Your guide to William and Mary, the only joint sovereigns in British history
How did a husband and wife become joint reigning sovereigns? How did a Dutch prince come to invade his father-in-law’s kingdom and force him to flee his country without a fight? How did they preside over a remarkable constitutional settlement? John Van der Kiste looks at the reign that came in the wake of a peaceful and ‘glorious’ revolution…
The future William III was born in Binnenhof, The Hague, in the Dutch Republic, on 4 November 1650. His mother, Mary of Orange, was the eldest daughter of King Charles I of Britain and his father was the sovereign Prince of Orange and stadtholder (or chief executive) of Holland and other provinces in the United Provinces of the Netherlands. As his father died shortly before he was born, the infant William held the title of Prince of Orange. He then succeeded as stadtholder in 1672.
His first cousin Mary, also a grandchild of Charles I, was born at St James’s Palace on 30 April 1662, the eldest-surviving child of James and Anne, Duke and Duchess of York. The duke was first in line to the throne after his brother, Charles II, whose marriage to Catherine of Braganza was childless (Charles did, however, have children by various mistresses).
Key facts about William and Mary
William III: key dates and facts
Born: 14 November 1650 in The Hague, Dutch Republic
Died: 8 March 1702 at Kensington Palace, London
Parents: William II, Prince of Orange, and Mary, Princess Royal of Britain
Mary II: key dates and facts
Born: 30 April 1662 at St James’s Palace, London
Died: 28 December 1694 at Kensington Palace
Parents: King James VII and II and Anne Hyde
Reigned: William and Mary became king and queen of England, Scotland and Ireland and Lord of Ireland on 13 February 1689. They reigned jointly for five years until Mary’s death, and William would rule alone for a further seven.
Succeeded by: Queen Anne
Mary of Orange took little interest in her son’s upbringing, and died of smallpox when he was 10. In her will, she asked that Charles II look after his orphaned nephew’s interests as far as possible. His education was supervised by governesses and subsequently tutors.
Mary (the younger) and her sister Anne were the only survivors beyond infancy of their parents, whom they rarely saw, and their mother died in 1671. They were raised as Anglicans on the orders of Charles II, despite their parents having converted to Roman Catholicism. Also brought up by governesses, Mary’s education comprised mostly music, dancing, drawing, French and religious instruction.
How did the marriage of William and Mary come about?
Charles II and James both liked their nephew William, but had doubts as to a marriage between him and the latter’s daughter Mary. The king actually preferred the idea of marrying her to the French dauphin, as it would make the succession of a Catholic to the British throne more likely. Parliament insisted on the Anglo-Dutch union. When Mary was told that she was betrothed to her cousin, she reportedly wept for a day and a half.
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Nevertheless, they were married at St James’s Palace in November 1677. The match was popular in the Dutch Republic, being seen as English support for them as one of the major Protestant powers in Europe attempting to keep the balance of power against the threat from an over-mighty Catholic France. Mary accompanied William to his home in The Hague, only for him to be often away on military campaigns. And while she desperately wanted children, she had several miscarriages and seemed incapable of carrying a pregnancy to full term.
How did William and Mary become joint sovereigns?
As Charles II and Catherine’s marriage was childless, the king's brother James remained his heir to the British throne. But his second wife, Mary of Modena, had several miscarriages, stillbirths and children who never lived beyond the age of three, meaning that his elder daughter, now titled Mary of Orange, was his own heir.
Upon Charles’s death in February 1685, James succeeded as James VII and II. He was a convert to the Roman Catholic church who had recently fought off attempts by Parliament to exclude him from the succession, but when he became king, he promised to protect the Church of England. That did not stop his attempts to fill all official posts in the kingdom in ecclesiastical, military and academic walks of life with Catholics, suggesting to some that he wanted to turn his kingdom into a ‘Papist country’. James quickly became deeply unpopular.
As it was assumed that his queen, Mary, would never produce an heir, the nation was prepared to wait until he died, when he would be succeeded by his Protestant daughter. But then the king and queen had a son, born on 10 June 1688. It was suspected by some that a live infant child had been substituted for a stillborn one, or that the queen even faked her pregnancy.
Within a few weeks, some of the king’s most determined political opponents formally invited William of Orange, now married to the king's daughter Mary, to invade Britain and take the throne. Accompanied by a large army, he landed at Brixham on the Devon coast in November. Realising that nearly all his supporters had joined his son-in-law, the king fled for France, thus bringing the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ to an end. James was captured and brought back to London, but William let him escape so he would not become a martyr to the Catholic cause.
- On the podcast | How did James II’s replacement by William of Orange as king of England, Scotland and Ireland change the course of British history? Ted Vallance responds to listener questions about the 1688 Glorious Revolution
For a few weeks, there was no sovereign of England. In January 1689, William summoned a Convention of Lords and MPs in which he asserted that he would reign as king in his own right, not as his wife’s consort. Mary loyally supported him, and it was agreed that they should be joint sovereigns, with William remaining as sole monarch should she predecease him. It was declared that James had left the throne vacant by fleeing abroad and abdicating the government of the realm. Although, in 1690, he returned to Ireland with an army to regain his throne, he was defeated at the battle of the Boyne and spent the rest of his life in exile in France, where he died in September 1701. William would be the target of a few poorly organised but easily foiled assassination attempts.
What were the major legislative milestones of William and Mary’s reign?
In May 1689, the Toleration Act was passed, guaranteeing religious toleration to Protestant nonconformists, baptists and congregationalists who had pledged to the oaths of allegiance and supremacy. More importantly the Bill of Rights, seen as one of the most important constitutional documents in English law, received royal assent in December 1689.
It imposed a new oath of allegiance, to be taken by office holders, members of parliament and clergymen, and introduced restrictions on the royal prerogative to forbid the monarch to suspend laws passed by parliament, levy taxes or raise a standing army during peacetime without parliamentary consent. It further laid down that all subjects had a right to petition the king; parliamentary debates and elections should be free; and Parliament should meet regularly. William resented such measures, but chose not to argue.
A Triennial Act in 1694 curtailed the power of the sovereign to summon and dismiss parliaments at will, by providing for a general election at least once every three years. Finally, the Act of Settlement of 1701 excluded Catholics from the order of succession to the throne and confirmed that if the present heir, Anne, did not leave a surviving heir that the throne would pass to the nearest Protestant. At the time, this was Electress Sophia of Hanover, granddaughter of James VI and I. Although 70 years old, she was in better health than Anne, who was 35 years younger, and might have outlived her. (In the end, Anne survived Sophia by seven weeks.)
When and how did Mary II die?
After she and her husband became joint sovereigns, Mary probably never had any contact with her father. She was perpetually haunted by guilt for her role, albeit a passive one, in his downfall, and grieved by her infertility. Her health was never strong, and in the winter of 1694 there was a severe epidemic of smallpox throughout London, which often proved fatal. Just a few days after waking one morning to find a rash on her arms and suspecting that she had caught it as well, Mary died on 28 December.
William was prostrated by her death, and as he was in poor health himself it was thought he might soon follow. After losing Mary, he never seemed the same again. He spoke of her occasionally, but never mentioned her name in his letters, and always observed the anniversary of her death as a day of private meditation and prayer.
What was William of Orange like as a person?
William was a reserved, undemonstrative character. While his marriage was not a love match, it was clear after Mary’s death that they had been deeply attached to each other. He seemingly only had one mistress, Elizabeth Villiers, Countess of Orkney, who was a childhood friend of Mary’s, but ended the relationship in deference to his deceased queen’s memory. He then arranged a marriage between the countess and one of his regimental commanders. His lack of other known mistresses and his close relationship with male friends led to some rumours that he was homosexual.
Several inches shorter than his wife, William was slightly hunchbacked, may have suffered from severe curvature of the spine, and was prone to asthma and bronchitis. Most contemporaries found him humourless, and his table manners were said to be boorish and vulgar. He disliked games, and his main recreation was hunting.
When and how did William III die?
In February 1702, the horse he was riding stumbled over a molehill, causing William to fall and break his collarbone. Sources disagree as to whether the fracture set properly or not, but he had been unwell for some time and died on 8 March 1702. The most likely cause of death was pneumonia, perhaps hastened by his injury.
What was the legacy of William and Mary?
Being at the centre of the largely peaceful revolution of 1688, William III presided over an era that cultivated a political climate for modern government in England. For it was during his reign that parliament began to assume a role over the monarch, one that it would never again lose. Westminster was prepared to ensure that no sovereign would ever again assume absolute powers over British government, after the generally easygoing if sometimes capricious Charles II and the obstinate James II. The steadier administration and cabinet of William’s reign led to stable and eventually democratic rule, not dependent on the whims of the crowned head of state.
William privately resented curbs on the royal prerogative, but had the common sense to accept them. He was said to be one of the first European statesmen, crowned or otherwise, to understand the principle of the balance of power, one that dominated European thought until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
John Van der Kiste is an author who has written extensively on British and European royal biography from the later Stuarts to the early 20th century. His forthcoming books are William IV: The Last Hanoverian Monarch (Pen and Sword, 2022) and Queen Victoria’s Daughters-in-Law (Pen and Sword, expected 2023)
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