William & Mary

I recently contributed a guest post about William & Mary to the excellent blog of “Hoydens & Firebrands: Roaring Ladies who write about the 17th Century.” It was posted yesterday here: http://hoydensandfirebrands.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/william-and-mary.html

Alternately, you can read it here and now:

The story of William & Mary is one of duty, love, war, heartbreak, betrayal, and revolution. It was a real game of thrones. Theirs was a unique reign as there was a joint King and Queen upon the throne for the first time in English history.

Mary II, eldest daughter of James, Duke of York (later James II) and niece of the Merry Monarch, Charles II, was a romantic, naturally intelligent but poorly educated, beautiful, feminine girl when she married William III of Orange in 1677.

William III, by contrast, had lived a solemn lifestyle – one of hard work and duty. He was Stadtholder, or Chief Magistrate, of the United Provinces/Dutch Republic (now the Netherlands) and the constant threat from and warfare with Louis XIV’s France always plagued his thoughts. His passions included hunting and collecting artwork.


William was struck by Mary’s sweet nature and stunned by her incredible beauty (and the fact such an alliance would be politically advantageous for him), and he immediately asked Charles for her hand in marriage. Mary, then fifteen years old, was devastated to learn that she would have to marry her first cousin William, who was at first sight unattractive, morose, old, and a good deal shorter (William and Mary’s height difference was almost the same as that between Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise). Remember, Charles II’s Restoration court was flamboyant and colourful, whereas the Dutch Republic was more sombre and calm. Fortunately, she soon fell completely in love with her husband, who was kind-hearted and even funny with his intimates, and also with her adoptive country.


Within a few months of their marriage, in 1678, Mary became very happily pregnant. At around four months pregnant, she decided to visit him at his encampment at Breda. Unfortunately, the roads were rough and the coach jostled her about so violently, which may have contributed to the miscarriage she then suffered. As there was no doctor around with knowledge of gynaecology, she developed an infection. Eventually, in 1679, she became pregnant a second time, but the damage from the first miscarriage was too great and she lost the baby again. Call it wishful thinking, she had all the symptoms of pregnancy again in 1680, but no child came, the symptoms had been misdiagnosed and this was unbearable for the young couple. Mary’s childlessness was a source of deep heartache for her for the rest of her life.

William, in sadness or desperation, turned to another for comfort. Imagine how heartbreaking it must have been for Mary, who loved him passionately, to learn that he was carrying on with her lady-in-waiting, Elizabeth Villiers, a woman with whom she had grown up. There is still debate as to whether William’s relationship with Elizabeth Villiers was sexual, as she never gave birth to any of his children, though the affair presumably lasted for around 15 years, and when she did marry, she quickly had children. No letters between them, nothing at all, has survived. Elizabeth largely remains shrouded in mystery. Perhaps we will never know what their relationship was. One thing remains clear: William was not, unlike his uncles, a highly sexed man. This can be attributed to his ill health – he had severe asthma, suffered from headaches, haemorrhoids, and later, painfully swollen legs and feet.

Persistent rumours of William’s homosexuality, popularised in Jacobite propaganda, are probably groundless: we even have William’s own writing against it. When told of the scurrilous rumours surrounding his relationship with his young favourite, Arnold Joost von Keppel, he wrote, “I find it extraordinary that one cannot have esteem for a young man without it being criminal.” (Sodomy was illegal and homosexual men faced harsh penalties, even death, at this time). We can’t categorically state what his sexual preferences were one way or the other.

Then, in 1688, the Glorious Revolution occurred, in which the Immortal Seven – seven of the most influential, powerful men in England – invited William to take the throne from James II, his uncle/father-in-law, who was unpopular and Catholic. For a brief summary, click here,

William and Mary were crowned in 1689 at Westminster Abbey – he was crowned in St. Edward’s Chair, and she in a copy of the chair which is on display at the Abbey museum today. Mary was Queen regnant, like Elizabeth I had been (Catherine, Princess of Wales, will become Queen consort when her husband William becomes King, not Queen regnant). Mary, though unfortunately not given the same excellent education as Elizabeth I had enjoyed, was nevertheless a naturally intelligent woman and there were pamphlets at the time which depicted her as the new Elizabeth.

Together they purchased the home that would become Kensington Palace and they hired Christopher Wren to remodel both it and Hampton Court Palace.

Their joint reign was short-lived. In late 1694, Mary contracted hemorrhagic smallpox – the most deadly strain of the disease. She considerately sent anyone who had not already had the disease away from Kensington House and put her affairs in order. She went through her journal and ripped out and burned pages that she did not wish anyone else to see.  Mary, aged only 32, died in the early hours of the 28th December, 1694, leaving her husband (who fainted) and the entire nation broken-hearted. To William, whose father had died of smallpox a week before he was born, and who also lost his mother to the same disease when he was ten, it was an earth-shattering blow. Her body lay in state in the Banqueting House until the costly funeral at Westminster Abbey, where “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary” by Henry Purcell was played.

After Mary’s death, William ruled alone until his death in 1702, and in the intervening years he had become more unpopular, the target of several assassination attempts and he increasingly drank to excess. As he rode his favourite horse, Sorrel, out on Home Park, Hampton Court; the horse stumbled on a molehill, sending William flying off, breaking his collarbone in the fall. Within days pneumonia had set in and William III died at Kensington House. Loathed by his sister-in-law, Mary’s younger sister, now Queen Anne, he was interred with little fanfare. A sad end for someone once heralded as the Protestant Champion of Europe!

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