UK POLITICS: William III (William of Orange) Biography

By Politicoscope July 13, 2017 09:00

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UK POLITICS: William III (William of Orange) Biography

William III (William of Orange) Biography Introduction: For many people, the most memorable image of William III is bound close to the Battle of the Boyne, in which he defeated the Catholic James II (James VII of Scotland) in 1690. To this day he is represented in this battle – which took place on the banks of the River Boyne, County Louth – on the murals of loyalist Protestant Belfast. There he is shown triumphant, on a rearing white charger, scattering James’s Catholic army – a symbol of Protestant salvation.

Today William III is mostly remembered for his association with the Battle of the Boyne. He only got involved in Ireland, though, to further his aims in Europe, and it was his determination to beat France above all else that saved Britain from a century of turmoil.

William III (William of Orange) Full Biography
Yet though this is the most visible element of William’s legacy, it is perhaps the most misleading. This king in fact had little focus on Ireland’s Protestants (or on any other Britons), and many of his most significant achievements were achieved far away from the Boyne.

Curiously, William’s contribution to British and Irish history stemmed from his relative indifference to these islands. His career explains this. William was born in the Hague in 1650. Although his mother Mary was English (a daughter of King Charles I), his father William (who died of smallpox days before his son’s birth) was an Orange-Nassau, a member of the most powerful family in the United Provinces of the Netherlands. This paternal legacy would always shape the future king’s life.

Early years
William’s first two decades were spent trying to regain the Orange position in Dutch politics. Although the Orange family had led Holland’s war of independence against Spain in the 16th century, and had usually been elected to the executive stadhouderships (provincial leaderships) of most of Holland’s regional provinces, they had never become hereditary sovereigns of that country, and there were powerful forces opposed to them in the republic.

Until 1672, the opposition kept William from office. In that year, however, King Louis XIV of France invaded the Netherlands, and occupied nearly all the country. In the crisis, the Dutch turned back to the Orange family. William was appointed both to the stadhouderships and to the command of the federal army.

The events of 1672 determined the rest of William’s career. He had come to power to save the Dutch from France, and Europe from the dangerously expansionist Louis – and he became obsessed with these goals. Thus, in the years after the French invasion, William organised his countrymen’s resistance.

He allied with Spain and Austria – and drove Louis from Dutch soil. Vitally, he also explored the idea of the Stuart realms coming to his aid. He urged his uncles – the kings Charles II and James II (from 1685) – to help him stand against France. Then in 1677 he married James’s eldest daughter, Mary, in the hope of cementing an Anglo-Dutch alliance.

William’s real chance to recruit Britain and Ireland against Louis came in 1688. By this point, James II had alienated his Protestant subjects with his campaign to promote his own Catholic religion, a campaign that employed highly questionable uses of royal power. William wondered if he might benefit from the subsequent political instability, and from the hopes of British Protestants – who looked to him as the Protestant husband of James’s heir.

Thus, although the stadhouder (provincial leader) urged moderation on his uncle, he also contacted James’s opponents. When these invited him to intervene (they had been driven to despair by the birth of a son to James – a son who would displace Mary from the succession and be raised a Catholic), William accepted. He spent the summer marshalling an invasion force in Dutch ports, and set sail for England in the autumn. He landed in Devon on 5 November 1688.

From here, William’s path to the throne of Britain and Ireland – and to his coveted control of Stuart foreign policy – was surprisingly clear. James sent his army out to meet the Dutch, but he got little positive support from his subjects and suffered a nervous breakdown.

James withdrew his forces without a fight, and after an unsuccessful attempt to flee to France on 11 December, made good his escape there on the 23rd. With the road thus left open, William occupied London, and called for a constitutional convention – to be created in the same way as a parliament. When this met in January 1689, it had little choice but to offer William the throne.

His forces were the only guarantee of order in the political chaos. Adherents of hereditary rule were soothed only by the novel elevation of Mary as jointly-reigning, though not jointly-ruling, monarch. The royal pair were declared king and queen of England (and of Ireland due to its constitutional dependency) on 13 February 1689. In Scotland – still an independent kingdom – a separate convention declared William and Mary monarchs in March.

Crusade against Louis
Once king of the three realms, William used them to continue his crusade against Louis. In the spring of 1689, he took Britain and Ireland into a broad European confederacy against France. This ‘Grand Alliance’, including Austria, Spain and the Netherlands, had been brought together by William in the late 1680s, and would continue to fight until they reached a peace of exhaustion in 1697. William’s first theatre of war after his accession to the throne therefore had to be Ireland, whose majority Catholic population remained loyal to James.

The deposed James II had returned to Dublin in 1689 in an attempt to regain the throne, and it took William until 1691 to crush resistance and free his hands for the wider fight. The Battle of the Boyne in 1690 was crucial to this. From 1691-7, however, the true European nature of the conflict was evident, as British forces – personally led by William – battled to protect the Netherlands against the French in Flanders.

