Banqueting House, Whitehall, London
The reign of William and Mary is often portrayed as the point in history when Parliament finally took power into its own hands. If history is viewed as a steady progress from darkness to light, the reign of William and Mary represents a great milestone. It is certainly remembered in these terms in the United States, where important elements of the United States Constitution are based on the Bill of Rights passed by Parliament soon after the succession of William and Mary in 1689. This is apparently a time when people previously in bondage to an old system of monarchy found a new modern freedom to direct their own lives. Ironically, however, the people who lived during this revolution were dragged kicking and screaming through it. The birth of liberty, like a kind of historical practical joke, shows how people are swept along by a tide of history. People, it seems were forced into liberty.
William, Prince of Orange, was born on 4th November 1650. He was the son of William II of Orange, and Mary Stuart, daughter of the English king Charles I who had been deposed and then executed by Parliament in 1649. Orange was a tiny principality, near Avignon, a member of the rather remarkable Dutch United Provinces. The hereditary Princes of Orange tended to offer military leadership for the United Provinces, which were governed by an early form of representative assembly. This government, known as the States of Holland, had many qualities, but reacting quickly to fast moving circumstances was not one of them. Members had to be assembled, votes had to be taken. By the time all that had happened, an enemy could have invaded. Much as they tended to distrust hereditary aristocracy, the States government reluctantly looked towards the Princes of Orange to provide their military leadership. Young William was prepared for his traditional military role from an early age. His father had died of smallpox a few weeks before his birth, so he spent his childhood with his mother, receiving a stern education in the responsibilities of his high position in society.
In 1660 England's attempt to do away with the monarchy came to an end. Following Cromwell's reign as lord protector, the exiled son of Charles I was invited back to England where he took the throne as Charles II. William's mother was of course pleased to see her brother Charles doing so well after years of exile. She pawned her jewelry so that she could travel to England and take part in celebrations organised for his coronation. While in England she caught smallpox and died. William, now an orphan, continued his education, the States government hoping to use him as "a worthy pawn" in their future military operations (quoted in The Life and Times of William and Mary by John Miller P26). William, however, was to grow into a young man who turned on the people who viewed themselves as his puppet masters. In the face of French aggression William was made general of a shambolic Dutch army in 1672, and managed to save the republic from a concerted French campaign. He then used the acclaim this victory provided to hound out his enemies in the republican government. William, a natural autocrat, despised politicians. He allowed the political leader Johan de Witt to become a scapegoat for all that went wrong during the war with France. This propaganda campaign was very effective and ended with de Witt and his brother being lynched and murdered. With de Witt's death William became undisputed leader of the United Provinces. He had fought and ruthlessly tamed a fledgling representative government. A less conducive king for the future England and its evolving parliamentary system could not be imagined.
Now under William's leadership, the Dutch Republic continued its long and difficult war with France. Inspite of William's best efforts Louis XIV of France gained territory from Holland each year. William knew he would need English support if the Dutch United Provinces were to survive. A plan had already been proposed for William to marry Princess Mary, daughter of James, Duke of York, Charles II's brother. Such a marriage now seemed essential. Princess Mary, the object of William's marriage plan, had been born at St James's Palace on 30th April 1662, to James and his first wife Anne Hyde. Mary and her sister Anne rarely saw their parents, spending most of their time at Richmond Palace which served as a kind of girls' boarding school. Anne Hyde died in March 1671, and perhaps Princess Mary was initially closer to James's young second wife, Mary Beatrice d'Este. But then James and his new wife took the fateful decision to convert to Catholicism. The Catholic religion was widely feared in England, and this conversion threw a major barrier between the Protestant Princess Mary and her father and step mother.
In October 1677 William arrived in London to negotiate for marriage to Princess Mary. The young princess did not relish the prospect of William as a husband, a taciturn, asthmatic soldier, who was four inches shorter than her. She cried for days at the thought of what was to come, but had no choice in the matter. The wedding took place on 4th November 1677, followed by a stormy crossing over to Holland. But inspite of initial frostiness, the young couple actually grew close. One or two extramarital affairs aside William and Mary settled down to a happy married life. After doing everything she could to avoid going to Holland, Mary found she actually loved the country, which was much cleaner and more orderly than England. Mary lived happily in Holland, while political storm clouds began to gather back in England. Charles II died on 6th February 1685, and was succeeded as king by Mary's father James, as James II.
Chatsworth House Derbyshire, home of the 4th Earl of Devonshire, a leader in the move to oust James II
What was now to happen to James II changed Mary's life. Not for long would she be able to live a happy orderly existence in bright clean Dutch palaces. Initially there was little sign of the trouble to come. James II's position was strong, and Parliament was full of conservative men who instinctively supported the long tradition of English monarchy. But James had converted to Catholicism and with the enthusiasm of a convert set out to make sure that England followed his religious lead. James's desire to turn England into a Catholic country alienated his natural supporters in Parliament. There were two loosely defined parties at this time, the Whigs and the Tories, and the Tories in particular were enthusiastic monarchists. The Whigs were more open to the idea that a king could be challenged, but even so they were not planning any new revolutionary government. A Parliament which tended to be naturally supportive of monarchy found itself, because of James II's Catholicism, in the uncomfortable position of challenging the King.
Back in Holland William considered his options. His wife was heir to the throne, James II was getting on in years, and all that really needed to be done was to wait. But on 10th June 1688 the English Queen Mary Beatrice gave birth to a boy, James Stuart. This boy was now heir to the throne, and would be brought up as a Catholic. The prospect of a new Catholic dynasty loomed for those grumpy and confused men in Parliament. Therefore a small group of MPs led by the Earl of Devonshire invited the Protestant William of Orange to invade. Ambassador Zuylestein was sent from Holland to England, ostensibly to congratulate the King and Queen on the birth of their son, but actually to finalise plans for an invasion. Zuylestein was assured that should William land in England he would not be opposed. James realised the danger he was in, and cut back on his catholicising programme, but it was too late. On 20th October 1688 William's fleet sailed, only to be beaten back by a storm. There was then a long wait for favourable weather. Finally on 1st November 1688 a "protestant wind" began to blow, and William's fleet of two hundred transport ships, and fifty warships sailed, aiming to land in northern England. In later years it obviously became important to portray the inevitability of events now unfolding, with the naming of the "protestant wind" as part of this apparent inevitability. But this wind of destiny blew the Dutch fleet off course, and instead of landing in northern England as planned, landings took place at Torbay near Brixham in Devon. William was in Exeter by 9th November, and by the 23rd James II had decided to withdraw from Salisbury without fighting.
Ceiling at Banqueting House showing Rubens' painting portraying the divine right of kings
William made stately progress across England. It seems William had no plans to actually depose James, and negotiations at Hungerford called for William and James to attend the next Parliament together. The plan was probably to keep James on the throne as a powerless figurehead while William took over as regent. But James panicked, and on 11th December he decided to make a run for it to France. He was dragged back, but then ran again. Parliament was now in a desperate dilemma. Although a small group of MPs had invited William to invade, most did not want James actually deposed. Many MPs, those in the Tory Party in particular, certainly did not want William as king. James, however, had fled the country, and without a king disorder threatened. Mary, the heir, insisted that she would not rule without her husband, and William insisted that he would not play second fiddle to his wife. Parliament found itself with fewer and fewer options. The Tories went through agonies, trying to find bizarre explanations for what was happening. Maybe God had second thoughts about James, though God being all knowing wasn't supposed to change his mind. Maybe Mary Beatrice' s son had been smuggled into the birth room in a warming pan, and William's wife, Mary was still the rightful heir. It was a chaotic mess with people being forced to do what was most abhorrent to them. On 6th February 1689 Parliament emerged battered and bruised from argument and confusion, and agreed that James had abdicated. On 13th February William and Mary met the Lords and Commons at Banqueting House in Whitehall, and were offered the crown.
