Pushed from infancy to reclaim his family’s political clout, William of Orange devoted his life to the pursuit of power—and he far exceeded his family’s expectations. It takes a special kind of ruthless to come out of left field and take the thrones of England, Ireland, and Scotland for yourself. Love him or hate him, the controversial reign of King William III was definitely one for the ages.
1. His Birth Followed A Family Tragedy
Sadly, William III entered the world with a black mourning cloth already draped over his cradle. Born in The Hague in the Dutch Republic on November 4, 1650, he was the sole child of Mary, Princess Royal, and the late William II, Prince of Orange. His father tragically passed from smallpox just eight days before his son’s birth.
Poor William never got to meet his father. Still, he’d learn soon enough just how hard his father’s life had been.
2. He Wielded Power Straight From Birth
Many royal children are born as little princes and princesses, but how many are born rulers? Because William III was. You see, his father was the Prince of Orange, meaning he ruled Orange, a state in what’s now the south of France…and the title was inheritable. So, when his father passed, the honors went straight to William, even though he wasn’t yet born. Thus, William III literally entered the world as the Prince of Orange.
This kid was born with power. So, naturally, his family began to fight over him.
3. His Family Fought Over His Name
William’s mother and paternal grandmother had a strained relationship. They’d squabble over the tiniest details—like, say, his name. William’s mother insisted on naming him Charles after her brother and her “forcibly departed” (i.e., executed) father, King Charles I, but his grandmother wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, she demanded they call him William per her late son’s wishes, a wish that Mary obviously wasn’t too keen on honoring.
Of course, once the shoving and eye-poking ended, you can probably guess who won that battle. Still, the conflict was far from over…
4. His Family Jockeyed For Custody Of Him
William’s family soon began quarreling over his care, too. In his will, William’s father named his wife as their son’s guardian; however, the document still wasn’t signed when he passed, rendering it invalid. Hearing this, William’s grandmother rushed back into the picture and demanded that she be appointed his guardian, citing his mother’s youth and inexperience as justification. Understandably, this infuriated William’s mother, and the two ladies clashed over him once more.
But in truth, the two women weren’t really fighting over William III out of love. They had far more sinister ambitions.
5. His Family Coveted His Power
So, why were they both clamoring for custody? Well, because William was still just a baby, the Principality of Orange required a regency council to govern in his stead—and its formation wasn’t going very well. The council needed a leader, and William’s mother and grandmother were both fiercely competing for the council presidency via his guardianship.
Essentially, whoever became William’s guardian would ipso facto win the right to wield his princely authority. Thanks, fam. We’re really feeling the love, here…
6. His Youth Was The Source Of Constant Family Drama
In 1651, the simmering feud took an ugly turn. Things between William’s mother and grandmother got so bad, the High Court of Holland and Zeeland decided it needed to intervene. After some back and forth, the court declared that the two bickering women would share William’s guardianship with a third party. Frederick William of Brandenburg was the lucky winner, though his sole purpose was to referee between them until William III finally came of age.
If that seems too complicated, well, keep reading. It was definitely the right call—for one shameful reason.
7. His Mother Neglected Him
Sadly, William’s mother soon lost all interest in him. Despite battling tooth and nail for his guardianship, in the end, young William went years without seeing his mom. She wasn’t well-liked in Dutch society, so she kept a low profile in the Netherlands as a result. Instead, his mother preferred to enjoy the pleasures of Germany and France, far away from her poor son.
So mommy didn’t really love him, but William’s future still depended on the cooperative vigilance of his guardians. As his enemies actively began to plot against him, little William needed all the help he could get.
8. His Supporters Advocated For His Rise
Despite inheriting his father’s title of Prince of Orange, William III did not inherit his father’s position as the steward of many important Dutch provinces. In response, devoted Orangists across the United Provinces immediately began calling for the infant’s election to the coveted office (again, under the supervision of a regency council—they weren’t completely crazy).