By the time William died, in 1702, he was constructing a new grand alliance against France, and had achieved his goal in the Stuart realms. By capturing Britain and Ireland, and turning their resources against Louis, he had saved his homeland and Europe from French hegemony.

Effect in Britain
William’s continental focus had paradoxical benefits for Britain and Ireland. Although the new king cared little for his island realms (at least compared to his concern for the situation on continental Europe), this indifference solved longstanding political problems. First, William’s determination to beat France meant he withdrew from the damaging struggle between the English Crown and its Parliament.

For nearly a hundred years, the royal court had faced Lords and Commons who had tried to restrict its power. The result had been a series of constitutional crises, which at their worst had resulted in a civil war (1642-6), and the collapse of the rule of James II (VII of Scotland).

William, by contrast, needed to work with Parliament. He knew constitutional disputes would distract attention from his conflict with Louis, and he knew Parliament must approve a massive rise in wartime taxes. Putting his European objectives first, William surrendered royal power whenever he thought that keeping it might cause trouble.

For example, the 1689 convention tried to limit future misuse of Crown power. It sent William a ‘declaration of rights’ along with its offer of the throne. The declaration would limit the royal prerogative – it forbade the king from altering laws, or ruling for long periods without Parliamentary consent – but in order to gain the rapid control of English foreign policy, William accepted it.

Similarly, the new king called the legislature to convene every year. He needed this for war revenue, and it reassured the law-makers that he would not govern without them. William also surrendered in his main disputes with Parliament. For instance, he abandoned control of election timing in 1694, and of a peacetime army after 1697. He even granted legislators access to his administration.

In another new departure, he presented the Commons with his budget estimates and accounts, and by so doing turned them into public auditors. All this diminished royal power, but it worked both in constitutional terms and to William’s benefit. Crown and legislature co-operated. Instability ended. The king got his money.

Resolving religious tension
William’s distance from island affairs also resolved religious tensions. The crises of the 17th century had been compounded because the established churches in England, Scotland and Ireland had battled to suppress both Catholics and dissenting Protestants.

This last group had objected to the ritual and bishops that the establishments had retained from the popish Middle Ages. There had thus been conflict within realms, as well as many tensions between them, because each country had reached a slightly different settlement.

Here, there is no space to detail a fiendishly complex situation. Very briefly, problems might have been eased by sensitive handling, but earlier monarchs had made things worse by insisting on their personal religious preferences. They had either tried to impose a single ecclesiastical model across the islands, the disastrous mistake of Charles I, or had made the blunder of frightening their subjects by blanket declarations of indulgence to unorthodox minorities – which is what both Charles II and James II (James VII of Scotland) did.

William, by contrast, sacrificed his own religious vision to his war with Louis. Personally, he was a thoroughgoing Protestant, unhappy with the Catholic remnants in the British churches – though he was committed to a broad toleration of all Christians. As king, however, he abandoned his ideals in favour of pragmatic settlements. Religious tension must be ended by any means, or it would distract from the main goal of fighting Louis.

Towering triumph
Thus in England, William swallowed his distaste for Anglicanism and protected its legal establishment – though he eased discontent with the Toleration Act of 1689, which permitted dissenting Protestants to worship in their own way. In Scotland, by contrast, the king accepted the replacement of the unpopular Anglican-style establishment with a more radically Protestant presbyterian Kirk. He thus bowed to local sentiment, even though the Kirk was less tolerant than he would have liked, and the settlement left him head of very different national churches.

In Ireland, William pressed for indulgence to the majority Catholics, despite their rebellion against him. He believed only moderation would calm his western realm and allow him to concentrate on Flanders, so he offered the Romanists considerable freedom of worship.

Unfortunately, Irish Protestant anger in the Dublin parliament prevented these promises being ratified. Instead, William tacked with the political wind, and allowed Irish lawmakers to pass the first ‘penal’ statutes, making life more difficult for Catholics.

Nevertheless, disapproval from London meant terms were not as harsh as a defeated religious group might expect. Ultimately, William’s pragmatism secured a surprisingly stable settlement in Ireland, as it did in Britain. In all realms tensions eased, and his arrangements were not seriously challenged until the late 18th century.

Finding a religious settlement which lasted for decades was a considerable achievement in early modern Europe. Solving the Stuart’s constitutional distractions, and charting the modern role for parliament as the central institution of state, was a towering triumph.

William, however, had secured this because his attention was fixed on Europe. Perhaps this is why he is so little remembered outside loyalist Ireland. The British were rescued from a century of turmoil, but they would not celebrate a foreigner whose mind was so firmly elsewhere.

– William III (William of Orange) Biography (BBC)

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By Politicoscope July 13, 2017 09:00
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