The Conduct of Prince William of Orange: 1685 – 87

Equestrian portrait of William III by Jan Wyck, commemorating the landing at Brixham, Torbay, 5 November 1688
Equestrian portrait of William III by Jan Wyck, commemorating the landing at Brixham, Torbay, 5 November 1688

WHEN King James came to the throne the relations between him and his son-in-law were frigid. Prince William had resented the removal of his old friend Henry Sidney from the post of English ambassador to the United Netherlands and disliked Thomas Chudleigh who had a long spell as his successor. He thought Chudleigh was impertinent to him and on one occasion the Prince poked him on the nose with his cane. Chudleigh’s replacement by Sir Bevil Skelton at the beginning of the new reign only improved matters slightly. Skelton was described by one of his colleagues at The Hague as a lightweight and very unreliable. When William had asked permission to appoint Sidney as commander-in-chief of the English and Scottish regiments serving in the United Netherlands, the request was rejected nominally on the ground of Sidney’s lack of experience. James wanted the Earl of Carlingford, a Roman Catholic, to be given the post; but William would not hear of that, and eventually the command was offered to the Earl of Pembroke, who had about as little military experience as Sidney. In England the Dutch were represented by a conscientious ambassador, Arnold Van Citters. But Van Citters was not treated very seriously at the English Court, and when William wished to be sure of getting into close touch with his father-in-law, he had to send over a special envoy whom he personally trusted; this was all the more necessary as it was made clear to him from the start that he would certainly not be welcome in England himself.

The first special Dutch envoy to arrive in London at the outset of the reign was Hendrick van Nassau-Ouwerkerk who was sent over to congratulate James upon his accession. Ouwerkerk had instructions to try to establish more friendly relations. William, it seems, told him to explain to James that he repented his faults towards the late King of England and would do all he could to repair them. At first James was wary. According to Barrillon (whose reports must be suspect since he was under orders to sow as many dissensions between James and William as he possibly could) the King told him that he was obliged to preserve appearances with the Prince of Orange ‘in order to prevent the popular party finding a head’, but that ‘he knew the Prince too well to be deceived by him’. James warned Ouwerkerk that William would have to change his attitude on foreign as well as on home affairs, that is to say he must be less hostile towards France; more specifically, William was asked to order the Duke of Monmouth to leave the United Netherlands, to remove politically unreliable officers who were serving in the English or Scottish regiments there and to replace them by others recommended by James, and to keep him informed about such measures as he proposed to take abroad diplomatically. William promised to do all that he was asked; Monmouth was told to leave the country (though later he secretly returned); and when Skelton arrived at The Hague he was able to state that William and James were now much more friendly.

But the unimpeded departure by sea both of the Earl of Argyll and the Duke of Monmouth, three weeks later, from the United Netherlands to launch their rebellions against King James’s Government soon cooled this tepid harmony. On each occasion Skelton had warned the Dutch and asked that the rebel sailings should be stopped. He told the States that Monmouth was hidden in Holland and actually provided a list of eighty Whigs and republicans known to be on Dutch territory and in which towns they were to be found. Not one of them was put under arrest. The various Dutch authorities blamed each other for Monmouth’s safe departure in Dutch ships navigated by Dutch sailors. But William himself was not only Captain-General but also the Admiral-General of the United Netherlands, and few doubted that he could have prevented both Argyll and Monmouth from collecting arms and hiring ships if he had genuinely given his mind to doing so. The people of Amsterdam were openly sympathetic towards the rebels, and it was said that Monmouth’s flag was flaunted in Dutch streets. William was a ruthless politician; the evidence is only circumstantial, but he must surely have closed his eyes to Monmouth’s preparations and departure for England, even though he certainly hoped that his invasion would fail. Indeed he may well have imagined that James would be obliged to invite over Dutch troops under his own command to help repel such an invasion, and thus give him at one stroke the opportunity to destroy his Protestant rival for the English succession and place his father-in-law under a debt of gratitude.

As soon as the news of Monmouth’s landing in Dorset was known in Holland William sent over a more eminent ambassador than Ouwerkerk, his personal friend, William Bentinck. Bentinck was instructed to apologize for the escape of the rebels and to lay the blame on French assistance. Bentinck said that Monmouth had been seen at the French ambassador’s house, and Skelton was told that only the French possessed the large financial resources necessary to enable Monmouth to buy arms. It is noticeable, however, that when Bentinck wrote to William from London on June 30 to say that James did indeed think that the French might have been responsible for helping the invaders—though he did not wish to show his resentment until the rebellion was suppressed—William ignored the report.

In his instructions Bentinck was told to offer every assistance to James in overcoming the rebels. William was most anxious to come over himself and to provide any generals or other officers needed. James understandably rejected these offers, but asked that the six regiments in Dutch service should be dispatched to England. They arrived too late to be of any material help; but James was not sorry that he did not have to make use of them since he was suspicious of their loyalty.

For his part William followed the course of events with the closest attention. According to Skelton, he was ‘passionately disappointed’ that he was not allowed himself to go over to England. He seems to have been taken by surprise that Monmouth had been able to recruit so big an army in western England and to hold out there for as long as he did against the King’s forces. ‘God grant that we shall soon hear of new measures being taken against the English rebels,’ he wrote to Bentinck on June 26; four days later he expressed his concern that Monmouth was moving freely about the west; a fortnight later he praised God that the rebellion had been crushed and Monmouth captured. In his last letter to Bentinck in England he added realistically that he hoped that the six regiments would be promptly returned to Holland and said that he did not want Roman Catholic officers appointed in the place of any who might in the future resign.

In writing to express his pleasure at Monmouth’s defeat and to stress the inseparability of the interests of the two nations, William now observed that ‘everybody knew where the help for the rebels came from’. At the time James accepted the Dutch assurances that the whole thing was a most unfortunate accident, caused by the complications and restrictions of the Dutch federal constitution. But in his posthumous memoirs he certainly laid the blame squarely upon William. The Earl of Ailesbury, also writing long after the event, recorded that he had heard at the time that Monmouth had disclosed his designs to the Prince of Orange who had sent over Bentinck to inform James and with the offer to come over himself so as ‘to have the Duke sacrificed who was his rival’. Fletcher of Saltoun, who had accompanied Monmouth on his expedition, told the first Earl of Dartmouth later that ‘he had good grounds to suspect that the Prince underhand encouraged the expedition with a design to ruin Monmouth’. Monmouth himself denied that he had told William of his plans, but it is unquestionable that the Prince had received pretty good intelligence of what was on foot ten days before Monmouth sailed down the Texel on his fatal expedition, and yet failed to stop him.

But whatever James may have thought at the time—and it is possible that he suspected the French as well as the Dutch of aiding Monmouth—he was impressed by the promptitude with which the six regiments were sent over from the United Netherlands and of the need for him to remain on friendly terms with the States-General. He had the sense to see that close dependence on France would do his cause no good with many of his subjects. In any case it was far from certain that help would be provided by Louis XIV. The French King was annoyed when in August James renewed the existing treaties with the Dutch and blamed Barrillon for not warning him that this might happen. He also demanded that Barrillon should send back the substantial sum of money with which he had been provided to tide the English King over any awkward corner. In view of the defeat of Monmouth and the voting by Parliament of generous supplies for life to James, the French reserve fund was no longer thought likely to be needed.

The temporary thaw in the relations between William and his father-in-law, deriving from the promptitude with which the English and Scottish regiments were sent over to England after Monmouth’s invasion and from the signature of the Anglo-Dutch treaty, did not last very long. The French ambassadors in London and The Hague did everything they mischievously could to stir up trouble by whispering campaigns. In the autumn of 1685 William had to ask for the dismissal of his wife’s almoner, Dr. Covell, and two of her bedchamber-women on the ground that they were engaged in a conspiracy to sell information to the English ambassador, Skelton. William was also dismayed by James’s prorogation of his Parliament in November since he had regarded it as a safeguard against any pro-French moves by the English monarch.

