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William and Mary
By John Van der Kiste
The History PressCopyright © 2011 John Van der Kiste
All rights reserved.
On 31 October 1650 William II, Prince of Orange, returned from a hunting expedition to his home at Binnenhof Palace, The Hague. He was unwell, but as his wife Mary was expecting their first child in a few days he did not wish to alarm her. Next day he was worse, and that evening his doctors confirmed that he had smallpox. Panic-stricken, she wanted to go to his side immediately, but her attendants told her that she must not jeopardize the life of her unborn infant, and she had to be held back by force. Within a week William, only twenty-four, was dead. His grief-stricken young widow was inconsolable, and the household feared she might follow him to the grave. In her short life she had already lost a husband and a father, for it was less than two years since the latter, King Charles I of England, had been executed.
Her apartments were hung with black, even the bed in which she was to bear her child and the waiting cradle. The confinement was expected at the end of the month, but the shock of her husband's death caused her to go into labour early. On the evening of 14 November, her nineteenth birthday, a young prince was born. A nurse present at the birth claimed afterwards that, during the first moments of the baby's life, a draught blew out the candles in the bedchamber, and she saw three circles of light shining round his head. Far beyond the palace walls, the bells of The Hague were rung. Even in the Dutch Republic, it was customary to celebrate such a royal birth as if a future king had been born.
In the seventeenth century the Princes of Orange traditionally held the greatest offices in the Dutch Republic which, after an eighty-year struggle, had won its independence from Spain, then the most powerful nation in Europe, to become a leading maritime and trading nation. The Republic was a federation of seven of the seventeen provinces of the Low Countries under Habsburg rule, the remaining ten still being under Spanish government. Each province had its own law, customs and representative assembly, and sent a delegation to the States-General of the United Provinces.
The Princes of Orange were the Republic's richest citizens, owning large estates in the Netherlands and Germany. As sovereign princes in their own right, they took their title from the small principality of Orange on the Rhône. Their outlook was more cosmopolitan than that of most Dutchmen, and French was usually spoken at their court. Though exercising semi-royal power, these princes did not hold the title of king. The offices of Stadholder and Captain General were not strictly hereditary, but had always been conferred on the head of the house of Orange. In the seventeenth century some suspected that the Princes of Orange planned to proclaim themselves kings. When Frederick Henry married his son William Henry to Mary Stuart in 1641, he hoped that her father would in due course help him to establish an Orange monarchy. Such plans had been thwarted by his father-in-law's troubles, culminating in the English civil war, his execution and the declaration of a commonwealth in Britain.
The offices of Stadholder and Captain General lapsed with William II's death. While most Dutchmen expected his infant son to succeed to them in due course, many regents felt that the two offices, civil and military, conferred too much power and should not be granted to one man. The establishment of a centralized monarchy could jeopardize municipal rights and the traditional liberty and tolerance of Dutch society. Pensionary Johan de Witt, the leading figure in the States of Holland, saw himself as the defender of Dutch liberty and institutions against the aspirations of the house of Orange. Within the next few years the struggles of William and his supporters, who controlled several of the smaller provinces, to secure his elevation to these offices would figure prominently in Dutch politics throughout the early years of his life, and would have a formative influence on his character and political outlook.
* * *
By the time the baby prince was three days old, the household were anxious about the young mother who lay distraught and weeping, and about her puny child who seemed to grow weaker by the day. The first nurse chosen for him had been unsuitable, and another foster mother was found. He rallied slowly, but still seemed so delicate that few expected him to survive infancy.
On 21 January 1651 he was christened at the Grote Kerk, The Hague. Mary wanted to call him Charles, after her father and brother, but at the insistence of her mother-in-law Amalia von Solms-Braunfels, he was given the traditional Orange names of William Henry. Denied the right to choose his names, she refused to attend the ceremony. It was an unhappy occasion, for many of the congregation had been waiting for hours in the snowy streets of the city to see their new prince. The presence of a large crowd which grew restive during the long service in the freezing building unnerved the choir, who sang out of tune, and the noise forced the preacher to abandon his sermon.
Since her arrival in the Dutch Republic as a homesick young bride of twelve, Mary Stuart had neither liked the people of her husband's country, nor regarded it as home. The Dutch found her haughty and arrogant, sensing that she thought herself too good for them. Widowed at nineteen, she felt herself surrounded by enemies, and made no effort to conceal her devotion to England and her favourite brother Charles, an exiled sovereign-in-waiting. As a Stuart she saw it as her duty to help restore him to his rightful position as King of England, and then to persuade him to use his power to have William raised to a suitable position. She regularly lent Charles and James money she could ill afford. When the English Parliament sent their youngest brother Henry, Duke of Gloucester, to Holland, observers thought she treated him with affection in marked contrast to the scant attention she paid her only child.
