1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/William III., King of England

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WILLIAM III. (1650-1702), king of England and prince of Orange, was the only son of William II., prince of Orange, stadtholder of the Dutch republic, and Mary, daughter of Charles I. of England, and was born at the Hague on the 4th of November 1650, eight days after his father's death. His father had attempted a coup d'état, which had failed, with the result that on his death the office of stadtholder was abolished. Power passed into the hands of John de Witt, who represented the oligarchic element and the special interests of one province, Holland, and was taken from the Orange party which represented the more democratic element and the more general interests of the Seven Provinces. William inherited the baleful lustre, without the substantial power, which his ancestors had given to the name of Orange. He grew up among enemies, and became artful, suspicious and self-controlled, concealing his feeling behind the mask of an immobile, almost repulsive, coldness. Like Charles XII. of Sweden and the younger Pitt, he was a wonderful example of premature mental development.

In 1672 Louis XIV. suddenly invaded Dutch territory. The startling successes of the French produced a revolution among the Dutch people, who naturally turned for help to the scion of the house of Orange. On the 8th of July 1672 the states general revived the stadtholderate, and declared William stadtholder, captain-general and admiral for life. This revolution was followed by a riot, in which John de Witt and his brother Cornelius were murdered by the mob at the Hague. Evidence may be sought in vain to connect William with the outrage, but since he lavishly rewarded its leaders and promoters this circumstance is not very much to his credit. The cold cynicism with which he acted towards de Witt is only matched by the heroic obstinacy with which he confronted Louis. Resolved as he said “to die in the last ditch,” he rejected all thought of surrender and appealed to the last resource of Dutch patriotism by opening the sluices and laying vast tracts under water. The French army could not advance, while the French and English fleets were defeated by the Dutch admiral, De Ruyter. William summoned Brandenburg to his aid (1672) and made treaties with Austria and Spain (1673). In August 1674 he fought his first great battle at Seneffe, where, though the struggle was not unequal, the honours lay with Condé. The French evacuated Dutch territory early in 1674, but continued to hold places on the Rhine and in Flanders. In April 1677 William was badly beaten at St Omer, but balanced his military defeat by France by a diplomatic victory over England. In November 1677 he married Mary, eldest daughter of James, duke of York, afterwards King James II., and undertook negotiations with England in the following year which forced Louis to make terms and sign the treaty of Nijmwegen in August 1678, which gave Franche Comté and other places in Spanish Flanders to France. For some reason never yet made clear, but perhaps in order to produce a modification of terms which threatened the balance of power, William attacked the French army at Mons four days after the signature of peace. Luxembourg defeated him after a sanguinary and resultless struggle, and William gained nothing by his inexplicable action.

After the war Louis continued a course of aggression, absorbing frontier-towns in imperial or Spanish territory. William started a new coalition against him in October 1681 by making a treaty with Sweden, and subsequently with the empire, Spain and several German princes. After absorbing Strassburg (1681), Louis invaded Spanish Flanders and took Luxemburg (1684). Even then the new league would not fight and allowed Louis to retain his conquests by the truce of Regensburg (1685), but none the less these humiliations gave rise to a more closely knit and aggressive coalition, which was organized in 1686 and known as the League of Augsburg.

From 1677 onwards William had carefully watched the politics of England. On the accession of James II. in 1685 he forced the duke of Monmouth to leave Holland, and sought to dissuade him from his ill-starred expedition to England. He apparently tried to conciliate his father-in-law in the hope of bringing him into the League of Augsburg. At the same time he astutely avoided offending the party in England which was opposed to James. By November 1687 he had decided that it was hopeless to expect that James would join the league against Louis, and he therefore turned for support to the English opposition. He caused his chief minister Fagel to write a letter expressing his disapprobation of the religious policy of James, which was published in November 1687. This announcement of his views was received with wild enthusiasm by the English who saw in him the friend of their liberties and their Church. But he knew too much of the English to suppose they would tolerate an armed invasion, and he accordingly made it clear that he would not undertake active interference unless he received a definite invitation from leading Englishmen. On the 30th of June 1688 Admiral Herbert, disguised as a bluejacket, set out from England with a letter from seven influential Englishmen, asking William to “bring over an army and secure the infringed liberties” of England.