James, for his part, was unable to shake off his old suspicions of his son-in-law, dating back to the exclusionist days, or forget William’s former friendliness towards Monmouth. Nor was he pleased to learn from Skelton that he was receiving ‘many words but no deeds’ about the expulsion of such Whigs, Monmouthians and republicans as remained on Dutch territory. When Bonrepaus arrived in England in January 1686 he immediately reported that ‘the King of England regards the Prince of Orange as his enemy’ and after he had been in England for three months he was able to go even further and say, ‘the King of England can scarcely hide his hatred for, and jealousy of, the Prince of Orange’. The French ambassadors improved the shining hour by pointing out that the obstruction in Parliament to the King’s policies had been due to the Orangists and they played with the idea of trying to convert the King’s younger daughter, Princess Anne, and her husband, Prince George of Denmark, to the Roman Catholic religion so that there should be Catholic candidates available for the succession instead of William and Mary, should James die.

In the course of 1686 a curious English document fell into the hands of Van Citters, the Dutch ambassador in London. This document, entitled ‘A Remonstrance made to the King of England by his Council’, advocated the exclusion of Princess Mary from the succession, a close affiance with France and a war against the Dutch. King James stated at once that the document was a forgery and was extremely angry at the suggestion that he was a vassal of France or that he had plans to alter the hereditary succession. Indeed these two proposals were quite out of character, though it is not impossible that they might have been seriously put forward by some of the King’s extreme Roman Catholic advisers, such as Father Petre. They may even have been stimulated by Bonrepaus who, as has been noted, had plans to convert Princess Anne. They certainly contributed to the French objective of causing dissension between the English and Dutch Governments. Indeed a fairly wide distribution of copies of the document may have meant that it was disseminated for propaganda purposes.

In any case James’s actual policies during 1686, the favouritism that he showed towards Roman Catholics, and the building up both of a standing army and of his naval forces aroused anxiety not only among his Protestant subjects but among Protestant rulers abroad. The impartial reports of the Tuscan envoy in London at the time make it clear that there was a strong undercurrent of discontent not only against the renascent English Roman Catholics, as witnessed by the sporadic riots, but also against the King himself. An attempt by some of the Protestant ministers of the King to provide him with a Protestant maltresseen-titre (she was an old flame, Catherine Sedley, who got as far as a title, Countess of Dorchester, and a house in St. James’s Square) failed owing to the vigilance of the Queen and the Court priests. The dismissed Marquis of Halifax, one of the most influential figures in the kingdom outside the Government, firmly refused to change his mind about supporting the repeal of the Test Acts—he asked sarcastically why if the judges had given the King the power to dispense with the laws such a repeal was necessary—and he re-established a cautious correspondence with the Prince of Orange.

Prince William had several visitors from England in the course of 1686. His friend Henry Sidney joined him at Cleves (where William was visiting his uncle, the Elector of Brandenburg) and then departed on a mysterious visit to Italy. Dr. Gilbert Burnet, the active divine who had been on friendly terms with many of the ‘Whig leaders in King Charles II’s reign, was welcomed at The Hague both by William and Mary and taken to some extent into the Prince’s confidence. The Earl of Danby, once Charles II’s chief minister, who was finally released from prison at the beginning of James II’s reign, also opened a correspondence with Prince William and made several attempts to get over to Holland to see him; Barrillon, however, evidently speaking of the feeling at Court, observed that Danby was ‘recognized to be a partisan of the Prince of Orange and does all he can to strengthen his party’,’1 and the Earl was refused permission to travel abroad. Later in the same year Viscount Mordaunt, a rising and eccentric young genius, who had been so openly critical of James in the last session of Parliament, arrived at The Hague in October and, according to Burnet, pressed William to undertake ‘the business of England’, that is to say he advocated his active intervention. ‘This,’ wrote Burnet, ‘appeared too romantical to the Prince to build upon it. He only promised in general that he should have an eye on the affairs of England; and should endeavour to put the affairs of Holland in so good a posture as to be ready to act when it should be necessary.’ William also added that should the King attempt to alter the established religion or deprive his wife of her rights or ‘raise forged plots to destroy his friends’, then he would ‘try what he could possibly do’. Though there is a story that the Elector of Brandenburg had earlier suggested to William that he should go over to England with io,000 men, Burnet’s is the first solid piece of evidence that exists that the idea of William intervening in England was discussed during the reign of James II. On the whole, Burnet’s memoirs have stood up pretty well to historical examination; but parts of them have proved to be untrustworthy; and Halifax, who knew Burnet well, once observed that he ‘has a swiftness of imagination no other man comes up to’.

