On 13 February 1689, the Prince and Princess of Orange formally became the new King and Queen Regnant of England. Their official titles and styles upon accession were “By the Grace of God, King and Queen of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Stadholther of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, Prince of Orange, Count of Nassau, Defenders of the Faith, etc.”
William and Mary’s reign is unique because they were both co-regnant Monarchs with equal powers and prerogatives, and not a Monarch and his/her Consort. Before 1689, the closest precedent in England for such an unusual arrangement was the joint reign of Mary I of England and Philip of Spain. Back then, Mary I’s husband had been declared King of England with almost all the powers and prerogatives of a Monarch; it was actually an act of treason to deny his authority. William III also derived his powers from his wife and reigned jure uxoris (in right of the wife). However, there were important differences between William and Philip’s situation.
Philip could only reign for the duration of his wife’s reign: in case of her death or a divorce, his reign ended (he stopped being a King of England as soon as Mary I died and Elizabeth I ascended to the Throne). William was a reigning Monarch in his own right and would continue to rule until his death. The other difference was that Philip was not in command of the English Army; according to the marriage treaties, England was not bound to provide assistance for Philip’s wars (a condition that was quite futile because Mary I always supported her husband’s campaigns which eventually cost England the port Calais). William had all the powers and prerogatives an English Monarch could have. Perhaps more crucially, in the event Mary II predeceased him, his children from a possible subsequent marriage were given succession rights.
Now, a little information on how things came to that in the first place.
Mary was the eldest daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York (future James II and VII of England and Scotland, and Anne Hyde). Since her uncle Charles II had no children and no sons were born to her parents, she was Heiress Presumptive to the Thrones of England and Scotland (or, more accurately, heiress presumptive to the heir presumptive). Bearing that in mind, her uncle insisted both Mary and her younger sister Anne should be raised in Anglican Faith, and not as Catholics as their father wished.
William of Orange was in fact Mary’s first cousin: he was the son of William II, Prince of Orange, and Mary, Princess Royal (the eldest daughter of Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland, and sister of Charles II and James II and VII). Unlike most princesses from continental Europe, English/British Princesses were rarely if ever forced to forfeit their succession rights, which means William was quite high in the line of succession to the Thrones of England and Scotland in his own right.
Mary’s marriage to her first cousin William of Orange was a political match; it was meant to ally England with protestant powers and form something of a coalition against Catholic powers. Mary instantly became very popular with the Dutch people because of her personable and carrying nature, while her union with a protestant Prince was greeted with great approval in England. Although the union was successful, the couple had one major source of unhappiness: they had no children. Just months after their marriage, the Princess of Orange suffered a miscarriage which might have made her unable to have further children.
Charles II passed away in 1685 and his brother succeeded him on the Throne as James II and VII of England, Scotland and Ireland, making Mary Heiress Presumptive to the Throne. James proved to be a very unpopular monarch; his pro-Catholic sympathies were received coldly by the Parliament and the people. Things worsened when he married a Catholic Princess, Mary of Modena and a son was born to them; the boy, named James after his father, was to be raised a Catholic. Meanwhile, questions were raised about the very legitimacy of the boy: many, including both Mary and Anne, doubted that the child was actually the King and Queen’s son and that he was part of a conspiracy to ensure a Catholic succession.
Protestant leaders and noblemen kept in constant contact with Mary and William. Finally, on 30 June 1688 (just days after Prince James was born), seven notable Englishmen, later named the Immortal Seven, sent a letter to William requesting him to come to England with an army to depose the King. Those noblemen were: the Earl of Shrewsbury, the Earl of Devonshire, the Earl of Danby, Viscount Lumley, the Bishop of London, Edward Russell and Henry Sydney.
Among other things, the letter informed William that should he land in England with even a small army, the signatories of the letter and their allies would support him. After William and Mary ascended on the Throne, all the authors of the letter were rewarded: the Earls became Dukes, while Lumley, Russell and Sydney became Earls. The Bishop of London got to crown William and Mary – an honour normally reserved for the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Although at first reluctant, William eventually agreed to attempt an invasion and his army landed in England on 5 November. So unpopular was the King that there wasn’t even an attempt of resistance; the English Army and Navy joined William’s side. King James attempted to flee to France but was intercepted. William simply didn’t know what to do with his father-in-law; executing him was out of question not only because it would harm his reputation, but also because his wife would obviously be against that. Keeping the King imprisoned indefinitely was not a solution either. Finally, William decided that the best course of action would be to actually allow King James to “escape”, so the King’s next attempt was successful. The Parliament promptly issued the Declaration of Right, in which it deemed that James, by fleeing the country, effectively abdicated and the Throne was henceforth vacant.
