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William III and Mary II: England's Only Joint Sovereigns

This royal couple transformed Kensington Palace into a royal residence

This royal couple transformed Kensington Palace into a royal residence

William III and Mary II were England’s first and only joint sovereigns, with Mary sharing equal status and power. William and Mary came to the throne after the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 when Mary’s father, James II, was deposed for trying to enforce Catholic tolerance in England. The King and Queen ruled jointly from 1689 until Mary’s death aged 32 in 1694.

The Stuart Dynasty

William and Mary were cousins, sharing King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria as grandparents. Mary was the daughter of Charles I's youngest son, King James II, and his first wife Anne Hyde. William was the son of Charles I's daughter, Princess Mary and William II, Prince of Orange, in the present-day Netherlands. The House of Orange-Nassau remains the reigning house in the Netherlands today.

Header image: A pair of portraits of William III and Mary II by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1690. The portraits were hanging in the Council Chamber at Kensington Palace by 1697. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024

An illustration depicting a king and queen arriving at a palace wearing rich clothing and crowns

Image: The arrival of William III and Mary II at Whitehall in 1688. The Banqueting House and Whitehall Palace can be seen in the background. © Historic Royal Palaces

Childhood and Education 

Mary's early life

Mary was born at St. James's Palace in London on 30 April 1662. Her mother died from breast cancer in 1671 at the age of 34. Mary lived much of her childhood at Richmond Palace under the guidance of a governess, Lady Frances Villiers, and her upbringing was carefully monitored because of fears around her parents' Catholic sympathies.

A small team of bishops provided for Mary’s education, and she became a devoted and knowledgeable member of the Church of England.

William's early life 

William was born at Binnenhof Palace in the Hague on 14 December 1650. His father, William II, Princes of Orange and Stadtholder (steward) of Holland, died from smallpox, eight days before he was born.

William was raised by a series of governesses including Lady Anna Mackenzie, a Scottish noblewoman whose family had been ruined by their tireless support of the Stuart royal cause. He was also visited by his Uncle King Charles II of England. William was educated by Dutch Calvinist theologian Cornelis Trigland, and received additional education from Hendrik Bornius, who was a Professor of Ethics at Leiden University.



Mary’s marriage prospects, as a potential future heir to the English throne, had been hotly debated since she was a young child. Charles I favoured the match with Protestant William of Orange, and his brother James was pressured to consent. William and Mary were married on 4 November 1677, aged 15 and 26 respectively, in Mary’s bedchamber at St James’s Palace. Mary was given away by her uncle Charles II, rather than her father.


Life in the Netherlands

Mary reluctantly left for the Netherlands on 28 November 1677. The couple’s relationship was initially difficult, in no small part due to William’s irritable and ungracious personality. However, Mary was compelled to be devoted to her husband by her religion, as well as family and social expectations. William had gained a reputation as a courageous and risk-taking soldier, who was committed to the duties of leadership. His military endeavours often took him away and their separation caused Mary much distress.

Mary kept busy integrating with Dutch and European high society and increasing her collections of jewellery, perfume, porcelain, and other luxury goods. She was also committed to reading and attending to her religious devotions. Mary particularly looked forward to visits from her English relatives, especially her sister Anne.


Personal Lives

Mary endured two miscarriages in the spring and autumn of 1678. The couple never produced an heir.


If one could hinder oneself setting one’s heart too much upon those we love, we should be the readier to die.

Mary, in a letter to a friend who had lost a child

Not long afterwards William is suspected of taking one of Mary's ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Villiers, as his mistress. Elizabeth was daughter to Frances Villiers, Mary's former Governess. Mistresses were not uncommon in the English Court. Elizabeth's cousin, Barbara Villiers, was mistress to Charles II, and her uncle, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham had been a favourite and perhaps lover of James I.

Mary did not confront William about his infidelity for many years, and her chief concern seems to have been the adverse impact on his spiritual health. William III also had many male royal favourites on whom he lavished attention and patronage. Some contemporaries and historians suspected these relationships may have been romantic in nature.

Full-length portrait of a man wearing robes of State with an ermine-lined mantle; the coronation regalia rests on a red cloth-covered table on the right.

Image: William III by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1690. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024

The "Glorious Revolution"

King James II and VII came to the throne following the death of his brother Charles II in 1685. James was a Catholic and sought greater Catholic tolerance in England. England was predominantly Protestant and the King’s religious ambitions caused considerable anxiety. He was the first English monarch since the Reformation to send an envoy to the Pope in Rome. Fears grew that James II would emulate the position in France where religious intolerance was forcing Protestants into exile.

In June 1688, James II's queen, Mary Beatrice gave birth to a son named James Edward Stuart – he would later become known as the "Old Pretender". This posed a serious challenge to Mary’s succession to the English throne. William hatched a plan to invade England with a Protestant army, to secure Mary’s inheritance and halt James’s Catholic ambitions. He was anxious that England remain an important Protestant ally for the Netherlands.

On the invitation of James II's English opponents, William landed in England in November 1688 with a huge Protestant army. In December 1688 James II fled to France, which Parliament declared an abdication on 13 February 1689. The reign of William and Mary had begun.

The term "Glorious Revolution" is often used to distinguish these events from comparatively bloody transfers of power. However, its use in this way fails to recognise that they were far from bloodless outside of England. In Ireland, the change in monarchy involved a series of fierce battles between James and William, and their supporters, which continued until 1691. The terms "War of the Two Kings" and "Williamite War" recognise the violent nature of these events beyond English shores.