The principal source of dissension between William and James during 1686 was the presence of numerous English and Scottish political exiles on Dutch soil. Some had been there ever since the time of the Rye House plot; others had managed to escape back there after having been, directly or indirectly, involved in the rebellions of Argyll and Monmouth. They hid themselves among the mercantile classes of Amsterdam and Rotterdam or pretended to be studying at the university of Utrecht. The most notorious among them were Robert Ferguson, an indefatigable Scottish plotter, Sir Robert Peyton, said to be a republican formerly prominent in the City of London, and Dr. Gilbert Burnet, who was used by William as a collector of intelligence from England and afterwards as a propagandist. Most Amsterdammers were sympathetic towards the Whigs and republicans who were living among them; it was with the connivance of the Amsterdam naval authorities that the rebels of 1685 had originally set out. To protect them from extradition Peyton and Burnet were both naturalized as Dutch citizens.

Sir Bevil Skelton was under constant pressure from his Government to secure the arrest and extradition of all those rebels who had been excepted from James’s general pardon. In the spring of 1686 James himself wrote to William protesting about the number of former rebels known to be living in Amsterdam. The Anglo-Dutch treaties were invoked, and eventually the States-General were induced to publish a resolution ordering that a plakkaat or proclamation should be published in all the Dutch Provinces demanding the departure of the English rebels from the country. But though in May James recorded his pleasure at this decision, two months later he was complaining that the proclamation had been published only at The Hague. By August the Dutch ambassador in London was assuring the King that the plakkaats had now reached all the States of the Union, but he soon had to admit that they had not yet appeared either in Friesland or in Groningen. Later the English King grumbled because the Dutch had failed to arrest Ferguson, Peyton or Burnet. Perhaps fearing that Skelton’s heart was not in the business, he decided in September to replace him by a Roman Catholic named Ignatius White who boasted the title of Marquis d’Albeville bestowed on him by the Holy Roman Empire. But Skelton had certainly done his best. He had delivered a stream of protests both in writing and in words. On one occasion he had suddenly appeared at a service in the English church at Utrecht and frightened the English exiles there. He had made personal representations to William and Mary, who replied that it was a matter for the States. At home he had suggested that he might come to terms with some of the exiles, providing them with a royal pardon in return for their betraying the whereabouts of their friends. Before he finally left the United Netherlands he actually tried to organize the kidnapping of Peyton from Rotterdam. But the citizens protested; the authorities of Amsterdam asserted that they had made Peyton a burgher; and when an official protest was delivered by the Dutch ambassador in London, James was forced to eat humble pie and state that Skelton had acted without his permission and would be reprimanded. But he seems to have told Skelton in confidence that he was pleased with his effort and that he would see that no one who had been concerned in it should suffer.

If William was still anxious to keep up friendly appearances, and placate his uncle and father-in–law, he was by no means merely absorbed by the question of Anglo-Dutch relations. When Burnet arrived at The Hague in 1686 he noted how ‘the depression of France was the governing passion of his whole life’ and how his chief fear then was that James would so upset his own subjects by his policies as to ‘throw him into a French management’. Early in 1685 a new treaty had been concluded with his other uncle, the Elector of Brandenburg, who later became more positively antagonistic to the French because he disapproved of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Fear was felt in many parts of Germany about coming French acts of aggression; earlier ones were not forgotten and remained to be revenged; Louis XIV was expected to try to seize the Palatinate, to which his sister-in-law had a hereditary claim, when the Elector died. Then Prince William also looked anxiously towards the Holy Roman Emperor, the nominal leader of Germany. Most of his forces were still fully occupied in the war in Hungary. But the campaign was going well and the fall of Buda in September was a decisive event. The formation of the League of Augsburg, with the object of maintaining the existing international treaties —clearly intended as a defensive move against France—to which the Emperor and other German rulers adhered that August, showed that at least they were conscious of the dangers that lay ahead. The French King, for his part, was eager to thrust forward as far as he could into Germany before the Emperor Leopold, finally relieved of the war against the Turks and the rebel Hungarians, should turn back towards western Europe and, in spite of the truce of Ratisbon, attack him.

Because the French diplomatic and military hold upon northern Germany had been weakened by the defection of the Brandenburgers and the Swedes from their former French alliance and because of the menace that the French might see in the League of Augsburg, William might well have had reason to fear that the French King would try to redress the balance in Europe by concluding an offensive alliance with England. After all, James’s principal minister who dealt with foreign affairs was in French pay; so was the English ambassador in Holland. Throughout 1686 constant reports were received in the United Netherlands of the strengthening of the English armed forces. Could the object be a fresh war against their old trade rivals? In August Van Citters started transmitting alarmist reports to The Hague of military activities foreshadowing an Anglo-French offensive alliance. King James II was pressed to deny these stories, but refused to do so. Consequently the rumours grew louder. In November 1686 the French ambassador at The Hague reported that the people of Amsterdam (formerly rather friendly towards France), were nervous over the English naval preparations and were afraid that an Anglo-French attack on the Netherlands was coming in the following spring. The same story (which was reported back from Holland by Skelton) arrived in the English Court. However, in the middle of November the Dutch ambassador in London reported:

The general conversation at Court is now that His Majesty’s affairs are not in a fit condition, nor has he the inclination to go to war with anyone, and that the great naval armaments are made for no other purpose than to place himself in a situation for defending himself and thereby to cause himself to be considered the more both at home and abroad.

A few days later Van Citters added that the rumour that a war with the Dutch was contemplated in the spring had been officially denied at the Court, and that it had also been explained (truly enough) that the state of preparedness of the English Navy was exaggerated. The fact was that James II had by now decided to publish his two declarations of liberty of conscience,[Appendix A] and the stirrings of discontent in his kingdom during the year made him aware that he might require to employ force to Sustain his policies at home.

In some history books the events of 1686 have been wrongly pictured. It has been suggested that James was the slave of France and that already William was deeply worried over the threat of an Anglo-French offensive against him. The old Cambridge Modern History, for example, discussing the events of 1686-87, observed that Louis XIV, in pursuit of his grandiose aims in Europe, ‘received the full support of James II, under whose rule England had become “the corner-stone of the fabric” of French aggression’. There is no evidence for this whatsoever. Equally William—even though he was in no sense the architect of the League of Augsburg, though that myth is still sometimes repeated—was as much, if not more, concerned over Germany, notably over the behaviour of his uncle in Brandenburg and of the Emperor in Vienna, as he was over James II’s cavortings at Whitehall.

The King of England, in fact, was wrapped up in his own domestic plans and what he desired at this time, as we shall see in the next chapter, was to persuade his son-in-law to give them his support and approval so that James’s fellow Roman Catholics might be assured of equal treatment not only during his own life-time but in the future. What William wanted was to be certain that James was not driven by his own stupidities or excesses into an enforced dependence on the King of France. The Prince hoped that he could persuade James II to realize his European responsibilities, just as he had vainly tried to induce Charles II to accept them six years earlier. Viscount Mordaunt may have suggested to William that he would ultimately be obliged to intervene in England; the Elector of Brandenburg may, quite likely, have discussed the same idea with his nephew during 1686. Nevertheless as yet no new factor had entered into the general situation that could urgently impel William to undertake an expedition so fraught with political and military dangers. But when Dijkvelt set out for England as Dutch ambassador extraordinary in February 1687 he was under instructions to make a very thorough reconnaissance of the ground. For anything might happen.