William III (1650-1702), Prince of Orange, reigned as king of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1689 to 1702. He was also stadholder of the United Netherlands from 1672 to 1702.
As perhaps the pivotal European figure of the late 17th century, William of Orange remains most noted for having fought France, the dominant power in Europe, to a standstill in three wars. In this process he reunited his native Netherlands and became king of England. In his English role William fostered the legal bulwarks of the Glorious Revolution of 1688: religious toleration for Protestant dissenters, a prescribed monarchy, and parliamentary partnership with the Crown concerning legislation. As William drew England into his wars against France, he concluded more than a century's isolation for England and initiated a series of victories that later yielded Great Britain a worldwide empire.
Early Years and Education
Eight days before William was born at The Hague on Nov. 4, 1650, his father, William II, Prince of Orange and Stadholder of the United Netherlands, died, bequeathing a divided Netherlands to his son. William's mother was Mary, the oldest daughter of Charles I of England. The De Witt brothers, Jan and Cornelius, heads of an urban and commercial coalition, assumed power and pursued a policy of autonomy for the seven provinces of the Netherlands. The house of Orange, aristocratic leader of the landed interests, had stood for unity as the only means of protection against foreign interests. Despite the De Witts' control over his education, William nurtured plans to restore the stadholdership. In the meantime, the young prince prepared himself, mastering four languages, studying politics and war, and exercising the Spartan self-control and taciturnity for which he became famous.
In 1667 the prince's popularity rose dramatically when Louis XIV of France made the first of his many attempts to conquer the Dutch. Public exasperation greeted the De Witts' inactivity while Louis's armies occupied neighboring Flanders. When the southern Dutch provinces were invaded in 1672, William was advanced quickly from captain general in February to stadholder in July. In August a panicked mob murdered the De Witts, and a year later William's office was made hereditary.
Stadholder of the United Provinces
The war with France raged from 1672 to 1678, and while William battled against armies that were sometimes five times the size of his own, he built an alliance with Spain, Denmark, and Brandenburg. He fought the Great Condé—Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé—to a draw at the Battle of Seneff in August 1674. Despite a near-fatal bout with smallpox in 1675 and a severe arm wound in 1676, William wrung from the French a recognition of Dutch independence in the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678.
Toward the end of the French war, William married— in 1677—Mary, the Protestant elder daughter of James, Duke of York, later King James II of England. With England as the Netherlands' partner there could be no doubt about maintaining Dutch independence. The match was advanced by the pro-Dutch English minister, the Earl of Danby, and after the marriage William slowly intruded himself into English politics. He ostensibly visited Charles II in 1681 to seek aid against renewed French hostilities, but he actually came to observe the increasing antagonism of the Whigs to the proposed succession of York, whose autocracy and Roman Catholicism displeased many Englishmen. William quietly let it be known that if Charles should die without issue, he would be willing to be named regent over his father-in-law in case James should be excluded from the throne.
Glorious Revolution of 1688
During the War of the League of Augsburg, William brought to the alliance the overwhelming support of England in 1689. James II's precipitate illegalities in favor of his Roman Catholic subjects after he became king in 1685 alienated most English leaders, who in turn sought the alternative earlier suggested by William. William invaded England in November 1688 with a force of 15,000. Met by many of England's important men, he proceeded under such careful circumstances that not one shot was fired. James's flight to France in December cleared the path for William and Mary to assume the vacated throne. Their reign became the only jointly held monarchy in English history. In May 1689 England declared war on France.
Between 1689 and 1693 William, equipped with an army often numbering 90,000, remained mostly in the field, leaving duties at home in Mary's hands. In Ireland, William defeated an attempt by French and Irish troops to dethrone him, nearly being killed in the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690. At sea the English repelled an invasion at La Hogue in May 1692; but on the Continent, William barely held his own. William's defeat at Neerwinden in July 1693 cost the French so many lives that Louis XIV began peace overtures. Sporadic campaigning continued until lengthy negotiations finally resulted in the Treaty of Ryswick (September 1697), in which Louis XIV recognized William as the legitimate ruler of England (Mary had died in 1694).
William's domestic relations in England were intermittently strained because he understood little of the compromise required under the parliamentary system of broad-based consultation and administration. He was the last English king to use the veto extensively, although he usually yielded to Parliament's wishes rather than risk losing support for his wars. William fostered the Toleration Act of 1689 and the establishment of the Bank of England to fund the war debt in 1694. He assented to the Declaration of Right and to the Triennial Act.
William's frequent absences from England and his reliance upon Dutch counselors accounted for his general unpopularity. However, the discovery of the Turnham Green Plot against his life in 1696 prompted a personal loyalty lasting until the end of his reign. In 1702 William fell from his horse, seriously undermining his fragile health. He died on March 8, 1702, as he was constructing a new alliance against France for the War of the Spanish Succession.
Further Reading on William III
The most thorough of the modern biographies, focusing particularly on William III's role and importance during England's crisis with France, is Stephan B. Baxter, William III and the Defense of European Liberty, 1650-1702 (1966). An anecdotal glimpse into William's private life is provided by Nesca A. Robb's highly readable William of Orange: A Personal Portrait (2 vols., 1962-1966). David Ogg, William III (1956), is an attractive brief sketch. Three indispensable works on William's age are John B. Wolf, The Emergence of the Great Powers, 1685-1715 (1951); David Ogg, England in the Reigns of James II and William III (1955; corrected 1963); and Maurice Ashley, The Glorious Revolution of 1688 (1966). Peter Geyl, Orange and Stuart, 1641-1672 (trans. 1970), is superb.
Additional Biography Sources
Miller, John, The life and times of William and Mary, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1974.