1902 Encyclopedia > William III

William III
King of England and Prince of Orange

WILLIAM III (1650-1702), king of England and prince of Orange, was the son of William II., stadtholder of the United Netherlands, and Mary, daughter of Charles I. of England. He was born on 14th November 1650. His father died eight days before his birth, whereupon the states-general abolished the office of stadtholder. As he . grew up, William became the head of the party, at once democratic and monarchical, which was attached to the : house of Orange. But all power was concentrated in the hands of John de Witt and other leaders of the rival or aristocratic republican party. Hence William learned caution, reserve, insight into character, and the art of biding his time.

When, however, France and England declared war upon the Netherlands in the spring of 1672, the rapid success of the French arms, and the rejection by Louis of the terms offered by the Dutch Government, produced a revolution in favour of William. A popular rising obliged De Witt to repeal the perpetual edict (which ratified the suppression of the stadtholdership in 1667), and on 8th July 1672 the prince of Orange was declared by the states-general stadtholder, captain-general, and admiral for life. The revolution was followed by a riot in which John and Cornelius de Witt lost their lives. There appears no evidence connecting William with the attack on the De Witts; but he made no attempt to punish it: on the contrary, he rewarded the leaders. Then, rejecting the outrageous terms offered by the allies, he placed his private fortune and the revenues of his offices at the disposal of the state, and declared himself ready to die in the last ditch. In order to check the French advance the sluices were opened and vast tracts of country placed under water. The Dutch fleet prevented an English landing. An alliance was made with the elector of Brandenburg, whose forces effected a useful diversion on the eastern frontier. Next year (1673) William lost Maestricht, but he more than balanced this disaster by treaties with Spain and the empire. The war now began to turn in his favour. Early in 1674 the French troops evacuated Holland, and in February of the same year peace was made with England in the treaty of Westminster. As the tide turned, William's allies became more active in his behalf. The league of The Hague, the first of those great coalitions by which he sought to set a limit to the aggressions of Louis XIV., was joined by the elector of Brandenburg, who had been obliged a year before to come to terms with France, and by several other German princes. In Flanders William himself opposed Conde and fought the indecisive battle of Seneffe (August 1674). For the next two years the war dragged on without very important results. William, although he had saved Holland, could not prevent France from winning places at the expense of the empire and Spain. In April 1677 he was decisively beaten by the duke of Orleans near St Omer. A great part of the Spanish Netherlands as well as Franche Comte was now in the hands of France. These advances caused much alarm in England; and the prince of Orange linked himself closer to that country by marrying Mary, elder daughter of James, duke of York, in November 1677. Early next year William signed a treaty of alliance with England, the object of which was to compel Louis to come to terms. The duplicity of Charles and the attitude of the country party in England, anxious for war with France but unwilling to put an army into the king's hands, prevented this arrangement from taking effect. A fresh treaty was, however, made between the two powers (July), and the pressure thus brought to bear upon Louis led to the peace of Nimeguen (August 1678). Four days after the peace was signed William attacked the French army under the duke of Luxembourg in its entrenchments round Mons. A sanguinary but resultless battle ensued. William attempted to justify this bloodshed by the insufficient and incredible plea that he was not aware that the peace had been signed. He can hardly have wished to prolong the war; but it is not surprising if he was dissatisfied with a peace which gave Franche Comte and many places in the Spanish Netherlands to France.

During the years which immediately followed the peace of Nimeguen, Louis's aggressive proceedings provoked a general uneasiness, of which the prince of Orange made skilful use. The French king had seized on William's ancestral principality of Orange in the south of France. William declared publicly that he would make Louis repent the outrage, and when called on to withdraw his words refused to do so. Personal affront was thus added to the national grounds of his hostility. The second of his coalitions against France began by a treaty between the Netherlands and Sweden (October 1681) for the maintenance of the peace of Nimeguen, which was soon joined by the empire and Spain, and by several of the German states. When, however, Louis declared war on Spain, invaded the Spanish Netherlands, and even took Luxemburg (1683-84), William could not persuade the states-general to raise an army, and the allied powers acquiesced in the truce of Eatisbon, which left the French king in possession of all that he had won (1685). Certain claims on the Palatinate which Louis urged on behalf of his sister-in-law, the duchess of Orleans, gave William an occasion for organizing a further combination against him. In July 1686 the emperor, with the kings of Spain and Sweden, acting as members of the empire, and the most important German princes entered into the league of Augsburg, which, however, William did not himself join.

Meanwhile, as heir presumptive to the English throne, he paid close attention to what was passing in England. He sought to win Charles by sheltering the duke of Monmouth during the exile to which his father had unwillingly condemned him. The same motives led him to dismiss the duke when James II. succeeded his brother, and to discourage the attempt which Monmouth made to win the crown. He also endeavoured to stop Argyll and his friends when they were setting out for England; and he tried to dissuade Monmouth from his rash expedition, and to induce him to take service against the Turks in Hungary, and, when this failed, he sought, with as little success, to prevent his crossing to England. Throughout the whole crisis he showed a scrupulous regard for the interests of his father-in-law, which fortunately coincided with his own; but at the same time he astutely avoided any step which would have alienated from him the constitutional party. When, however, James II. began to show himself in his true colours, William became the head of the opposition in England. As such, he strongly disapproved of the first Declaration of Indulgence (1686) and remonstrated with James on the unconstitutional nature of his act. When the king requested him, a year later, to place Papists instead of Protestants in command of the English regiments then in the service of Holland, he declined to do so, and rejected with equal firmness a demand from James that he should send the troops back to England. Nevertheless he refused to listen to Mordaunt's premature suggestion that he should undertake an invasion in 1686, and, even when Edward Eussell visited him at The Hague (May 1688), he was unwilling to move till he was assured that the majority of the nation would be with him. The letter, signed by seven leaders of the two great English parties, which Admiral Herbert carried to Holland (June 30) set his scruples at rest.

On 30th September he issued a declaration in which he recapitulated James's unconstitutional acts, and stated that he was coming to England in order to secure the assembling of a free parliament, by whose decision he was resolved to abide. On 2d November he sailed from Holland, and three days later landed at Torbay. At first only few pejsons joined him, but presently the gentry began to come in. James, who had massed his troops at Salisbury, was compelled by William's advance and by the desertion of Churchill and others to fall back upon, London. Here he attempted to treat with the invader. William, anxious to avoid all appearance of conquest, consented to negotiate, and it was agreed that a parliament should be summoned, both armies meanwhile holding aloof. James, however, attempted to leave the country, but was stopped and returned to Whitehall. For a. moment he seemed to contemplate resistance, but William, now insisted on his retiring from London. His final flight relieved the prince of a great difficulty. On 19th December William arrived in London, and at once called a meeting of peers and others who had sat in the parliaments of Charles II.'s reign. By their advice he summoned a convention, which met on 22d January 1689 and settled the crown on William and Mary, who, after accepting the Declaration of Eights, were on 13th February proclaimed king and queen.

The revolution had so far succeeded beyond expectation; but William's difficulties had only begun. His primary object was to bring England into the field against France. But he had first to secure his own throne, which was still endangered by resistance in Scotland and Ireland; in order to do it with effect he had to gain the good will of the English parliament and to harmonize or control its two great factions, which, momentarily united by the imminence of despotism, were again almost on the verge of civil war. He wished to be superior to party, which he could only become by being independent of parliament, and this the revolution had rendered impossible. The revolution was due mainly to the Whigs, who were therefore William's natural allies; but the political principles of the Whigs led them to curtail the power of the sovereign. The principles of the Tories were much more to his taste; but the Tories were disinclined to apply their principles on behalf of a sovereign whose title they could not conscientiously acknowledge. In selecting his first ministry William endeavoured to conciliate both sides and to hold the balance even. He eventually saw that such a policy ; was impracticable, and that, the nation having arrived at its majority, ministers must represent the party which was strongest in parliament. His natural reluctance to recognize this change, or to give up any of the powers which his predecessors had possessed, led to not unf requent collisions with parliament and exposed him to some humiliation, while the struggle between the two parties at times reduced him to despair, and constantly hampered his action on the Continent.

