William III became king of Great Britain after the 1688 Revolution. William, along with his wife Mary II, was crowned on February 13th 1689 after Parliament had decreed that James II had abdicated the throne and that William should succeed him.
William was born in November 1650 the only child of Prince William II, the Stadtholder of Holland. His mother, Mary Stuart, was the daughter of Charles I. Therefore, William’s credibility in England was cemented by the fact that he himself had a bloodline to the Stuarts. William married Mary, daughter of James II, in 1677. This marriage in its original state was a political union but both became inseparable as their marriage progressed.
Before being asked by senior political figures in England to land with a military force to overthrow James, William had established a good reputation in the United Provinces as a competent military commander. William had saved the United Provinces from being conquered by Louis XIV in the Franco-Dutch War (1672-79) and had helped to govern the state, along with regents. William was seen as a main protector of the Protestant faith in Western Europe and for those in England who believed that James II was pushing the country down the road of Catholicism, William was a natural replacement. It was also useful that William had a bloodline to the Stuarts. His wife Mary had made her Protestant credentials clear, especially when her younger brother was born and a future Catholic king seemed probable.
When William became king of England, leadership of the United Provinces was somewhat left in limbo as a period of ‘stadtholderless’ occurred when the United Provinces was governed by the Grand Pensionary led by Anthonie Heinsius.
“William was thin, weak and solemn, with a Roman eagle nose, and piercing eyes. His constitution had been undermined by a severe attack of smallpox in early manhood, and his chronic asthma gave him a constant deep cough. In war and politics he was an indifferent commander, but his obstinacy in defence, his courage in attack, his willingness to master accepted techniques carried him through." (J P Kenyon)
As king of England, William wanted to continue his ‘crusade’ against France and Louis XIV.
Domestically, William had to somehow understand what was an alien political system to him. Before the 1688 Revolution, the Whig Party had stood as a single entity. Senior figures in the Whig Party had signed the Invitation to William. Now, in William’s reign, the Whigs split in two – the Court Whigs and the Country Whigs. The Court Whigs, with its leadership known as the Junto, gave their full support to the new king. The Country Whigs remained suspicious of a foreign king and wary of the Court Whigs.
The Tories developed a tentative alliance with the Country Whigs as it was the Court Whigs who found favour at William’s court. For his part, William relied on the 2nd Earl of Sunderland for advice – though it was usual for William to listen to himself. Sunderland was a non-party man who was not shackled to any of the beliefs and ideas of both the Whigs and Tories. While not a Prime Minister in any sense of the term, Sunderland was seen as the senior political figure in the country and one who served the king as opposed to allowing party politics to shape his views.
“The king valued him (Sunderland) because his loyalty was never seriously in doubt and in their cold appraisal of men and things, their willingness to forsake principal for expediency, and their impatience with fools, they were not unlike. Sunderland’s brazen rudeness also impressed a man who never had much room for flatterers." (J P Kenyon)
William listened to his few advisors in silence, took an age to weigh up all the possibilities while his advisors waited on – and then came to a decision. Contemporary accounts make it clear that the few advisors who attended William found the whole process – especially the long periods of silence – very disconcerting.
William himself believed that certain areas of government were too important to delegate. He took control of the Treasury, foreign matters and the armed forces. William was also the main driving force behind diplomatic matters in Europe, especially the Grand Alliance against Louis XIV. Few doubted William’s work ethic and on many occasions he worked late into the night on matters of state. William took ownership of certain areas of government simply because he did not fully trust senior politicians who he believed would put a political slant on decision making.
Within government, William divided up political posts among different parties. In this way he hoped to avoid the issue of one party becoming more dominant than others. He also hoped to engender in those who worked for him a greater sense of loyalty to the country than to party or personal beliefs. William’s first ministry was made up of a combination of people with a varied political background (Danby and Sunderland included). However, by 1693, he had moved more to the Whigs as they were more supportive of his European ventures as opposed to the Tories who were not. Over the next few years the Whig dominated government introduced what some have described as a ‘financial revolution’ – measures that have lasted until today. In 1693, a National Debt was created; in 1694, the Bank of England was created and in 1696 recoinage was introduced. These were to formally part merge the financial world with Parliament and government for the first time.
There were those politicians who were very wary about such an expansion of government power, especially one based around a standing army led by the king. These men gathered themselves around Robert Harley who founded the New Country Party out of concerned Whigs and Tories. When conflict in Europe died down (around 1697), there seem less of a demand for the reforms brought in by the Whigs and William. In 1698, William pushed to one side the Whigs who had loyally supported him and brought into his political fold the Tories who had previously opposed his foreign policy. When war in Europe broke out again (The War of Spanish Succession), the Tories were dropped and the Whigs once again admitted into government in 1701.
William’s foreign policy was dominated by his campaign against Louis XIV and his supporters. In September 1697, Louis had signed the Treaty of Rijswijk in which France agreed to give up all her territories conquered after 1678 (with the exception of Strasburg) and by which Louis recognised William as the rightful king of England with Anne as his rightful heir. By doing this it appeared as if Louis had abandoned his previous support of the exiled Stuarts. However, war in Europe was reignited by the attempt by France to inherit the Spanish empire. Louis also did not endear himself to William when he announced his support for the ‘Old Pretender’, the son of James II, to be king of England. The War of Spanish Succession required William to formulate a new series of alliances.
He was well on the way to creating a European alliance against Louis XIV when his work was cut short. On February 21st 1702, William was riding in Richmond Park when his horse stumbled on a mole hill. The king was thrown from his horse and he broke a collar bone. His weakened body could not take the shock and William died at Kensington Palace in March 8th 1702.