William III

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William III

King of England, Scotland and Ireland (1689-1702)

Prince of Orange

born 14 November 1650 (New Style), The Hague, Dutch Republic

died 19 March 1702 (N.S.), Kensington Palace, London, England


William III, King of England, Scotland and Ireland – Source: Wikimedia Commons

William was the only son of William II, Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, and Mary, daughter of Charles I of England, and was born at The Hague on 14 November 1650 (N.S.), eight days after his father's death. His father had attempted a coup d'état, which had failed, with the result that on his death the office of stadtholder was abolished.

William grew up among enemies, and became artful, suspicious and self-controlled, concealing his feeling behind the mask of and immobile, almost repulsive, coldness.

In 1672, Louis XIV suddenly invaded Dutch territory, starting the Franco-Dutch War (1672–78). The startling successes of the French produced a revolution among the Dutch people, who naturally turned for help to the scion of the House of Orange. On 8 July the states general revived the stadtholderate, and declared William stadtholder, captain-general and admiral for life. This revolution was followed by a riot, in which John de Witt (representing the oligarchic party) and his brother Cornelius were murdered by the mob at the Hague. Evidence could be sought in vain to connect William with this outrage, but since he lavishly rewarded its leaders and promoters this circumstance is not very much to his credit. He then confronted Louis XIV, resolved “to die in the last ditch”. He appealed to the last resource of Dutch patriotism by opening the sluices and laying vast tracts under water. The French army could not advance, while the French and English fleets were defeated by the Dutch Admiral de Ruyter. William summoned Brandenburg to his aid.

In 1673, William made treaties with Austria and Spain.

In 1674, William fought his first great battle at Seneffe, where, though the struggle was not unequal, the honours lay with Condé. Early the same year, the French evacuated Dutch territory but continued to hold places on the Rhine and in Flanders.

In April 1677, William was badly beaten at Saint-Omer, but balanced his military defeat by France by a diplomatic victory over England. In November, William married Mary, eldest daughter of James, Duke of York, afterwards King James II.

In 1678, William undertook negotiations with England which forced Louis to make terms and sign the Treaty of Nijmegen in August which gave Franche Comté and other places in Spanish Flanders to France. For some reason never yet made clear, but perhaps to produce a modification of terms which threatened the balance of power, William attacked the French army at Mons four days after the signature of peace. Luxembourg defeated him after a sanguinary and resultless struggle, and William gained nothing by his inexplicable action.

After the war, Louis XIV continued a course of aggression, absorbing frontier-towns in Imperial or Spanish territory.

In October 1681, William started a new coalition against France by making a treaty with Sweden, and subsequently with the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and several German princes. The same year, Louis XIV absorbed Strasbourg.

In 1684, France invaded Spanish Flanders and took Luxembourg. Even then, the new league would not fight.

In 1685, the league allowed Louis XIV to retain his conquests by the Truce of Regensburg. The same year, on the accession of James II to the throne of England, William forced the Duke of Monmouth to leave Holland, and sought to dissuade him from his ill-starred expedition to England. He apparently tried to conciliate his father-in-law in the hope of bringing him into the league. At the same time, he astutely avoided offending the party in England which was opposed to James.

In 1686, these humiliations finally gave rise to a more closely-knit and aggressive coalition known as the League of Augsburg.

By November 1687, William had decided that it was hopeless to expect that James would join the league against Louis XIV, and he therefore turned for support to the English opposition. His chief minister Fagel wrote and published a letter expressing William's disapprobation of the religious policy of James. This announcement of his views was received with wild enthusiasm by the English who saw in him the friend of their liberties and their Church.

On 30 June 1688, Admiral Herbert, disguised as a blue-jacket, set out from England with a letter from seven influential Englishmen, asking William to “bring over an army and secure the infringed liberties” of England. On 2 November, William set out from Holland with an army and, on 5 November, landed at Torbay. After a few days of hesitation, many influential noblemen declared for him in different parts of the country. James, who had at first joined his army at Salisbury, fell back to London and tried to negotiate. While his commissionners were amusing William, James sent off his wife and son to France, and tried to follow them. He was stopped in his flight by some fishermen at Fabversham, and was forced to return to London. William insisted that he should be sent to Rochester, and there allowed him to escape to France.

