William and his wife Mary were crowned joint monarchs of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1689. Their accession, known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’, marked an important transition towards parliamentary rule as we know it today. William’s ousting of his predecessor, the Catholic James II, ensured the primacy of the Protestant faith in Britain. His decisive victory over James at the Battle of the Boyne is celebrated annually in Northern Ireland on 12 July. In Europe, William was successful in his lifelong struggle to contain the military ambitions of Louis XIV, the Catholic king of France. In part to help finance his wars with Louis, William founded the Bank of England.
Image: William of Orange (William III) by Sir Godfrey Kneller (Bridgeman Art Library)
Jim McDowell contrasts the popular image of William of Orange with the real man.
Jim McDowell takes a light hearted look at the gloriously heroic image of William of Orange as opposed to the frailties of the real man.
Jim McDowell visits The Hague and the childhood home of William of Orange.
Jim McDowell visits The Hague and the childhood home of William of Orange. Jim learns about William's ill health from historian Dr. Wout Troost.
William of Orange is alarmed when James II's wife gives birth to a Catholic heir.
William of Orange is alarmed when James II's wife gives birth to a Catholic heir. William’s wife Mary (James's daughter) is no longer next in line to the English throne.
William of Orange is crowned King of England, Scotland and Ireland.
James II flees William's invasion force. William and Mary are crowned King & Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland.
William III dies on 8 March 1702 following a riding accident at Hampton Court Palace.
William III dies on 8 March 1702 following a riding accident at Hampton Court Palace. Historian Maureen Waller looks back at the final years of William and Mary.
William was born on 4 November 1650 in The Hague. It was not an auspicious entry into the world. His father, William II of Orange, had just died of smallpox and his English mother, Mary, had her bedchamber swathed in black to mourn him. Mary’s father and William’s grandfather, Charles I, had been brutally beheaded in London only the previous year. Mary in turn died of smallpox when William was 10 years old. BBC Northern Ireland’s ‘You Thought You Knew King Billy’ explores William’s childhood home.
The young William was groomed to lead the powerful House of Orange and to become a ‘Stadtholder’, or head of state of the Dutch Republic. He learned to be astute and distrustful from an early age.
A Protestant champion
William became a hero to his people in 1673 when he drove the invading Catholic forces of Louis XIV of France out of most of the Dutch Republic. ‘Timewatch, Vision of a Conqueror’ describes the aftermath of William’s victory and the start of his lifelong rivalry with Louis.
William the autocrat
William and Mary
In 1677, William married his cousin Mary. It was his 27th birthday. Mary was the eldest daughter of James, Duke of York, who was the brother of Charles II and heir to the English throne. James was a convert to Catholicism and had married a Catholic princess from Italy. Protestants worried that any son born to the couple would eventually become a Catholic king.
The marriage of William and Mary had been encouraged by Charles II, Mary’s uncle and James’s brother. By encouraging James’s Protestant daughter Mary to marry William of Orange, it raised the prospect of a Protestant heir to the throne. Through this, Charles II hoped to allay concerns that James would establish a Catholic dynasty. BBC Northern Ireland’s ‘You Thought You Knew King Billy’ attempts to encapsulate a complex situation.
William had his own reasons for marrying Mary. He hoped their union would cement an Anglo-Dutch alliance against Louis XIV and bring another important ally into his struggle with the French king.
Charles II died in 1685 and James became King James II. Many in Protestant England were deeply suspicious of the new Catholic monarch. When his wife gave birth to a son in the summer of 1688 it confirmed their worst fears of a Catholic succession.Dr. Eamon Duffy (Magdalene College, Cambridge) explains the 17th century Protestant terror of Catholics.
This meant that James II’s Protestant daughter, Mary, wife of William of Orange, was no longer next in line to the throne. Alarmed by the situation, a group of James's Protestant opponents secretly invited William to invade England and oust his father-in-law. BBC Northern Ireland’s ‘You Thought You Knew King Billy’ sums up the situation from William’s perspective.
Many Englishmen supported William and, after some prominent English nobles defected to the invader, James II chose not to fight. He was subsequently captured and then allowed to escape to exile in France.
The Glorious Revolution
Early in 1689, the English Parliament formally offered William and Mary the throne as joint monarchs, an event known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’.
William III of Orange was now William III of England and Ireland, and William II of Scotland.
The new monarchs could not rule with the same direct power as their predecessors. They accepted Parliament’s ‘Declaration of Rights’, later called ‘Bill of Rights’. This restricted the king’s power and marked an important transition towards the system of parliamentary rule that exists to this day.
After their coronation, William and Mary moved into Hampton Court Palace. Historian Maureen Waller describes the couple’s comfortable living arrangements.
Battle of the Boyne
In March 1689, James landed in Ireland with French troops supplied by William of Orange’s sworn enemy, Louis XIV. James planned to use Ireland as a base from which to invade England and recover his throne.
In response William raised a huge invasion force, the largest Ireland had ever seen. In July 1690 he decisively defeated James at the Battle of the Boyne. James fled once again to France.
The victory is still commemorated every year in Northern Ireland on 12 July by the Orange Order, named for William of Orange.
The Grand Alliance
Defeating Louis XIV of France remained William's focus throughout his life. In 1689 he had brought Britain into the League of Augsburg against France, transforming it into the ‘Grand Alliance’. For the next eight years he was often away fighting, leaving his wife to rule in his absence.
Under William’s leadership, the diverse Grand Alliance held together and in 1697 Louis XIV relinquished much of the territory he had won by conquest.
Felled by a mole
In 1694 William’s wife Mary died of smallpox. Inconsolable with grief, he fainted at her bedside.
He continued to rule alone. Then in February 1702, William’s horse stumbled on a molehill at Hampton Court and he was thrown, breaking his collarbone. His health, which had never been strong, deteriorated rapidly. He died on 8 March.
When courtiers undressed the king they found he was wearing Mary’s wedding ring and a lock of her hair close to his heart.
William had no heir and his death brought an end to the House of Orange.
The supporters of James II, who had died in exile the year before, did not mourn him and toasted the mole who made his horse trip as ‘the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat’.