William of Orange and the Dutch Revolt


Battle of the Boyne between James II and William III, 11 June 1690, by
Jan van Huchtenburgh / Rijksmuseum, Wikimedia Commons


Fatherless, childless, and loveless, his marriage was dictated by reasons of State and Protestant rule was his only pursuit.


By Winston S. Churchill


FROM HIS EARLIEST YEARS THE EXTRAORDINARY PRINCE WHO IN THE general interest robbed his father-in-law of the British throne had dwelt under harsh and stern conditions. William of Orange was fatherless and childless. His life was loveless. His marriage was dictated by reasons of State. He was brought up by a termagant grandmother, and in his youth was regulated by one Dutch committee after another. His childhood was unhappy and his health bad. He had a tubercular lung. He was asthmatic and partly crippled. But within this emaciated and defective frame there burned a remorseless fire, fanned by the storms of Europe, and intensified by the grim compression of his surroundings. His greatest actions began before he was twenty-one. From that age he had fought constantly in the field, and toiled through every intrigue of Dutch domestic politics and of the European scene. For four years he had been the head of the English conspiracy against the Catholic King James II.

Women meant little to him. For a long time he treated his loving, faithful wife with indifference. Later on, towards the end of his reign, when he saw how much Queen Mary had helped him in the English sphere of his policy, he was sincerely grateful to her, as to a faithful friend or Cabinet officer who had maintained the Government. His grief at her death was unaffected.

In religion he was of course a Calvinist; but he does not seem to have derived much spiritual solace from the forbidding doctrines of the sect. As a sovereign and commander he was entirely without religious prejudices. No agnostic could have displayed more philosophic impartiality. Protestant, Catholic, Jew, or infidel were all the same to him. He dreaded and hated Gallican Catholicism less because it was to him idolatrous than because it was French. He employed Catholic officers without hesitation when they would serve his purpose. He used religious questions as counters in his political combinations. While he beat the Protestant drum in England and Ireland, he had potent influence with the Pope, with whom his relations were at all times a model of comprehending statesmanship. It almost seemed that a being had been created for the sole purpose of resisting the domination of France and her “Great King.”

It was the natural consequence of such an upbringing and of such a mission that William should be ruthless. Although he had not taken part in the conspiracy to murder the Dutch statesmen, the De Witts, in 1672, he had rejoiced at it, profited by it, and protected and pensioned the murderers. He had offered to help James II against the Protestant Duke of Monmouth, but took no trouble to hamper Monmouth’s sailing from his refuge in Holland. The darkest stain upon his memory was to come from Scotland. A Highland clan whose chief had been tardy in making his submission was doomed to destruction by William’s signed authority. Troops were sent to Glencoe “to extirpate that den of thieves.” But the horror with which this episode has always been regarded arises from the treacherous breach of the laws of hospitality by which it was accomplished. The royal soldiers lived for weeks in the valley with the clansmen, partaking of their rude hospitality under the guise of friendship. Suddenly, on a freezing winter night, they turned upon their hosts and murdered them by the score while they slept or fled from their huts. The King had not prescribed the method, but he bears the indelible shame of the deed.

William was cold, but not personally cruel. He wasted no time on minor revenges. His sole quarrel was with Louis XIV. For all his experience from a youth spent at the head of armies, and for all his dauntless heart, he was never a great commander. He had not a trace of that second-sight of the battlefield which is the mark of military genius. He was no more than a resolute man of good common sense whom the accident of birth had carried to the conduct of war. His inspiration lay in the sphere of diplomacy. He has rarely been surpassed in the sagacity, patience, and discretion of his statecraft. The combinations he made, the difficulties he surmounted, the adroitness with which he used the time factor or played upon the weakness of others, his unerring sense of proportion and power of assigning to objectives their true priorities, all mark him for the highest repute.

His paramount interest was in the great war now begun throughout Europe, and in the immense confederacy he had brought into being. He had regarded the English adventure as a divagation, a duty necessary but tiresome, which had to be accomplished for a larger purpose. He never was fond of England, nor interested in her domestic affairs. Her seamy side was what he knew. He required the wealth and power of England by land and sea for the European war. He had come in person to enlist her. He used the English public men who had been his confederates for his own ends, and rewarded them for their services, but as a race he regarded them as inferior in fibre and fidelity to his Dutchmen.

