Stadholder and King William Henry of Orange


William III family tree

William III's Background and education

William III was the posthumous son of William II and Mary, daughter of Charles I of England. At first he was not even William III, but only William of Orange because he was not made Stadholder. After the conflict they had had with his father the governments of the provinces where the Oranges traditionally were stadholder preferred not to appoint a new one for the time being. The prestige of the Orange family with the masses was however still largely intact, and so William could hope to succeed his forefathers one day.

William's education was directed by instructions detailed written by Constantijn Huygens Sr. Perhaps the ebb in the fortunes of the Oranges made it possible that his upbringing had such good effects. It may also be important to note that English and French were the languages of the court his mother Mary held at the Hague. On the political side things got worse in 1660 when Louis XIV occupied the principality of Orange without being at war with the Dutch or William.

The accession of Charles II (brother of Mary) strengthened William's position. The States reacted to it by making him 'Child of state' and taking over his education. His mother Mary left for England. Mary died there before the end of 1660, and her testament gave the states reason to take their hands of William.

Not all went bad however: in 1665 the French left the principality of Orange. In 1666 William was finally made 'Child of State', and though De Witt sent away his court he personally participated in his education. But then again in 1667 Holland abolished the stadholdership for ever. William balanced this by taking up his dignity of first nobleman of Zeeland in 1668.

William becomes stadholder and saves the nation

With Louis XIV and Charles II threatening to make war William was made Captain General of the United Provinces in February 1672. In April England, France and the bishops of Cologne and Münster did declare war. Their armies made a surpisingly fast advance that was aided by the weak knees of many regents in Overijssel and Gelderland. By June the French were at the 'Waterlinie' a line of fortresses and inundations defending the land approach of the province of Holland. The Bishop of Münster meanwhile started to besiege Groningen. With three of the seven provinces overrun William was made Stadholder, and in August the De Witt's were killed by the mobs.

At the Waterlinie the French campaign had lost impetus. The siege of Groningen was lifted after half the bishop's army had been killed by disease and its army was chased out of the republic. Then William made a surprise march to Charleroi in November. The French had up to then amused themselves with pillaging the country they occupied, but with frost setting in the French made a march over the inundations and killed 2,000 citizens in the open towns of Bodegraven and Zwammerdam.

In 1673 Louis personally captured Maastricht in June, but the English and French fleets were beaten at Kijkduin. William then allied the Dutch with Spain, Lorraine and the emperor. In September he captured Naarden and in November Bonn. Louis was induced to order the evacuation of the plundered provinces in October 1673.

William becomes the protestant champion of Europe

1674 opened with the peace of Westminster in February, quickly followed by the one with Münster in April. For William this was still not enough and so peace with Cologne and an alliance with Brandenburg followed. On the diplomatic front William had now arranged practically the whole of Europe against France. With confidence he then marched to the battle of Seneffe in August 1674. The outcome of the battle was a draw, but in light of the French reputation for winning battles this was still an advantage to William. His allies reacted by letting him command the next year.

In 1677 William visited England with the purpose of marrying his niece Mary Stuart. Threatening Charles that if he did not want to be his uncle he would be his enemy he got his way, a first sign of William's contacts with the English opposition. In February 1685 Charles II died, James (Mary's father) became king of England. Without any male heir to James Mary was now Crown-princess.

At about the same time as the edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685 James started his scheme of trying to make Roman Catholicism dominant in England again. Also in June 1688 a son was born to James II, meaning William and Mary's expectations to the crown were greatly diminished.

William invades England, Glorious Revolution

With James doing his utmost to make himself impossible in England seven highranking Englishmen then invited William to come to England to restore order. William obliged and invaded England with 21,000 men. James' army was somewhat bigger, but lacked quality. Not daring to fight James fled. In April 1689 William and Mary were both crowned in London. Up to his death in 1702 William now worked on adding England to his anti-French coalition, doing this so effectively that it stayed intact after his death.

William's internal policy in England

One of William III's great failures is his internal policy in England. Even though one can say that the Glorious Revolution and some of his measures finally made England a bright example of good governance, he did not profit from them himself. In stead the xenophobia and narrow mindedness of the English politicians gave him a strong desire to leave the island to its own devices, and he nearly did. One should however also note that William did not try to charm the English politicians into adhering to his cause. It is rather remarkable that as soon as the English had their 'own' queen executing the same policy they were far more supportive.

William's internal policy in the United Provinces

After the French had left the United Provinces there was a lot resentment against the ruling regents in the provinces were William was stadholder. In Holland and Zeeland this centered on them having left the country defenceless against France, while in Utrecht, Overijssel and Gelderland the population resented their lack of courage. It is typical for his persuasive skills that over time William succeeded in getting most of the Holland regents to adopt his point of view about politics. In the other three provinces this was less necessary because their regents were punished for their 'cowardice'. This 'punishment' was the Reglement Reformatoir that granted the right to appoint most of the public servants to William III and his descendants. For the Oranges this would become a big step on their to becoming sovereigns one day.


The most obvious streak of William's character was his reservedness. Many thought him cold-hearted, but this was only true in public, alone with his friends he was said to be open and fun-loving. As a diplomat he was superb, uniting the whole of Europe against Louis. As a general he was nothing special, though his personal courage motivated his armies. His favorite pastimes were hunting, getting drunk with his friends and campaigning.