William III and Mary II, or William and Mary of Orange, mark Britain’s only pair of co-monarchs, but the five years in which they jointly reigned were hardly smooth-sailing after the quiet drama of the Glorious Revolution. For starters, the idea that they were in any way equal was a farce, though how that unfolded publicly versus privately looked quite different. Mary, the daughter of the deposed James II, was widely accepted as the true Protestant monarch, if you assumed that Catholics should not sit on the throne and that James II’s infant son was either a changeling or Catholic, or both. William, on the other hand, was a foreigner, a thing trusted less by the English than a woman ruler in the 17th century.
Behind closed doors and Mary had little interest in eclipsing or even sharing William’s status as king. She had personally insisted that he hold the title from Holland when the matter was debated in London just after her father’s departure. Her belief was that a wife had no business bartering in the public sphere, a fact conveniently reinforced by her lack of interest in politics and matters of state.
Instead, Mary was horrified by her return to England after 12 years in Holland. She found court to be full of people lacking morality, the city dirty and disorganized and the residences uncomfortable, despite the fact she had lived in London until the age of 15. Further still, she was plagued by guilt over her father’s exile and began to question whether the infant James Stuart was in fact smuggled into her stepmother’s birthing chamber or indeed her half-brother. It was a matter on which both Mary and her younger sister, Anne, had been firmly aligned, but once their father’s deposition transpired they began to doubt their resolve and at the very least Anne became convinced that the child was a true Stuart during her sister’s life.
The issue spoke to the succession itself, which wasn’t secure by a mile. William and Mary had no children despite miscarriages early in their marriage. Mary, only 27 in 1689, could still theoretically bear children, but failure to have done so after so many years of marriage made it unlikely. As such, Anne was heir, but Anne, too, was married and childless, her efforts thus far resulting in miscarriages, stillbirths or infant deaths. In July 1689, Anne finally gave birth to a son who lived – he was named William in the King’s honor, however the show of familial warmth masked a prickly relationship between the two couples and a souring of the friendship between the sisters.
Part of this, for William, stemmed from the fact that should Mary die first, Anne and her children came in the succession before any children that he might father in a second marriage. This favoring underlined the British’s discomfort with his Dutch heritage and the fact that they had chosen to be governed by a foreigner over their British king. Which brings us to the many parties of opposition: Not only was William faced with the Catholics who mourned James’s departure, but he was also faced by Protestants who abhorred a strike against the divine right of kings and those who despised what he stood for as a Dutchman. Taken together and it was hardly safe to feel comfortable on the throne, particularly when James, his wife, Mary Beatrice of Modena, and their young son remained safely housed in France under the protection of King Louis XIV.
This necessitated military action and took William abroad for several months a year early in the couple’s reign. In March 1689, ahead even of the couple’s coronation, French forces arrived in Ireland, a bastion of support for James thanks to their Catholicism and William eventually personally (and successfully) led forces against his father-in-law in July at the Battle of the Boyne. For Mary, it was personally traumatic to imagine her husband and father coming face-to-face, not to mention her horror at William’s departure and her own requirement to step up and rule in his stead.
Within England, William was equally as disgusted by what he viewed as a lack of morality at court. Even more, he abhorred the public ceremony the monarch was expected to perform, considering it beneath his dignity. Instead, he chose to live as privately as possible, which only made him seem more distant and foreign to his subjects. That, and he didn’t both to flirt or seduce any of the women at court, putting him in stark contrast to his two predecessors, James and Charles II.
The one woman who did strike his fancy was Elizabeth Villiers, one of Mary’s ladies-in-waiting from their years in The Hague. Rumors had long swirled that she was his mistress – rumors which had also reached the ears of his wife – but they bubbled to the surface again not long after they returned to Britain. It has never been proven one way or the other whether this relationship was in fact sexual – some theorize that Elizabeth offered rational female companionship when Mary was at a low point.
And Mary, aggrieved her lack of children, angry with her sister for her disloyalty and isolated in a home that no longer felt like home, appears to have suffered from severe bouts of depression that sapped her of her will to live. In the spring of 1690, the Queen thought she was on death’s door by an illness only exacerbated by her apparent desire to die. Instead, she recovered, though some noted she seemed disappointed to have made it through.
In better times, William and Mary focused on renovating the royal residences. William didn’t care for Whitehall and instead the couple spent time at what is now Kensington Palace, then Kensington House. They also took a fancy to Hampton Court Palace, the old Tudor stalwart from the reign of Henry VIII. They desired to demolish the crumbling bricks of the 16th century, but instead ended up mostly building additions – this would later be built upon further during the reign of George II giving us what is now a rather bizarre, but fascinating, mashup of eras.
These efforts reached fruition and, as such, the couple had places of respite when they wished to get out of London, which was often. William took to hunting when he wanted peace, a feeling only on the uptick as he further felt political alienation from his government. It had been Whig politicians who had summoned in from The Hague and without them, he would likely have found “conquering” Britain by far more difficult, if not impossible. Yet, William was not really a Whig and found himself in agreement far more often with Tories, who were still mostly against him in theory, if not practice. The conundrum only put him at odds with all his reign’s leading politicians more often than not.
Mary, meanwhile, battled it out with Anne over the presence of Sarah Churchill, Countess of Marlborough (later duchess). Mary was opposed to Sarah’s husband and thus believed that Sarah should be displaced, while Anne considered her her closest and most loyal friend. Sarah, for her part, was widely perceived by Mary’s camp as a trouble-maker who resented the arrival of a sister who could replace a friend. The breach, couple with what can only be described as the most petty of slights (Anne once resented William eating all the peas at dinner), led to a permanent breach between the sisters.
By the end of 1694, Mary was finally dying, aged on 32. She passed away at Kensington House on December 28, days after refusing Anne’s desperate plea to see her one last time. She was eventually laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. William was beside himself in grief, so much so that many feared he would follow his wife to the grave and summon Anne to the forefront earlier than expected. Instead, he recovered and ruled another eight years – his “solo reign.” Relations with Anne would remain strained, but he never made a move to remarry or alter the succession – in that way, he remained loyal to the wife who had brought him Britain.