Engraving of King William III
Date of Origin: circa 1690
Description: Black printer’s ink etching on cream paper. In armor wearing the seal of the Garter. Portrait is in an oval with panoply of spears and flags above. Cupids in armor below. Painted and sold by Henry Overton, London.
By the end of the 17th Century, printing had become a widespread phenomenon throughout England and Europe. Printing presses, though not much different from the original European version, the Gutenberg Press, had spread like wildfire throughout society. They now printed all manner of goods from leather-bound books to newspapers to cheap penny broadsides, or “catchpennies.” These paper sheets were affordable to the masses and spread news and gossip, especially about politics and public figures. The more sensational the story, the more copies street hawkers could sell. They could even carve sketches onto wooden blocks and insert them into the typeset frame, creating printed images. It could be a double-edged sword for those in power; they could spread their ideas through word and image throughout the country, but so could their opposition.
It had long been tradition for a newly crowned king or queen to pose for a portrait. Many duplicates were made and sent to the country’s aristocrats and ruling families to hang in their homes and public buildings, as a way of asserting the monarch’s authority. Once printing entered mainstream culture, they could engrave a portrait and print hundreds of copies to spread through the lower classes. This image of William III was printed in 1690, only a year after he and his wife Mary ascended to the throne.
William III, Prince of Orange, was descended from the royal family of the Netherlands. His mother was the eldest daughter of English monarch Charles I. He married James II’s eldest daughter Mary when he was 27 and she only 15 years old. When her father ascended to the English throne, she became heir presumptive. Her Protestantism allowed the English to tolerate their Catholic king, knowing he would be replaced. But when his wife gave birth to a son in 1688 – who would be raised a Catholic and start a royal Catholic dynasty – the people rebelled. They believed a rumor that James had brought in a fake son in order to secure Catholic control. William marched to London, determined to safeguard Protestant control, and James was forced to flee to France with his family. William and Mary were crowned joint-rulers of England on February 13, 1689.
They may have been co-regents, but Queen Mary declined to participate in public affairs except when her husband was away. She died in 1694, after only 5 years on the throne. Their marriage had begun badly, but William was reportedly devastated by her death and never remarried.
William’s European world-view was a dramatic change after James’ narrow English-centric perspective. The English people found him to be too cold and serious, and in last years of his reign Parliament refused to cooperate with his requests. The evolution of his reign reflected a shift in the English political system from monarchical government to a more parliamentary system.
by Hannah Howard
For Further Reading:
Brown, Richard. Knowledge is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700-1865. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Sommerville, C. John. The News Revolution in England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Van der Zee, Henri and Barbara. William and Mary. London, England: MacMillan London Ltd, 1973.
Williamson, David. The Kings & Queens of England. Old Saybrook, Connecticutt: Konecky & Konecky, 1998.
Worden, Blair, ed. Stuart England. Oxford, England: Phaidon Press Limited, 1986.