Magazine article History Today

Puffing Billy. (Frontline).(King William III)

Magazine article History Today

Puffing Billy. (Frontline).(King William III)

Article excerpt

WILLIAM III DIED on March 8th, 1702, of complications arising from a riding accident sixteen days earlier. The `little gentleman in black velvet' had succeeded where Jacobite assassins had failed. The year 2002 was therefore the 300th anniversary of his death.

The anniversary has passed largely unnoticed. In 1988 many felt that the celebrations for the tercentenary of the Glorious Revolution were muted. Those for this tercentenary have, however, been almost nonexistent. No official events were held either in Britain or The Netherlands on or around the actual anniversary. The only event held on the day itself seems to have been a service for the Grand Orange Lodge in Belfast. The Dutch celebrations were confined to a number of local events organised by the royal palace at Het Loo and by the neighbouring town of Apeldoorn. Over the summer the Bank of England used the anniversary as a peg for its exhibition on `The Dutch Legacy'. But it is only now, nine months after the anniversary itself, that a group of historians from Europe and North America will meet in Utrecht to reassess William's life.

Many of those who will be speaking feel that such a reassessment is overdue, for, even among academic historians, William has an unglamorous image that fails to do full justice to his many achievements.

There was a time when William's importance, even greatness, was taken for granted. If he was always a controversial figure during his own lifetime, later generations of Britons came to see him as the symbol of the Revolution settlement. Towns and cities throughout Britain during the eighteenth century made a point of commemorating him. From St James's Square in London to the Hampshire market town of Petersfield, from Bristol to Glasgow, equestrian statues were erected by public subscription. No other deceased monarch was remembered on such a scale. The `Whig' histories of that period similarly celebrated him, presenting him almost as an honorary Englishman, for many Englishmen felt that only through him had their liberties been secured. To those vast numbers of Victorian readers who read Macaulay's History of England, he was nothing less than the hero of the greatest work on English history yet written.

Times have changed. The tide of `Whig' history went out several generations ago. Few now read Macaulay. Nor has William benefited from the current boom in popular royal biography. He is no longer one of that select group of monarchs in whom the reading or viewing public is thought to be interested. He survives in the public memory only as `King Billy', the darling of the Ulster Unionists. If the English remember him at all, it is as an embarrassment.

Academic historians were among the first to recognise that William's legacy could not be celebrated unambiguously. The old idea of him as the first constitutional monarch has been rejected as, at best, too simplistic. None would now suggest that his reign was without its serious problems. His record in Scotland and, more especially, in Ireland can no longer be casually glossed over. Unfortunately, celebration has been replaced by neglect. The standard biographies of him in English are still those by Stephen Baxter and N. …

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