Mary Stuart, broken in spirit by the execution of her father, Charles I (1649), the death of her young husband, William II of Orange (1650), the abolition of the stadholdership, and the exclusion of the house of Orange from office, brought up her son to a somber self-control that would silently bide its time till persistence brought victory. Physically weak, surrounded in his development by enemies set to guard him, but inheriting from William I of Orange the motto Je maintiendrai—“I will maintain”—he grew up as a sickly lad hiding behind an immobile face a fire of resolution and revenge. Austere, decorous, coldly courteous, he shunned amusements and frivolity, and pursued outdoor sports to overcome his repeated headaches and his liability to fainting spells. This was a frail vessel to house the spirit that would capture the throne of England and chasten the King of France.
His mother went to England in 1660 to rejoice in her brother’s coronation; she died there of smallpox on Christmas Eve. In 1666 the government of Holland province declared the sixteen-year-old Prince a ward of the state; Jan de Witt replaced his beloved guardians and tutors with persons more responsive to the policy of the provincial Estates. 50 William’s hatred of de Witt grew with every year. At the height of Jan’s power the Prince, eluding his new guardians, rode from The Hague to Bergen-op-Zoom (1668), and took a boat to Zeeland, the province that had been most loyal to his ancestors. The people of its capital, Middelburg, greeted him with mass demonstrations of fidelity and affection. He assumed without hesitation or opposition the presidency of the Zeeland provincial assembly. Returning to The Hague, he announced that his minority was now ending on his eighteenth birthday (November 4, 1668), and that he would henceforth dispense with the guardians that the Estates of Holland had given him. The Estates refused to remove them; he dismissed them; they remained. He bided his time.
It came when the French and German armies overran the Dutch provinces, Dutch armies surrendered town after town, and The Hague itself seemed defenseless. Yielding to the demands of the military, and hoping that the restoration of the house of Orange to leadership would restore the unity and morale of the nation, the States-General appointed William captain general of the Union (February 25, 1672). On July 2 the Estates of Zeeland, flouting the “Perpetual Edict,” elected William their provincial stadholder; on July 4 the Estates of Holland followed suit; on July 8 he was made supreme commander of the Union’s armed forces on land and sea. He showed his spirit when the French King offered peace in return for an indemnity of sixteen million florins and the cession of large areas to France, Mïnster, and Cologne; a secret offer was made to recognize William as king of the remainder. The Estates of Holland asked his advice; he replied, “Rather let us be hacked to pieces than accept such conditions.” 51 When the second Duke of Buckingham, coming from England to urge William to make peace, said to him, “Do you not see that your country is lost?” he replied, “My country is in great danger, but there is a sure way never to see it lost, and that is to die in the last ditch.” 52 Nevertheless, with wisdom remarkable in a youth of twenty-two, he counseled patient and courteous negotiations with the English; already he may have seen in a co-operation of the English and the Dutch the only hope of checking the aggressions of France. He took measures to strengthen the ties between the United Provinces, the Empire, and Brandenburg. The outlines of the Grand Alliance were taking form in his mind.
He proceeded to the headquarters of the army, and so was absent from The Hague when the de Witts were murdered. He had apparently no share in planning that act, which perhaps no one had planned; but when he heard of it he did not hide his satisfaction; and he protected and pensioned the men who had led the mob. 53 He tried now to be a good general; he never succeeded, but the experienced soldiers who came enthusiastically to his standard reorganized the army and the navy, and victories began to outweigh defeats. De Ruyter and Cornelis Tromp (son of Maarten) outfought the English and French fleets at Schooneveldt and Kykduin (1673); the German invaders were stopped in Groningen; William captured Naarden; the provinces of Gelderland, Utrecht, and Overijssel were cleared of the enemy; nearly everywhere the French were in retreat. For the time being, at least, the United Provinces were saved, and they hailed William as their savior.
To these successes he added diplomatic victories. On February 19, 1674, he persuaded England to a separate peace by agreeing to pay a war indemnity of two million florins; on April 22 and May 11 he signed treaties with Miinster and Cologne; he confirmed the alliance of the United Provinces, Spain, Brandenburg, Denmark, and the Empire against a now isolated France. As a final stroke he won the hand of Mary, eldest daughter of James, Duke of York, brother of the English King. The two leading Protestant powers were now drawn together; the net was being closed around France; and it was no minor matter that Mary stood only after her father in line of succession to the English throne. Seldom in history has so young a statesman laid such farseeing plans, and with such success.
Meanwhile, however, the French renewed their attack, took Ypres and Ghent, and advanced to the Dutch border. De Ruyter was defeated by a French fleet off the Sicilian coast (April 22, 1676), and died a week later of his wounds. Louis offered peace to the States-General on tempting terms: he would restore all Dutch territory held by the French, provided the States would agree to his retention of Franche-Comté and Lorraine. The Emperor, Brandenburg, and Denmark protested against such a peace; William supported them; the States-General, dominated by commercial interests, overruled him, deserted its allies, and signed the separate Peace of Nijmegen with France (August 10, 1678).
William viewed the peace as merely a truce, and strove through the next ten years to reconstruct the alliance. The Dutch merchants restrained his martial temper, arguing that the exhausted provinces needed a rest from turmoil, and that prosperity was returning. Two events of the year 1685 played into William’s hands. Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes; persecuted Huguenots crowded into the Netherlands, and led an active propaganda for a union of Protestant powers against France. In England James II, become King, revealed his hope to make that nation Catholic; English Protestants planned to depose him, leaving William’s wife, Mary, in line for the throne. William had carried on a liaison with Mary’s best friend, Elizabeth Villiers, 54 but Mary forgave him, and agreed that if she became queen of England she would obey her husband as king. In 1686 William succeeded in arranging an alliance with the Empire, Brandenburg, Spain, and Sweden for common defense. On June 30, 1688, the English Protestant leaders invited William and Mary to enter England with armed forces and help them dethrone their Catholic King. William hesitated, for Louis XIV had a vast army awaiting the royal decision to attack either the Netherlands or the Empire. Louis sent it word to advance into Germany; William’s hands were free. On November 1, 1688, he sailed with fourteen thousand men to win the throne of England.