Friday, 6 April 2012

William 111 - The Lonely Childhood of Prince William of Orange


Princess Mary & Prince William II
William III, Prince of Orange, was the son of Charles I eldest daughter, Princess Mary. The nine year old Mary married William II Prince of Orange in 1641. In October 1650 William II died of a short illness, a month before his son & heir was born.

The head of the House of Orange was the ruler of the tiny principality of Orange in southern France, where many of the inhabitants were Protestant. The Princes of Orange also held the great offices of the Dutch republic, now in its second year of hard won independence from rule by the Spanish crown. The Dutch republic was made up of seven of the original provinces of the Spanish Netherlands. The remaining ten provinces were still ruled from Spain. The province of Holland, wherein lay the great towns of Amsterdam, Rotterdam & Leyden, was the most powerful & richest province, contributing 58% of the countries income from taxation. The offices of Stadtholder and Captain General were traditionally held by the Princes of Orange.

There were fears in the country that the Princes of Orange would attempt to turn the country into a monarchy. Such fears were not assuaged when in 1650 Prince William II attempted a military coup against the city of Amsterdam. The offices of Stadtholder & Captain General held by William II lapsed with his death in the October.

Prince William
William III did not have a happy childhood. His mother and paternal grandmother were frequently at odds. Princess Mary did not like the Netherlands and felt that, as royalty, she was superior to all around her. Mary refused to attend William’s christening in January 1651, because Princess Amalia, widow of Prince Frederick Henry, would not let Mary call her son Charles in honour of her father & brother. The baby prince was called William after his father, a traditional House of Orange name.

William spent more time with his mother than was normal for royal families at the time. Her main interests however were not focussed on her son’s future, but on her brother’s. Mary believed that once Charles was restored to the thrones of England & Scotland[i] he would then assist his nephew attain his rightful position in the Netherlands. To this end Mary ‘loaned’ Charles monies that the House of Orange could ill afford and which Charles was not expected to repay.

At the age of two William was given his own court and his mother arranged for an English lady, Lady Stanhope, to be governess of his household. At the age of four William started making public appearances. Although an unhealthy, small child, who was subject to asthma all his life, William was extremely popular with the Dutch people, who saw him as the direct descendant of their hero of the fight for independence, William the Silent. When William was three there had been suggestions that the infant be named Captain General. But in 1654 the Dutch republic signed a peace treaty with the English Commonwealth agreeing that neither William nor his descendants would ever be appointed chief commander of the Dutch armies & navies[ii].

Princess Mary of Orange

In 1656 Princess Mary visited France. Her mother, Queen Henrietta Maria, had hopes of a marriage between Mary & her eighteen year old cousin, Louis XIV. The match did not come off, but Mary dallied in France until news reached her that William was seriously ill. When she arrived in Bruges Mary was told that William merely had measles and was making a good recovery, whereupon Mary stayed several further weeks in Bruges.[iii] There seems to be some difference of opinion as to whether Mary was fond of her child. Some sources claim that the two were estranged when William was relatively young, others that Mary was devoted to him and wanted to ensure that he inherited the position left vacant by his father.  


William’s education was somewhat neglected, with the significant exception of his religious studies, which commenced when he was six, under the tutelage of Pastor Cornelius Trigland, a follower of Voetius[iv]. Calvinism is a dour religion and may have contributed to William’s reserved & cold demeanour. William had to read the bible every day and learn a psalm by heart daily.

William’s studies in other subjects did not begin until he was nine, .when he was enrolled as a student at the University of Leyden. One of the prince’s governor was his uncle Frederick Nassau de Zuylenstein, an illegitimate son of his grandfather Prince Frederick Henry. Zuylenstein was not cultivated and was lazy into the bargain, but intelligent. William’s domestic governor was Constantine Huygens, who had been secretary to his grandfather & his father. William was constantly made aware that gluttony & drunkenness were inappropriate for a person of honour, in contrast to the court in England. Not that William was ever in danger of being a glutton; indeed his tutors had to sit with him at mealtimes to persuade him to eat.

William spoke English, French, German and Spanish, along with his native Dutch & Latin although his grammar and spelling were both poor. He was however well tutored in military theory. William’s hunchback, asthma & general poor health precluded him from enjoying much sport.  

