The Stuarts: William and Mary (1689-1702)

The Catholic King James II had fled his throne, and a favored Protestant Dutchman named William of Orange had roused the people in what became known as the “Glorious Revolution.” It was a moment of extraordinary growth and opportunity for England under the governance of a foreign king. William, perhaps more than anyone, transformed the fractious English monarchy into a dominant imperial power. England was now to be regarded as a significant European power, on par with France, in alliance with the Netherlands, a hegemonic influence over the aging Spanish Empire. David Starkey calls William one of England’s greatest monarchs.

Portrait of William of Orange

William of Orange was a tenacious yet somewhat sickly figure. As a child he was asthmatic and partly crippled with a tubercular lung. “But within this emaciated and defective frame there burned a remorseless fire, fanned by the storms of Europe, and intensified by the grim compression of his surroundings” (Churchill, 381). William grew up during a time of political turmoil in the United Provinces of the Netherlands. His path toward becoming Stadtholder of several regions of the Dutch Republic was never assured. When he married his first cousin (Mary, daughter of James II) the marriage was dictated by calculated reasons of statecraft. He remained childless and loveless in marriage albeit publicly committed. Discreetly and privately, William preferred the company of one of Mary’s ladies in waiting, Elizabeth Villiers. He was an intensely private man. William was a Calvinist in practice though he cared very little for any sort of religious decorum. He was comfortable so long as Mary publicly represented virtue and piety to the commons while William was known for ridding England of a Catholic king and waging war on France. It was an arrangement that worked for the nobility, as well. As William put it: “He was to conquer Enemies, and she [Mary] was to gain Friends.” Among his enemies William was known as “Rotten Orange,” or “Hook Nose,” or “The Little Spark” or “Dutch Billy.”

After invading England and sending James II in flight to France, a Parliamentary Convention was convened in 1689 to determine the future of the monarchy. It was decided that James II had not been defeated, but rather he abdicated the throne and deserted his people. And so Parliament offered the titles of King and Queen to William of Orange and Mary (William would expect nothing less than kingship). The procedural appointment by Parliament signaled a new delineation between King and Parliament. William and Mary were both nominated in an elaborate Parliamentary ceremony, and the official coronation ceremony took place on April 11, 1689 at Westminster Abbey. It also sidestepped the potential succession of the ‘old pretender’ James Francis Stuart on the grounds that he was Catholic.

Almost immediately upon arriving in England, William despised the superstitious high church rituals in England, such as the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday or the touching of the scrofula. He did not believe in sacraments, nor in the pomp and circumstance of pseudo-clerical extravaganzas, but he did believe in his own divinely ordained Providence to become the champion of Protestant Europe against the “Papist” expansion of his nemesis Louis XIV. The rivalry between the two monarchs became William’s all-consuming raison d’être. All other drivel about sacred customs fell on deaf ears for William.

Per Winston Churchill: “William’s paramount interest was in the great war now begun throughout Europe, and in the immense confederacy he had brought into being. He had regarded the English adventure as a divagation, a duty necessary but tiresome, which had to be accomplished for a larger purpose. He never was fond of England, nor interested in her domestic affairs. He required the wealth and power of England by land and sea for the European war. Once securely seated on the English throne he scarcely troubled to disguise these sentiments” (383).

A portrait of Mary II in 1690. She is often remembered as a docile wife inn contrast to her demonstrative husband.

After their coronation, William and Mary quickly fled the misty locale of Whitehall for their newly constructed Kensington Palace near Hyde Park. Whitehall burned down in 1698 and it was never rebuilt. With it went the great dynastic portrait of Henry VIII and his family, along with his legacy of royal absolutism. Unlike James I who virtually abandoned his court in Edinburgh, William of Orange upon taking the throne of England, maintained dual courts in both England and the Netherlands. It was a cross-Channel alliance that was sure to cause trouble for France. In his efforts abroad William grew to trust John Churchill whom he appointed as 1st earl of Marlborough (a relative of Winston Churchill).

However, early into the reign of William and Mary, rebellions were ignited elsewhere in Scotland and Ireland. First, in the Scottish Highlands a rebellion grew under John Graham of Claverhouse and Viscount Dundee who persecuted the Covenanters on behalf of Charles II and James II. They roused the Scottish clansmen to a victory at Killiecrankie on July 27, 1689 but their fortunes soon dissipated in a crushing defeat at Dunkeld on August 21, 1689. The last vestiges of the Highland Rebellion were extinguished the following year. The more serious threat was in Ireland. The ousted king James II landed in Ireland in March 1689 with support from Louis XIV hoping to regain his lost kingdom. If it distracted William from the war on the Continent so much the better for Louis XIV. In the commotion the Jacobites quickly took control of much of the island giving James II a glimmer of hope at his triumphant return. But it was not enough. The forces of William proved superior and at a decisive the battle along the River Boyne (The Battle of the Boyne) James was decimated. James fled again to France never again to return. Centuries later the fervent anti-Catholic Protestants of Northern Ireland still celebrate the Battle of the Boyne under their savior-king: “King Billy” or the “Great Deliverer.”

