William III and Mary II are an odd couple in British royal history. They are our only joint sovereigns, so far, and they swept to power in a series of events that were romantically named the ‘Glorious Revolution’. The deal they did with parliament to make themselves monarchs altered the way the crown could be inherited for centuries. The couple set up two of London’s most famous institutions and began the development of a royal residence that is a global name today. And yet neither of them are amongst our most famous monarchs and rarely feature in the sporadic polls to name the greatest rulers we have known. William and Mary are a fascinating and intriguing chapter in our royal history.
Before they married, they shared a tragic royal past for both were grandchildren of Charles I who had lost his throne and then his life in the English Civil War. William was his first legitimate grandchild but the circumstances of his birth were far from joyous. William’s mother, Mary was Charles’ eldest daughter and she had been married at the age of nine. By the time she was considered old enough to consummate her marriage her husband, also called William, had inherited his father’s titles of Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic.
But he died in October 1650 just days before the birth of their first child. When Mary delivered her baby it was in a room in The Hague draped in black as she and the court mourned her husband. Her son, named William Henry, arrived on November 4th 1650 in turbulent circumstances – his upbringing would be just as hard.
The future William III enjoyed a good education but Europe at the time was in the swirl of conflict as Louis XIV extended his power. In 1672 the French king invaded parts of the Netherlands and William, aged 22, took a decisive role in military action and drove Louis out. He was hailed a hero and made Stadtholder. William has been described as a canny politician, astute but slow to trust and cold. And his battles with Louis would colour much of the rest of his life.
The woman who would become William’s wife and joint sovereign was born in happier times, arriving on April 30th 1662 at St James’ Palace, London not long after her uncle had become Charles II. Her parents were the Merry Monarch’s younger brother, James, and his wife, Anne Hyde, who had married in controversial circumstances not long after the Restoration of the Monarchy and who would go on to be a less than convenient branch of the new royal house. Mary was brought up with her younger sister, Anne, at Richmond Palace and crucially her uncle, the king, got to make one very important decision about their futures. When their father converted to Catholicism, Charles II insisted his nieces – both very close to the throne – remain Protestant. It was a choice that would make both of them queens.
In fact, religion was at the heart of the marriage that took place between William and Mary on November 4th 1677 – the groom’s birthday – at St James’ Palace, the place of the bride’s birth. Charles II hoped a union between his niece and nephew would lead to a new Protestant dynasty that would one day take his throne. William wanted an alliance with his uncle to bolster his strength against Louis XIV. The newlyweds returned to The Hague where the new Princess of Orange became popular thanks to her outgoing personality. But however much she smiled in public, in private Mary faced heartache as she suffered a miscarriage and she struggled to become pregnant again.
And William and Mary were still without a family when, on February 6th 1685, she became heir to the thrones of England and Scotland. The death of Charles II turned Mary’s father into James II and caused alarm in some parts of society as the new monarch had a young, second wife and if she had a son then the throne would pass to a new dynasty of Catholics whose religion was still held in suspicion by some. The inevitable happened and on June 10th 1688 Queen Maria delivered a healthy son called James who immediately displaced his half-sister as first in line to their father’s thrones.
Within weeks of his birth, an important group of Protestants opposed to James II and known as the ‘Immortal Seven’ asked William to depose their Catholic king and his Catholic heir. William landed in Devon in November that year and soon won widespread support. His father in law fled his kingdom just before Christmas that year and in January William was joined in England by his wife but there was one more fight to come.
For it was Mary, not William, who was in line to be sovereign and parts of parliament wanted her to be queen regnant with her husband as a consort. William had no intention of remaining a prince and Mary was determined that her husband should be a king and in the end it was agreed that they should be joint sovereigns and each rule for as long as they lived.
But their accession marked a sea change in royal history for while Mary had been born in line to the throne and William had raised an army to secure it, both were made monarchs by parliament which had to formally declare that James II had abdicated and then offer the Crown to these joint rulers. William and Mary owed their power to more than birthright, marriage or manpower; they owed it to the will of parliament and in return they agreed to a Bill of Rights which limited the powers of these joint sovereigns.
The power that remained to them was mostly exercised by William for Mary had little interest in politics and preferred to defer to her husband. However, in 1690 he left England to fight his father in law in Ireland where James was attempting to rally support for his rule and regain his crowns. While he was away, Mary was left to rule but she relied heavily on the advice of her husband who returned to England after defeating James again.
But his continental lands and fights kept him just as busy and Mary had to get used to exercising some power of her own. She also had wide cultural and social interests, helping to found Greenwich Hospital in London, and she was involved in the work that would turn a mansion called Nottingham House in London into the building we know as Kensington Palace.
The royal couple had looked for a new home to escape the grime of Whitehall as William suffered from asthma and it was thought the fresher air at Kensington would improve his health. Instead, it was Mary who ended up contracting a serious illness which would end up killing her. In the winter of 1694 she caught smallpox and went into confinement to stop its spread. Her sister, Anne, from who she had been estranged begged to see her but she refused and the two hadn’t reconciled when Mary died on December 28th, bringing to an end her joint rule with William. Her husband was devastated and called himself ‘the miserablest creature on earth’. Her funeral took place on March 5th 1695 at Westminster Abbey and, appropriately for a monarch who was made by parliament, that house’s members attended in full – the first time that had happened at a royal funeral.
William was left to reign alone. He continued to pursue his continental wars and he needed money to fund them – he had set up the Bank of England in 1694 to help finance his fight against Louis XIV. But asking for money and not spending very much time in his new kingdom was hardly the way to win hearts and following Mary’s death, William’s popularity began to tumble. He was never well liked and the later, solo part of his reign saw him tolerated rather than loved.
He was also faced with a succession issue for he had no children. His heir was his wife’s sister, Anne, but she had lost the last of her children in 1700 and the Bill of Rights barred Catholics from the throne. In 1701 it was decided that should Anne die without children the crown would pass to another of their cousins, Sophia of Hanover. The Protestant line that William had invaded England to place on the throne was secured albeit by rather circuitous means.
William died no March 8th 1702 several weeks after falling from his horse while riding at Hampton Court. He was taken to Kensington Palace and died there of pneumonia. He was buried at Westminster Abbey but not much mourned, not even his sister in law could summon up too much grief for his passing. And his great enemy, Louis XIV, would outlive him by 13 years.
William and Mary remain something of an enigma to this day. Their arranged marriage turned into happy conformity and for a while the combination of William’s political acumen with Mary’s popular touch made them a power couple in every sense of the word. Perhaps ultimately they were greater as a pair than as individuals, two halves that had to be a whole to work. And they still have a unique place in our history as the only time joint sovereigns have made monarchy rule.
Picture credit: “William and Mary cropped” by William_and_Mary.jpg: Painting: Sir James Thornhill; Photo: James Brittainderivative work: Surtsicna (talk) – William_and_Mary.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons; Jan Wyck [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; By attributed to Jan van der Vaart [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons