Stadtholder and King William Henry of Orange, 1650-1702

Stadtholder King William III
King William III of England
King William III by an unknown artist
Born:4 Nov. 1650
Prince of Orange:4 Nov. 1650
Stadtholder:4 July 1672
King of England:11 April 1689
Died:8 Mar. 1702

1 William III's Background and education

1.1 William born alone

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, Prince of Orange, because he was not made Stadtholder. The provinces where the Princes of Orange were stadtholder preferred not to appoint a new one after the conflict they had with his father. The prestige of the Orange family with the masses of these provinces was however still largely intact. Therefore William could hope to succeed his forefathers one day.

1.2 William III's education

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.

1.3 His brother in law Charles II

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 the most important Province of Holland abolished the stadtholdership for ever. William balanced this by taking up his dignity of first nobleman of Zeeland in 1668.

2 William becomes stadtholder and saves the nation

2.1 The United Provinces are overrun

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 surprisingly 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 approaches of the province of Holland. The Bishop of Münster reached a comparable 'Waterlinie' in Groningen and started a siege of that city. With three of the seven provinces overrun William was made Stadtholder, and in August the De Witt's were killed by the mobs.

2.2 Counter Offensive

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. From Groningen Rabenhaupt then marched south to Coevorden. 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 villages of Bodegraven and Zwammerdam.

2.3 William forces the French to leave

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.

2.4 Peace with England and the Bishops

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.

2.5 William commands in Flanders

The Franco-Dutch war then continued further from the frontier. William tried to recapture Maastricht in 1676, but failed. In April 1677 he lost the battle of Cassel. In the final battle of Saint-Denis 1678 he led the army to a draw. The war ended with the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678.

3 William becomes the protestant champion of Europe

3.1 Marriage to Mary Stuart

  • William III family tree
  • William III and the Stuarts

In October 1677 William visited England with the purpose of marrying his niece Mary Stuart. Charles was not that willing to comply, and his brother James was squarely against it. William then covetely threatened Charles that if he did not want to be friends, they would be enemies. William got his way, not in the least because many in the protestant population saw the marriage as a necessity. On 4 November 1677 the marriage took place in Mary's appartments in St. James palace.

3.2 James II

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. James II then started his schemes of trying to make Roman Catholicism dominant in England again. He did this by taking all kinds of measures that were violent and unconstitutional. Even so, he got could have gotten away with it, because the problem would solve itself once he was succeeded by one of his protestant daughters Mary or Anne.

James II had been married to Mary of Modena since 1673, but the marriage had only let to miscarriages. In June 1688 a healthy son was then suddenly born to James II. Most Englishmen believed that there was some kind of trickery. It had been 15 years since James and Mary of Modena were married, and during the pregnancy only Catholic ladies had been admitted to her toilette. Nevertheless, William and Mary's expectations to the crown were greatly diminished.

3.3 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.

3.4 William brings England into his coalition

William now changed English foreign policy from isolationism to taking an active part in affairs on the continent. The first step was to actually send the troops that England was obliged to sent to the United Provinces in the War of the League of Augsburg, or Nine Years War. From 1689 to 1697 a sizeable English army fought in Flanders, and with the assistance of the Dutch Navy the English Navy barely managed to stop the French navy from achieving naval dominance.

The switch in English policy towards taking an active part in affairs on the continent was an achievement that would stay intact after William's death. Of course his successor Queen Anne stressed details that were more in England's interests, but the general policy of preventing one nation to become so powerful that it could dominate all others would be continued. It would become known as the Balance of Power.

4 William as a Ruler

4.1 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.

4.2 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 stadtholder. 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.

After Johan de Witt had abdicated as Grand Pensionary, William III wanted the Griffier of the States General Gaspar Fagel (1634-1688) to become Grand Pensionary. Gaspar was appointed on the very day that the Brothers De Witt had been killed by a mob. Gaspar had once signed the perpetual edict to abolish the Stadtholder office in Holland, but was now firmly on the side of the Stadtholder. Gaspar and William III were very good friends. While Gaspar moved to become Grand Pensionary, he had his half brother Hendrik Fagel (1617-1690) succeed him. In turn Hendrik had his son François Fagel appointed as commissioner in 1680, as second Griffier in 1685, and as his successor in 1690

After Gaspar Fagel died on 15 December 1688 William III got Gaspar's nephew Michiel ten Hove appointed as interim. When Ten Hove died a few months later he got Anthonie Heinsius appointed. Heinsius was a very good choice, because he was loyal to William's policy against France and very able to lead the United Provinces while William was doing his duties as King of England.

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. This greatly enhanced the power of future stadtholders in these provinces. In the long term the effects were detrimental, because it led to a government based on clientilism.

William wanted Johan Willem Friso of Nassau-Dietz Stadtholder of Friesland to succeed him as Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of the United Provinces. In arranging this William was not very successful. I do not know whether this was caused by negligence or had other causes.

5 William's character

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.

6 William as a general

Military Achievements
1673Captures Naarden
1673 Nov.Captures Bonn
1674 Aug.Draw in Battle of Seneffe
1677 Apr.Beaten in Battle of Cassel
1678 Aug.Draw in Battle of St Denis
1688 Nov.Invades England
1690 JulyWins Battle of the Boyne
1690 Sep.Looses Siege of Limerick
1692 Aug.Looses Battle of Steenkerque
1693 JulyLooses Battle of Neerwinden
1695 Sep.Captures Namur

One only has to look at the table to the left to see that William was not that successful as a general. Out of seven big battles in the table he only won against James II at the Boyne. In other words: William III was never able to clearly defeat the French army in a big battle. On the other hand he kept the army together against heavy odds, was successful in minor actions, captured Namur in a huge siege, and conquered England.

The fact that William III did not beat the French in a big open battle might point to a general context that was extremely disadvantageous. In the Franco-Dutch war and the Nine Years War the French army was at the peak of its prowess. It was very big, high-quality, well organized and well led. The same could not be said about most of the armies of William III's allies. As such the context in which William III fought for most of his career can be compared to that of an allied general fighting the Germans in 1940. Indeed we do not know about brilliant generals on the allied side in 1940.

Once William III was able to add a large and well organized English Army to his forces things began to change. The defeats of Steenkerque and Neerwinden were very bloody for both sides, and did not have big consequences. During the Siege of Namur in 1695 the French army under Villeroy got an opportunity to attack the covering army in late August, but did not attack. The next battle that the French fought against the Anglo-Dutch army was at Blenheim.

7 Sources

There are many books about William III. I made extensive use of: William and Mary by Henri and Barbara van der Zee, Penquin Books 1988.