It was now that the reign of William and Mary began to take on its mythic status. The Declaration of Rights was read out at Banqueting House, and its contents were formally confirmed by Parliament as the Bill of Rights in December 1689. The Bill of Rights declared that no catholics, or wife or husband of a catholic could become king or queen. Only one restriction on royal power was laid down, the ability of a monarch to maintain an army in peace time. The Bill also confirmed that parliamentary debate and elections should be free and that Parliament should meet regularly. It condemned manipulation of juries and affirmed the rights of law abiding citizens in the face of royal power. Some of the Bill of Rights was incorporated into the United States Constitution, which continues in force today. The Second Amendment guaranteeing the right of American citizens to bear arms was based on rights granted by the Bill of Rights to English protestants to bear arms. Beyond this the Bill of Rights did not go. This was not the end of royal power.
Old Royal Naval College - monument to William's naval war with France
William also acquired mythic status in Ireland. Ireland as a largely Catholic country was a natural place of refuge for the deposed James II. With French support James tried to organise a new power base in Ireland, and William waged a campaign in 1690 to defeat this threat. An important element of William's Irish campaign was the support of protestants at the expense of catholics. It was, after all, catholics who were the natural supporters of England's deposed king. James and his army were defeated by William at the Battle of the Boyne on 1st July 1690. William is now remembered as a hero by protestants in Northern Ireland, even though he had no real interest in religious struggle. His purpose in Ireland was to prevent the country being used as a base for an invasion of England. William was a naturally tolerant man who, as John Miller points out, had catholics and jews amongst his servants and agents. After the Irish campaign William made futile appeals for protestants not to take revenge on catholics. He had no sympathy for religious bigots, and simply wanted to get on with his life's work, fighting the dastardly French. So the two main reasons for William's mythic status are not at all what they seem. He is a hero to Irish protestants when he wasn't really interested in their struggle, and he is recalled as the king who accepted the Bill of Rights, when he was a naturally autocratic man.
Mary's remodelled palace at Hampton Court
Meanwhile Queen Mary tried to live quietly while chaos swirled around her. She kept England's religious leaders sweet, men who William had no time for, and worked with Christopher Wren on projects to beautify the gardens and buildings at Hampton Court and Kensington Palace. The road leading to Kensington Palace through Hyde Park was the first illuminated road in England. It was called Route de Roi, a name that has been corrupted over the centuries to the present "Rotten Row". The remodelled Hampton Court, symbolised Mary's longing to return to the beauty and order of her years in Holland. William himself is perhaps most fittingly recalled by the Royal Naval Hospital, now the Old Royal Naval College Greenwich, built between 1696 and 1752 to provide for disabled seamen. This is a monument to William's naval war against France, the biggest war in which England had ever been involved at that time. A further monument to this unprecedented struggle is the Bank of England. The government was forced to borrow to finance the war, and it was at this time that royal debt became the national debt. This was a significant moment in the history of economics. Borrowing became an accepted part of life, rather than a sinful, shady activity. It was on the basis of huge profits that could be made in buying and selling money that England triumphed over France, and eventually became a world power.
Queen Mary died at Kensington Palace on 20th December 1694, leaving William to rule alone. He struggled on. In Parliament Tory Party MPs were the natural supporters of monarchy, but they didn't like William because he had replaced James and made the divine right of kings look a bit silly. The Whig Party had helped William become king, but they didn't like him because they were growing to dislike kings. On 21st February 1702 William's horse stumbled on a molehill. William fell and broke his collar bone. Although he seemed to recover quite well, March saw the onset of serious illness. William III of England died on 8th March 1702, and was then given a hasty funeral at midnight. It seems the king made by Parliament was the king Parliament was embarrassed by. The deposition of James II had been called the Glorious Revolution, a name which disguised the actual chaotic nature of events. All the confusion was hushed up and buried quietly at night with hardly anyone to say goodbye to a man who had lived a remarkable life.