Thursday, 12 April 2012

William 111 - The Prince of Orange takes to the European Stage

War with the French

Finally at the age of twenty-one William III, Prince of Orange, was invested with the titles that were considered his heritage by his supporters - Captain General of the Dutch Army for life and Stadtholder. But William and his tiny army of nine thousand were facing the might, not of the Spanish, but of the French, whose enormous armies could be easily supplied from home. William’s ascension to his new position had been assisted by the tumult caused by the French army’s remorseless march across Dutch lands. The Dutch responded by blaming those who had led them to date – Orangist propaganda informed them that the regents were responsible for the setbacks in the war, by stubbornly refusing to allow William to inherit his father’s offices. It was popularly felt that if William was made Stadtholder the English would retire from the fray. Indeed William attempted to do a deal with his uncle Charles II.

William did nothing to hold back the Orange pamphleteers, who roused the anger of the crowds against his political enemies. He refused to publicly clear Johan de Witt & his brother Cornelius of the crimes of which they were accused. On the 21st June an attempt was made on the life of Johan, in which he was injured. Johan resigned his post as Grand Pensionary, replaced by one of William’s supporters Gaspar Fagel. Cornelius was imprisoned on a charge of treason. On 7th August a letter from Charles II to William was published, blaming the de Witts & their supporters for the war; Charles said he was trying to help William gain his rightful inheritance. Given the letter by William, Fagel had it read in the States General & the State of Holland, thereby whipping up public animosity against the de Witt’s party even further.  

Death of the de Witt brothers
On the 20th August 1672 Johan de Witt was lured to the prison at den Haag, where Cornelius was being held, by a letter purportedly written by his brother. The prison guards had been removed from their posts, allegedly to deal with some farmers who were pilfering goods. Johan & Cornelius de Witt were dragged from the prison, by an organised lynch mob. The two brothers were killed and bits were cut off the bodies; the hearts of both brothers being displayed by one of the ring leaders for many years. There is nothing to prove that William was involved in organising the crime, but he took no action against the known ringleaders, even rewarding some with money or high office. Following these murders a third of the regents were replaced with William’s own men.

Now William had to concentrate on removing the French from Dutch soil. In November William led his army in an attack on the French supply lines at Maastricht. In the meantime an alliance had been forged with Spain & the Holy Roman Empire, both concerned by the overweening ambitions of Louis XIV. Louis’ armies took Maastricht, while William failed to take Charleroi by siege (he was too impetuous a leader & lacked the patience for a successful siege), but the Dutch fleet under de Ruyter, defeated the English navy three times during 1673.

The English were brought to the negotiating table by the strength of anti-French & anti-Catholic public opinion, fomented by William’s English agents. The Treaty of Westminster was signed on 19th February 1674 bringing about England’s withdrawal from the war. By the end of the following year the French had left the Dutch republic, save for Maastricht. Louis now wished to rationalise his northern frontier. Containment of the French was to exercise William’s mind for the rest of life. It was his mission in Europe and he took a dim view of anyone trying to divert him from his life’s work.

Count George von Waldeck
In the early 1670s the Dutch army was riddled with cowardice, indiscipline & incompetence and William and his mentor Count George von Waldeck were faced with the challenge of creating a force able to fight the superior French armies. William’s difficulties as a general were often compounded by the need to command an composed of allied nations. The war placed an enormous strain on the Dutch economy & disrupted trade; with the additional disadvantage that the now neutral English were profiting from the Dutch problems

In March 1675 William had a fever which was quickly diagnosed as smallpox. William had no heir. He was the focus of intense loyalty from the Dutch people and there was no-one else of sufficient stature for the country to rally round, which could mean disaster for the nation. The number of people in contact with William was kept to a minimum; while his friend Bentinck, in accordance with current medical thinking, shared the bed of his friend, which was believed to draw off the illness from the patient. By the end of April both William and Bentinck had recovered from the dread disease.

Many Dutch republicans still feared that William’s ambition was to create a monarchy. So when he was offered the title of Duke of Guelderland in 1675 he regretfully had to turn the offer down as the states of Holland & Zeeland made their opposition clear.


In an (ultimately successful) attempt to bolster his claim to the English throne, William decided to ask for the hand of Lady Mary Stuart, second in line to the throne; the eldest daughter of the heir James, Duke of York. William hoped to persuade Charles to secede from his French alliance and withdraw from the war. It was for this reason that he overcame his reluctance – the marriage was likely to be unpopular with the Dutch, who had not cared for William’s mother, another Lady Mary Stuart and William was contemptuous of the low rank of Anne Hyde, Mary’s mother. Charles II was persuaded to consider the marriage between his niece and nephew, in an attempt to quieten the Protestant fears resulting from the 1672 Declaration of Indulgence and his heir’s Roman Catholicism[i].

With her sister Anne, Mary, who was born in 1662 (twelve years younger than her future husband) was a declared Child of the State and their education was the responsibility of the king and his advisers. Charles guaranteed that they would be brought up as members of the Church of England, assuring the Protestant succession. Mary’s spiritual mentor was the Bishop of London – Henry Compton, an outspoken anti-Papist. Lonely and bored Mary’ emotional output as a teenager was confined to a fourteen year correspondence with an older acquaintance, Frances Apsley.

In 1673 James, a widower since the death of Mary & Anne’s mother in 1671, married the fifteen year old Catholic Princess Mary Beatrice d’Este. The English people and Parliament objected vociferously to the marriage, but Mary and Anne found a new playmate. By April 1677 the Duchess of York had had two miscarriages, had one daughter die at ten months old and her daughter Isabella (who was to die in 1681) was a sickly child. It was also clear that Charles’ marriage was unlikely to produce an heir, and Charles refused to divorce his barren wife Queen Catherine. The need to ensure the Protestant succession was becoming imperative. Anti-Catholicism in England was becoming increasingly stronger.

Charles was inclined to the Dutch marriage for Mary, as a possible means of detaching his nephew from the Whig opposition to his government and detaching him from his allies Spain & the Holy Roman Empire. Charles offered terms to William & in October 1677 William arrived in England to discuss peace. His reserve alienated the court and Mary was distressed by the ‘old’ man her relations were planning to marry her to. William was accompanied by his friend William Bentinck, who was more adept than William at flattering those whose sense of importance required stroking. James, whose political sense was never strong, was opposed to the marriage as he hoped for a Catholic son-in-law – something Parliament would never concede. James’ only support in opposing the marriage came from the French Ambassador.

James reluctantly gave his permission for the wedding, which was solemnised on 4th November (William’s birthday) by Bishop Charlton, Mary’s spiritual adviser. The marriage was enormously popular with the English public, who were hostile to the Anglo-French alliance and looked forward to an Anglo-Dutch Protestant one. William had insisted that the marriage take place before peace terms could be discussed, to avoid his ambitions being taken hostage to his desire for peace. The wedding was a small private affair, at William’s insistence - he was concerned that a large ceremony would aggravate his asthma.

The Dutch were not impressed by William’s choice of bride and the birth of a son to the Duchess of York on the 7th November disappointed William, who was additionally irritated that he had to stand as Godfather to the child, who now stood between his wife and the crown. Charles, Duke of Cambridge[ii] lived only five weeks; he caught smallpox from his half-sister Anne, who’d visited her stepmother while still convalescent from the disease. William ordered his wife to stay away from the infected location of St James Palace and he and Mary quarrelled. William was required in Holland and wanted to return home.

On 29th November Mary arrived in the country that was to be her home for the next eleven years. On the 16th December William and Mary made their state entry into den Haag, before returning to the palace of Honselaardijk, where William had taken his bride on their arrival in the Dutch Republic. In private William’s reserve melted away and Mary was to learn to appreciate William’s good points and to contrast the vast difference between the Dutch & English courts.

William continued to have business lunches with colleagues and friends, to which Mary was not invited. He worked in the afternoons, while Mary received visitors. Mary and William had supper together in the evening. Mary soon realised that her role was to distract William from the cares of office with talk of gossip and trivia.

For William and Mary marriage came first. For them, unusual in a political marriage, love followed – according to some contemporary sources - relatively quickly after the wedding. In March 1678 William had to return to his campaigning against the French. Mary, already in love with William, wrote to Frances Apsley of her sadness at seeing William ride away and her worries that she might never see her husband again. In early April Mary miscarried, probably after a rough trip to Breda to see William.

Peace treaty with the French was finally signed at Nijmegen on 10th August; the French pushed to the negotiating table by William’s advance on Mons, with an army of 45,000. Mary by now believed she was pregnant again. She was delighted by the visit of her step-mother and sister, accompanied by the Duchess of Monmouth, in October. The visitors returned to find England in the grip of anti-Catholic hysteria, caused by Titus Oates’ revelation of the alleged Popish Plot.


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

Queen Anne – Edward Gregg, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980

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

William and Mary – John Miller, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1974

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

[i] James had converted some time in 1668-9. The news was kept secret but had filtered out into the public consciousness.
[ii] William was also annoyed as his uncle had refused to make him a duke.

1 comment:

  1. More that I didn't know having only ever covered this period very superficially at school and never having actually read much about it. My sole knowledge of Dutch history is from Baroness Orczy's 'the Laughing Cavalier' and 'The First Sir Percy' so this is an excellent introduction for me to the background of how William of Orange subsequently became joint monarch with Mary.