Cousins turned husband and wife, King William III and Queen Mary II were the only people to ever rule England, Ireland and Scottland as a pair.
Mary was the daughter of Anne Hyde and James, Duke of York, who later became King James II, and William the son of Mary, who was the sister of James II and Charles II’s, and William II, Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of Holland.
The Marriage of William and Mary
Though her father, James II, converted to Catholicism, Mary and her sister, Anne, were raised as Protestants. To gain favour with the Protestants, Mary’s uncle, Charles II, arranged her marriage to the William III of Orange, who was considered a champion of Protestantism, when she was just 15. William was 11 years older than her and unattractive too. Mary cried for days about the union – even during the wedding, which took place in 1677.
Deeply religious, however, Mary believed she should be devoted to her husband. So, despite their rocky start, she went to Holland to live with him. The marriage became a success and the pair became very close.
The Glorious Revolution
By 1689, England had had quite enough of King James II. He had conflicts with Parliament and alienated the country’s citizens with his pro-Catholic policies. Even the Catholics distrusted him. England’s tipping point came with the birth of his son, James Francis Edward. Up until this point, Protestant Mary was the heir to the throne but now many people feared this new baby would become the next Catholic king.
Many felt they couldn’t let this happen, so a group of nobles travelled to Holland and appealed to Mary and William to come to England and take the throne for themselves.
William indeed invaded and found a lot of support – even some of those who had supported King James II diverted to William’s side. James fled the country, followed by his wife and their baby son, which was taken as his abdicated. Mary was then invited to take the throne. Unwilling to rule alone, Mary wanted William to be king, as he was also a grandchild of Charles I. William, however, believed it should go to Mary. As a compromise, the pair made history when they decided to rule together.
William and Mary did have to accept legislation that would stop these troubling events happening again, in the form of the Bill of Rights of 1689. Not only did it limit the monarchy’s power and increase that of Parliament, but it also made it illegal for any British monarch to be – or to marry – a Catholic. It was a pivotal shift in the country’s political power.
A Joint Rule
Though the couple ruled together, it was, in reality, William who made the decisions, though Mary did take the lead on religious issues. Mary was in charge of the country whenever William was abroad, both when he was in Ireland leading military campaigns from 1690 to 1691 and when he was in mainland Europe from 1692 to 1694.
As far as religion went, they tolerated Protestant non-conformists. In fact, the year of their coronation saw the passing of the Toleration Act. They did not, however, tolerate Catholics. James II’s reign had brought about the possibility of restoring Catholicism; William and Mary were keen to halt this in its tracks.
They both patronised the arts, including the new art of gardening. Their reign also saw the development of opera and the rebuilding of Hampton Court Palace; the old Tudor building was largely knocked down and changed out for a baroque palace designed by Christopher Wren.
It was also under the rule of William and Mary that several changes were made to the way the country was run. Not only was the Bill of Rights introduced but the Bank of England was set up in 1694 to fund the country’s war with France and, in 1696, William set up an early form of the Cabinet.
The Act of Settlement
Mary’s reign was relatively short-lived. In 1694, the queen died of smallpox at the age of 32.
After the queen’s death, the question of succession was brought to the forefront of the collective mind once again. She’d had a number of marriages and, much to her sadness, she didn’t leave behind any children. Her sister, Anne, who was next in line to the throne, was also childless. To solve the question of succession, and to ensure the next monarch was a Protestant, the Act of Settlement was passed in 1701. It named Princess Sophia, Electress of Hanover, who was the granddaughter of James I, and her Protestant children as the next in line to the throne.
The End of King William III’s Solitary Reign
Mary’s death left William to rule alone for the next eight years. Mary had been the outgoing one of the two, while William had never been popular with the people of England. He was an able king, brave and a good military commander, but he had bad manners and was more concerned with the Netherlands and with defeating France than with England itself.
The aftermath of his death spoke volumes about the country’s feelings towards their king. In 1702, Willaim died after he fell from his horse, broke his collar bone and contracted pneumonia. There wasn’t much mourning at the loss. In fact, the Jacobites began to toast to moles as a tribute to the molehill over which William’s horse tripped up. There’s no monument where he’s buried either – he was simply put in the vaults of Westminster Abbey.