Story of England - S. B. Harding

The Reign of William and Mary (1689-1702)


Characters of William and Mary; dates of their reign; France aids James II.; Battle of the Boyne in Ireland; Battle of Killiekrankie in Scotland; Massacre of Glencoe.

William's war against Louis XIV.; attitude of Englishmen; Battle of La Hogue; terms on which France made peace; importance of this war.

The Toleration Act; Catholics excluded from it; the Mutiny Act; practices aiding the growth of political liberty; the Triennial Act; a step toward Cabinet government; censorship of the press removed.

Death of Queen Mary; the Act of Settlement; death of William; importance of his reign.

Parliament chose wisely in placing William and Mary upon the throne. Mary was a Stuart, was still young and handsome, and was popular because of her good heart and pleasing manners. William III., on the other hand, was a foreigner, and had a distant manner, which held people off at arm's length. His English subjects never loved him, as they did Mary, although they recognized his ability and his just character. On the Continent, he had already become the leader of the Protestants in resisting the ambitious plans of France. As King of England, his chief object was still to unite Europe against Louis XIV., but at the same time he wished to govern strictly according to the constitution.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

William III

Although James II. had fled from England, he had no intention of giving up his throne without a struggle. Louis XIV. treated his as if he were still King of England, and supplied him with soldiers, arms, and money. James's chief attempt was made in Ireland, where the great majority of the people were Catholics, and favored his cause.

When James arrived in Ireland he laid siege to the Protestant town of Londonderry. The siege lasted for more than a hundred days. The inhabitants of the town suffered terribly; more than half of them perished, and the survivors were forced to eat the flesh of horses, cats, and dogs. James's officers carried on the siege with savage cruelty; but still the cry was, "No surrender." When at last food was all gone, except a little tallow and some salted hides, a fleet sent by William broke through the "boom" which closed the harbor, and the town was saved.

The next summer (1690) William himself took a large force to Ireland, and won a great victory in the battle of the river Boyne. The Irish cavalry fought bravely, but their foot soldiers were untrained, and fled from the field. James was one of the first of the fugitives to reach the city of Dublin, and there he bitterly told an Irish lady that her countrymen had "run away."

"If they have, Sire," she replied, "your Majesty seems to have won the race."

James now returned to France, leaving his Irish supporters to their fate. It was many months before the last stronghold surrendered to William's generals; and when that happened, more than 10,000 of the Irish soldiers were allowed to go to France, where they formed a famous "Irish brigade" in Louis XIV.'s army.

In Scotland, also, William had to fight for the crown. A nobleman, named Dundee, gathered together the Highland clans, and met William's general, as he and his men came toiling up through the pass of Killiekrankie, in central Scotland. William's troops had been supplied with bayonets, a new French invention; but these fitted into the muzzles of the guns, instead of fastening to the outsides, and the guns could not be fired with the bayonets in position. After firing a few volleys, the Highlanders drew their broadswords, and rushed like a whirlwind upon their English and Lowland enemies. They were upon William's troops before the latter could fix their bayonets. Within a few minutes the battle was won. But the brave Dundee there lost his life, and James II. had no one to take his place.

William succeeded, without much difficulty, in recovering from this defeat, and by the end of 1691 most of the Highland clans had submitted. The MacDonalds of Glencoe, however, put off the hateful duty to the last moment; and, through a mistake, they allowed the time set by William for receiving submissions to pass without giving in their names. They were misrepresented to William by their enemies as murderers and brigands. So William gave orders to "extirpate that nest of thieves," as an example to others. This cruel order was carried out with yet greater cruelty. The soldiers who were sent to Glencoe pretended to come as friends, and ate at the tables of the MacDonalds, and joked and played cards with them. Then, when night came, they treacherously fell upon their hosts, and put them to death. When this "massacre of Glencoe" became known to the Scottish Parliament, it caused a great outcry, and William was obliged to dismiss from his employ the persons responsible for it.

The help which Louis XIV. gave to James II. led to war between England and France.

For eight years, William was at the head of a great league—composed of Great Britain, Holland, Spain, and Germany—which fought the French wherever they found them. On the Continent, it was chiefly a war of sieges, and of pitched battles between an army carrying on the siege and one trying to relieve the besieged town. Soon after the beginning of the war, France won a naval victory which for two years gave it command of the sea. Many leading Englishmen, in William's service, grew so faint-hearted that they secretly wrote to James II., telling him that they were favorable to his cause; and William was obliged to let their treason pass unnoticed.

But the burning of a village on the coast of England, by a French fleet, aroused England's spirit. James also issued a foolish proclamation, in which he threatened, if he was successful, to punish all persons who had in any way served under William; and this made men hesitate to replace him on the throne.

Then, in 1692, the English won a great naval battle off La Hogue, which again gave them the command of the sea, and freed them from all danger and invasion. Russell, the English commander, was one of those who had secretly informed James that he would help him.

"But do not think," he told James's messenger, "that I will let the French triumph over us in our own sea. Understand this, that, if I meet them, I fight them, even though his Majesty himself should be on board."

Russell's hatred of the French was greater than his love for James II., and he kept his word about fighting them, in spite of his promise to James.

At last, in 1697, a peace was made, by which Louis agreed to give up his conquests, and to acknowledge William III. as King of England. William was thus successful in his struggle with the "Grand Monarch" of France. He had shown England, moreover, that its greatest enemy now was not Spain, but France, and that if the English wanted to develop their trade and colonies it was chiefly with France that they must struggle. So he started England on a new "hundred years' war" with France, which was to be fought all over the world, wherever French and English met, and which did not end until England had won from France practically all her colonial possessions, and established the British Empire.

In William's reign, also, began many of the practices which established political and religious liberty in England. The Protestant Dissenters were rewarded, for their refusal to aid James II. in his illegal measures, by the passage of a Toleration Act. This relieved them from the fines for failure to attend the services of the Church of England, which were imposed by laws made in Elizabeth's reign, and also permitted them to have chapels and hold services of their own. Catholics, however, were not admitted to these privileges. For nearly a hundred years the laws against Catholics not only continued in full force, but were even made stronger.

To prevent any King becoming strong enough to overthrow free government by force, as James II. had tried to do, Parliament made a change in regard to the Mutiny Act, which gives the King and his officers power to control the army. They now began to pass this act for only a year at a time, instead of for a long term of years. Parliament also adopted the practice of voting money to run the government for only a year at a time. In this way, it was made impossible for a King to rule without Parliament, for Parliament must meet at least once each year, to pass the Mutiny Act and the "appropriation" bills. A few years later, Parliament also passed a Triennial Act, which provided that no Parliament should continue in existence, without a new election, for more than three years. The period for which Parliament can sit was later changed to seven years; but the principle still holds good, that such "long Parliaments" as that which began under Charles I., and that which sat under Charles II., shall not be allowed.

The Bank of England was also established under William. This made it much easier for the government to raise money, and to carry on its financial business. Today the Bank of England is one of the greatest money institutions in the world.

In the later part of his reign, William took the step of choosing all his chief ministers from the party which at that time had a majority in the House of Commons, and hence best represented the views of the people. A very little more change, made in later reigns, brought about a system of "cabinet government," under which England is ruled today.

From William's reign also dates the right of any man to print any book, pamphlet, or newspaper that he wants to without having to submit it beforehand to a "censor" to see that its opinions are such as the government and church approve of. Newspapers now sprang up, and it was not long before the first daily paper was founded. This "freedom of the press" helped greatly to educate the people, and to inform them of what the government was doing; and thus a "public opinion" was formed which statesmen of both parties were obliged to take account of.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Queen Mary II

In 1694 Queen Mary died, of the smallpox, which at that time, before vaccination was discovered, carried off thousands of persons each year. William's grief was heart-rendering. "I was the happiest man on earth," he cried, "and now I am the most miserable. She had no faults—none. You knew her well, but you could not know—nobody but myself knew—how good she was."

William and Mary had no children, and so, by a provision in the Bill of Rights, Mary's sister, Anne, became heir to the throne. The last of Anne's seventeen children died before William passed away, and it then became clear that some further provision must be made concerning the succession. So, in 1701, Parliament passed an Act of Settlement, which provided that, after Anne's death, the crown should go to Sophia, a granddaughter of James I., and to her descendants, "being Protestants." Sophia's husband was Elector (or Prince) of Hanover, one of the German states, and this act thus paved the way for the "Hanoverian succession," which actually took place in 1714. Another provision of the Act of Settlement was that judges should hold their offices during life, or so long as they behaved well. This provision remedied one of the greatest abuses under the Stuart Kings, by making it impossible to remove judges at the King's pleasure, in order to get from the courts decisions which suited him.

The next year after this act, William III. died, worn out with anxiety and hard work. The immediate cause of his death was a fall from his horse. He was a great King, though he was not a popular one. We should think of him especially as one who brought England safely through a great crisis, and who first showed the world how, in a country like England, Parliament and the Crown could govern together.


  1. Read an account of the siege of Londonderry. (Macaulay, "History of England," Ch. xii.)
  2. Read aloud Browning's poem entitled "Hervé Riel" (about the escape of the French fleet after La Hogue).
  3. Make a list of five ways in which the Revolution and the reign of William and Mary helped the growth of liberty.
  4. Compare the character and work of William III. with that of Oliver Cromwell.