The closest of her husband's relatives was her mother-in-law, the Dowager Princess Amalia von Solms-Braunfels, widow of Prince Frederick Henry of Orange. She tried to obtain custody of her grandson, partly as a family duty towards the state, and partly as she sensed her daughter-in-law had little maternal love for the boy. The anti-Orangists, led by Johan de Witt, considered him as a Child of the State, and maintained he should be brought up as a Calvinist and a servant of the Republic. The tendencies of the Netherlands were republican, and William's close Stuart connection counted against him. But as a race the Dutch were fiercely loyal to the house of Orange, and feeling in his favour was so strong that he was nearly named Captain General of Holland at the age of three. A year later Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, signed a treaty with the States that neither William nor his descendants should ever be appointed to the chief command of their armies or fleets.
Nicknamed 'Piccinion' by his mother, William was a weak, undersized child. The Nassaus were a sickly family with a high incidence of fever, tubercular trouble and a generally short life expectancy, and he grew into a pale, thin boy with asthma, a dry cough and a visibly humped back. As an adult he always had to wear a cuirass, a device incorporating a breastplate and backplate fastened together, to help him hold himself up straight on horseback. All his life he had a poor appetite, and would eat little when tired or ill, thus depleting his reserves of strength still further. His tutors had to sit with him at mealtimes to make sure he ate properly, which he did with reluctance. As an adult, of course, there would be no compulsion to follow this necessary but tiresome rule. He went early to bed, a routine to which he would always adhere. His tutors taught him never to trust doctors, which was probably as well in view of the barbaric remedies they normally prescribed. The amount of exercise he took was strictly controlled, as his guardians thought him too weak to be taxed as strongly as other children of his age. He was introduced to tennis and fencing a little later than usual, and perhaps because of this he never really enjoyed them. The only sport he really liked was hunting, which took him out into the open air, gave him relief from his asthma and also brought him a degree of privacy which other sports did not. A natural tendency towards outward coldness, a taciturn demeanour and his firm self-control were reinforced by his lonely, self-contained childhood.
William's first years were overshadowed by ill-health and by disputes among the older generation who seemed to regard him almost as a trophy. His mother distrusted and feared her mother-in-law and the machinations of the Dutch government, which saw him as the chief hostage in their efforts to establish their constitution on a firmer footing. To them he was the representative of a great leader of the previous century, William the Silent, and he personified their hopes for the future. His mother secured the appointment of an Englishwoman, Lady Stanhope, as the governess of his first household. Despite Mary's protests, when William was six Pastor Trigland began to instruct him in the Reformed faith, and thus laid the basis of William's committed Calvinism.
Around 1656 there were rumours that the Princess of Orange was considering taking a second husband. Her mother Queen Henrietta Maria hoped she might arrange a match for her with the young King Louis XIV, now aged eighteen. Mary was accordingly invited to Paris and, while nothing came of any plans to make her Queen of France by marriage, she showed no inclination to return to Holland before necessary. Eventually she left France after receiving a message that William was seriously ill, but on reaching Bruges she learned that he only had measles and was making a good recovery, so she dallied there for several weeks. There are conflicting accounts of how much or how little she cared for him. Some say that by now she had more or less given up the struggle for control of him, preferring to spend much of her time abroad, and that by the time he reached his ninth year and was enrolled as a student at Leyden University she did not object, as they were already estranged and on formal terms. Others maintain that despite her haughty attitude and quick temper, she was devoted to him and ever keen to do what she could in helping to reclaim ancestral dignities on his behalf.
At the age of eight he formed a lifelong friendship with his cousin Princess Elisabeth Charlotte, or 'Liselotte', one year his junior, the niece of Sophie, Duchess of Brunswick and later Electress of Hanover. They both came on a long visit to Binnenhof, and one day at a reception Liselotte became separated from her aunt. Seeing a lady who looked as if she was suffering from a severe cold, she asked William the identity of the woman with 'the fiery nose'. That, he told her solemnly, was his mother. She looked at him apologetically and he burst into giggles at this childish faux pas. For the rest of her stay they were almost inseparable playmates, and the older generation whispered among themselves that William might have found his future wife.