On 22 January 1689, William, on the advice of an assembly of notables, summoned a convention parliament. On 13 February, after a great deal of discussion, William was at length proclaimed joint-sovereign of England in conjunction with his wife, Mary. As king of England, William concluded treaties of alliance with the members of the League of Augsburg and sent a large army to oppose the French in Flanders. By the end of the year, a constitutional settlement was effected, almost all the disputed points between king and parliament being settled in favour of the latter. Though William by no means appreciated this confinement of his prerogative, he was too wise to oppose it. His own initiative is more clearly traceable in the Toleration Act, extending liberty of private worship to Dissenters.

On 1 July 1690, the Allies were badly beaten at sea off Beachy Head, but the same day William himself won a decisive victory over James' army at the Boyne in Ireland. Dublin and Drogheda soon fell and James fled from Ireland. The same year, William also succeeded in passing an Act of Grace and Indemnity, by which he calmed the violence of party passion. But in general his domestic policy was not very fortunate.

On 19 May 1692, the chances of continued resistance in Ireland, which depended on communication with France, were finally destroyed by the great victory off Cape La Hogue. Ireland was speedily conquered when the supremacy of England on the sea became assured. Now the French fleet was definitely destroyed, and though a destructive privateering warfare continued, England was no longer in danger of invasion. On the continent, William lost Namur and was defeated at Steenkerque (3 August). The same year, William could hardly claim any personal credit for the reassessment of land-tax. The same was true of the creation of the national debt or the recoinage act (1693-1695). Further, he threatened the existence of the Bank of England, by lending his support to a counter-institution, the Land Bank, which ignominiously collapsed. Though he was not blind to the commercial interests of England, he was neglectful of the administration and affairs of her oversea colonies. But though he was unable to extract the best results from parliament he was always able to avert its worst excesses.

Still in 1692, William signed an order for the extirpation of the Macdonalds, a small clan in the vale of Glencoe. The massacre of this clan was carried out with circumstances of revolting barbarity. Popular pressure forced William to bring the murderers to justice, to punish them and dismiss them his service. But shortly afterwards they were received into favour; one became a colonel, another a knight, a third a peer.

In 1693, William was disastrously beaten at Landen (29 July).

In 1694, in spite of strong personal opinions to the contrary, William accepted the Triennal Act.

In 1695, William was able to resume the offensive and to retake Namur in a brilliant and, what was more unusual, a successful campaign. William had assumed the full duties of commander-in-chief too young to learn the full duties of a professional soldier himself, and his imperious will did not suffer others to direct him. Therefore, he was always a brilliant amateur.

In September 1697, after successfully holding together his ill-assorted coalition, William finally concluded peace at Ryswick. Louis XIV restored all his acquisitions since 1678, except Strasbourg, and recognized William as king of England. The same year, William accepted the vote of parliament reducing the army to 10,000 men.

During the subsequent years, William tried to arrange a partition treaty with France, by which the domains of the childless Charles II of Spain were to be divided at his death.

In 1699, William accepted the vote of parliament disbanding his favourite Dutch Guards and, in November, a bill rescinding the grants of forfeited Irish estates, which he had made to his favourites.

In 1700, at the death of Charles II of Spain, the whole heritage was left to France. William endeavoured to oppose this.

On 14 July 1701, William arrived at The Hague. On 20 July, he left The Hague to inspect the regions of Breda and Berg-op-Zoom and to review Dutch troops stationed in these quarters. In September, William used Louis's recognition of James the “Old Pretender” as king of England to set the English people in a flame. On 7 September, William signed the defensive Treaty of The Hague against France with Emperor Leopold I of the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch Republic. At the end of September, William inspected the camps of Nijmegen and Breda. The latter having been recently reinforced with 10,000 English troops. On 14 November, he re-embarked and sailed for London.

On 19 March 1702, war was already declared, but William who had long been ailing, died from the combined effects of a fall from his horse and a chill.


This article is mostly adapted from texts of the following books which are now in the public domain:

  • Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 28, 1911 – “William III”

N.B.: the section concerning years 1701 and 1702 is mostly derived from our articles depicting the various campaigns, battles and sieges.