Reign of William and Mary

The reign of William III and Mary II saw the development of England’s system of constitutional monarchy, an expansion of political and religious liberty, creation of the Bank of England, a costly war with France, and the modernization of governmental bureaucracy.

Summary of Event

William and Mary became joint monarchs in England’s Glorious Revolution Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) of 1688-1689. Mary was the eldest child of James II James II (king of England) . Her education, directed by the bishop of London, was strictly Protestant. In 1677, she married her cousin, William III of Orange, the powerful and wealthy stadtholder of the Netherlands. Initially, the marriage was not very happy, and Mary was particularly dismayed by her husband’s frequent infidelities. Gradually, however, the couple developed respect and affection for each other. Because William was the military commander of Dutch operations against the invading French forces from 1672 to 1678, he was famous as a heroic defender of Protestantism. In the mid-1680’, as Louis XIV Louis XIV;Netherlands and appeared likely to launch another invasion of the Netherlands, William looked to England as a potential ally to help overcome the French threat. [kw]Reign of William and Mary (1688-1702)
[kw]Mary, Reign of William and (1688-1702)
[kw]William and Mary, Reign of (1688-1702)
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Mary II (queen of England)
William III (king of England)

Meanwhile in England, James II was attempting to strengthen royal powers and restore Catholicism Catholicism;England as the established religion. The people of England had no desire to live through another civil war, however, and so long as James had no heir, their fears of his Catholicism were contained. In June of 1688, however, a son was born to James and his Catholic wife. The many opponents of the king’s political and religious policies were dismayed by the birth, because it meant that his daughter Mary was no longer next in line for the throne. Instead, it seems to presage an English Catholic dynasty—an intolerable prospect for most of the king’s subjects. In response to this turn of events, the bishop of London and six noblemen (called the Immortal Seven) took the initiative and invited William III of Orange to come to the island to defend Protestantism. William accepted the invitation, primarily because of his desire for English support against Louis XIV, who invaded the German Palatinate in September, 1688.

Representatives of Parliament offer William and Mary the English crown.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

William landed at Torbay with more than fifteen thousand soldiers on November 5, 1688. Support for James rapidly evaporated, and he fled to France on December 23. A Convention Parliament gathered and proclaimed that the king’s flight constituted an act of abdication, whereas Scottish leaders argued that he had forfeited his crown by his pro-Catholic policies against Scotland. Many Parliamentary leaders would have preferred to name Mary as sole monarch, with William as regent. Both she and her strong-willed husband, however, insisted on joint sovereignty.

On February 13, 1689, the Convention Parliament offered the Crown to the couple with the condition that they accept a Declaration of Rights Rights, Declaration of (1689) , which required Parliamentary consent to suspend statutes, levy taxes, and maintain a standing army in peacetime. The declaration also condemned various acts of previous kings, including the prosecution of petitioners and the imposition of cruel and unusual punishments. Although William disliked some of the restrictions, he reluctantly accepted them. On April 11, William and Mary were crowned at Westminster Abbey. The following month, Parliament attempted to encourage national unity with the passage of a Toleration Act Toleration Act (1689) , which allowed limited religious liberty to Protestant dissidents. In December, another act of Parliament codified the principles of the Declaration of Rights into a Bill of Rights Bill of Rights, English (1689) .

The new monarchs faced two interrelated challenges: They needed to establish their authority throughout the realm, and they needed to oppose Louis XIV’s expansionism in northern Europe. On May 12, 1689, William joined an alliance with Louis XIV’s enemies, which meant participation in the Wars of the League of Augsburg League of Augsburg, Wars of the (1689-1697) (called King William’s War in America). William’s most immediate threat, though, was Ireland, where James II, with French support, remained the king. On July 1, 1690, William’s army defeated the Jacobites in the Battle of the Boyne, Boyne, Battle of the (1690) although Irish Catholics continued to wage war until the surrender of Limerick in 1691, which was followed by the Treaty of Limerick Limerick, Treaty of (1691) .

Pacification of the pro-Jacobite clans in the Scottish Highlands was more difficult. In July of 1689, the Jacobites were victorious at the Battle of Killiecrankie, Killiecrankie, Battle of (1689) although the death of John Graham, Viscount Dundee, Dundee, Viscount doomed their cause. In August, William’s victory at Kunkeld Kunkeld, Battle of (1689) secured his authority over most of Scotland. In 1692, after Alexander MacIan MacDonald MacDonald, Alexander MacIan of Glencoe failed to meet a deadline for swearing allegiance to the Crown, English troops slaughtered MacDonald and thirty-eight clan members in the infamous Glencoe Massacre Glencoe Massacre (1692) , which badly stained William’s name. Conspiracies to overthrow William and Mary continued. In July, 1694, the Lancashire Plot Lancashire Plot (1694) was quickly suppressed. Two years later, after Sir John Fenwick’s Fenwick, Sir John conspiracy to assassinate William was uncovered, Parliament sentenced him to death in an act of attainder.

In the war with France, meanwhile, neither side was able to win a decisive victory. England prevailed in the naval Battle of La Hogue (1692) La Hogue, Battle of (1692) , while French forces were victorious in the land Battle of Neerwinden (1693) Neerwinden, Battle of (1693) . Fighting dragged on until the signing of the Treaty of Ryswick Ryswick, Treaty of (1697) in 1697, in which Louis was forced to give up most of his conquests. The war, nevertheless, was extremely costly in terms both of finance and of William’s popularity at home.

Mary, who had limited interest in affairs of state, generally preferred to leave these matters to her husband. She would, however, assume the direction of government when her husband was out of the country. William, who was perceived as a cold foreigner, was never popular, but he was a competent and assertive leader, and he had the wisdom not to become excessively involved in the domestic affairs of the country.

During the reign of the dual monarchs, political parties were developing from the less cohesive political factions that had formed around the question of the royal succession in the 1670’s and 1680’. The parties began especially to cohere after the Triennial Act of 1694 Triennial Act (1694) required that no Parliament could last longer than three years. Although most pro-royal conservatives, the Tories Tories , had endorsed the Glorious Revolution, it was the liberal critics of royal power, the Whigs Whigs , who firmly supported William’s foreign policies and thereby consolidated their position. In 1693, William appointed a ministry drawn from a group of talented Whig leaders, called the Junto, Junto which is now regarded as the forerunner of the modern Cabinet of Ministers.

William’s most famous minister, Charles Montagu, Montagu, Charles was responsible for the 1694 establishment of the Bank of England Bank of England , which was considered necessary to facilitate borrowing to finance the war with France. The war also stimulated the government to modernize its bureaucracy and system of taxation. In 1695, Parliament’s decision not to renew the Licensing Act represented a major step toward the freedom of the press, even though publishers and authors could still be prosecuted on charges of seditious libel. The Act of Settlement Settlement, Act of (1701) of 1701 secured the Protestant succession to the throne and required the monarch to seek the consent of Parliament before engaging in foreign wars for the defense of possessions not belonging to the English crown.

After Mary died childless of smallpox in December, 1694, William showed signs of severe depression, and he became more unpopular than ever. In March, 1702, he died from complications resulting from a fall while riding his horse at Hampton Court. He was succeeded by Mary’s younger sister, Anne.


The reign of William and Mary is remembered primarily for the revolutionary settlement of 1689, which was an important landmark in the development of Britain’s system of constitutional monarchy Monarchy, constitutional . The royal autocracy of the Stuart Dynasty came to an end, and the practical supremacy of Parliament over legislation and taxation would never again be successfully challenged. In addition, the Toleration Act and the Bill of Rights significantly expanded individual liberties in both England and the English colonies of North America. In America, the impact of the revolutionary settlement can be seen in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution with its first ten amendments.

William and Mary successfully contained the territorial expansion of Louis XIV, while at the same time they defeated their Jacobite opponents in Ireland and Scotland. During their reign, political parties in England began to take their modern form. Several reforms, moreover, promoted the process of modernization, including reorganization in the system of taxation, greater rationalization of the bureaucracy, creation of the Bank of England, and a significant growth in military power.

Further Reading

  • Burnet, Gilbert. History of His Own Time. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1992. The only narrative source written by an important observer of the period.
  • Erickson, Carolly. Royal Panoply: Brief Lives of the English Monarchy. New York: History Book Club, 2003. Interesting and useful summaries of about ten pages each, dealing primarily with personal lives of the monarchs.
  • Hamilton-Philips, Martha, and Robert Maccubbin, eds. Age of William the Third and Mary the Second: Power, Politics, and Patronage, 1688-1702. Williamsburg, Va.: College of William & Mary Press, 1989. A collection of scholarly essays about the politics, science, and culture of the period.
  • Hoak, Dale, and Mordechal Feingold, eds. The World of William and Mary: Anglo-Dutch Perspectives on the Revolution of 1688-1689. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996. Anti-Whigish essays that minimize the importance of constitutional changes and emphasize the theme of modernization.
  • Kenyon, John P. Revolution Principles: The Politics of Party, 1689-1720. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. A scholarly study of the ideologies of the Whig and Tory parties of the period.
  • Macaulay, Thomas. History of England from the Accession of James II. Reprint. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958. A classic nineteenth century narrative written from the Whig perspective—detailed, interesting, and still useful.
  • Miller, John. The Stuarts. London: Hambledon, 2004. An introductory narrative of the dynasty that ruled England from 1603 to 1714.
  • Van der Kiste, John. William and Mary. New York: Sutton, 2003. A concise and interesting dual biography that includes private acts, personalities, politics, and international relations.
  • Van der Zee, Henri, and Barbara Van der Zee. William and Mary. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973. A widely available dual biography that is detailed, scholarly, and readable.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Charles I; Charles II (of England); Oliver Cromwell; James I; James II; First Duke of Leeds; Louis XIV; Mary II; William III. Mary II (queen of England)
William III (king of England)