Biography of William of Orange

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the life of William of Orange. We will highlight the major historical events surrounding his life, particularly his role in the Glorious Revolution, and we will learn why he was an important historical figure.

William of Orange's Glorious Takeover

Imagine being an English Protestant in 1688. You are concerned because your king is Catholic and has embraced pro-Catholic policies. Then one day you hear from a friend that a young Protestant ruler from the Netherlands has set sail and will soon be invading England with the intention of becoming king. You and your Protestant friends are overcome with joy. When he arrives, you and hundreds of other Protestant Christians greet him with cheers and orange flags. For many of you, it is a glorious occasion.

This scenario could have been what some English subjects experienced in the Glorious Revolution. The Glorious Revolution refers to the 1688 overthrow of Catholic King James II of England by William of Orange (yes, Orange is actually a place). It is called ''glorious'' because it was greeted by popular enthusiasm among the English people and because very little blood was shed in this ''revolution''. In fact, William of Orange (as he is called) was actually invited to invade England. How often does that happen? ''Excuse me, Sir, would you mind taking some time to sail over and invade our country? We really don't like the king we have.'' That is pretty much what happened. We'll talk more about the Glorious Revolution in a bit, but for now, let's move on and learn about the life of William of Orange.

King William III of England.

Early Life, Education, and Stadtholdership

William III was born William Henry in the Dutch Republic in 1650. His father was William II, Prince of Orange, and his mother was Mary, Princess of Orange. Mary was the oldest daughter of King Charles I of England and the sister of King James II of England. So we can see from birth, William III had strong ties to England. A few days before his birth, William's father died. William III was thus the Prince of Orange from birth.

Protestantism was popular in the Netherlands, and young William was raised in the Calvinist tradition. Calvinism is a theological viewpoint named after theologian, John Calvin, which emphasizes God's sovereignty over creation and the doctrine of predestination. Beginning in 1659, William received education through the University of Leiden. He was taught there for several years, after which his education was provided by the state.

Political conditions in the Netherlands prevented William from becoming Stadtholder until 1672. Wait, what does that mean? In the Dutch tradition, Stadtholder was basically the head of state, or governing ruler. The year 1672 was a difficult one for the Dutch. Political upheaval and a war with France caused the year to be known as Rampjaar, or ''Disaster Year.'' Nevertheless, William weathered the storms of that year and emerged an effective leader. In 1677, William married his first cousin, Mary, the oldest daughter of James of York (who later became King James II of England.

The Glorious Revolution

In 1685, James II became King of England following the death of Charles II. William of Orange made it no secret that he disagreed with James II's pro-Catholic policies. This led to intrigue among English Protestant elites who began developing plans to have their Catholic king removed from power. In June 1688, a group of English bishops known as the ''Immortal Seven'' sent William a letter asking him to invade England and promising him popular support if he chose to overthrow James II by force. William agreed, and in November, he and his Dutch Army landed in southwest England. William proclaimed: ''the liberties of England and the Protestant religion I will maintain.''

This painting depicts William of Orange departing for the invasion of England.

It soon became apparent William had the support of the masses, and James II was forced to flee for his life. The Glorious Revolution, as it has come to be called, involved relatively little loss of life. William was greeted as a conquering hero as orange banners waved in support. He was was crowned King William III in April 1689. His wife became known as Queen Mary II.

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