William set out from Holland with an army on the 2nd of November and landed at Torbay (Nov. 5th 1688). After a few days of hesitation, many influential noblemen declared for him in different parts of the country. James, who had at first joined his army at Salisbury, fell back to London and tried to negotiate. While his commissioners were amusing William, James sent off his wife and son to France, and tried to follow them. He was stopped in his flight by some fishermen at Faversham, and was forced to return to London. William insisted that he should be sent to Rochester, and there allowed him to escape to France. After this final flight of James, William, on the advice of an assembly of notables, summoned a convention parliament on the 22nd of January 1689. After a great deal of discussion, William was at length proclaimed joint-sovereign of England in conjunction with his wife, Mary (Feb. 13th 1689).

A constitutional settlement was effected by the end of 1689, almost all the disputed points between king and parliament being settled in favour of the latter. Though William by no means appreciated this confinement of his prerogative, he was too wise to oppose it. His own initiative is more clearly traceable in the Toleration Act, extending liberty of private worship to Dissenters. He also succeeded in passing an Act of Grace and Indemnity in 1690, by which he calmed the violence of party passion. But in general his domestic policy was not very fortunate, and he can hardly claim any personal credit for the reassessment of the land tax (1602), the creation of the national debt or the re coinage act (1693–1695). Further, he threatened the existence of the Bank of England, by lending his support to a counter-institution, the Land Bank, which ignominiously collapsed. Though he was not blind to the commercial interests of England, he was neglectful of the administration and affairs of her oversea colonies. But though he was unable to extract the best results from parliament he was always able to avert its worst excesses. In spite of strong personal opinions to the contrary, he accepted the Triennial Act (1694), the vote reducing the army to 10,000 men (1697), the vote disbanding his favourite Dutch Guards (1699) and even (November 1699) a bill rescinding the grants of forfeited Irish estates, which he had made to his favourites. The main cause of the humiliations William suffered from parliament lay in his incapacity to understand the party or cabinet system. In his view the best way to govern was to have both parties represented in the ministry, so that, as Whig and Tory fell out, the king came by his own. A study of his reign shows that this method was unsuccessful, and that his affairs went most smoothly when the parliamentary majority held the same views as the ministry. It is not often remembered that William possessed an experience of the workings of representative government in Holland, which was remarkably similar to that in England. Hence his mistakes though easy to understand are by no means so pardonable as were, for example, those of the Georges, who had been absolute monarchs in their own country. William's unpopularity with his new people was, on the whole, unjustified, but his memory is rightly darkened by the stain of the “Massacre of Glencoe.” In 1692 he signed an order for the “extirpation” of the Macdonalds, a small clan in the vale of Glencoe. It is improbable that he meant his order to be literally executed, it is not certain that he knew they had taken the oath of allegiance to him. None the less, when the massacre was carried out with circumstances of revolting barbarity, William behaved as he had done after the murder of De Witt. Popular pressure forced him to bring the murderers to justice, to punish them and dismiss them from his service. But shortly afterwards they were all received into favour; “one became a colonel, another a knight, a third a peer.”

These and other actions indicate that William could show on occasion a cold and cynical ruthlessness. But while admitting that his means were sometimes unprincipled, it must be recollected that his real ends were high and noble. While he sometimes disregarded the wishes of others, no one was more ready to sacrifice his own feelings for the attainment of the master aim of his life, the restoration of the “Balance of Power,” by the overthrow of the predominance of France. This was the real aim of William in going to England in 1688. He had set off to secure an ally against Louis, and he came back from his expedition with a crown on his head and a new nation at his back, united in its detestation of popery and of France.

As king of England he concluded treaties of alliance with the members of the League of Augsburg and sent a large army to oppose the French in Flanders. But his greatest immediate peril during 1689–1690 came from the circumstance that the French disputed the mastery of the seas with the Anglo-Dutch fleet, and that Ireland was strongly for King James. On the 1st of July 1690 the allies were badly beaten at sea off Beachy Head, but on the same day William himself won a decisive victory over James’s army at the Boyne in Ireland. Dublin and Drogheda soon fell and-James fled from Ireland. The chances of continued resistance in Ireland, which depended on communication with France, were finally destroyed by the great victory off Cape La Hogue (May 19th, 1692). Ireland was speedily conquered when once the supremacy of England on the sea became assured. Now the French fleet was definitely destroyed, and though a destructive privateering warfare continued, England was no longer in danger of invasion.

The decisive successes for the Alliance were gained by its naval victories, whose importance William somewhat underrated and for whose execution he had only an indirect responsibility. In 1692 he lost Namur and was badly defeated at Steinkirk (August 4th), and in 1693 he was disastrously beaten at Neerwinden or Landen (July 19th). In 1695 he was able to resume the offensive and to retake Namur in a brilliant and, what was more unusual, a successful campaign. William had assumed the duties of commander-in-chief too young to learn the full duties of a professional soldier himself, and his imperious will did not suffer others to direct him. Hence though often fertile in resource and ingenious in plan, he was always a brilliant amateur; and, though sometimes unlucky, he was never really the equal of such generals as Condé or Luxembourg.

In diplomacy William was as uniformly successful as in war he was the reverse. His unity of aim and constancy of purpose make him one of the greatest of modern diplomatists. He held together his ill-assorted coalition, and finally concluded peace at Ryswick in September 1697. Louis restored all his acquisitions since 1678, except Strassburg, and recognized William as king of England. During the subsequent years William tried to arrange a partition treaty with France, by which the domains of the childless Charles II. of Spain were to be divided at his death. But on the death of Charles in 1700 the whole heritage was left to France. William endeavoured to oppose this, and used Louis’s recognition of James Edward the “Old Pretender” as king of England (September 1701) to set the English people in a flame. War was already declared in 1702, but William, who had long been ailing, died from the combined effects of a fall from his horse and a chill on the 8th of March 1702. It was truly tragic that his doom should have come at the moment when he had once more drawn together a great alliance in Europe, and when he possessed a popularity in England such as he had never before enjoyed.

In viewing William’s character as a whole one is struck by its entire absence of ostentation, a circumstance which reveals his mind and policy more clearly than would otherwise be the case. No one can doubt his real belief in religion in spite of many moral failings or weaknesses. He was an unfaithful husband and often treated his wife with scant consideration; he was too fond of Dutch favourites like Keppel or worthless women like Lady Orkney. When it suited his interests he sanctioned the systematic corruption of members of parliament, and he condoned massacres like those at the Hague or in Glencoe. On the other hand he did not hesitate to inflict considerable injury on his own people, the Dutch, by the terms of the treaty with England (1689), when it became clear that only in this way could England's co-operation be secured. The Dutch criticism on him has been that he might have done more to reform the clumsiness of their constitutional procedure, and thus given them some return for the crippling expenses of the war. English criticism avers that he ought to have recognized more fully the system of party government, and to have done more to promote our colonial and commercial development. Military historians point out that he sometimes sacrificed great advantages to impetuosity; naval experts that he sometimes threw away great opportunities by indifference. Some of these criticisms are rather beside the mark, but were all true, they would not impair his essential greatness, which lay in another sphere. The best proof of his real powers of statesmanship is that the peace of Utrecht was subsequently made on the broad lines which he had laid down as the only security for European peace nearly a dozen years before its conclusion. While he lacked in diplomacy the arts of a Louis XIV. or the graces of a Marlborough, he grasped the central problems of his time with more clearness, or advanced solutions with more ultimate success, than any other statesman of his age. Often baffled, but never despairing, William fought on to the end, and the ideas and the spirit of his policy continued to triumph long after the death of their author.

Original Authorities.—Gilbert Burnet, History of my Own Time. ed. O. Airy (London, 1897); William Carstares (The King’s Secretary) Papers, edited by J. McCormick (London, 1774); Queen Mary, Letters with Those of James II. and William III., ed. R. Doebner (Leipzig, 1886); Lettres et mémoires, edited by Countess Bentinct (London, 1880); duke of Portland, Hist. MSS. Comm. Report, xv. App. pt. iv. (London. 1897); Shrewsbury Correspondence, ed. W. Coxe (London, 1821); Shrewsbury MSS.—Hist. MSS. Comm. Rep. xv. vol. ii. pts. i . and ii. (London, 1903); Letters, ed. P. Grimblot (2 vols., London, 1848).

Modern Works (see also under James II.).—Dr Paul Haake, Brandenburgische Politik in 1688–1689 (Kassel, 1896); Marquis of Halifax, Life, H. C. Foxcroft (2 vols.. London, 1898); Macaulay, History, vols, i.-vi.; Essays, vols, i.-iii. (London, 1898); Baroness Nyevelt, Court Life in the Dutch Republic (London, 1906); F. A. J. Mazure, Histoire de la revolution de 1688 (3 vols., Paris, 1848).