Once securely seated on the English throne he scarcely troubled to disguise these sentiments. It was not surprising that such manners, and still more the mood from which they evidently arose, gave deep offence. For the English, although submissive to the new authority of which they had felt the need, were as proud as any race in Europe. No one relishes being an object of aversion and contempt, especially when these affronts are unstudied, spontaneous, and sincere. The great nobles and Parliamentarians who had made the Revolution and were still rigidly set upon its purpose could not but muse upon the easy gaiety and grace of the Court of Charles II. William’s unsociable disposition, his greediness at table, his silence and surliness in company, his indifference to women, his dislike of London, all prejudiced him with polite society. The ladies voted him “a low Dutch bear.” The English Army too was troubled in its soul. Neither officers nor men could dwell without a sense of humiliation upon the military aspects of the Revolution. They did not like to see all the most important commands entrusted to Dutchmen. They eyed sourly the Dutch infantry who paced incessantly the sentry-beats of Whitehall and St James’s, and contrasted their shabby blue uniforms with the scarlet pomp of the 1st Guards and Coldstreamers, now banished from London. As long as the Irish war continued, or whenever a French invasion threatened, these sentiments were repressed; but at all other times they broke forth with pent-up anger. The use of British troops on the Continent became unpopular, and the pressure upon William to dismiss his Dutch Guards and Dutch favourites was unceasing.

Portrait of James II of England (1633-1701) with Garter Collar, by Peter Lely / Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

As soon as he learned on the afternoon of December 23, 1688, that by King James’s flight he had become undisputed master of England the Prince of Orange took the step for which he had come across the water. The French Ambassador was given twenty-four hours to quit the Island and England was committed to the general coalition against France. This opened a war which, with an uneasy interlude, gripped Europe for twenty-five years, and was destined to bring low to the ground the power of Louis XIV.

The whole British nation had been united in the expulsion of James. But there was now no lawful Government of any kind. A Convention Parliament was summoned by the Prince on the advice of the statesmen who had made the Revolution. As soon as it was elected it became involved in points of constitutional propriety; and the national non-party coalition which was responsible for summoning William to England broke under the stress of creating a settled Government for the country. Personal ambitions and party creeds shot through the complicated manœuvres which led to the final constitutional arrangements. King Charles’s former Minister, the Earl of Danby, had much to hope for from these weeks of chaos. It was he who had created the Tory Party from the Anglican gentry and the Established Church after the breakdown of the Cabal. The intrigues of Charles with France and the Popish Plot had wrecked his political career. To save him from the malice of his enemies the King had incarcerated him in comfort in the Tower. He had been released towards the end of the reign, and now in the 1688 Revolution he saw his chance to remake his fortunes. His position as a great landowner in the North had enabled him to raise the gentry and provide a considerable military force at a critical and decisive moment. With the prestige of this achievement behind him he had arrived in London. Loyal Tories were alarmed by the prospect of disturbing the Divine Right in the Stuart succession. Danby got in touch with Princess Mary. An obvious solution which would please many Tories was the accession of Mary in her own right. In this way the essential basis of the Tory creed could be preserved, and for this Danby now fought in the debates of the hastily assembled Lords. But other Tories, including Mary’s uncle, the Earl of Clarendon, favoured the appointment of William as Regent, James remaining titular King. This cleavage of ideas helped the Whigs to prevail.

The Whigs, for their part, looked on the Revolution as the vindication of their own political belief in the idea of a contract between Crown and people. It now lay with Parliament to settle the succession. The whole situation turned upon the decision of William. Would he be content with the mere title of honorary consort to his wife? If so the conscience of the Tories would not be violated and the Whig share in the Revolution would be obscured. The Whigs themselves had lost their leaders in the Rye House Plot, and it was a single politician who played their game for them and won, while they reaped the benefit.

George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, “the Trimmer” as he was proud to be called, was the subtlest and most solitary statesman of his day. His strength in this crisis lay in his knowledge of William’s intention. He had been sent by James to treat with the invading prince in the days before the King’s flight. He knew that William had come to stay, that the Dutchman needed a secure and sovereign position in England in order to meet the overshadowing menace of French aggression in Europe. The suggestion that William should be Regent on behalf of James was rejected in the Lords, but only by 51 votes to 49. After protracted debates in the Convention Halifax’s view was accepted that the Crown should be jointly vested in the persons of William and Mary. His triumph was complete, and it was he who presented the Crown and the Declaration of Rights to the two sovereigns on behalf of both Houses. But his conception of politics was hostile to the growing development of party. In a time of high crisis he could play a decisive rôle. He possessed no phalanx of partisans behind him.

His moment of power was brief; but the Whig Party owed to him their revival in the years which followed.

Step by step the tangle had been cleared. By the private advice of John and Sarah Churchill, Princess Anne, Mary’s younger sister, surrendered in favour of William her right to succeed to the throne should Mary predecease him. Thus William gained without dispute the crown for life. He accepted this Parliamentary decision with good grace. Many honours and promotions at the time of the coronation rewarded the Revolutionary leaders. Churchill, though never in William’s immediate circle, was confirmed in his rank of Lieutenant-General, and employed virtually as Commander-in-Chief to reconstitute the English Army. He was created Earl of Marlborough, and when in May 1689 war was formally declared against France, and William was detained in England and later embroiled in Ireland, Marlborough led the English contingent of eight thousand men against the French in Flanders.