When William was nine, in May 1660 his uncle Charles was restored to the throne of England. Charles embarked for England from den Haag, which thronged with English visitors come to greet their new king.

‘About 10 at night the prince comes home, and we found an easy admission. His attendance very inconsiderable as for a prince. But yet handsome, and his tutor a fine man and himself a very pretty boy.’[v]

Along with most other acts passed by the Commonwealth, the Act of Seclusion, agreed with the Dutch in 1654, was declared void, by the English parliament in the frenzy of support for the new regime. Princess Mary & Princess Amalia attempted to persuade some of the provinces to declare William Stadtholder, but all declined.
In September Princess Mary pawned her jewels and travelled to England to enjoy the restoration celebrations in September. Before leaving Mary asked the States General to provide Commissioners to supervise William’s education. In England Mary caught smallpox and died in the December, asking her brother to look out for the interests of her ten year old son, while begging the States General to take care of William

‘The being who is dearest to us in the world.’[vi]

Uncle Charles was the king of the Dutch republic’s greatest commercial rival and the young William was in an invidious position – the elevation of his uncle led to William being regarded as a valuable pawn by the Dutch States General. The supporters of the House of Orange and the advocates of a more republican Netherlands were at odds over the guardianship & education of the young prince. William’s French tutor, a close friend of his mother’s who had tried to comfort the orphan, was dismissed by his grandmother after his mother’s death. This may have been an act of spite against the dead woman, but hardly conducive to her grandson’s wellbeing.

Early in 1661 William was seriously ill; his asthma flared up badly combined with violent headaches & recurring fainting fits found the doctors fearing for his life. In April, as William was convalescent, Princess Amalia decided to take him to Cleves to visit their Brandenburg relations. For six weeks, with the Elector of Brandenburg and his wife and children, William enjoyed a family life he had never known, nor was to again. He played with his young cousins and learnt to ride and was introduced to the delights of hunting for the first time. In the future William was to find release from his troubles in hunting, wearing a special breastplate/cuirass as an adult, when on horseback. Being out in the open air relieved his asthma.

After this break William returned to his studies in Leyden, now in good health. The Elector’s physicians had decreed that William no longer needed the heavy the heavy corset he was forced to wear, as the risk of deformity was now low. Instead he wore a lighter corset. In the winter of 1661-2 William was ill again and his grandmother had him moved back to live in den Haag in June. By now William was finding pleasure not only in riding and hunting, but also in a flight of falcons, a present from the King of Denmark.

At the age of thirteen William found an interest in art and he appointed an agent to purchase the Italian paintings he coveted. Unfortunately William’s modest allowance was insufficient to buy the old masters he desired. He was soon in debt and his grandmother had to order his agent to cease his purchases. His court was a frugal one. In the winter months William was allowed two white wax candles a day and a night light, with a turf fire in the morning & evening. At the age of fourteen William was taking part in society, attending parties at the great houses of the republic. By the time he was fifteen William had a personal suite of thirty three, excluding servants. In 1666 William gave his first dinner party attended by 50 persons.

Grand Pensionary Johan de Witt
During the Second Anglo-Dutch War one of Charles’ demands was an improvement in William’s official position. In March 1666 Johan de Witt, the Grand Pensionary, made proposals to Princess Amalia about William’s future. Zeeland, the foremost supporter of the House of Orange among the states, was proposing that William be given command of Dutch troops under Turenne, the French general prosecuting the land war, which had been going badly for the Dutch and their allies. Eager to see her grandson receive the honours that had been his father’s, Princess Amalia agreed. In April the Dutch made William a ward of the state. All his pro-English courtiers, including his uncle de Zuylenstein were removed from his household, despite William’s pleas to de Witt asking for his uncle, one of the few remaining members of his family, to be allowed to stay.

De Witt took over the tutoring of the prince, who was always courteous to the elder man, despite the knowledge that de Witt was determined to block William’s attempts to inherit his father’s responsibilities & positions. In 1667 de Witt arranged for the States General to issue the Perpetual Edict declaring that Captain Generals or Admiral Generals could not act as Stadtholders. The province of Holland and four of the other provinces abolished the post of Stadtholder.

