On March 8th, 1702, died William III, the English king who did more than any other to preserve the role of the crown in constitutional government. After William it was always rule by “the King or Queen in Parliament,” rather than rule by any claim to divine right.
William was Dutch, born one week posthumously and inheriting the Principality of Orange. He had some claim to the English throne, being the grandson of Charles I and married to the daughter of James II, his uncle. James, the legitimate king, was Catholic, but Britain wanted a Protestant monarch. When William landed unopposed at Brixham in 1688, James fled to France and was deemed to have thereby abdicated, so William and Mary were declared joint monarchs.
In 1689 he assented to the Bill of Rights, a landmark document in British rights and liberties. It asserted that the monarch could not overrule laws passed by Parliament, or impose taxes without their consent, raise a standing peacetime army unless Parliament approved, or deny Protestant subjects the right to bear arms. The monarch was required not to interfere in Parliamentary elections, or to punish Parliamentarians for what they said in debates. He was also not to demand excessive bail or to inflict “cruel and unusual punishments,” limits that found their way a century later into the US Bill of Rights.
William was by no means enthusiastic about the Bill, but he accepted it to restore harmony to his kingdom. It largely succeeded, limiting the faction fights that had divided the nation. William promoted moderation and tolerance, both in politics and religion. In 1689, he gave the judiciary its independence, later enshrined in law by the Act of Settlement of 1700–01. He granted the Royal Charter in 1694 to the Bank of England, a private institution owned by bankers.
William had a lasting influence on constitutional history, and not just in Britain. Around the world today, it is arguable that it is the constitutional monarchies, rather than the full democracies, that are the best guardian of the rights and liberties of their citizens. The United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, plus Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and others, all follow the precepts established under William of limited government, an independent judiciary, free speech, and some degree of separation of powers. He set a precedent that reverberates around the world today.