On February 20, 1702 William was riding Sorrel, a new horse, in the park of Hampton Court. As the horse began to gallop it stumbled on a molehill and fell throwing William who broke his collarbone, with ultimately fatal consequences. This unhappy incident was to give rise to a new Jacobite toast, ‘To the little gentleman in black velvet’.
The bone was set and William returned to Kensington by coach. As a result of a jolt in the coach it had to be set again. For a younger man such a riding accident would not have proved fatal but William at 51, by early 18th century standards, was not a young man. Furthermore, William had never enjoyed good health. He was asthmatic and, if not a hunchback he certainly had the appearance of one.
Throughout his life William’s indomitable willpower had pushed his weak and feeble physical frame to its limits and beyond. For example, William’s crossing of the Boyne was significantly more fraught with difficulty than Orange banners suggest. William’s horse got stuck in the mud and he was obliged to dismount to extricate the animal. Unable to achieve this himself, he received assistance from an Inniskillinger called McKinlay. The struggle brought on one of William’s asthma attacks but he recovered fairly quickly and was soon in the thick of the fray.
To return to early 1702, complications ensued. William succumbed to fever on March 4. By the following day his strength had failed greatly. By March 6 he was scarcely alive at all but William was tenaciously hanging on to life: “You know that I never feared death; there have been times when I should have wished it; but now that this great prospect is opening before me, I do wish to stay a little longer”. However, he entertained no illusions as to his plight. He told his physicians: “I know that you have done all that skill and learning could do for me, but the case is beyond your art; and I submit”.
Thomas Tenison, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Gilbert Burnet, the Bishop of Salisbury, were summoned to his bedside at 5.00 a.m. on the morning of Sunday March 8. William professed his firm belief in the Christian religion and received the sacrament from their hands with great seriousness. William died between 7.00 and 8.00 a.m. He closed his eyes and gasped for breath. The bishops knelt down and read the commendatory prayer. By the time the bishops had completed the prayer William was no more.
When William’s remains were laid out, it was found that he wore next to his skin a small black silk riband. The lords in waiting ordered it to be taken off. It contained a gold ring and a lock of Mary’s hair. Queen Mary had been devoted to him, and he to her. After the shock f her unexpected death in 1694, William became very withdrawn.
William was buried in Westminster Abbey beside Mary on Sunday, April 12. Six dukes carried his pall and the chief mourner was his brother-in-law, Prince George, husband of Queen Anne. The Dean of the Abbey met the funeral procession and the Bishop of Rochester conducted the service, which took place in private at midnight, as was customary for the great in those days.
Official mourning in England was half-hearted because William remained to the end, in the eyes of the English ruling classes, a foreigner. In part this was because when William became King he rapidly discovered that many of his most prominent new subjects (for example, Marlborough, Godolphin and Shrewsbury) were disloyal and in secret communication with the Jacobite court in exile at Versailles.
Since William could not rely on such people he understandably preferred to surround himself with Dutchmen and Huguenots (such as Bentinck, Ginkel, Schomberg, de Ruvigny and Rochford) whom he could trust. Nor were William’s public persona and his ordering of priorities best calculated to win the favour of the Court. Although privately kindly, courteous, and forbearing, in public William was reserved, and could be irritable and ungracious, partly as a result of ill health and overwork. As Lord Macaulay in his History of England observed: “He was in truth far better qualified to save a nation than to adorn a court …. He seldom came forth from his closet, and when he appeared in the public rooms, he stood among the crowd of courtiers and ladies, stern and abstracted, making no jest, and smiling at none. His freezing look, his silence, the dry and concise answers which he uttered when he could keep silence no longer, disgusted noblemen and gentlemen who had been accustomed to be slapped on the back by their royal masters ……. He spoke our language, but not well. His accent was foreign: his diction was inelegant; and his vocabulary seems to have been no larger than was necessary for the transaction of business.
However, to the common people William was a great man and a Protestant hero. Unlike sections of the English ruling classes, they recognised William’s greatness with gratitude, viewing his passing differently.
William’s overriding mission in life was to preserve the independence of the Netherlands. In 1672 when the English Duke of Buckingham asked the young William: “Surely you see that everything is lost?” William’s retort was “My Lord, my country is indeed in danger, but there is one way never to see it lost and that is to die in the last ditch”
Time and time again, against overwhelming odds he succeeded in maintaining the freedom, prosperity and independence of his native land.
The territorial ambitions of Louis XIV of France threatened not only Holland but also the whole of Europe. In the 1930s in his biography of his great ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, Winston Churchill observed: “it seemed that (in William) a being had been created for resisting the domination of France and the Great King”. Just as Churchill in the 1940s was to frustrate Hitler’s ambitions, William succeeded in frustrating those of Louis XIV.
William may not have been a great soldier, a view to which Churchill subscribed. He certainly was not a fortunate soldier but he was a courageous, determined and tenacious one. He kept going when lesser men would have given up. The Prince de Conde, also known as the Great Conde, perhaps William’s most illustrious military opponent, remarked, after the bloody Battle of Seneffe in 1674, that the Prince of Orange had in all things borne himself like an old general, except in exposing himself like a young soldier.
The Great Conde claimed Seneffe as a victory but it was William’s smaller army, which held its ground, and it was the Great Conde who withdrew. The reckless courage displayed by the 24-year-old William at Seneffe was still very much in evidence in the 39-year-old William at the Boyne. At Donore part of his boot was shot off and another musket ball shattered one of his pistols. Whereas, James played a passive, almost fatalistic role at the Boyne, William played an active and energetic part in the battle and his victory owed much to his personal courage and fortitude.
William’s great strength lay in his remarkable political skills. He was a consummate statesman capable of forging and sustaining great alliances. Although William is often thought of as ‘the Protestant champion’, and he was a devout Protestant, his rare diplomatic skill enabled him to bring the Emperor, Brandenburg, Hanover, Saxony, Bavaria, Savoy, and Spain into an alliance which transcended denominational boundaries against Louis XIV. William was the alliance’s linchpin. William’s league of Augsburg was the 17th century counterpart of Winston Churchill’s Grand Alliance in the 20th century.
William’s interest in the affairs of the British Isles primarily lay in harnessing manpower and resources of these islands to preserve the independence of his native land and to frustrate Louis XIV’s ambition for hegemony in Europe. But William’s reign was most emphatically of great importance for the constitutional and political history of our country, and his own contribution to these developments was far from negligible.
During William’s reign religious toleration was established, the independence of the judiciary was achieved, and, because a standing army could not be maintained without annual parliamentary approval, Parliament became a regular and permanent feature of political life. It is no exaggeration to claim that during William’s reign Britain set out on the journey that would lead eventually to parliamentary democracy. Furthermore, in international terms Britain embarked on a trajectory that would make her a global power.
Without William these islands would have succumbed to continental-style absolutism, the work of the Reformation would have been overturned, and Britain, at least in the short term, would have become a satellite of France. William richly deserves to be considered one of the greatest men to occupy the throne.
By Gordon Lucy