For nearly a year and a half after William's acceptance of the crown he was occupied in forming the coalition against Louis XIV. known as the Grand Alliance. As stadtholder of the United Netherlands, William had already entered into an alliance with the emperor. In December he joined the league as king of England, and in 1690 the coalition was completed by the adhesion of Spain, Brandenburg, and Savoy. William had thus gained his first great object: he had united Europe against the Bourbon. Meanwhile, however, his arms had made little progress in Scotland and Ireland. James had landed in Ireland in March 1689 and nearly the whole island was in his hands. The relief of Londonderry (July) and the battle of Newtown Butler (August) saved the north for William, but elsewhere Schömberg could make no way. In Scotland the convention had offered the crown to William and Mary; but in the battle of Killiecrankie (July) the clans under Dundee had routed AVilliam's army. The convention, which shortly after his accession had been turned into a parliament, met for its second session in the autumn of 1689, and the two parties quarrelled so violently over the Corporation and Indemnity Bills that William threatened to leave the country. He was induced by Nottingham and Shrewsbury to give up this intention, but in January 1690 he dissolved the parliament. William put an end to the quarrel about the indemnity by issuing an Act of Grace, which gave an almost complete amnesty ; and, after placing the government in the hands of the queen and a council of nine persons, he left for Ireland. The defeat of the English and Dutch fleets off Beachy Head and the repulse of the allied forces at Fleurus (June and July 1690) were severe blows to William's hopes; but the former led to no important results and the latter was more than balanced by the victory which William won at the battle of the Boyne (1st July 1690). James fled from the country, and William entered Dublin in triumph. In September he returned to England, leaving Marlborough to conquer the south of Ireland in a short but brilliant campaign. Meanwhile the resistance in Scotland had collapsed, and Mackay reduced the Highlands to tranquillity. In 1691 William was able to go abroad and to take the command in Flanders, where, however, his efforts were unsuccessful.

The next year (1692) opened with the massacre of Glencoe. It is improbable that, in signing an order for the " extirpation" of the Macdonalds, he intended that the order should be literally executed. Nevertheless, the order came from him, and he cannot be acquitted of all blame. About the same time the insecurity of his position was shown by the discovery of Marlborough's treachery; and Marlborough did not stand alone. While many whom William trusted or appeared to trust were intriguing with James, an invasion of England was being organized by the French Government. Fortunately, and in great measure owing to the politic conduct of Mary, the commanders of the fleet were induced to stand firm, and the great victory of La Hogue (19th May 1692) put a stop to the projected invasion. But the fortune of war went against William on the Continent. He could not save Namur from the French, and he was severely defeated in an attempt to surprise the duke of Luxembourg at Steenkerke (4th August 1692). Next year he was again, beaten by the same commander at Neerwinden (19th July). The battle of La Hogue had not given England the command of the seas, and French privateers inflicted great damage on English trade. In June 1693 the Smyrna fleet was almost entirely destroyed off Cape St Vincent.

In spite of these reverses William struggled on with indomitable courage, and he was well supported by the country. Parliament, under the skilful guidance of Montague, adopted various important financial measures to meet the expenses of the war. The land-tax was re-assessed, the national debt created, the Bank of England established, and the coinage renewed (1693-95). In 1694 William confirmed the parliamentary system by giving his consent, though an unwilling consent, to the Triennial Act, and he recognized the principles of ministerial government by modifying the ministry, until in 1696 it was in thorough harmony with the parliamentary majority. In 1695 William won his first important success on the Continent by recovering Namur, and, though no advance was made by the allies next year, the exhaustion of France was becoming more and more evident. At length, in March 1697, a congress met at Byswick, and in September peace was made. Louis was obliged to give up all (with the exception of Strasburg) that he had added to his dominions since 1678, and he recognized William as king of England. With the conclusion of the war the dread of a standing army revived in England, and, much to William's disgust, a vote of parliament reduced the military force to 10,000 men, although the question of the Spanish succession (see vol. ix. p. 580) was pending. The new parliament which met early in 1699 reduced the army still further and resolved that it should consist solely of English troops, thus compelling William to dismiss his favourite Dutch guards. They went on to institute an inquiry into the manner in which the forfeited estates in Ireland had been disposed of, and in their second session (November 1699) they passed a bill for the " resumption " of these estates. William died on 8th March 1702 from the consequences of a fall from his horse on 20th February.

Authorities. —Burnet, History of his own Times ; Voltaire, Siècle de Louis XIV.; Negotiations of the Count d'Avaux (London, 1754) ; Négociations relatives à la Succession d'Espagne, ha., collected by Mignet (Paris, 1835) ; Lettres et Mémoires de Marie, Reine d'Angleterre, &c. (The Hague, 1880) ; Harris, History of the Life and Reign of William III. (Dublin, 1749) ; Mackintosh, History of the Revolution in England ; Macaulay, History of England ; Ranke, English History. (G. W. P.)

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