Though William wouldn’t become steward for several years, he clearly already had the support of the people—and that really, really bothered a certain someone…
9. His Blood Ties Created Animosity
Oliver Cromwell was an English politician and soldier who led parliamentary forces against William’s departed grandfather, King Charles I, during the English Civil War—and he definitely didn’t like the cut of young William’s jib. Cromwell feared that young William’s potential rise in the Netherlands could eventually threaten his own political regime back in England (he was right, by the way).
So, Cromwell resolved to destroy William III before he could even get started.
10. His Enemy Sabotaged Him
Cromwell was dead-set on preventing William III from obtaining any real political influence. The Dutch provinces submissive to Holland still had yet to fill the empty position of steward, and Cromwell was willing to do anything to keep William from obtaining it. How? Well, Cromwell snuck a secret provision into a treaty he’d signed with Holland. It prevented the province from ever again electing a member of the House of Orange (i.e., William) to occupy the position.
It was a shady move, and William was temporarily barred. But William was growing into a young man—and he wasn’t going to let some old fart like Cromwell keep him from power.
11. He Thought He Was Special
Most children eventually learn that everyone is unique and special in their own way. But William? Like most royals, he grew up hearing that he was an instrument of Divine Providence meant to fulfill his family’s destiny. In other words: God chose him. Like, no pressure, right? No doubt that messed with the kid’s psyche a little bit. In fact, it probably did because he began to prep himself ASAP…
12. He Pursued An Early Education
Of course, William III needed to prepare for anything and everything—he was the Chosen One, after all. So, at a heckin’ early age (the tender age of nine), William headed off to the University of Leiden to study under the tutelage of Hendrik Bornius, an ethics professor. He attended for seven years total, despite never officially registering as a student. Shortly after his arrival, an interesting opportunity presented itself.
13. The Ban Against Him Lifted
The restoration of William’s uncle, Charles II, to the English throne in 1660 effectively nullified Cromwell’s “Act of Seclusion,” potentially allowing William to follow in his father’s footsteps as a steward once more. Naturally, his mother and grandmother leaped at the chance. They quickly launched a campaign on behalf of their ambitious golden goose to persuade the provinces to accept him as their steward.
However, there was a major problem they hadn’t considered…
14. He Was Too Young
In the end, their efforts were futile. All of the provinces denied their support, presumably because William III was still only 10 years old. Divine providence or not, no region would willingly accept a child leader, which, to be honest, his guardians definitely should have realized from the get-go. In any case, William’s disappointment soon turned into despair.
15. He Lost His Mother For Good
As William continued his studies at the university, tragedy struck. During his second year, his somewhat-absentee mother passed from smallpox during a visit to her brother, King Charles II, at Whitehall Palace in London. When poor William found out, he reportedly burst into tears and suffered a frightening asthma attack. Having lost both his parents to smallpox—a father he never met and a mother he barely knew—William III was now officially an orphan.
Fortunately, another prestigious family member stepped up to the plate.
16. He Had A King In His Corner
In her will, William’s mother nominated her brother, Charles II (the newly restored King of England), as his new guardian. Of course, Charles accepted the responsibility on the condition that William’s grandmother continued to shoulder most of the burden while consulting him on the key issues, which she readily agreed to.
Unfortunately, William’s latest absentee guardian didn’t necessarily always have his back.
17. His Uncles Conspired Against Him
There’s a reason why you shouldn’t mix business with family. In 1661, William’s illegitimate paternal uncle, Lord Zuylestein, began working for Charles II, and he wanted a quick way to move up in the world. Unscrupulously, Zuylestein forced William to write letters to Charles, imploring the English monarch to intercede on his behalf to help him become a steward.
But, surprise, surprise, Charles didn’t help him. In fact, he sort of did the opposite.
18. The King Took Advantage Of His Plight
Instead of aiding his young nephew, Charles used William’s predicament to sow more strife in Dutch society and boost his own political position, which cruelly left young William with egg on his face. Not cool, dude. But obviously, the Dutch authorities couldn’t just stand by and continue to let the English exert their influence over William III. They needed to do something—so they did.