The British Islands now entered upon a most dangerous war crisis. The exiled James was received by Louis with every mark of consideration and sympathy which the pride and policy of the Great King could devise. Ireland presented itself as the obvious immediate centre of action. James, sustained by a disciplined French contingent, many French officers, and large supplies of French munitions and money, had landed in Ireland in March. He was welcomed as a deliverer. He reigned in Dublin, aided by an Irish Parliament, and was soon defended by a Catholic army which may have reached a hundred thousand men. The whole island except the Protestant settlements in the North passed under the control of the Jacobites, as they were henceforth called. While William looked eastward to Flanders and the Rhine the eyes of his Parliament were fixed upon the opposite quarter. When he reminded Parliament of Europe they vehemently drew his attention to Ireland. The King made the time-honoured mistake of meeting both needs inadequately. The defence of Londonderry and its relief from the sea was the one glorious episode of the campaigning season of 1689.

Cracks speedily appeared in the fabric of the original National Government. The Whigs considered that the Revolution belonged to them. Their judgment, their conduct, their principles, had been vindicated. Ought they not then to have all the offices? But William knew that he could never have gained the crown of England without the help of the Cavaliers and High Churchmen, who formed the staple of the Tory Party. Moreover, at this time, as a king he liked the Tory mood. Here was a Church devoted to hereditary monarchy. William felt that Whig principles would ultimately lead to a republic. Under the name of Stadtholder he was almost King of Holland; he had no desire under the name of King to be only Stadtholder of England. He was therefore ready to dissolve the Convention Parliament which had given him the crown while, as the Whigs said, “its work was all unfinished.” At the election of February 1690 the Tories won.

It may seem strange that the new King should have turned to the inscrutable personality of the Earl of Sunderland, who had been King James’s chief adviser. But James and Sunderland had now irrevocably quarrelled, and the Jacobites held the Earl mainly responsible for the Revolution. Sunderland was henceforth bound to William’s interest, and his knowledge of the European political scene was invaluable to his sovereign’s designs. After a brief interval he reappeared in England, and gained a surprising influence. He did not dare seek office for himself, but he made and marred the greatest fortunes. The actual government was entrusted to the statesmen of the middle view—the Duke of Shrewsbury, Sidney Godolphin, and Marlborough, and, though now, as always, he stood slightly aloof from all parties, Halifax. All had served King James. Their notion of party was to use both or either of the factions to keep themselves above water and to further the royal service. Each drew in others. “Shrewsbury was usually hand-in-glove with Wharton; Godolphin and Marlborough shared confidences with Admiral Russell.”1 Of these men it was Godolphin during the next twenty years who stood closest to Marlborough. Great political dexterity was combined in him with a scrupulous detachment. He never thrust forward for power, but he was seldom out of office. He served under four sovereigns, and with various colleagues, but no one questioned his loyalty. He knew how to use a well-timed resignation, or the threat of it, to prove his integrity. Awkward, retiring, dreamy by nature, he was yet heart and soul absorbed by the business of government.

Battle of Fleurus by Pierre-Denis Martin / Wikimedia Commons

Had William used his whole strength in Ireland in 1689 he would have been free to carry it to the Continent in 1690; but in the new year he found himself compelled to go in person with his main force to Ireland, and by the summer took the field at the head of thirty-six thousand men. Thus the whole power of England was diverted from the main theatre of the war. The Prince of Waldeck, William’s Commander in the Low Countries, suffered a crushing defeat at the skilful hands of Marshal Luxembourg in the Battle of Fleurus. At the same time the French Fleet gained a victory over the combined fleets of England and Holland off Beachy Head. It was said in London that “the Dutch had the honour, the French had the advantage, and the English the shame.” The command of the Channel temporarily passed to the French under Admiral Tourville, and it seemed that they could at the same time land an invading army in England and stop William returning from Ireland.