In November 1659 William was provided with his own establishment at Leiden, in the building which had been the convent of St Barbara. He was looked after by a household including three governors (of whom one, William Frederick of Nassau-Zuylenstein, was a natural son of William's grandfather Prince William Henry), two young pages, a chamberlain, a physician, two gentlemen-in-waiting and a domestic staff of eleven. Constantine Huygens, a former secretary to his father and grandfather, was appointed his domestic governor, his duties including ensuring that the practical affairs of the household were run with order and efficiency, and that his young charge behaved with the utmost decorum. There was to be no blasphemy, unseemly behaviour or unpleasant conversation; gluttony and drunkenness, it was inculcated in him, were inappropriate to persons of honour. He was to study his Bible regularly, attend church twice on Sundays and answer questions afterwards in front of the servants. As well as English, which he learned from his mother, he spoke French, Dutch, German, Latin and Spanish.
His daily routine was drawn up in some detail. He was to rise between 7 and 8 a.m., and after saying his prayers had a light breakfast. Morning prayers were followed by study for the rest of the morning, divided into short periods for different subjects, including history, mathematics, geography, religious knowledge, philosophy, French, English and Latin. Next came dancing lessons, designed to produce a good carriage and grace of movement, particularly important for a boy who suffered from a hunched back. At dinner Huygens had to ensure that conversation was kept polite and seemly, and directed towards interesting themes. Part of the afternoon was to be spent in walking, riding or driving, followed by another hour or two of study before supper. This was followed by more recreation, perhaps billiards or a similar game, then evening prayers with the household, private devotions and bed between 9 and 10 p.m. Every day he read the Bible, and was required to learn a psalm by heart.
* * *
Meanwhile in England the death of Cromwell in September 1658 had given the Stuarts cause for hope. Some twenty months later Charles, who had been de jure king and tacitly acknowledged as such by his supporters since his father's execution, was recalled from exile to his kingdom. Before he set sail the States-General invited him to Holland, and for a few days the family were partly reunited at The Hague, surrounded by Dutch well-wishers and jubilant English exiles, many of whom would also cross the Channel in due course. At nine William was too young to participate in all the ceremonies, but he was brought from his establishment at Leiden to join in this display of family unity. On the day of his uncle's state entry into The Hague, amid a fanfare of bells and cannon, he, his mother and uncles James, Duke of York, and Henry, Duke of Gloucester, were among those in the crowded coach, as he perched on James's knee. That evening a great dinner was held at the Mauritshuis, cannon were fired after every toast, and the festivities and gifts to the new king and his family cost over two million guilders. On 23 May William was part of the company on the shore at Scheveningen and Charles embraced him tenderly before setting sail for England.
Now there was a possibility that, in addition to holding high office in Holland, William might also succeed to the English throne. Mary decided the time had come to introduce him to the people, and several cities invited them as honoured guests. Amsterdam went en fête with arches of laurels and streets hung with flags and tapestries, and they entered the city in a kind of royal progress, to the pealing of bells and the sound of trumpets. Triumphal cars paraded tableaux from Stuart and Nassau history. One showed William as a hero, represented by a figure attended by Hope and Religion, and surrounded by a group of children who offered him symbols of the arts and sciences, while winged figures of the Liberal Arts hovered over them. In front of him an orange tree, bearing a single fruit, shaded an altar from which a phoenix arose from the ashes. Another was less well-judged, showing as it did a realistic representation of the execution of King Charles I. When Mary saw the poised axe, she was so shocked she almost fainted.
William's few months at Leiden had made him more assured and better mannered, and he took part in the proceedings with a sense of diplomacy and grace which would have done credit to a boy considerably older than nine. On the next day of the visit he made a sightseeing tour of the city on horseback, and then went to see the magnificent yacht which the States-General had prepared as a present for his uncle. On the Sunday William and his mother attended divine service in the Nieuwe Kerk, and the following morning after more festivities they returned to The Hague. There they were welcomed back with due ceremony and enthusiasm, and with what was probably for William the highlight of their tour. As their coach drove up to the Binnenhof, a troop of small boys with wooden swords at their sides and plumes of orange paper in their hats stood to attention, while their leader stepped forward, saluted and greeted William as their general. He accepted this honour with all due gravity, then turned to his mother and asked, 'Could they all be invited in?' When given permission, the group of eager small boys swarmed into the palace where they were given drinks and fruit. As they left again in orderly fashion, all smiling, William stood at the door and handed each a gingerbread cake.
Excerpted from William and Mary by John Van der Kiste. Copyright © 2011 John Van der Kiste. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
2. 'Mary Clorin',
3. Prince and Princess of Orange,
4. Heir and Heiress Presumptive,
5. 'It is no small burden',
6. 'The title of King was only a pageant',
7. 'The consequences of such a breach',
8. 'Two or three small strugglings of nature',
9. 'This pernicious resolution',
10. 'You have so little regard for my advice',
11. 'You can bear me up no longer',