19. He Became A Ward Of The State
After Charles’s meddling, the nature of William’s education and guardianship once again became a subject of controversy. As a result, when William was 16 years old, the States labeled him a government ward or a “Child of State,” which (among other things) effectively stripped William’s entourage of all pro-English courtiers. That included his uncle, Zuylenstein, whom William unsuccessfully begged to stay, even after all he’d done.
William III was now more alone then he’d ever been—and that’s saying something. It’s no surprise, then, that his life took a dark turn.
20. His Life Began To Spiral
Although his new classification was supposed to prepare William III for a future government job, it’s certainly fair to say that he had every reason to be unhappy about it. Everyone seemed to be in control of his life except for him. Moreover, William had grown close to his uncle, Zuylenstein, and his expulsion upset him deeply.
However, it was his grandmother’s cruel actions that hurt him the most.
21. His Grandmother Betrayed His Trust
Out of the entire situation, the icing on the cake was his grandmother’s betrayal. You see, William’s status as a Child of State was entirely reliant on her consent, which she only provided after receiving a substantial state pension. In other words, the States bought her off, and William never, ever forgave her for it. Then, somehow, his life got even more complex.
22. His Dream Finally Came Within Reach
When William III was nearly 18, the Orangists attempted to reestablish their dominance by (finally) securing for him the roles of steward and Captain-General. Yay! At last, his lifelong dream of following in his father’s footsteps was so close that he could taste it. Unfortunately, this power move didn’t sit well with Johan De Witt, the head of the opposing States Party/William’s own teacher. Time for another curveball…
23. He Suffered Another Crushing Blow
Not wanting to see William III come to power, De Witt came up with a plan to block the young prince once again from taking office. Stealing a page from Cromwell’s rulebook, he passed a quick law that barred a Dutch Captain-General—like William—to serve as a steward in any province. Ugh, so close…won’t this guy ever catch a break?
24. He Explored Other Options
William was undoubtedly disappointed by the sudden legal letdown, but this time, he refused to crumble. Instead, William and his allies determinedly explored other measures to boost his status, and eventually, the States of Zeeland agreed to name him First Noble. But when you’re born onto a political chessboard, every move is a calculated risk. Earning that honor was one thing, claiming it was another.
25. He Literally Snuck Into Prestige
William needed to accept the honor in person. Sounds simple—but that can be pretty tricky when there are enemies out there who plan on stopping you. This time, though, nothing was stopping him, so he came up with a devious plan. William finally grew a pair, gave his state tutors/jailors the slip, and traveled to Middelburg in full-on stealth mode. Amazingly, he made it, too, which seemed to catch the attention of his grandmother. A month later, she rewarded him with the greatest gift of all.
26. He Gained His Freedom
Whether she was impressed by his newfound bravery or because she ultimately lost interest in caring for him, William’s grandmother finally declared him an adult. Now fully in control of his own household, William was officially free to call the shots in his own life, and he began to set his sights high. Alas, he soon suffered another disappointment…
27. His Opposition Abolished His Coveted Office
The anti-Orangist province of Holland completely eliminated the role of steward in March 1670. It was De Witt up to his old tricks yet again. Then, not long after that, the four other provinces followed his lead and did the same. They really, really didn’t want our boy William to get that title. All of this seemed like a giant setback for William, obvsiouly—but in reality, the agreement actually turned out to be kind of a win-win.
28. It Was A Blessing In Disguise
Truthfully, De Witt would have preferred if the prince simply vanished off the face of the planet forever, but he knew that was never going to happen. It was almost a certainty at this point that William would eventually ascend to a high army post, so at the very least, De Witt had to strike a compromise: Instead of a stewardship, he gave William another option. Something that turned out to be way, way better…
29. He Got An Opportunity
De Witt unwittingly handed William power on a silver platter. Hilariously, De Witt planned for William to serve as an advisor to the Council of State, a governing body responsible for the Netherlands’ defense budget. Instead, the council granted William full voting rights upon his introduction on May 31, 1670. Score. And it gets even better…
30. He Gained Army Control
William was no longer the innocent child he once was, and over the years, he’d grown super savvy. So savvy, in fact, that while serving on the council, he eventually managed to negotiate his way into leading the Dutch army’s campaigns. Suddenly William was outmaneuvering De Witt at his own game, and oh, how De Witt must have cringed. But wait: That’s not even the best part.
