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17 May 2016

Me and my monarch: William III (1688-1702)

The one Stuart king who wasn't awful.

By Stephen Bush

“What happened next?”

That’s the question that I first asked, probably when I was around seven or so, after I finished my first ever Horrible Histories. It was, basically, the question that sent me to university.

What I loved – still love – about history is that it is just “one damned thing after another” as Elbert Hubbard said. There’s always more to learn and always another perspective to learn it from.

So what’s all this got to do with William III, I hear you ask? Well, it helps if you understand that the history of seventeenth century Britain is just one damned king after another. 

James I & VI was successful in Scotland but indifferent in England, largely because of the fairly grim fiscal backdrop inherited from his flamboyant predecessor. (A lot like Gordon Brown, really.)

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Then came Charles I, the Batman and Robin of the British monarchy, the entry so bad it almost killed the franchise. His religious intolerance and tactical stupidity threw Britain into either one prolonged civil war or three short ones, depending on how you count them.

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His eventual successor, Oliver Cromwell – who became a monarch in all but name, minting currency with his face on and even naming his son as his successor – is probably the most effective monarch of the Stuart period. But even he goofed, naming the ineffective Richard Cromwell as his successor and committing the elementary mistake of all republicans – he didn’t rip out the branch at the roots.

Charles II and his brother James II were less destructive kings than their father Charles I. But their reigns should both be considered studies in failure – both wanted to set Britain back on a more Catholic course, and both failed, with neither as an effective operator on the European stage as either Oliver Cromwell or Elizabeth I.

James II’s attempts to turn Britain back to Popery were so unsuccessful that a small cabal of peers and parliamentarians recruited William of Orange, the Dutch stadtholder and husband of James’ daughter Mary, to be their new, impeccably Protestant king, in an event that was swiftly dubbed the Glorious or Bloodless Revolution – because blood doesn’t count if it’s Irish, and the best revolutions all take place within palace walls.

As William III (and II, as Scotland had already had a William of its own), the stadtholder ruled from 1688 to 1702. When he died, he was the first British monarch in close to a century after Elizabeth I’s death in 1603 who could say that he had achieved most of his aims. He guaranteed the survival of the Dutch Republic for another century, and he permanently shifted the British monarchy onto Protestant lines.

Which, after however many weeks of lectures and who knows how many essays about monarchical effectiveness, came as something of a relief. So here’s to you, William III: the only seventeenth-century king who wasn’t shit.

This article is part of the New Statesman’s Monarchy Week. Find more here.