Childhood & Early Life
William III was born Willem Alexander Paul Frederik Lodewijk, on February 19, 1817, in the ‘Palace of the Nation,’ in Brussels, United Kingdom of the Netherlands, to King William II of the Netherlands and Queen Anna Paulowna. His mother was the daughter of Tsar Paul I of Russia and Empress Maria Fyodorovna.
William III had three brothers, but one of them died as an infant. He also had a sister. He served in the military in his initial years. In 1827, at the tender age of 10, he became an honorary colonel of the ‘Royal Netherlands Army.’
He later served as a lieutenant of the ‘Grenadiers Regiment.’ In 1834, he became an honorary commander of the ‘Grenadiers Regiment’ in the ‘Imperial Russian Army.’
After his grandfather, William I, abdicated the throne in 1840, William III became the Prince of Orange. He was totally against the constitutional changes introduced by his father and Johan Rudolf Thorbecke in 1848.
The changes empowered the middle classes and made the government's ministers accountable to the ‘Estates General’ instead of the king. William II considered the changes important at a time when the monarchy was in a troubled situation.
William III attempted to give away his right to the monarchy to his younger brother, Prince Henry of the Netherlands. His mother requested him to abort his plans. The constitutional changes turned Holland into a constitutional monarchy when the other European countries were going through major revolts.
On March 17, 1849, William III became the king, following his father’s death. On the same day, he also became the grand duke of Luxembourg (continued till his death) and the duke of Limburg (continued till the duchy was abolished on August 23, 1866).
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Reign as the King
King William III thought of abdicating multiple times after his eldest son, William, Prince of Orange, came of age in 1858. However, William III was indecisive and thus continued to rule as the king.
He inaugurated the parliamentary cabinet of Thorbecke, who had framed the 1848 constitution.
In 1849, William declared his intention to take over the army. However, the parliament refused to invest in the army, leading to a cut in the number of soldiers.
After the restoration of the Roman Catholic bishops in 1853, a petition was signed by 250,000 people who were against the restoration of the hierarchy. It was submitted to William III, who supported the opposition to the church.
Thorbecke resigned as a mark of protest and headed the opposition till 1862. William III eventually requested him to create a new government. Thorbecke assumed power and moved toward abolishing slavery in the Dutch East Indies. He then attempted to end "forced labour" in the Dutch colonies in Java, but a few members of his own party joined hands with the opposition, leading to the failure of the bill.
In 1957, William III approved an education bill that made it mandatory for schools to inculcate “Christian and social virtues” in their students. The act stated that no state aid would be provided to schools associated with the church.
In the initial days of his reign, William III did away with several cabinets and also dismissed the ‘States-General,’ multiple times. He introduced royal cabinets but they got little or no support in the elected parliament.
Six prime ministers ruled between the first and the second Thorbecke governments. William III tried to resolve issued between the parliament and the cabinet.
In 1867, he intended to sell the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. This almost started a war between France and Prussia. It also helped Luxembourg become a completely independent nation.
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During his reign, maritime trade was popular. He also built new canals and worked toward extending the railroad system.
Family, Personal Life & Death
On June 18, 1839, William III married his first cousin, Sophie (or Sophia), in Stuttgart. Sophie was the daughter of William I, the king of Württemberg, and Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna of Russia.
Their marriage turned sour within days, as Sophie was a liberal and despised dictatorship and anything that leaned toward it, such as the army. William III was, in contrast, a conservative who was fond of the military. He was also known for his extramarital affairs and his unpredictable nature, both of which wreaked the marriage.
After Queen Sophie’s death in 1877, William III married Princess Emma of Waldeck and Pyrmont, in Arolsen, on January 7, 1879. By marrying a woman who was 41 years younger than him, William III angered many politicians.
However, it is believed, William III had previously proposed to Emma’s sister, Princess Pauline of Waldeck and Pyrmont, and was rejected by her. In fact, he had initially planned to marry French opera singer Émilie Ambre, immediately after Sophie’s death. He even made her the “Countess d'Ambroise,” without the consent of the government. He later dropped plans of marrying her, as the government was turning hostile toward him.
In 1878, he had proposed to Princess Elisabeth of Saxe-Weimar, his niece, and was rejected. He had also intended to marry Princess Thyra of Denmark and was rejected again.
His marriage with Emma was happy. In 1880, his and Emma’s daughter, Wilhelmina, was born.
Three of his four legitimate children had survived adulthood, namely, Wilhelmina and two sons from his marriage to Sophie: Willem (or William) Nicolaas Alexander Frederik Karel Hendrik and Alexander, Prince of Orange. Alexander served as the heir from 1879 till his death in 1884.
His other son, Willem Frederik Maurits (or Maurice) Alexander Hendrik Karel, died at the age of 7, in 1850. In fact, all William III’s male heirs had died between 1878 and 1884.
Thus, Wilhelmina was named the heiress in 1884, following the death of Alexander, the last surviving son from William III's first marriage.
William III fell severely ill in 1887 and breathed his last on November 23, 1890, at the ‘Het Loo Palace’ in Apeldoorn, Netherlands. He was buried on December 4 that year, at the ‘Nieuwe Kerk’ in Delft, Netherlands.
Legacy & Inheritance
Since Wilhelmina (legally the queen) was still a minor at the time of William III’s death, Emma became the queen-regent and remained so until Wilhelmina turned 18 in 1898. Wilhelmina thus served as the queen of the Netherlands from 1890 to 1948.
However, under Salic law, only a male heir could inherit the Luxembourg Grand Duchy. Thus, William III’s 17th cousin, Adolphe, the former duke of Nassau, became the grand duke of Luxembourg.