William III of England: The Dutchman who became King of England

William III of England

William III of England: Family, Glorious Revolution, Reign & Achievements

Renowned for the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which saw him peacefully ascend the throne as King of England, William III is regarded by many historians as the most successful yet one of the least popular of England’s monarchs.

Being a Dutchman, he was viewed as an outsider among the ruling class in England. He did not share their accent, his diction was not sophisticated and his vocabulary was basic. Yet to the common folks, he was heralded as a Protestant hero and a leader worthy of respect and admiration.

What else was William III of England known for? And how did this Prince of Orange come to be seen as the savior of Protestant England?

Below, World History Edu looks at the life and reign of William III of England, including how this Dutch monarch became King of England by deposing his uncle and father-in-law, James II of England.

Early Life & Education

William came into the world in 1650, eight days after the death of his father, William II, Prince of Orange. His mother was Mary, the eldest daughter of King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland.

At birth, William bore the title of Prince of Orange as he fully inherited his deceased father’s Principality of Orange.

At an early age, he received tutelage from various governesses and later received daily lessons from a Calvinist preacher, Cornelis Trigland. He was further educated at the University of Leiden, where he was placed under the guidance of Professor Hendrik Bornius.

William III of England

He was the only child of his parents. Image: The young William III painted by Jan Davidsz de Heem and Jan Vermeer van Utrecht

The relationship between his mother and paternal grandmother was fraught with difficulties. It all stemmed from disagreement over the name of William at the time of his birth. His paternal grandmother, Amalia of Solms-Braunfels, insisted that the child be named William (Willem) in order to aid his effort in becoming soverign of the Netherlands (i.e. stadtholder). On the other hand, his mother wanted to name him Charles, after her younger brother Charles (later Charles II of England).

Shortly after his uncle Charles II regained the English throne in 1660 (i.e. during the Restoration), William’s mother died. It’s said that she died of smallpox. William was only ten at the time. He was subsequently left in the care of his paternal grandmother, Amalia of Solms-Braunfels, and his uncle, Frederick William.

However, disputes soon arose over his education and guardianship between the supporters of Orangism and the pro-Republicans.

In 1666, aged sixteen, the young Prince of Orange was officially declared a ward of the States General, the representative assembly of the United Provinces.

A charismatic personality, William was loved by the people. The leading member of the Republicans, De Witt took charge of his education, giving him weekly tuition in the affairs of the state. In his late teens, the Orangists attempted to secure Williams role as stadtholder.

All this while international disputes were rife all around Europe. William’s uncle, Charles II of England, was holding discussions with his allies in France for an imminent attack on the Republic. Sensing trouble, those in the Netherlands who had initially resisted William’s power surrendered, allowing him to take charge as State General (i.e. Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Guelders, and Overijssel) in 1672, thereby cementing his rule over the Netherlands.

Marriage to Mary

In 1677, as a way of raising his social status and importance during the war with France, William married his cousin, Mary, the daughter of James, Duke of York (later James II of England).

The marriage was also an attempt to repair the tense relations between England and the Netherlands after the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667).

William was eleven years Mary’s senior, and it’s been said that Mary was not a willing bride. However, she did eventually have a change of heart as her marriage to the Dutch cousin made made her claim to the throne of England stronger.

Why was James II deposed during the Glorious Revolution?

James II’s incessant desire to nudge England into the Catholic Church made his reign very unpopular with a predominantly Protestant Britain.

To enhance his chances of wearing the English crown, he joined Protestant nobles in England in piling up pressure on James II of England to end his pro-Catholic policy.

James II’s pro-Catholic policies led to his deposition during the Glorious Revolution in 1688. As a result, James II became the last Catholic to rule England.

James II lost his English crown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which was a relatively bloodless endeavor that saw Dutch monarch, William, the Prince of Orange, invade England with the help of the English and Scottish Parliaments. William and his wife, Mary, were then crowned joint monarchs – William III and Mary II, respectively. Image: James II & VII, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, by Godfrey Kneller

English nobles send out an invitation to William

A group of English bishops known as the as the Immortal Seven wrote a letter to William, requesting for his help in deposition of the Catholic King of England, James II.

Though the Protestants formed the majority in England, they were afraid that any son of James that ascended the throne would reign as a Catholic king. This would not only allow the pope to impose religious authority over England but will also allow the Catholics to wield secular power over England in alliance with Spain and their greatest enemy, France.

Together with his wife, William agreed to help in deposition of James II, an event that later came to be termed as the Glorious Revolution.

The invasion by William had to be sold to the English people as something nonthreatening. This meant that the leading Protestant nobles and politicians first had to send an invite to William.