31. He Got What He Always Wanted Anyway
When France and its allies attacked the Netherlands during the “disaster year” of 1672, it became a watershed event for the Dutch Republic. Fueled by rage and terror, the political tide swung against De Witt and his allies in the blink of an eye. But the cherry on top? The States of Holland suddenly looked to William for leadership by making him their steward. Holy cow, he did it!
Yes, his country was in danger, but William just won a very personal, years-long victory. Silver linings, right? Right.
32. His Rise Garnered Attention
Obviously, William took his valued stadtholdership job very seriously, and his ascent immediately caught the attention of a certain English Uncle/King/Invader. Sensing an opportunity, Charles II made an intriguing offer to his nephew: If William surrendered to England and France, he would promote him to the position of Sovereign Prince of Holland. Why be a mere steward when you can be a prince twice over?
William knew exactly how to respond…
33. He Refused To Take The Bait
His uncle’s proposal quickly provoked a few choice words from William. He famously responded, “There is one way to avoid this: To die defending it in the last ditch.” Sure enough, days later, the Dutch successfully halted the march of the French army, for which Zeeland rewarded William with yet another stewardship. Later, William would also acquire stewardships in Utrecht, Guelders, and Overijssel (five in total).
Clearly, the Prince of Orange didn’t need his uncle’s “help” anymore. He had his own strategies to play out—and they were working.
34. He Twisted The Knife
Having achieved his dream, William aimed to set his sights even higher, but first, he needed to tie up some loose ends. It was time for William to get his revenge against De Witt—and it was brutal. William released a letter from Charles that placed the blame for the English and French invasion squarely at De Witt’s feet. Whew, boy, the Dutch people were not pleased to hear that.
35. He Incited A Riot
The news enraged the Dutch, and five days later, De Witt and his brother were brutally slain by an Orangist civil militia in The Hague. Then, despite subsequently denying all responsibility for the attack, William curiously rewarded numerous mob ringleaders with prominent positions before supplanting several Dutch regents with his own Orangist supporters. Hmm…
It’s fair to say that as William’s aspirations grew, his morals plummeted. And he was just getting started.
36. He Was Hateful
From this point on, there are two things to keep in mind about William: He despised the French with the fire of a thousand burning suns, and he was a staunch anti-Catholic. William was wary of the French king Louis XIV, who he felt was trying to establish a one-man rule across Europe. Simultaneously, William was a devout Protestant who shuddered at the notion that a Catholic might one day succeed his uncle in England (for reference, the French King was Catholic).
Those fears, coupled with his growing thirst for power, prompted William to devise some new life goals…
37. He Began To Play The Game Of Thrones
William’s strategy was twofold: Divert the King of England’s attention away from all pro-French measures, then somehow find a way to insert himself into the English line of succession. None of those tasks would be easy, but William was cunning. So, how did he do it? In a word: Marriage.
38. He Wanted To Be King
Because his uncle Charles II had no legitimate children of his own to succeed him, William already had some claim to the English throne. Still, William needed to bolster his chances, so he set his sights on marrying his first cousin Mary, the daughter of King Charles II’s brother James. Unfortunately, Mary was not cool with the match. Would you be happy to marry a stranger?
39. He Didn’t Get Along With His Father-In-Law
Although William and Mary had a rocky start, they eventually fell madly in love. His relationship with his father-in-law, on the other hand, was a different story. William and James—the future King James II and IV of England—would spend the rest of their days as thorns in each other’s sides. Why? Well, you see, James was Catholic. Problem one. William, being William, tried to make Charles II agree that a Catholic would never inherit the throne. He might as well have mentioned James by name, because there were no other Catholics he might be talking about.
It was a slight that James never got over.
