King William's Early Years 1650-88






The House of Orange


In the Seventeenth Century, the Princes of Orange traditionally held the greatest offices in the Dutch Republic, which after an eighty-year struggle, had won its independence from Spain, to become a leading maratime and trading nation. The Republic was a federation of seven of the seventeen provinces of the Low Countries under Habsburg rule, the remaining ten still being under Spanish Government. Each province had its own law, customs and representative assembly and sent a delegation to the States-General of the United Provinces.




Coat of Arms of the House of Orange
from the period of William I

The Princes of Orange were the Republic's richest citizens, owning large estates in the Netherlands and Germany. As sovereign princes in their own right, they took their title from the small principality of Orange on the Rhone. Though exercising semi-royal power, these princes did not hold the title of king. The offices of Stadholder and Captain General were not strictly hereditary, but had always been conferred on the head of the House of Orange. In the seventeenth century some suspected that the Princes of Orange planned to proclaim themselves kings.





William Henry and Mary Stuart c. 1641


In 1641 when current Stadholder, Frederick Henry arranged for his son William Henry to marry Mary Stuart, (daughter of King Charles I of England), his hope was that the bride's father would help him to establish an Orange Monarchy. These plans were thwarted by Charles' troubles, culminating in the English Civil War, Charles' execution and the declaration of a commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England.


The Birth of a Prince


On 31st October 1650, William II returned, unwell from a hunting expedition, to his home at Binnenhof Palace, The Hague. His young wife, Mary was expecting their first child, within a few days. William's condition deterioriated and within a week, he was dead. The heavily pregnant Mary was distraught, for less than two years earlier, she had lost her father, King Charles I, who had been executed in London.




Binnenhof Palace  -  William's birthplace

The shock caused her to go into labour early and on the evening of her birthday, the 14th of November (4th November in modern calendar), a baby boy was born. The bells in The Hague were rung in celebration, as was the custom in the Republic.

On 21st January 1651 the young prince was christened at the Grote Kerk, The Hague. Mary had wanted to call him Charles, after her father, but at the insistence of her mother-in-law, he was given the traditional Orange names of William Henry.

William's early years were overshadowed by ill-health and by the older generation who regarded him almost as a trophy and a pawn in their political manoeuvrings. His mother secured the appointment of an Englishwoman, Lady Stanhope, as the governess of his first household. When the young prince was six, Pastor Trigland began to instruct him in the Reformed faith and therefore laid the basis of his committed Calvinism.




The young Prince William


With Oliver Cromwell's death in September 1658, Monarchy was re-established in England and Charles II returned from exile to be ordained as King of England. In the autumn of 1660, it was decided that Mary should travel to England to visit her brother and the extended Royal Family. The young William and his mother said farewell on 29th September - it was the last time they saw each other, for whilst Mary was in London, she fell ill of the dreaded contagion, took to her bed and died at Whitehall on Christmas Eve 1660. She left a letter to the States-General, begging them to take care of
"the being who is dearest to us in the world".

The young Prince, now barely ten years of age, was an orphan.



William's Early Years


Early in 1661 William became seriously ill. A combination of asthma,violent headaches and recurring fainting fits confined him to bed for some time. Physicians feared he would grow up deformed and for a period he had to wear a supporting harness in order to straighten his back. Although he made a good recovery, he would have recurring spells of ill health throughout his lifetime, however his frail physique did not prevent him from revelling in sports and outdoor activities.

His education commenced in September 1659 at Lieden.  He was taught to run his household with order and efficiency and behave with the utmost decorum at all times. He was to study his Bible regularly, attend church twice on Sundays and afterwards he had to answer questions in front of the servants! He was given a broad education and spoke English, French, Dutch, German, Latin and Spanish. By the mid-1660's he was playing a greater part in general society life, attending evening parties and ceremonial functions at various great houses in Holland.
 


An engraving of Prince William in his thirteenth year

He first visited England in 1670, at the invitation of King Charles II, arriving at Margate on the 6th November - the Prince was accompanied by friends, advisors and a large royal suite. During his time, he was feasted royally by the City of London and received honorary degrees from the universities at Oxford and Cambridge. He stayed for four months and probably had little idea how large a role the country would play in his later life. 

There is no evidence to suggest he met his future wife, Mary (King James' daughter), however, there were many at the Royal Court who were suggesting that a marrige of state between England and Holland would be a prudent move.

William soon grew tired of English Court life, the King's endless eating and drinking, even the visits to Newmarket for horse racing, soon bored the young Prince.

Many at the Royal Court found him staid and withdrawn, but the ambassador, Sir William Temple had nothing but praise for him:
   "a most extreme hopeful Prince and much better than I expected, in plain good sense with show of application if he had business that deserved it"

 

                                               

       The young Prince William in the late 1660's



In 1667, Louis XIV of France had attacked the Spanish Netherlands and by 1672 occupied large areas of the Lowlands. Louis had an alliance with Charles I of England and as such the Dutch Republic were at war both with France and with England.

In the summer of 1672, there was a popular uprising in the Dutch Republic, the outcome of which was, that William effectively seized power. He was made Stadholder (Lieutenant Governor) of the United Provinces of Holland and immediately started to take the offensive against France. By the end of the following year, he had driven most of the occupying French troops from Dutch soil.

Now Stadholder of the Provinces and Captain General of the Republic's armies, William stood alone. It was up to him to save his country from the enemy and for the remainder of his life, his main concern was the containment of France and her interests.

William was a shrewd politican and was certainly behind some of the Dutch propaganda and political agitation which occurred in England in early 1674. In England there was much opposition to the alliance with France, the war, the Declaration of Indulgence of 1672 (which extended toleration to all religious dissenters, including Catholics) and James the Duke of York's conversion to Roman Catholicism. Dutch propaganda suggested that it was all part of a great plot to impose "Popery and arbitrary government" in England and to extermine Protestantism in Europe. Most 17th Century Englishmen, deeply distrusted and feared Catholicism and absolutism - Charles' new ally Louis XIV, personified both!

This public opposition was largely responsible for Charles making peace with the Dutch in 1674. The formation of the anti-French coalition which included the Habsburg rulers and the Holy Roman Emperor, largely restricted Louis' advancement through Europe and changed the pattern of the war.


William and Mary Stuart

In March 1675 William contracted an illness which was diagnosed as smallpox.There as much concern for his wellbeing as this was the illness which had killed his father. The Stadholder had no heir and any internal struggle for power within the Republic could have a disasterous impact on European politics. Not for the first or last time, William made a full recovery to the gratitude and astonishment of those around him. The time had come for him to think about marriage and a dynastic alliance to England had to be considered. In England, Charles also realised there would be no better way to soothe general Protestant disquiet than by a marriage between his neice Mary and such an illustrious champion as the Prince of Orange.




Mary Stuart


Mary Stuart had been born on 30th April 1662, the second child and first daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York. She was to have six more siblings but only Anne would survive past infancy. Although their father James, heir to the throne, was a devout Roman Catholic, their uncle King Charles ensured both girls were brought up in the teachings of the Church of England. Strict religious observance was enforced and the importance of saying prayers regularly was impressed on them. The conscientious Mary showed considerable aptitude in each subject, whilst Anne was lazy and difficult to interest in anything.

Some time after the death of his wife on 30th March 1671, James began a search for a new wife who could provide him with a son who would be in line for the throne. He married Mary Beatrice d'Este of Modena, a young Italian Princess whose family had strong links with the Vatican.  


In April 1677, Mary was fifteen and her future had to be considered. It was clear that King Charles II's consort Queen Catherine would never bear a child and after four years of marriage, the second Duchess of York had suffered two miscarriages and borne two daughters, but no son. The Duke's strong Catholicism had already begun to raise doubts about his succession to the throne and that of his family after him. The marriage of his elder daughter was therefore a matter of no little dynastic concern. Her cousin William, was regarded by King Charles and his ministers as a likely candidate for her hand and it was considered a matter of major importance that the Prince of Orange should be in no doubt about her religious allegiance.

When William next visited London, a meeting was arranged between himself and his cousin Mary. The young Princess may initially have been unimpressed by William who was a good 4 inches shorter than her, had a hunched back and pockmarked face showing the tell-tale signs of smallpox. A marriage was arranged and although the Duke of York was bitterly disappointed by his daughter marrying a Protestant, he begrudgingly gave his consent.




William and Mary


The couple were married at 9 p.m.  on 4th November 1677, William's twenty-seventh birthday. It was a small private ceremony held in Mary's bedchamber with only their closest relatives, friends and Bishops present. The bride was in tears throughout, unhappy at being forced into a marriage of state rather than love.

On 28th of November the couple set sail from Margate and arrived in Holland 24 hours later, where they took up residence at the palace in Honselaardijk.

Although they were forced together as a matter of state, it is true to say that in the years to come, the young couple did indeed fall in love and Mary suffered much lonliness when William was away from home as he pursued the war with France. Despite their differences in character, William and Mary shared a firm religious faith and high standards of personal conduct and in addition to religious duties she was involved in many charitable works and the supervision of several households. Mary spent much of her free time walking, enjoying boat trips, sewing, playing cards and entertaining with her lady-friends.



William and Mary leaving Margate on 28th November