Mary was torn between loyalty to her husband and father. She felt that the circumstances of her father’s deposition were unfortunate but was at the same time convinced that the actions taken were necessary to save “the Church and State”. Despite her sadness, William asked her to appear cheerful on their triumphant arrival in London, which she dully did.
With James gone, there was the question of who would become the new Monarch. Under normal course of events, the heir would have been James Frances Stuart, King James’s son. However, the Parliament offered the Throne not to him but his elder sister, Mary – and Mary only. Initially, there was no strong support for William to be King and a large section of the Parliament led by Lord Danby believed Mary should be the (sole) Monarch with William as her consort. Both William and Mary strongly objected to that. William wanted to be a King in his own right and not a mere consort to the Queen. On her part, Mary believed that she should not be above her husband and had no real wish to be a Queen Regnant anyway.
With the previous precedent of joint reigns of Mary I and Philip of Spain, the Parliament wanted to offer the same solution to the couple, but again it was refused: Philip of Spain had only been King of England for the duration of his wife’s reign, and even that with certain limitations mentioned above. William wanted to be King in his own right, without any limitations. Had he been a random European Prince with no English royal blood, it is difficult to predict the outcome. As it were, William was a grandson of Charles I in his own right and so the Parliament offered the Throne jointly to William and Mary to reign jointly, with the one who would outlive the other continuing to reign until his/her own death. The Declaration of Rights was also extended to ban not just James and all his descendants (bar Mary and Anne) from ever ascending to the Thrones of England and Scotland, but all Catholics altogether, reasoning that “it hath been found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this Protestant kingdom to be governed by a papist prince”.
King William and Queen Mary were crowned together at Westminster Abbey on 11 April 1689. In December of the same year, Parliament passed one of the most important legal documents not only in English but arguably also worldwide history – the Bill of Rights. The Bill put restrictions on the royal prerogative; among other things, the Monarch was no longer able to suspend laws passed by Parliament, levy taxes or raise a standing army in peacetime without the Parliament’s support, etcetera.
The Bill also established the Line of Succession to the Throne. William and Mary were to reign until they both died. Next in the line were: William and Mary’s children by laws of primogeniture -> Mary’s children from a possible subsequent marriage -> Princess Anne (Mary’s younger sister) -> Princess Anne’s children by laws of primogeniture -> William’s children from a possible subsequent marriage.
In theory, that was a pretty sound succession line but as life would show, in theory only. William and Mary had no children together; William outlived his wife but never remarried. Princess Anne was pregnant 17 times but most of the pregnancies ended in miscarriages or stillbirths. Her only child to survive infancy was Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, but he died in 1700, aged just 11. To avoid a succession crisis, the Parliament passed the Act of Settlement 1701, which stated that should Anne die without heirs the Throne would pass to Sophia, Electress of Hanover and “heirs of her body”. As it were, Sophie predeceased Queen Anne by a matter of days, meaning that her son ascended to the British Throne as George I.
William and Mary’s reign was largely uneventful. William tried (and largely failed) to maintain a balance between different fractions of the Parliament. His war and subsequent peace with France were no more successful. His greatest economic legacy was granting the Royal Charter to the newly founded Bank of England. In time, that allowed England to become the centre of the global commerce. Their greatest legacy is of course signing the Bill of Rights, which along with Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus Act 1679, the Petition of Right, and Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, remains the most important legal document in English history. The Bill redefined the role of the Monarch and ended the centuries-old conflict between the Crown and the Parliament.
Mary II died on 28 December 1694, deeply mourned by her husband who refused to remarry. William himself died eight years later, on 8 March 1702. Upon his death he was succeeded by Queen Anne whose short reign was nevertheless remarkable because she was the last Monarch of the House of Stuart (her successor established the House of Hanover which reigned in Britain until Queen Victoria’s reign), as well as the last Monarch of England and Scotland, and the first Monarch of Great Britain (sovereign Kingdoms of England and Scotland ceased to exist with the Act of Union 1707, which created the Kingdom of Great Britain).