My thanks to Pen & Sword and NetGalley for a review copy of this book

England in the seventeenth century saw a period fraught with religious and political tensions, the replacement of the monarchy on not one but two occasions and various changes which are reflected in the modern world. The execution of Charles I and brief period of republicanism in England was followed by the Great Restoration when Charles II took the throne. But his heir James II was disapproved by people, not only because of his religion but because of the changes he sought to make—in fact did start to put into practice; ultimately, his son-in-law, William of Orange was invited to take the throne. But while the ‘Glorious Revolution’ consequent to which William and Mary were jointly crowned was indeed relatively bloodless, the period of their rule saw them challenged from various fronts and battle was almost a constant. William of Orange and the Fight for the Crown of England is an account of these events, more so of the battles fought to take and keep the crown.

The first ten chapters of the book set out the background or context in which William, Stadtholder of Holland was invited to rule England. It opens with the events following the death of Oliver Cromwell, when the republicans were losing ground and Charles II was invited to take the throne (in fact, our account begins with George Monck, later Duke of Albemarle, who was a supporter of Cromwell but played a crucial role in the restoration). Charles II’s reign was not an easy one, for tensions between King and Parliament, and also the city of London and the King remained. The Great Fire and Great Plague were witnessed in his rule, and he was also the target of assassination attempts. His brother and heir James II, after a surprisingly mild start to his reign, began to try to rule supreme attempting to replace officials and the judiciary with loyalists and Catholics. Monmouth, illegitimate son of Charles II launched a rebellion and failed, and this was followed by the Bloody Assizes where the notorious Judge Jeffries, among others, sentenced hundreds of prisoners including innocents to be hung, drawn and quartered.

In this background, William was invited to take the crown and exactly a hundred years after the Spanish Armada arrived in England with another armada, four times the size of the 1588 one. Other than one confrontation, his transition to King of England jointly with Mary II as Queen was peaceful. But the fight to keep the crown was not as bloodless or peaceful—William faced battles from the Scots (whom he angered by his policies) and Irish—both with the involvement of James II—and had also to battle the French to protect both his English throne and Holland. The book gives us a detailed account of each of these battles, and all the opposition (and plots) William had to face during his rule of 12 years.

One of the things that stood out to me about the invitation to William to take the English Crown (for which he was made to wait a little), was that the Parliament’s declaration spoke of ‘King James II…breaking the original contract between King and people’, indicating that the divine right of kings to rule the country was no longer acceptable.

William and Mary by Sir James Thornhill vis Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_and_Mary.jpg

But this was not the only first to be seen in their reign. William and Mary were also the first monarchs to be jointly crowned, and in 1689 a Bill of Rights signed by them was incorporated into English law promising among other things free elections. They were also the first to take an oath to uphold law according to parliamentary statutes, and to give a budget to Parliament of their expenses. William also appointed a government from the majority party, echoing the modern cabinet. Free political press with limited censorship and a national bank too came into being in their rule.  

But despite all these developments and the relative cooperation between William and his Parliament, he was not approved of universally. The Scots and Irish wished for James II to be on the throne since he was Catholic, and William further irked the Scots by his refusal to support them in the failed Darien Gap project (a colony that the Scots attempted to establish in unfavourable surroundings and with huge investments) since he was politically aligned with the Spanish (under whose control the territory fell) and did not wish to anger them. So while William wished to focus on his campaigns on the Continent to protect his interests there (and indeed check Louis the XIV’s expansionist plans), he was also forced to battle the Scots and the Irish in England.

James II by Peter Lely via Wikimedia Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_II_of_England#/media/File:James_II_by_Peter_Lely.jpg

The book gives an interesting and detailed account of these battles and includes in its descriptions, excerpts from those that participated in or witnessed these battles first hand. All sides had their ups and downs, suffered losses and successes and made their share of mistakes. We learn about these, about the different positions they took during the battles and how things turned out for them.

While the battles are the focus of the book, alongside, we also learn of developments in politics and society, friendships and alliances, plots and enmities as well. We also meet various individuals including the notorious Titus Oates whose fabricated ‘Popish plot’ led to the executions of various innocents (and who surprisingly was pardoned), and Judge Jeffries who became known as the hanging judge and was also responsible for the lives of innocents, including 68-year-old Alice Lisle, whose jury was literally threatened by Jeffries into returning a guilty verdict. Then there is Sarah Churchill, Lady Marlborough, who for a time dominated Queen Anne, and tried to extend her influence.

This was an interesting and well written account of the battles and plots that the forgotten William of Orange had to face during his reign, and will be of interest to those who enjoy reading war history; for me personally, while I enjoyed the book, since my interest in more in social and political history, it did waver a little as the book is battle heavy (my fault not the book’s). Also I didn’t feel I got to know William as well I’d expected. But a good read.  3.75 rounded off to 4 stars.

If this book is something that interests you, you might also enjoy London and the Seventeenth Century by Margarette Lincoln

2 thoughts on “Book Review: William of Orange and the Fight for the Crown by Brian Best

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