On the 17th September 1668 William made a triumphal entry into Middleberg, Zeeland, where the State had made him Premier Noble of the province some years previously. This trip had been arranged in secrecy by Huygens and others. The welcome he received was rapturous and William swore his oath as Premier Noble on the following day. The next month Princess Amalia declared William of age and gave him control of his own household.

By the age of nineteen William was self-possessed, with a maturity belied by his years; the French diplomat Pomponne viewed William thus:

‘He was naturally intelligent and his judgement seemed as great as his intelligence. He knew how to hide his feelings – dissimulation seemed to come naturally to him. His morals were extremely regular. His manner was virtuous, calm & polite. He had an application and a capacity for business remarkable in one so young. He knew where his interests lay and how to manage them skilfully.’[vii]

Louis XIV
In 1670 Louis XIV persuaded Charles II that it was in England’s interests to invade & partition the Dutch Republic. The two kings signed the secret Treaty of Dover, which was facilitated by Charles’ French mistress, the Duchess of Portsmouth - one of Louis’ agents. Charles planned to use William and his supporters to harass the States. He failed to recognise that, for William, Dutch interests were paramount and hoped to gain his support when William visited England in November. De Witt approved the visit, as William hoped for the return of some of the loans given to Charles by his mother. William travelled with his uncle de Zuylenstein, Huygens & his friend for life - Bentinck.

On this visit William was paid part of his mother’s dowry and he was acknowledged successor to the throne of England after James, Duke of York and his two girls Mary, now eight, & Anne. William was unimpressed by the debauchery of the Stuart court and in return was found to be priggish by his uncles, who got him badly drunk at one dinner. It took William several days to get over his hangover, for which he never seemed to forgive his uncle.

In 1672 the French preparations for war were fast becoming apparent. The supporters of the House of Orange renewed their demands for William to be made Captain General, to enable him to use his influence to keep England out of the war. De Witt and his party were determined to keep William out of power – they feared that he intended to make the Republic a monarchy and also felt he was his uncle’s pawn – a gross misreading of William’s character. William was unaware of the provisions of the Treaty of Dover and believed that he could persuade Protestant England to make common cause with the Protestant Dutch. In the spring William was made Captain General of the Dutch army.

The campaigning season began in April as Louis’s army marched against the tiny republic. Garrison after garrison fell before the colossus. In May de Witt ordered the breaching of the dikes and William’s tiny army of nine thousand withdrew behind this waterline. Peace negotiations were commenced, but Louis was convinced that the Dutch were in an impossible situation and kept raising the stakes. Eventually on 26th June the Dutch broke off the talks.

On the 4th July 1672, in view of the disasters staring the Dutch in the face, the States of Holland made William Stadtholder at last. At the age of twenty-one he had finally been given the honour that had been his father’s, with full voting powers, despite de Witt’s attempts to have William’s role limited to that of an adviser. On the 10th Charles’ envoys offered to make William sovereign prince of Holland if the Dutch capitulated. William told the English that he would defend Dutch soil to the last ditch. On the 17th Zeeland offered to make William their Stadtholder. William’s fight with his French and English enemies were now fully joined.

William was now a man in both age and temperament. The seeds of all his future successes and failings had been laid down during the sad childhood of this lonely man, who had few close confidants of his own age. The progression of this war, so vital to the future of the Netherlands, was now in William’s hands.


The Later Stuarts 1660-1744 – Sir George Clark, Oxford University Press 1985

William and Mary – John van der Kiste, Sutton Publishing 2003

The Shorter Pepys – ed. Robert Latham, Penguin 1987

William and Mary – John Miller, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1974

The Life & Times of Charles II – Christopher Falkus, George Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1972

[i] Until the Act of Union in 1707 the Scots were, in theory, able to choose their own king. In practise they chose the new king or queen of England.
[ii] The English Act of Seclusion
[iii] Without modern immunisation measles can kill or leave serious complications, especially for children with ill-health or chest problems, as William suffered from & Mary must have known this.
[iv] A contra-Remonstrant theologian
[v] Samuel Pepys 14-15th May 1660
[vi] William and Mary – John van der Kiste, Sutton Publishing 2003
[vii] William and Mary – John Miller, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1974

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