Willem Frederik George Lodewijk, the future William II of the Netherlands, was born the eldest son of Willem Frederik, Prince of Orange-Nassau, on 6 December 1792 and would become a popular figure in England during the Regency Era thanks to his purported heroics during the Napoleonic Wars.
The Dutch were fellow protestants and allies of the English against the French, so it was not unusual for members of their nobility to join the English military for experience with what was then the Imperial British armies, which is what William did in 1811. He was only 19 years old, but he had already gone to Oxford and fought with the Prussian military, so he was already familiar with both English customs and warfare. Nevertheless, if he hadn’t been a Prince of Orange he would have been instantly promoted to lieutenant colonel and made the aide-de-camp of General Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington,
The prince was brave and and handsome, so he quickly became the darling of the English press, who nicknamed him “Slender Billy”. He became a full Colonel on 21 October 1811, and despite having little experience in battle, continued to shoot up the English ranks due to his title and pleasing demeanor. He had not been a colonel for a year when he was became an aide-de-camp to the Prince Regent in September of 1812 and by 14 December 1813 Slender Billy was promoted to major-general.
Slender Billy made such a good impression on the Prince Regent that Prinny arranged a betrothal between his daughter, Princess Charlotte of Wales, and William in 1814. Charlotte, who had not be impressed with William when she had first met him, because he had gotten plastered at the Prinny’s birthday party along with most of the other guests, and was initially disinclined to accept him. Her father launched a campaign to convince her, first harranging her and then wheedling her to marry his chosen suitor. Charlotte finally agreed to have dinner with William shortly after he was promoted to major general, after which her father took her lukewarm acknowledgement of William’s charms to indicate her consent and began the marriage negotiations in earnest.
Charlotte and William were officially engaged on 10 June 1814, and to celebrate the match the groom-to be was promoted to lieutenant-general on July 8 and on 25 July to general on 25 July. However, William’s military career would fare better than his betrothal.
The bride’s mother, Caroline of Brunswick, who had been treated shabbily by the future George IV of the United Kingdom, did not approve of the match. Charlotte, who had been forcibly kept away from her mother for much of her childhood and naturally resented it, wanted William to promise that Caroline would be welcome to visit them when the wed. The young man, who felt he should be loyal to Prinny as his aide-de-camp and who was understandably reluctant to have a loose cannon like Caroline in his court, refused Charlotte’s request. Charlotte, who had not been enthused by the union to begin with, broke off her engagement and fled to her mother’s house.
Popular support was fully behind the princess as a dutiful daughter and good Englishwoman, and the public anger at Slender Billy was compounded by Prinny’s decision to keep Charlotte effectively under house arrest until she would marry Prince of Orange. It wasn’t until early 1815 that Prinny finally gave up hope for the wedding. Charlotte would later wed Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld on 2 May 1816, and have a very happy marriage until her premature death.
William was no more heartbroken by the ruptured engagement than Charlotte was. He had several female lovers and he would later be blackmailed for his homosexual relationships, so it’s not like the handsome and bisexual prince was lonely for company or pining away. The prince also got another promotion … he became a crown prince as well as a titular one. His father proclaimed himself King of the Netherlands and Duke of Luxembourg on 16 March 1815, making William the heir apparent to the throne.
Slender Billy would regain his lost popularity among the English that summer when he fought under the Duke of Wellington and the I Allied Corps at the Battle of Quatre Bras and the Battle of Waterloo. To add to the romantic luster of the 23 year old prince, he was wounded in the shoulder during the final battle with Napoleon.
The heroic prince wed Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna of Russia on 21 Feburary 1816, and by all accounts the marriage was a troubled one. She didn’t like William’s failure to respect her greater rank, didn’t like the comparatively relaxed Dutch understanding of the class system, and didn’t like her husband’s friendship with people who were not nobility. She especially disliked his slew of extramarital affairs with both sexes. Nevertheless, ” Anna continued to profess undiminished love for William … [serving] as a mediator between her husband and her father-in-law and tried to ease the tension between them during political conflicts.”
As with most married royals, they didn’t let their want of happiness and the husband’s rampant adultery prevent them from procreating. They had five children; four sons (one of whom died as a baby) and a daughter. Anna, although a snob that was never popular with her people, was devoted to her offspring. Her concern for children inspired her to fund more than fifty orphanages and “a school where poor women and girls were educated in sewing” so they could sustain themselves through work other than prostitution or servitude. She also founded a hospital for veterans of the Belgian revolution.
William was rapidly becoming known as an international peacemaker by the 1830s, but his father was rapidly losing diplomatic ground. Although he had been an able economic ruler, William I was also a reactionary conservative and was increasingly unable to deal with the push toward social democracy in Europe. Reading the writing on the wall, William I abdicated the throne on 7 October 1840 in favour of his son, who became King William II of the Netherlands. The new king was crowned in Amsterdam on 28 November with the normal over-the-top ceremony required on such occasions.
Slender Billy ruled the country well and moderately (securing fiscal stability and a governmental surplus) for almost a decade before revolutions breaking out all over Europe in 1848 inspired a policy change.
William decided to institute a more liberal regime, believing it was better to grant reforms instead of having them imposed on him on less favourable terms later. As he later put it, “I changed from conservative to liberal in one night“. He chose a committee headed by the prominent liberal Johan Rudolf Thorbecke to create a new constitution. The new document provided that the Eerste Kamer (Senate), previously appointed by the King, would be elected indirectly by the Provincial States. The Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives) would be elected directly by those who paid a certain amount in taxes. The electoral system changed to census suffrage in electoral districts. Though at first not very notably, royal power decreased; political power passed to the Tweede Kamer. For all intents and purposes the king was now part of government rather than its master. That constitution of 1848, amended (most notably by the replacement of census suffrage by universal manhood suffrage and districts with nationwide party-list proportional representation, both in 1917) is still in effect today.
There is also the rumour that King William’s political about-face was inspired by blackmail regarding his lovers, especially his sexual relationships with men. It is just as likely, however, that the king was influenced by his daughter-in-law, Sophie of Württemberg, a liberal and educated intellectual who had married his eldest son in 1839. Although their relationship was always platonic, William seems to have loved and admired Sophie and valued her advice. So much so that he paid more regard to her opinions than that of his son, the future William III. A conservative like his grandfather, William III resented both his father and his wife for their support of the new constitution limiting the king’s powers, and it remained a sore spot in his already tempestuous marriage.
King William II would not live long after the institution of his triumphant constitutional monarchy, dying suddenly on 17 March 1849. He was laid to rest in the royal crypts at Nieuwe Kerk (The New Church) in Delft, Zuid-Holland. His great-great-grandson, William-Alexander, is currently King of the Netherlands.