William III - King of England, Scotland, and Ireland

William III - King of England, Scotland, and Ireland
William III - King of England, Scotland, and Ireland

William III, king of England and prince of Orange–Nassau, is famous in history as the ruler who rallied the forces of Europe against French hegemony under Louis XIV, king of France. Overcoming adversity was a lifelong task for William.

He was born the only son of William II, prince of Orange and stadtholder of the Dutch Republic (an elective not hereditary office in the United Provinces, the official name of the Dutch Republic between 1578 and 1815), and Mary Stuart, daughter of Charles I.

William’s birth occurred eight days after his father’s death. The death came a week after a failed coup wherein his father had sought to strengthen his position. His mother’s family was in exile during this the period of the Commonwealth (1649–60).

The result of the death and failed coup d’etat was that the anti-Orange faction, the oligarchy of rich merchants primarily based in Holland and led by the De Witt brothers, seized control and abolished the office of stadtholder.

William saw his mother’s family restored to power in England in 1660 but lost his mother later that year. Now an orphan, he awaited his chance. It came when Louis XIV made a sudden attack on Dutch territory in revenge for Dutch diplomatic attempts to block his aggrandizement in the Netherlands. The De Witt regime was overthrown, and William was made stadtholder, captain-general, and admiral for life.

In the struggle for survival, although France had the military advantage, he had the diplomatic triumph of securing aid from Brandenburg, Austria, and Spain. The breakthrough came when England switched sides and he married his cousin Mary, daughter of the duke of York, in 1677. Although France made gains elsewhere, the Dutch Republic and most of the Netherlands were saved from the French.

William organized the League of Augsburg in opposition to French annexations in Germany and the Low Countries. His major triumph came when the English opposition to his father-in-law (now James II) approached him in 1687.

In return for supporting the rights of Parliament and opposing the pro-Catholic religious policies of James II, they promised him the throne. William landed in England in 1688, overthrew James II, and defeated his adherents at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The political result was the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which led to the formal supremacy of Parliament.

Thereafter, he and his wife, Mary, third and first in the line of succession, were declared sovereigns as William III and Mary II. His position had become so secure that he was able to rule after the death of Mary in 1694, even though her sister Anne was closer in line of the succession.

William’s domestic policies were not especially successful, as he remained focused on external affairs. The major blot on his record during the 1690s was the massacre of the MacDonald clan in Glencoe, Scotland, wherein the perpetrators were rewarded. His achievements during the 1690s were in the Wars of the League of Augsburg, which lasted from 1689 to 1697 and forced Louis to give up all acquisitions gained during the war.

The prospect that Spain and all its possessions would fall to France on the death of Charles II in 1700 threatened to undo his efforts to create a balance of power in Europe. Once again, he rallied much of Europe against France to prevent Louis XIV from becoming a new Charles V.

The subsequent War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13) did eventually accomplish this result. William, however, was not there to see it, as he died in March 1702 after a fall from his horse.

Rarely successful in war, but almost always in diplomacy, he had as his main achievement the idea of a balance of power as necessary for European security. William was the author of a precursor to the idea of collective security but did not live to see its first application in the Peace of Utrecht in 1713.