One of Britain's most qualified, but least recognised, kings died on 12 March, 319 years ago.
He was a Dutchman who was invited to invade England, and during his 13-year rule he established religious tolerance, the independence of the judiciary and a regular Parliament, putting Britain on the path of parliamentary democracy.
William was born into the Dutch House of Orange in 1650. His mother, Mary, was the eldest daughter of King Charles I, giving him a link to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland.
William’s father died in the weeks before the prince was born, and his mother was taken by smallpox when he was only 10, so his childhood was filled with tutelage into his royal role, turning William into an astute autocrat with a sense of entitlement about his right to rule.
Early attempts by William to claim his role as the head of the Dutch Republic were resisted, but the decision by Charles II, now restored as king in Britain, to make an agreement with his French allies to attack the Netherlands, forced William’s enemies to rally behind him.
The Dutch Republic was invaded by France and its allies, including England, in 1672 and suffered devastating consequences. As a result, support for William intensified and he led the fight against the invaders.
In 1677 he attempted a more diplomatic solution by marrying Mary, the daughter of the Duke of York, who would later become King James II.
William, a devout Protestant, saw this as a path to becoming a future ruler of the British kingdom, which would allow him to move the French-dominated policies of the monarchy towards a position that would be more favourable to the Dutch.
When James II succeeded to the throne, William recognised that the new king’s Catholic faith was unpopular in England and looked for ways to undermine him.
King James promoted religious tolerance and was supportive of the Anglican church, but England’s Protestants were concerned that his heir would not share his sympathies and would rule as a Catholic.
In 1688 a group of prominent Protestants asked William to invade and take the throne.
William landed at Brixham with a huge fleet that was larger than anything the English had faced during the Spanish Armada.
James’s support melted away and the Glorious Revolution had begun.
James was allowed to flee to France, and William summoned a Parliament which decided a Protestant should take the throne.
They crowned William III and his wife, Mary II to reign as joint sovereigns, which they did until her death in 1694, after which time William became the sole ruler and monarch.
William’s experience of French aggression under Louis XIV in his homeland drove his determination to establish a powerful coalition against their power, taking Britain away from the French sphere influence that had developed during the reigns of Charles II and even more so under James II.
He understood that he would need to work with others to achieve his aims and so William focused on diplomacy and ruling by consent rather than the absolutism that was favoured by rulers across Europe.
During William III’s reign the Bill of Rights was created to set out certain basic civil rights and to clarify the line of succession for the Crown. It established limits on the powers of the monarch and set out the rights of Parliament, including the requirement for regular parliaments, free elections, and freedom of speech. Citizens were protected against cruel and unusual punishments and taxes could not be imposed without the agreement of Parliament.
This was a truly revolutionary moment that set Britain on the path to nationhood that we still recognise today.
However, not all of William’s deeds are fondly remembered.
Supporters of King James II continued to fight for their man, and William was ruthless in crushing them in wars across Ireland, including the infamous Battle of the Boyne, and in Scotland during the first Jacobite Rebellions. His actions led to centuries of hostility between Catholics and Protestants.
But with the Bill of Rights agreed, William went on to make peace with France and with the Dutch, setting Britain on a trajectory that would turn the country into a global power.
So why isn’t William’s reign more celebrated? When he died in 1702, as the result of a riding accident, official mourning was muted because William, who spoke English with a heavy accent and reacted to the distrust of his most prominent subjects by filling his court with Dutch allies, was still seen as a foreigner.
His enemies, especially the Jacobite clans in Scotland, would raise a toast to the ‘little black gentleman in a velvet jacket,’ to remember the mole whose hill had tripped William’s horse and led to the Dutchman’s death.
Despite all of his achievements, one of Britain’s most able and reforming kings, has been allowed to slip into relative obscurity.
Want to know more? Join one our expert led tours:
The War of Three Kings in Ireland focuses on the Williamite-Jacobite wars as James II fought to regain his throne >> See the tour
The Jacobite Risings is led by Barry Hilton and examines the rebellions of James II’s supporters across Scotland >> See the tour
The English Civil Wars is led by Julian Humphrys and investigates the battle between Parliament versus monarchy, leading to the fall of King Charles I >> See the tour
Picture credit: Prince William III by Gottfried Keller, available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons