Childhood & Early Life
William I was born on August 24, 1772, in Huis ten Bosch, The Hague, Dutch Republic, as the eldest son of Prince of Orange and the last Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, William V; and Wilhelmina of Prussia, daughter of Prince Augustus William of Prussia.
William had a younger brother, Frederick. Both the brothers were taught by Dutch historian Herman Tollius and Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, while they were guided in military arts by General Prince Frederick Stamford. The two attended the military academy in Brunswick in 1788-89. William also had a brief stint at the ‘University of Leiden.’
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Early Military Career, Activities & Exile
William was inducted in the States Army as a general of infantry in 1790. He also became member of the Council of State of the Netherlands. He was made States Army’s commander-in-chief of the veldleger (mobile army) as war was declared by the National Convention of the French First Republic against the stadtholder of the Dutch Republic in February 1793.
He served as a commander of the Coalition of states during the November 6, 1792 to June 7, 1795 in the Flanders Campaign. Undertaken against the ‘First Republic,’ the campaign, however, resulted in a French victory.
In 1793, he fought during the battles of Menin, Veurne, and Wervik. The following year he led his troops to the successful siege of Landrecies. He also participated in the ‘Battle of Fleurus’ (1794). Considered the most significant battle of the ‘Flanders Campaign,’ the conflict resulted in a French victory.
The ‘Batavian Revolution’ in Amsterdam occurred on January 18, 1795. The same day William’s father decided to flee to Britain with family. The following day the Batavian Republic was proclaimed. William’s family settled at the palace of Hampton Court in England.
He was associated with the Anglo-Russian invasion of Holland that took place in North Holland from August 27, to November 19, 1799. It, however, resulted in a Franco-Batavian victory. and after the ‘Convention of Alkmaar’ on October 18, 1799, William had to leave the Dutch Republic again.
He organised a brigade of the British army, the King's Dutch Brigade. It was commissioned on October 21, 1799, and comprised of ex-officers and lower ranks members of the erstwhile Dutch States Army; the ones who deserted the Batavian army; and mutineers of the Batavian troops that surrendered to the Royal Navy at the time of the Anglo-Russian invasion of Holland. After the ‘French Republic’ and Britain made peace under First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte (as agreed in the ‘Treaty of Amien), the brigade was disbanded on July 12, 1802.
Position of the Orange exiles at that time was at the lowest point. William’s father left for Germany feeling betrayed by Britain, while William visited Napoleon at St. Cloud in 1802. During their talks, Napoleon hinted to him that he might have an important role in the ‘Batavian Republic’ William started ruling as Prince of Nassau-Orange-Fulda from February 25, 1803 and inherited the title of Prince of Orange and succeeded his father as Prince of Orange-Nassau on April 9, 1806 following the latter’s death.
William was a nominal French vassal, but backed his Prussian relatives when Napoleon invaded Germany in 1806 and fought war against Prussia. William commanded a Prussian division during the ‘Battle of Jena–Auerstedt’ (October 14, 1806). The French emerged victorious and William as taken as a prisoner of war. He was, however, paroled soon but lost all his German titles. His rule in the Principality of Nassau-Orange-Fulda and the Principality of Orange-Nassau ended on October 27, 1806. He was given a pension as compensation by France following the ‘Peace of Tilsit.’
In May 1809, amidst tensions between Austria and France, William joined as a Feldmarschalleutnant (major-general) in the Austrian army and fought during the ‘Battle of Wagram,’ but once again lost to the French forces.
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In March 1813, he met Alexander I of Russia who promised to help him restore an independent Netherlands and make him its king. Russian and Prussian troops were successful in liberating the Netherlands from France. From November 20, 1813, to March 16, 1815, William again ruled as Prince of Orange-Nassau.
Ruling the Netherlands, Belgian Independence & Abdication
After the French troops left the Netherlands, a provisional government was formed, led by a triumvirate of three Dutch noblemen. It formally started controlling the Netherlands from November 20, 1813 and declared the Principality of the United Netherlands a day later. It invited William on November 30, 1813, and upon his arrival offered him the title of the king on December 6 that year. William refused their offer and proclaimed himself "Sovereign Prince of the Netherlands."
A constitution was drafted and accepted by a vast majority. It introduced a centralised monarchy where William was offered much power, almost absolute, and ministers were all answerable to him. Although a unicameral States General was introduced, it had only limited power. His inauguration as sovereign prince happened on March 30, 1814 in the ‘New Church’ in Amsterdam. He was appointed Governor-General of the former Austrian Netherlands and the Prince-Bishopric of Liège in August that year. He also became Grand Duke of Luxembourg that year.
Sceptical of a possible retaliation by Napoleon, William proclaimed the Netherlands a kingdom on March 16, 1815 and assumed its throne on the same day. His kingdom comprised of mainly Dutch-speaking Flemings and the French-speaking Walloons in the South (traditionally Roman Catholic) and largely Protestant (Dutch Reformed) followers in the north.
He launched an economic recovery program and established several trade institutions. While the Northern provinces emerged as centre of trade, the Southern provinces got three universities in 1817. These were the University of Leuven, the University of Liège, and the University of Ghent. He founded the investment bank ‘Société générale de Belgique,’ in 1822.
Although William was successful in fostering economic growth, the money mostly went into pockets of Dutch directors, while just a few Belgians managed to make profit. This gave rise to a feeling of economic inequality which along with the somewhat despotic rule of William and high levels of unemployment and industrial unrest within the working class eventually sparked the Belgian uprising.
William, a staunch supporter of the Reformed Church, also infuriated many by making controversial language and school policies that included instructing students in the Reformed faith and the Dutch language in schools across the kingdom. This led many in the South to fear that William was trying to abolish Catholicism and the French language.
The ‘Belgian Revolution’ erupted in Brussels on August 25, 1830 and continued till July 12 , 1831. Troops of William failed to repress the riots and it eventually spread in the South and took the shape of a popular uprising. An eventual 1830 ‘London Conference’ comprising of representatives of Austria, Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia recognized Belgian independence. The conflict thus concluded with secession of the southern provinces from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and formation of the independent Kingdom of Belgium. Leopold I became the King of the Belgians in 1831.
William conducted an unsuccessful military expedition, the ‘Ten Days' Campaign,’ between August 2 and 12 in 1831 in an attempt to re-conquer Belgium. The Dutch finally accepted the London conference decision and independence of Belgian by signing the ‘Treaty of London’ on April 19, 1839.
Unable to accept the secession of Belgium from the Netherlands, the eventual constitutional changes introduced in 1840, and the resistance against his decision of marrying Belgian native and Roman Catholic Henrietta d'Oultremont (who served as a lady-in-waiting to his first wife), William abdicated on October 7, 1840, in favour of his son, William II.
Family & Personal Life
He married his first cousin Wilhelmina of Prussia (Frederica Louisa), daughter of King Frederick William II of Prussia, in Berlin on October 1, 1791. She died on October 12, 1837. He had six children with her: William II of the Netherlands, Prince Frederick, Princess Pauline, and Princess Marianne.
Amidst resistance, William married Henrietta d'Oultremont on February 17, 1841. She was given the title of Countess of Nassau. The couple had no children. William died on December 12, 1843, in Berlin, Kingdom of Prussia.