William III of England

A Protestant monarch of the Netherlands, William was seen by the English nobles as a good replacement of the Catholic king James II. Upon William’s arrival, James II fled England for safety in France. The Invasion involved relatively little destruction or bloodshed as William was welcomed a hero by the English. Image: William III of England

William’s invasion of England

As early as April 1688, William had started making preparations for his invasion of England. The Dutch prince was counting on France not coming to the aid of their ally James II as the French were busy with campaigns in central and southern Europe.

The birth of James’ son, James Francis Edward, in June of that year made it apparently clear that England was set to have a Roman Catholic dynasty. The young prince leapfrogged his older half-sister Mary to become first in line of succession.

Being a Protestant nation, many English became dismayed, necessitating a group of seven English noblemen (also known as the Immortal Seven) to formally invite the King’s Protestant Dutch nephew and son-in-law to invade England.

By the middle of September 1688, William’s planned invasion of England was out in the public.

In November 1688, William led his Dutch Army to England. The Protestant Dutch prince and his army of about 35,000 men made landing on the English shores at the coastal town of Brixham. William then proceeded to march on London.

English nobles flock to William’s camp

When news of William’s landing reached the people, it’s said that the embattled English king’s support began to shrink as many of his military officers and advisors began to move to the camp of William. One such high-ranking figure was Lord Churchill of Eyemouth, a senior military officer in James’ camp. The likes of Admiral Matthew Aylmer, Captain Henry Bertie, and Colonel Berkley also disserted the King.

As William’s invasion unfolded, more and more noblemen and military officers pledged their unbridled support to the Dutch monarch, whom they reasoned was the only way to prevent Catholicism from returning to England. In the three years that James had been king, majority of his subjects had come to loathe his pro-Roman Catholic policy and his unrelenting persecution of some Protestant scholars and clergymen.

Although James had the military personnel to resist his Dutch cousin, he chose not to do so, fearing that England could descend into a bloody civil war. The beleaguered Catholic king began to devise plan for his escape to France; however, he was caught in December and was taken to London.

William and the English noblemen and gentry were fully aware that killing James was bound to make the him a martyr and thereby enrage his supporters, which in turn, could plunge Britain into a civil war. Therefore, James was allowed to make an escape from his cell in London. On December 23, the deposed English monarch was allowed to flee to France, where he was welcomed by his ally Louis XIV.

On November 5, 1688, the Protestant Dutch prince and his army of about 35,000 men made landing on the English shores at the coastal town of Brixham. William then proceeded to march on London. He had the support of the masses who were infuriated with James II for his attempt to turn England into a Catholic nation. Image: The Prince of Orange landing at Torbay, by Jan Hoynck van Papendrecht

William III’s invasion of England versus Spanish Armada

Having sailed to England with more than 35,000 men aboard over 460 ships, William landed on the English shores with a force that was significantly larger than the Spanish Armada organized by Catholic Spanish monarch Philip II in 1588.

Unlike Philip II, whose naval fleet was completely destroyed by a combination of English naval fleet and bad weather, William was successful in his invasion.

Interestingly, the period between Philip II’s attempted invasion of England and William’s successful invasion of England was 100 years.

William’s invasion of England makes him the last foreigner to successfully marshal an armed invasion of the country.

Did you know?

The first time that England had a joint monarchy was during the reigns of Catholic Queen Mary I (also known as “Bloody Mary”) and her husband Philip II of Spain. Unlike Philip who could only be king of England during his wife’s lifetime, William went on to rule England even after the death of his wife in 1694.

Parliament offer William and Mary the English Crown

The English nobility and Parliament deemed the English throne vacant as they deemed James’ exile to France as an abdication of the throne. It was even stated that James threw away the Great Seal of the Realm into the River Thames as he fled to France.

After many days of deliberations by the English Convention, between January and February 1689, the crowns of England and Ireland was offered to William and his wife Mary.

Similarly in Scotland, at the Scottish Convention in March, the Scottish Crown was handed to William and Mary, who accepted it on May 11.

If James II’s throne was seen as vacant, why didn’t the Crown pass on to his infant son, Prince Edward? The Bill of Rights maintained that no Catholic be allowed to wear the English crown. This explains why the English Crown was not offered to Edward, who was a Catholic. This view was cemented in the Bill of Rights 1689, which the English Parliament passed on February 13, 1689.

Read More: 10 Most Famous Scottish Monarchs and their Achievements

Bill of Rights 1689

A restatement of the Declaration of Right, the Bill of Rights received royal assent on December 16, 1689. Under the Bill of Rights of 1689, the primacy of Parliament over the English Crown was confirmed. From that period onward, Parliament was to be in charge of finances and the army. The Bill also forbade any Catholic from wearing the English Crown.

On February 13, 1689, the English Parliament read out the Declaration of Rights to William and his wife Mary. In the nutshell, the document, which enumerated all the misdeeds of James II, handed the throne to the William and Mary. That same year, Parliament passed the Bill of Rights, which placed restrictions on the royal prerogative. Some of those restrictions forbade the king from abusing his power, it included the following:

  • Suspending laws passed by Parliament;
  • Imposing taxes without parliamentary consent
  • Unduly influencing elections of parliamentarians
  • Punishing parliamentarians for utterances made during debates on the floor
  • Exacting harsh and unusual punishments
  • Taking away the right to petition
  • Raising a standing army during peacetime without seeking consent from Parliament

Why did Parliament ban Catholics from inheriting the English Crown?

The Bill of Rights also forbade any Catholic from wearing the English Crown. Also any person in line of succession that married a Catholic was automatically prevented from ascending to the throne. The 1701 Act of Settlement reaffirmed this provision.

The ban on a Catholic ascending the English throne was put in place to prevent the dilution of the sovereignty of the monarch, who is also the Supreme governor of the Church of England.

It was not until 2015 that the ban on English monarch marrying a Catholic was lifted under the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013.

William III and Mary II’s coronation at Westminster Abbey

William III and Mary II

Following the deposition of James II of England in 1688, William III and his wife, Mary, who was the daughter of James II, were offered the throne. Image: The coronation of William and Mary by Dutch painter Charles Rochussen

William III was required to reign jointly with with his wife, Mary (Mary II of England). Mary, however, had no interest in ruling and requested that William be crowned in order to rule as a regent for her father. That notwithstanding, the two were crowned in a joint coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey on April 11, 1689.

The coronation ceremony of William III and Mary II was conducted by Henry Compton, the Bishop of London. Why didn’t the Archbishop of Canterbury conduct the ceremony? It turned out that then-Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, vehemently opposed the deposition of James. Therefore, Sancroft refused to accept the William and Mary as monarchs.

William ruled as William III of England under a decree passed by Parliament in early 1689. The change of governance become known as the Glorious Revolution because it happened peacefully with very minimal fighting and bloodshed.

Battle of the Boyne in July 1690

Battle of the Boyne in July 1690 saw forces of James II and William III clash. William emerged the victor

Compared to other parts of Britain, Ireland did have more supporters of James II. It came as no surprise when in July 1690 William marched his troops to Ireland to lock horns with Irish Jacobites and forces from France. At the Battle of the Boyne on July 1, 1690, deposed king James II’s supporters of about 24,000 and William’s forces of about 35,000 fought each other at a place near the River Boyne (in modern-day Republic of Ireland). William emerged the victor, and James once again fled to France. The deposed English monarch never went back to Britain.

The establishment of a constitutional monarchy

Over the next years, Parliament issued many laws that restricted the powers of the monarchy. This streamlined the powers of the two institutions, making it possible for them to rule harmoniously. Their roles were established by the Bill of Rights of December 1689.

It was Parliament’s responsibility to pass laws,  introduce new taxes and determine state budget. The monarchy was supported by the money from the Civil List issued according Civil List Act of 1697.

In 1695, William III’s army defeated the French and the war ended with the Treaty of Ryswick in September 1697. Finally Louis XIV acknowledged William III as the rightful king of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Why William III and Louis XIV had a frosty relationship

Louis XIV and William never saw eye-to-eye, with the former describing the Dutchman as his “mortal enemy”. The French monarch is said to have harbored the desire to place himself as the ruler of Europe. In a bid to end France’s interference in the Low Countries, William formed an anti-French alliance, i.e. the League of Augsburg, which included Spain, Sweden and a number of German states.

It was not until 1697 when the two monarchs were able to patch things up and reconcile their differences. That year, in September, the Treaty of Rijswijk was struck between France and England, bringing an end to the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697). Louis XIV then recognized William III as the King of England. The French monarch also halted support of deposed monarch James II. This came as a huge blow to exiled Jacobites.

Major Accomplishments of William III

William III of England

William was known for his apt diplomatic skills in the formation of alliances with other nations to war against Catholic French king Louis XIV.

Having inherited the title of Prince of Orange at birth, William III spend the first two decades of his life consolidating his power. From 1672 until his death in 1702, the Dutch monarch held the title of Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Guelders, and Overijssel. Following the deposition of James II in the Glorious Revolution, William and his wife were crowned joint monarchs of the three kingdoms – England, Scotland and Ireland.