Queen Mary’s Council, of which Marlborough was a member, had to face an alarming prospect. They were sustained by the loyalty and spirit of the nation. The whole country took up what arms they could find. With a nucleus of about six thousand regular troops and the hastily improvised militia and yeomanry, Marlborough stood ready to meet the invasion. However, on July 11 King William gained a decisive victory at the Boyne and drove King James out of Ireland back to France. The appeals of the defeated monarch for a French army to conquer England were not heeded by Louis. The French King had his eyes on Germany. The anxious weeks of July and August passed by without more serious injury than the burning of Teignmouth by French raiders. By the winter the French Fleet was dismantled, and the English and Dutch Fleets were refitted and again at sea. Thus the danger passed. Late as was the season, Marlborough was commissioned by Queen Mary’s Council and King William to lead an expedition into Ireland, and in a short and brilliant campaign he captured both Cork and Kinsale and subdued the whole of the Southern Irish counties. The end of 1690 therefore saw the Irish War ended and the command of the sea regained. William was thus free after two years to proceed in person to the Continent with strong forces and to assume command of the main armies of the Alliance. He took Marlborough with him at the head of the English troops. But no independent scope was given to Marlborough’s genius, already discerned among the captains of the Allies, and the campaign, although on the greatest scale, was indecisive.

Thereafter a divergence grew between the King and Marlborough. When the commands for the next year’s campaign were being assigned William proposed to take Marlborough to Flanders as Lieutenant-General attached to his own person. Marlborough demurred at this undefined position. He did not wish to be carried round Flanders as a mere adviser, offering counsel that was not taken, and bearing responsibility for the failures that ensued. He asked to remain at home unless required to command the British troops, as in the past year. But the King had offered them to one of his Dutch generals, Baron Ginkel, fresh from Irish victories at Aughrim and Limerick. In the Commons a movement was on foot for an address on the employment of foreigners. Marlborough was known to be sympathetic, and he proposed himself to move a similar motion in the House of Lords. Widespread support was forthcoming, and it even appeared at one time likely that the motion would be carried by majorities in both Houses. Moreover, Marlborough’s activities did not end with Parliament. He was the leading British general, and many officers of various ranks resorted to him and loudly expressed their resentment at the favour shown to the Dutch.

At this time almost all the leading men in England resumed relations with James, now installed at Saint-Germain, near Paris. Godolphin also cherished sentiments of respectful affection towards the exiled Queen. Shrewsbury, Halifax, and Marlborough all entered into correspondence with James. King William was aware of this. He still continued to employ these men in great offices of State and confidence about his person. He accepted their double-dealing as a necessary element in a situation of unexampled perplexity. He tolerated the fact that his principal English counsellors were reinsuring themselves against a break-up of his Government or his death on the battlefield. He knew, or at least suspected, that Shrewsbury was in touch with Saint-Germain through his mother; yet he insisted on his keeping the highest offices. He knew that Admiral Russell had made his peace with James; yet he kept him in command of the Fleet. If he quarrelled with Marlborough it was certainly not because of the family contacts which the General preserved with his nephew, King James’s son the Duke of Berwick, or his wife Sarah with her sister, the Jacobite Duchess of Tyrconnel. The King probably knew that Marlborough had obtained his pardon from James by persuading the Princess Anne to send a dutiful message to her father. There was talk of the substitution of Anne for William and Mary, and at the same time the influence of the Churchills with Princess Anne continued to be dominating. Any rift between Anne and her sister, Queen Mary, must sharpen the already serious differences between the King and Marlborough. The ill-feeling between the royal personages developed rapidly. William treated Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark, with the greatest contempt. He excluded him from all share in the wars. He would not take him to Flanders, nor allow him to go to sea with the Fleet. Anne, who dearly loved her husband, was infuriated by these affronts.

As often happens in disputes among high personages, the brunt fell on a subordinate. The Queen demanded the dismissal of Sarah Churchill from Anne’s household. Anne refused with all the obstinate strength of her nature. The talk became an altercation. The courtiers drew back distressed. The two sisters parted in the anger of a mortal estrangement. The next morning at nine o’clock Marlborough, discharging his functions as Gentleman of the Bedchamber, handed the King his shirt, and William preserved his usual impassivity. Two hours later the Earl of Nottingham, Secretary of State, delivered to Marlborough a written order to sell at once all the offices he held, civil and military, and consider himself as from that date dismissed from the Army and all public employment and forbidden the Court. No reasons were given officially for this important stroke. Marlborough took his dismissal with unconcern. His chief associates, the leading counsellors of the King, were offended. Shrewsbury let his disapproval be known; Godolphin threatened to retire from the Government. Admiral Russell, now Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, went so far as to reproach King William to his face with having shown ingratitude to the man who had “set the crown upon his head.” The Queen now forbade Sarah to come to Court, and Anne retorted by quitting it herself. She left her apartments in the Cockpit at Whitehall and retired to Syon House, offered her by the Duke of Somerset. No pressure would induce Anne to part with her cherished friend, and in these fires of adversity and almost persecution links were forged upon which the destinies of England were presently to hang.


From The Age of Revolution: A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol. 3, by Winston S. Churchill (Barnes & Noble, 04.14.2005), published by Erenow, public open access.

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