From 1690 onward William spent much of his reign abroad battling the lingering defenders of the ousted James II (“Jacobites”) in Ireland as well as the Nine Years War on the Continent -a war between a coalition of European Protestants versus Catholic France. Peace was only brokered when the royal succession of Spain became a primary concern for the ruling monarchs of Europe: William of Orange, Louis VIX, and Leopold I Holy Roman Emperor. It was hastily agreed that the Spanish lands would be divided between the three empires and that William’s nephew, Joseph Francis (son of Mary’s sister Anne) would succeed William as King. However, in 1699 young Joseph Francis contracted smallpox and died. It was a crushing blow for William’s grand machinations. There was an attempt at a second treaty until the long-ailing Charles II of Spain tried to interfere and France proclaimed itself the sole inheritor of the Spanish lands. The fragile balance of power was broken and the ensuing conflict became known as the Wars of Spanish Succession -a conflict known for replacing the principle of hereditary power with the need for a balance of regional powers. With the long-awaited Wars of the Spanish Succession, Europe was fatigued. William recognized his weaknesses. England was unlikely to support a war for the crown of Spain and so he pursued a policy of partitioning the Spanish Empire with Mary’s sister Anne succeeding to the throne.

Back in England, Whigs and Tories were seesawing back and forth until Robert Harley 1st earl of Oxford arose as the champion of the Tories. He was raised in a Puritan household, was once a self-described Whig and Dissenter, but now he came forth as a staunch defender of the High Church Anglicans. He became master of Parliament, enacting reckless legislation to reduce England’s armed forces during wartime. He sought to rival the newly minted “Whig” Bank of England (created to finance William’s war efforts) with the “Tory” Land Bank. All the while Haley was hungry for his chance to step onto the world stage. He and a close circle of men exploited lingering bitterness among the Tories. Per Winston Churchill: “Together these four men exploited those unworthy moods which from time to time have seized the Tory Party. They froze out and hunted into poverty the veteran soldiery and faithful Huguenot officers. They forced William to send away his Dutch guards. They did all they could to belittle and undermine the strength of their country. In the name of peace, economy, and isolation they prepared the ground for a far more terrible renewal of the war” (390). William threatened to abdicate the throne to these odious and intractable politicians, a pledge which would have carried a political crisis that none wanted.

Then in 1694 Mary, a spry and all around healthy woman, contracted smallpox. The lesions along her body soon turned inward and the disease proved fatal. The diarist John Evelyn wrote that she was ‘full of spots’ all over her pale body. She died at the untimely age of thirty-two in December 1694. Shortly before her death she had endowed the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Her death was widely mourned throughout the isles.

Freshly aware that death waits for no man, in 1701 Parliament passed the Act of Settlement which upheld the prohibition against a Catholic monarch while allowing a path to the crown for Anne, Mary II’s sister, to become queen if William did not produce an heir. If Anne also failed to produce an heir (her only children had died in infancy) the crown would bypass several dozen Catholics in order to grant the crown to the next nearest Protestant kin, Sophia Electress of Hanover (granddaughter of James II). At the same time fighting continued abroad mainly as a proxy war between William and Louis XIV who finally promised to recognize William as King of England with the Treaty of Ryswick in 1701 but he then failed to uphold his promise. Upon the death of James II, Louis XIV recognized James’s son James Francis Edward as king. The Jacobites of Ireland hoisted their glasses to the “king over the water” as well as “the little gentleman in black velvet” while the recalcitrant Tories quickly started to see merit in William’s opposition to France.

Just as it seemed England was finally cured of its fickle moods, William contracted pneumonia. It was a complication from falling off his favorite horse Sorrel while riding at Hampton Palace. Sorrel had struck a molehill sending William flying -the fall broke his collarbone. His rapidly declining health was cause for great concern. William’s marriage to Mary had not produced any children. Mary’s sister, Anne, had borne numerous children, all of whom died during childhood. The death of her last surviving child (Prince William, Duke of Gloucester) in 1700 left her as the only individual in the line of succession established by the Bill of Rights. The succession was yet again of paramount concern.

William died at age fifty-two just as conflicts with Parliament over foreign policy were heating up. His reign marked a brief but consequential term as head of state. Both William and Mary were buried at Westminster Abbey.

Upon the death of William of Orange Daniel Defoe wrote the following words intended to upbraid his fellow countrymen for their ingratitude toward their late king (many were resentful of the king’s clutch of Dutch favorites):
“His majesty left a quiet, retired, completely happy condition, full of honour, beloved of his country, valued and esteemed, as well as feared by his enemies, to come over hither at your own request, to deliver you from the encroachments and tyranny, as you called it, of your prince. Ever since he came hither, he has been your mere journeyman, your servant, your soldier of fortune; he has fought for you, fatigued and harassed his person, and robbed himself of all his peace for you; he has been in a constant hurry, and run through a million hazards for you; he has conversed with fire and blood, storms at sea, camps and trenches ashore, and given himself no rest for twelve years, and all for your use, safety, and repose” (The Consolidator 1705).


For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Samuel Pepys’s memoirs, Bishop Gilbert Burnet’s History of My Own Time (1723), and Peter Ackroyd’s Revolution: The History of England From The Battle of the Boyne To The Battle of Waterloo.

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