Below, we take a look at William III’s major achievements:

The Independence of the Netherlands

It is a well-known fact that William III was intent on preserving the independence of the Netherlands. In fact, he made that his life’s mission. In 1672, he overcame the great odds and succeeded in sustaining the prosperity of his homeland.  He incessantly fought against French powers, compelling Louis XIV of France to end his interference in the Netherlands.

Formation of Alliances

Although William III was a courageous man, it was his political skills that represented his greatest source of strength. A brilliant statesman, he established and sustained great relations which helped him to bring for instance, the Emperor Brandenburg, Saxony, Spain, Savoy and others into an alliance. The alliance, which went beyond denominational boundaries, was aimed at breaking Louis XIV of France’s influence in Europe.

Preservation of England

Williams III is arguably the most crucial European monarch of the 17th century. By fighting France, arguably the leading power in Europe at the time, he not only reconciled the Netherlands, but he also successfully became the King of England. He supported England’s war efforts against France and ended over a hundred years isolation of England. During his reign as king of England, he established a series of victories that transformed Britain into worldwide power.

Political & Religious Harmony

Under his reign, religious tolerance was enhanced, the independence of the judiciary was established, and Parliament became a permanent feature of England’s politics. Without William III, the work of the Reformation would have been reversed and England could have been a satellite or puppet of Catholic France.


William III led in the establishment and renovation of almost all the palaces and castles that he shared with his wife. The motivation behind these building projects ranged from political, cultural and personal. William III for instance acquired the Soestdijk manor in 1674 and had it renovated as a hunting lodge. The manor became a state property after the French invasion in 1975.

Assassination attempt by the Jacobites in 1696

Some hardcore members of the Jacobites, staunch supporters of the deposed king James, did everything in their power to frustrate the reign of William III and his wife. There were even some assassination plots against William. For many decades, the Jacobites sought to restore James and his male successors to the English throne.

The Jacobites argued that James II did not abandon his throne as purported by the English and Scottish parliaments; instead he was forced from power. As they held the firm belief that the English monarchs were appointed by God and not by the people, the Jacobites considered the reigns of William III and Mary II as illegitimate. The Jacobites simply refused to take oaths of allegiance to Mary II and William III.

Where did William first land in England?

Brixham in England

Brixham is a coastal town in south-western England. It was there that William III Prince of Orange and his Dutch army landed in a bid to remove his uncle and father-in-law James II from power. Today, there is a statue as well as commemorative plague in the town to remember Dutch prince’s landing.

How did William III die?

On March 8, 1702, William III, having ruled as the sole monarch of England for about six year, passed away. The cause of death was pneumonia. The King was buried at Westminster Abbey on April 12, 1702.

William’s III’s three British kingdoms were passed on to Anne, his sister-in-law and cousin. Under the Act of Settlement 1701, the English Crown passed to a distant relative of Anne in the person of Sophia, Electress of Hanover. Sophia was the granddaughter of James I of England (also known as James VI of Scotland).

His cousin John William Friso inherited his title Holland, including the Principality of Orange and other lordships.

Read More: Female Rulers of England and Great Britain

William III of England: Fast Facts

Birth Day and Place: November 4, 1650; Binnenhof, The Hague, Dutch Republic

Died: March 8, 1702; Kensington Palace, Middlesex, England

Reign: 1689-1702

Coronation Date: April 11, 1689

Title: King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith

Successor: Anne

Predecessor: James II & VII

Mother: Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange and Countess of Nassau

Father: William II, Prince of Orange

Spouse: Mary II of England (married: 1677-1694)

House: Orange-Nassau

Children: None

Burial: April 12, 1702; Westminster Abbey, London

Did you know…?

  • William was born eight days after the death of his father William II, Prince of Orange, in 1650. As a result, he inherited his father’s crown at the time of his birth. In addition to being Prince of Orange, he went on to become Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Guelders, and Overijssel in 1672.
  • William III’s mother, Mary, Princess Royal (1631-1660), was the first person to hold the title of Princess Royal as she was the eldest daughter of Charles I of England. The honor is given to the eldest daughter of a British monarch. The honor was instituted by her mother Queen Henrietta, who was the wife of King Charles I, in 1642.
  • After his invasion of England, William never wanted to reign as a mere consort. The Prince of Orange vehemently resisted all efforts to have his wife as sole ruler. He threatened to abandon the process and depart with his army back to Holland. Mary, who was very devout to William, supported her husband’s wish.
  • Having been given the throne of Scotland as well, William III is known in Scotland as William II.
  • During his sole reign, from 1694 to 1702, William was not as popular as he was in his early reign.
  • Both his parents and wife died of smallpox.

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