40. His Father-In-Law Spread Rumors About Him
Charles and James immediately tore William a new one for his discriminatory request. William quickly denied any involvement and backed down, but James didn’t believe him. He was fuming, and he wanted William out of the picture for good. So, in an attempt to destroy William’s marriage, James exploited a vicious rumor. People were whispering that William was cheating on Mary with a mistress named Elizabeth Villiers, and James fanned the flames.
That was just step one in James’s plan to ruin William. That same year, he did something much worse—something that shook William to his core.
41. His Worst Fear Came True
King Charles II passed in 1685, and his brother took over, Catholic or not. Now called King James II and IV, William’s hostile father-in-law suddenly held all the cards. So, with his tail between his legs, William sought to compromise with James by persuading the new king to join the League of Augsburg, an anti-French coalition.
Without a doubt, William hoped that—theological differences aside—they might at the very least agree to despise the French together. Nope. When James refused, William quit playing nice: His father-in-law had to go.
42. He Bad-Mouthed The King
Following that, William and James’s relationship deteriorated dramatically. That November, Mary of Modena, James’s second wife, announced that she was expecting a child. Panicked by the looming prospect of a new successor, William sent an open letter to the citizens of England, expressing his displeasure with James’s pro-Roman Catholic religious tolerance regulations.
In response, several English leaders began advocating for a Dutch invasion of England. The time was nigh.
43. He Planned To Invade England
William began preparing his forces in April 1688, but he had two issues: First, Mary of Modena gave birth to a boy, which undermined William’s claim to the throne by displacing his wife as first in the line of succession. Second, he feared that the English people wouldn’t exactly welcome a foreign invasion with open arms. What could he do?
44. He Wanted A Formal Invitation
Though there was nothing William could do about the baby, he could perhaps ease the tension of the English people by making it seem like his invasion was their idea. Thinking fast, William sent a letter to Rear-Admiral Arthur Herbert demanding that the most renowned English Protestants call for him to invade. Then was nothing left to do but wait.
45. He Invaded England
Before long, a group of political elites known as the “Immortal Seven” issued William an official invitation to invade England on June 30, 1688. Wasting no time, William arrived in Southwest England four months later with a HUGE Dutch fleet: 250 carrier ships, 60 fishing boats, and 35,000 men. It was terrifying, and James’s support instantly began to crumble; Protestant commanders deserted his armies, and several English nobles hastily announced their support for the Prince of Orange.
No doubt William was laughing. His worst enemy was in major trouble.
46. He Won The Throne
James tried to oppose William at first, but he quickly realized there was no point. So, after dispatching emissaries to discuss terms with William, James sneakily tried to escape, only to have some local fishermen catch him. Later that month, James escaped again and fled to France, which William only allowed for fear of accidentally turning the deposed king into a martyr.
Either way, James was gone, and just like that, William III won England. What now?
47. He Wanted More Power
Even though William successfully conquered England, he felt uneasy. Technically, his wife Mary still came before him in the line of succession to the throne, and he didn’t want to reign as her consort—he wanted absolute power. So naturally, when the Tories began advocating in favor of crowning Mary as England’s official monarch, William III pitched a fit and threatened to leave England.
Fortunately for William, despite her earlier misgivings, Mary was firmly on his side.
48. He Became The King Of England
Because William’s wife refused to govern alone, the English politicians had no choice but to offer the throne to both William III and Mary II as joint monarchs. Relieved, Willaim consented, and the Bishop of London crowned the couple as King and Queen of England at Westminster Abbey on April 11, 1689. Months later, the couple accepted the Scottish crown as well.
It was a crazy achievement…at least, until the fighting began.
49. He Wasn’t The Only Chosen One
Although the majority of people acknowledged William and Mary as their sovereigns, many individuals remained loyal to James and refused to recognize the couple’s claim to the kingdom. The dissidents justified their resistance by citing King James II’s divine providence, which, as you may recall, was the same rationale that originally propelled William’s rise to the throne. How ironic.
50. His Rule Sparked A Giant, Historical Conflict
In any event, the backlash to William and Mary’s reign was historic: For the next 57 years, the Jacobites (supporters of King James II) fought relentlessly against the Williamites (supporters of King William III) to restore King James II and his descendants to the throne. And that fight got super bloody.
51. He Fought To Keep His Crown
Outraged by William’s rule, a series of Jacobite uprisings erupted. In Ireland, the deposed and humiliated James II gathered his faithful Irish Roman Catholics to battle alongside his French forces to recover his former throne. But on July 1, 1690, William personally led his army to defeat James at the Battle of the Boyne, which again sent his father-in-law scurrying back to France.
Then, there was Scotland…
52. He Fudged A Deal
William’s brutal handling of the Scottish rebellions did nothing to endear him to the Jacobites. In fact, his public image there plummeted to new lows. Following a series of uprisings, William offered all resisting Scottish clans a pardon, provided they swore their allegiance to him by a particular date. However, after a delay, William grew impatient—and he did something terrible…
53. He Used Shady Tactics
Following a slight delay by some of the clans, William signed off on an awful command. In what’s now known as the Massacre of Glencoe, in 1692, he arbitrarily ordered his enforcers to brutally slaughter 30 members of Clan MacDonald to make examples of them. It was a heinous act and, of course, the public cried foul…
54. He Pretended To Care
To appease the public, William made a show of firing the perpetrators (though technically, they were only operating on his instruction). However, it was all an act: In a tactic eerily similar to his handling of the mob leaders who executed De Witt, William later rewarded many of the culprits with things like knighthoods, earldoms, and army promotions, signaling that he wasn’t really all that sorry in the end.
But karma can be a witch. Soon after, William suffered his own personal tragedy.
55. His Wife Passed
Sadly, Queen Mary II, William’s wife, passed on December 28, 1694. Grievously, she passed from smallpox, the same disease that separately claimed the lives of both his parents. Now in deep mourning, William randomly chose this moment to honor his wife’s wishes to cease his extramarital relationship with his mistress, Elizabeth Villiers (yes, the relationship rumors spread by his father-in-law were true).
Unfortunately, the loss of William’s wife affected more than just his personal life…
56. His Lost His Popularity In England
Remember: William’s claim to the throne depended on Mary’s place in the line of succession, not his own. So, without her by his side, William found his popularity in England fading. Danger loomed at every corner for William, and with the king suddenly alone and vulnerable, this became the perfect time for the Jacobites to strike…or was it?
57. His Enemies Tried To End Him
Miraculously, in a weird twist of fortune, the discovery of a Jacobite plot to eliminate William in 1696 unexpectedly revived his popularity in England. Oh, how fame is a fickle food. Luckily William didn’t meet the pointy end of his assailant’s blade that day; instead, the apprehended conspirator, John Fenwick, lost his head in 1697.
But the Jacobites still weren’t done with William of Orange.
58. More Rumors Flew
The Jacobites began spreading stories about William’s alleged gay tendencies in the 1690s, resulting in the production and circulation of several amusing pamphlets on the subject. Although he reportedly did pal around with a few close, super good-looking males, William ultimately sneered at the gossip and retorted, “It seems to me very extraordinary that it should be impossible to have esteem and regard for a young man without it being criminal.”
59. The Universe Got Him
Following a fall from his horse in 1702, William broke his collarbone and subsequently succumbed to pneumonia-related complications. Weirdly, the horse formerly belonged to Sir John Fenwick—the same Jacobite that William had executed for plotting his demise! Freaky. Following William’s burial alongside his wife at Westminster Abbey, William’s sister-in-law/cousin, Anne, therein took over as the Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
60. His Wife Hated The Thought of Marrying Him
William and Mary went down as one of history’s greatest power couples, but their relationship wasn’t always sunshine and roses. After all, Mary was 11 years younger than William, and oh yeah, they were cousins. When she found out she was to marry him, her reaction was disturbing: “She wept all that afternoon and all the following day.” Still, the wedding went ahead anyway, and the pair got hitched on November 4, 1677.
To make matters worse, the newlyweds had to consummate their marriage. That night. In front of the royal family. Where the king himself personally shut their bedcurtains closed. Ick.