The future King William III of the Netherlands was born on 19 February 1817 as the eldest son of the future King William II of the Netherlands and his wife, Anna Pavlovna of Russia. He was born in Brussels, which was then still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. He was baptised in the Augustine Church in Brussels on 27 March 1817 with the names William Alexander Paul Frederick Louis. Four more siblings would later join the nursery: Prince Alexander (1818 – 1848), Prince Henry (1820 – 1879), Prince Ernest Casimir (1822 – 1822) and Princess Sophie (1824 – 1897). He spent his early years mostly in Brussels as it was the preferred residence of his parents. The education of the boys was entrusted to Thierry Juste baron de Constant Rebecque de Villars – a soldier. It was an intense schedule of studying – six days a week.
William was 13 years old when Belgium became a separate Kingdom, and he saw his future Kingdom being cut in half. In 1836, William, Alexander and their parents visited England where William danced with the future Queen Victoria. By then, he had already begun his studies at the University of Leiden, which he completed in 1837. He had not spent much time in class and instead received tutoring at home.
On 18 June 1839, William married his first wife Sophie of Württemberg, who was also his first cousin. They were married in Stuttgart, and the return journey to the Netherlands also served as their honeymoon. They took their time returning and did not cross the Dutch border at Arnhem until a month later. Sophie and her mother-in-law and aunt Anna did not get along at all, and she had not approved of him marrying her. William and Sophie were not a match made in heaven. She considered him childish and less intelligent than her. He had no moral compass and often had fits of rage.
Nevertheless, Sophie fulfilled her duty and gave birth to her first son on 4 September 1840. It was to be yet another William, though he would be known as Wiwill in the family. Just one month after young William’s birth, King William I abdicated the throne in order to marry his late wife’s lady-in-waiting, Henriette d’Oultremont. William’s father now became King William II of the Netherlands, and William became Prince of Orange as the heir to the throne. On 15 September 1843, a second son named Maurice was born to them. Their marriage remained unhappy, and Sophie even confided in her sister-in-law that she had asked God to let her die in childbirth. William raged against her and also physically attacked her. She did not think William was fit to be King and feared the day, “the King would close his eyes forever. I am begging God on my knees that it may last quite a while yet.”
Unfortunately, the day would come sooner than expected. On 17 March 1849, King William II died in his newly-built palace in Tilburg after a short illness. His son, who was in England at the time, did not learn of his death until a day later. William had already shown himself to be reluctant to become King, especially after the new Constitution of 1848 limited the monarch’s powers even more. As he slowly travelled back to the Netherlands, he continued to doubt if he would accept the crown and had to be persuaded to do so.
On 12 May 1849, his inauguration took place in the New Church in Amsterdam. Even Sophie was impressed and later wrote, “My King behaved himself exceptionally and spoke clearly and with dignity. All and all, we have made a good impression.”
However, tragedy was to come. In May 1850, young Maurice fell ill with meningitis. He died on 4 June 1850 and Sophie never forgave herself for calling on a new doctor. Their shared grief did bring the couple closer together for a time, and Sophie gave birth to a third son named Prince Alexander on 25 August 1851. But their relationship never quite healed and William found solace elsewhere. Sophie even began a divorce proceeding against her husband, but on her father’s advice, she eventually decided not to proceed. They lived separate lives as much as they could. In the end, their marriage would last until Sophie’s death, which took place on 3 June 1877.
Sophie and William’s eldest son was at his mother’s funeral in Delft, but it was a rare sighting of the Prince of Orange in the Netherlands. He spent most of his time in Paris, where he lived a debauched lifestyle. He had been denied marriage to Mathilde, Countess of Limburg-Stirum. His younger brother Alexander was considered to be “weak” and unlikely to marry and father children. This left William’s brother Prince Henry as a possible heir, but he was a widower (his first wife was Amalia of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach) and childless. A second marriage to Marie of Prussia in 1878 ended with Henry’s death just five months later. Another possible heir was William’s elderly uncle Frederick, who had two daughters (Louise and Marie).
The most likely scenario seemed to be that if William’s son did not have any offspring that the non-ruling descendants of his sister Sophie would take the throne (the Dutch crown could not be united with a foreign crown). William did not want to see a “stranger” on the Dutch throne. Young William’s debauched lifestyle caught up with him, and he died on 11 June 1879.
By then, William had decided to clear up the succession issues himself. He would marry again. His first instinct had been to marry his mistress, but the following public outrage changed his mind. European Princesses were now being lined up for the elderly King. His first choice was Princess Thyra of Denmark, daughter of King Christian IX, who tactfully informed William that his daughter “did not feel capable of fulfilling such a serious and difficult task.” He then approached Princess Marie of Hanover, daughter of King George V of Hanover, and her father refused to consent to the match on his deathbed. He then contacted his sister Sophie, whose daughter Elisabeth was of marriageable age. He personally travelled to Weimar, but Elisabeth felt such a “deep aversion” for her elderly uncle that she could not bring herself to agree to a match.
William then continued his travels to Pyrmont where he was picked up at the train station by George Victor, Prince of Waldeck and Pyrmont. His three daughters also happened to be there: Pauline, Emma and Marie. Marie had married in 1877, but Pauline and Emma were still available. William initially only had eyes for the eldest sister Pauline, but she thought he was too old for her. His attention then shifted to Emma. He stayed for four days before returning home with a spring in his step. Emma had caught his eye.
On 7 January 1879, the 61-year-old William married the 20-year-old Emma at Arolsen. The groom wore the uniform of an admiral, and the bride wore a white dress with a long train, a lace veil, a tiara and an ermine shoulder cover. Emma would have a good influence on William and in 1882 Queen Victoria wrote to her eldest daughter, “The King of the Netherlands is as quiet and unobtrusive as possible; a totally altered man and totally owing to her. She is charming, so amiable, kind, friendly and cheerful.”
On 15 March 1880, the couple announced happy news; Emma was pregnant. On 31 August 1880, Emma gave birth to a daughter named Wilhelmina. William was delighted with the birth of a daughter and had even been present when she had been born. Four years after her birth, her half-brother Alexander – whom she had only met once – died. Wilhelmina would have to succeed her father, and it seemed likely that she would still be a minor. Emma would be assigned the regency in case this happened though not everyone thought that a foreign woman was the right person for the job.
Meanwhile, William’s health had been deteriorating steadily. He suffered several meltdowns where he was incapable of ruling, which were most likely strokes. By early 1890, he was confined to the Loo Palace. Wilhelmina saw her father for the last time on 25 September 1890. On 20 November 1890, Emma swore the oath as regent for her husband. During the night of the 21st, William suddenly rose from his bed, and when ordered back to his bed, he said, “Who commands here? You or I?” Those were his last words. Over the next two days, William was in and out of consciousness. On 23 November 1890 at 5.45 in the morning, William died at the age of 73 – leaving his ten-year-old daughter Wilhelmina as Queen.1
Wilhelmina later wrote in her memoirs, “Although during the last few months his suffering was such that I could no longer visit him, this period left a deep mark on my life. The atmosphere at Het Loo was dominated by his illness. Everything became strained. When his illness was at its worst Mother spent all her time at his bedside and I hardly saw her. How much it means to a child when her mother disappears out of her life, and for such a long time! The last night she did not come to bed at all – I had been sleeping in her room for some time – and that night I felt like something terrible was happening upstairs in Father’s room. People tried to hide it from me, but yet I knew what that terrible thing was. When all was over Mother came to my bed and, deeply moved, told me that Father had died.”2