Sunday, March 18, 2012

A THORN IN THE SIDE OF LOUIS XIV


A review of Stephan Baxter’s William III (1966)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Stephan Baxter tells the story of the Dutchman who became the King of England. Both the people of Holland and the people of Britain knew him as William III. To the Dutch he was William III Prince of Orange, two of the previous princes being his father and his great-grandfather—the famous William the Silent. To the English he was King William III, the two previous kings to bear that name was the Conqueror himself and the useless son, William Rufus. This William would do the same things his predecessors (Silent and Conqueror) did, but the result would be far different.

William was born the only child of William II, Prince of Orange and Mary, Princess of Orange and Princess Royal of England. He was a citizen of the Dutch Republic, a very confusing political entity if there ever was one. Although a Republic, it still had nobility, hereditary princes, and the leadership of a ‘Great Man’ who dominated the Republic. Despite their size and confusing political system they were the premier power of their day.

However their day was quickly ending with the rise of France under the rule of King Louis XIV. The Sun King as he was called would be the most powerful man in Europe getting fellow kings, emperors, and popes to have to follow his directive. Baxter presents William as the hero of the Republic. The Prince would build and led coalitions against the emerging superpower. Although the era would still be the Age of Louis XIV, William would preserve the Republic’s independence, and carry the banner of Protestantism.


(King Louis XIV the most powerful monarch in Europe)

However, what William is most famous for is his role in what is known as the Glorious Revolution. The Glorious Revolution would result in the overthrow of his father-in-law, King James II, and would establish both he and his wife as the new King and Queen of England. William’s great-grandfather, the Prince of Orange known as William the Silent, set precedent of a foreign prince aiding an oppressed people. In addition, over six hundred years previous his distant ancestor William the Conqueror he would land in England during a succession dispute depose the King by force and take the crown itself. William III preferred to emulate his more recent Dutch ancestor. He wanted to be William the Deliverer who crossed the Channel to hold a free Parliament for the British people.


(William's uncle and father-in-law who be dethroned in the Glorious Revolution. He has the interesting distinction of being the only deposed King of England not to be murdered.)


(The winners: William and Mary now King William III and Queen Mary II of England)

The Prince of Orange also had a distinct advantage the Duke of Normandy did not. The Prince really did have the people behind him. King James II had been a terrible monarch, but he had none of the survival skills that his older brother, Charles II, had processed. In one way that I found Baxter lacking is the author discusses many things about James’ mind: that he lost his nerve, that he made foolish mistakes, and he might have been able to salvage the situation had he not turned into a coward. Yet, not once does Baxter mention the fate of James’ father, King Charles I, who was deposed, tried, and executed. I would think that during a Revolution against his rule that he feels he may not win, his father’s fate would be close to his mind. Nevertheless, he runs and gives a clear field to the Dutchman.

“One of the great myths of the Revolution of 1688 is that it was made by the nobility rather than the people of England. It was not. The ultimate cause of course, was the misgovernment of James II which so alienated the people that two abortive risings occurred as early as 1685.” (p.243-4)




In a way, William put himself in the same trap that King Henry IV fell into. By refusing to assume the role of conqueror he, like Henry, limited his right to rule based on competence and Parliamentary approval. As so he would find the position of monarch directly weakened as a result. Although William’s revolution was bloodless compared to the Dukes of Normandy and Lancaster, by unintentionally coping the later he found himself in a compromised position. Although, what was bad for the King was a good thing for long-term democracy and freedom codified in the English Bill of Rights. The right of a people to overthrow tyranny established by this Revolution would create precedent for people across the pond in less than a hundred years later.

“The rest of the Convention’s conduct was of a piece with its refusal to grant the King a life revenue. In February the King and Queen had accepted the crown of England on conditions, those contained in the famous Declaration of Right. William III was annoyed at any reduction of the royal power and hoped that the crown would not be the worse for his wearing it. At the time, the Declaration was explained to him as being a mere restatement of existing law. Whatever it might be, he hoped to have heard the last of it. Yet at the end of the years the Convention made the Declaration into a statute, known as the Bill of Rights.” (p.256)


William the Dutchman becoming the King of England would allow the British to copy the banking and merchant policies that allow little Holland to become a world power. The result would be the foundation of the great British Empire that would dominate the world for the next two hundred years.

Stephan Baxter tells a great story about a homely and shy prince who becomes not only one of the greatest monarchs the world had ever known but also a champion for freedom.

{In the video Eric Foner gives a good brief description of the Glorious Revolution and its impact on the colonies}

4 comments:

  1. I read this back in the 1970s when I was in college along with William of Orange by Nesca Robb, which came out about the same time. Although Robb is an excellent writer, her biography would have to be classified as hagiography. I believe Baxter's is still considered the definitive English biography of William III. Have you read the English translation of Wouter Troost's 21st century Dutch biography, William III the Stadholder-King? I found it interesting and I learned more about the Dutch Republic and how it worked. Orange and Stuart, the English translation of Dutch historian Pieter Geyl’s work on the relationship of the Stuart and Orange families and how it affected the Dutch Republic I found fascinating. It certainly provided a different viewpoint on Charles II.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I deleted my own comments due to editing errors.

    ReplyDelete

Please feel free to leave a comment on any article at anytime, regardless how long ago I posted it. I will most likely respond.