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“William III died in a riding accident.” How many times have I heard this? According to the evidence, this was almost certainly not the case. William III had a constant battle with his lungs and it was a problem with his lungs that lead to his death – not merely falling from his horse.
It is true, however, that early on the 21st of February, he had gone for a ride on Home Park at Hampton Court Palace (in his book William III, Stephen Baxter says it occurred in Richmond Park) and there, it is said, his horse stumbled upon a molehill, throwing him off violently, whereupon he landed on the ground, instantly breaking his collarbone.
It could easily have been worse than this – we’ve heard of people breaking their neck and dying or becoming paralytic, so his fall was not so especially bad, and therefore not the cause of his death. The doctors set the bone quickly, and this was proven by post-mortem examination.
So what truly killed the king?
After his broken collar-bone had been set, he demanded to be taken to Kensington Palace, which is around 12 miles away. The carriage ride there was bone-jolting. It must have hurt terribly, for the bone had to be re-set upon arrival. After this, he took a few turns around what is now The King’s Gallery and sat down and fell asleep by an open window, overlooking the elegant parterres that could be seen from there.
It was February, and cold – as it often is here in England. William awoke feverish and feeling ill (no surprise there, falling asleep in front of an icy draught!). Over the next few days his condition worsened, but he was able to continue to work and hold meetings with his advisors. His favourite, Arnold Joost Van Keppel, was by his side when he became very ill in March. At this point, the King asked for his old friend Hans Bentinck, with whom he had fallen out a few years earlier. Bentinck arrived shortly before William breathed his last.
The King’s last recognisable words were:
Je tire vers ma fin
“I draw towards my end.”
And so, William Henry, Prince of Orange, Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, and King of England, Scotland and Ireland died on the 8th of March, 1702, around 8 or 9 in the morning. Since he was born in November of 1650, this made him only 51 years old.
As I stated above, the King’s body was subjected to a post-mortem examination, which took place on the 10th of March – two days after he had died. Several physicians were in attendance, including William’s favourite Doctor Bidloo, and four surgeons. The post-mortem report is rather lengthy, so I will not bore you with details of his healthy spleen and kidneys and brain. On to the juicy bit!
3. The Thorax or Chest we observed that the Right side of the Lungs adher’d to the Pleura; and the Left, much more. From which upon separation, there issued forth a quantity of purulent or frothy serum. The upper lobe on the Left side of the Lungs and the part of the Pleura next to it were inflamed to a degree of mortification. And this we look upon as the Immediate Cause of the King’s death (!) From the ventricles of the heart and the greater blood vessels arising out of them were taken several large tough flesh-like substances of the kind call’d Polypus. The Heart itself was of the smaller size: but firm and strong.
In plain English, he died from pneumonia: his lungs were in a terrible state. He had suffered from chronic asthma throughout his life, and as we know, pneumonia is most likely to occur in those who are elderly, very young, or chronically ill. William was chronically ill. Even in our own time, people die from pneumonia regularly throughout the world.
So, what about the broken bone which has constantly been attributed to his death?
Upon laying bare the Right collarbone, we found it had been broken near the shoulder; and well set. Some extravasated blood was lodged above and below the fracture.
See? The bone was set, i.e it was put back into its original position and was healing. Therefore, I must emphasise again, he died from pneumonia and not from the riding accident!
Nonetheless, the Jacobites (followers of King James II) merrily toasted to the mole as the “gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat,” for pushing William towards the Grim Reaper – something they had attempted but been unable to do.
I feel quite sorry for William. By the time of his death, he had ruled alone as King since his wife Mary’s untimely death in 1694 and he had been the target of several unsuccessful assassination attempts. He knew he was despised because he was a foreigner – a Dutchman on the throne of England. He felt more comfortable around his fellow Dutchmen, but this only served to make him all the more unpopular.
As a result of being so unpopular, he was subjected to malicious gossip about his sexual orientation in order to discredit him (just saying that someone was homosexual would taint them in those times, and if anything, William was merely not as lusty as his fellow Stuarts. But there is no evidence that he was either homosexual or bisexual. Think about it, he was a very unhealthy man, unlike his sexually voracious uncles Charles, James, and his cousin, Monmouth. Sadly, the rumours – which were largely created by Jacobite propaganda, and fuelled by the gossipy letters of the Duchess d’Orleans – persist to this day, although there is no solid evidence to support them.
Rumours aside, William was not the easiest person to live with. To those outside his small circle of intimates, he was regarded as rude and cold. Those who were fortunate to know him well saw the vulnerable man who laughed and was capable of very deep feelings. He had a knack for concealing his emotions. The fact that people were surprised at the overwhelming anguish he showed following Mary’s death proves that he was good at doing this. He took her death so hard that people thought his own would follow soon after.
In the event, William’s death garnered little attention. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, apparently in the middle of the night, without any great ceremony. His body was placed beside that of his wife in the same vault.
He had worked tirelessly to bring an end to French expansionism and yet this work paved the way for military successes against the French not during his own reign, but during that of his sister-in-la, Anne. Lazy, shy Anne, who had always hated him (calling him The Dutch Abortion, Caliban, for example) reaped the rewards and history favours her over William. This strikes me as truly unfair.
Hungry for more William III? Then, perhaps you’ll enjoy my other post about him: https://www.andreazuvich.com/history/williamiii/