a point of celebrating his victory at the Boyne. Orange marches in Ulster, England, Wales, United States, New Zealand, Canada, Ghana, Togo, Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Continental Europe on " the Twelfth" of July (the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne) often carry a picture of him with them. Hence "orange" is often thought of as a "Protestant" colour in Ireland. The flag of the Republic of Ireland includes the colour orange, as well as white and green, and signifies the aspiration to peace between Protestants and Roman Catholics in Ireland.

New York was briefly renamed New Orange for him. His name was applied to the fort and administrative centre for the city on two separate occasions reflecting his different sovereign status -- first as Fort Willem Hendrick in 1673 when the Dutch renamed New York to New Orange and then as Fort William in 1691 when the English evicted Colonists who had seized the fort and city.. Orange, Connecticut and The Oranges in northern New Jersey, are named for him.

Russian Tsar Peter the Great greatly admired William, and his Great Embassy visited the England of his time. There the two met a few times and Peter's portrait was painted by William's court artist, Sir Godfrey Kneller.

The 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 claims to the French throne) 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's ancestors in three generations
William III Father:
William II, Prince of Orange
Paternal Grandfather:
Frederik Hendrik of Orange
Paternal Great-grandfather:
William the Silent
Paternal Great-grandmother:
Louise de Coligny
Paternal Grandmother:
Amalia of Solms-Braunfels
Paternal Great-grandfather:
Johan Albrecht I of Solms-Braunfels
Paternal Great-grandmother:
Agnes of Sayn-Wittgenstein
Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange
Maternal Grandfather:
Charles I of England
Maternal Great-grandfather:
James I of England
Maternal Great-grandmother:
Anne of Denmark
Maternal Grandmother:
Henrietta Maria of France
Maternal Great-grandfather:
Henry IV of France
Maternal Great-grandmother:
Maria de Medici

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