A Unique Coronation

William and Mary were crowned as joint monarchs on 11 April 1689 in Westminster Abbey, by the Archbishop of London; the Archbishop of Canterbury refused to participate because he had already sworn allegiance to James II.

A new Orb and Sceptre were made for this unique coronation as Mary was crowned Queen Regnant and not Consort. These objects are still on display among the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London and have not been used since.

Full-length portrait of a woman wearing robes of State with an ermine-lined cloak and resting her right hand on the orb which is beside her crown on a table on the left

Image: Mary II by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1690. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024

William and Mary's Reign

William and Mary were less keen on royal magnificence than their predecessors. They were anxious to avoid comparison with other monarchs, such as Louis XIV of France who used image to glorify absolute power. In December 1689, they approved the Bill of Rights, which defined many basic civil rights and limited royal power, particularly without the consent of parliament. These developments were an essential part of the development of the United Kingdom’s Constitutional Democracy. Driven by her piety, Mary was particularly concerned with bringing about reform of the Church and improving the moral standing of the nation.

Plots concerning James II, the exiled Stuart King, created concern and tension throughout William and Mary’s reigns. James' supporters were known as Jacobites; the King and Queen faced an unsuccessful, but serious Jacobite rising in 1689. Resistance in the Highlands of Scotland and Ireland would continue for many years. Mary fell out with her sister Anne, whose favourites John and Sarah Churchill had corresponded with James II.

However, William's chief concern was to bring England’s resources against the Catholic King Louis XIV of France. Convincing parliament of the importance of this mission took considerable and continued effort. William was often on campaign leaving Mary to run the country in his absence. Although Mary was reluctant to accept the position of sovereign in her own right, she dealt with the routine business of monarchy as well as any crises that arose while the King was away.

Royal African Company

The profits and developments of many European nations and institutions at this time were at the expense of exploited Indigenous and enslaved people.

England had been involved in the transatlantic trade in enslaved people since the reign of Elizabeth I. In 1660, Charles II and his brother James founded 'The Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa', which was focused on trade in West African gold. The company soon turned to trading in enslaved Africans and was renamed the 'Royal African Company'. This company would transport more enslaved people from Africa to the Americas than any other organisation in history.

William and Mary were no strangers to enslavement. The Netherlands had long participated in the trade in enslaved people and the House of Orange had profited considerably from slavery in the Dutch Colonies. William had a personal investment in slavery as a shareholder in the Royal African Company. In 1689 he accepted a transfer of £1000 shares from the Company's deputy governor Edward Colston.

A large room with wooden panelling and paintings displayed on the wall

Image: The Queen's Gallery at Kensington Palace. © Historic Royal Palaces

William and Mary's Kensington Palace

Kensington Palace was once a small suburban villa called Nottingham House. William and Mary disliked staying in London, which they found smoky and damp, and transformed Kensington into an opulent country retreat. The new palace provided them relative comfort within easy reach of Westminster.

Sir Christopher Wren drew up new plans for the palace, including lavish new apartments for the King and Queen. Work was rushed at the insistence of the monarchs resulting in the tragic death of a craftsperson when a wall collapsed. The King and Queen first stayed at the unfinished house on Christmas Eve 1689 and hosted great entertainments, including magnificent balls. Mary devoted much time adding to her furniture and porcelain collections at Kensington, and developing her library.

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Painting of deer in a park with a large brick palace in the background

Up Close: Kensington Palace in 1695

This is the earliest known view of William III and Mary II's newly-completed palace at Kensington.

Image: 'Fallow deer in Hyde Park, with Kensington Palace', 1695. © Historic Royal Palaces

Redesigning Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace was one of William and Mary’s favourite palaces. In 1689, Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to design a new palace in the extravagant Baroque style. The final design kept some part of the Tudor palace and married it with new magnificent Baroque elements such as Fountain Court and the magnificent new East Front.

William and Mary also transformed the gardens with extensive formal parterre de broderie (gravel paths intersected with box hedges in intricate patterns) and numerous fountains. The unsurpassed ironwork of French Huguenot (Protestant) exile Jean Tijou completed the effect and still impresses visitors today.

Illustration of a woman in the 17th century, wearing regal clothing facing the viewer

Image: Mary II, late 17th century. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Death of Mary II

On 19 December 1694, Mary became unwell at Kensington Palace, and it soon became clear she had developed Smallpox – the same disease that had claimed the life of William’s father.

The Archbishop of Canterbury informed the Queen she was dying. Mary responded that she 'had nothing then to do, but to look up to God and submit to his will'.

Mary II died in her bedchamber at Kensington Palace on 28 December 1694.

Death of William III

William was inconsolable for nearly a month after the death of his beloved wife. William planned a grand funeral at Westminster Abbey, which was incredibly costly despite William discovering late that Mary had left instructions that it should be ‘no extraordinary expense’. William’s last years were much affected by poor health including asthma, fever, shingles and stomach pains.

Early in 1702, William was thrown by his horse when it stumbled on a molehill in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace, breaking his collar bone. He may have recovered but, against his doctors' advice, he travelled to Kensington Palace where he developed pneumonia and died on 8 March 1702. When his body was undressed for burial, a ring containing a lock of Mary's hair was found tied around his arm.

A full-length portrait of Queen Anne dressed in yellow and purple, by Michael Dahl. She is painted next to a crown, sceptre and orb.

Image: Queen Anne c.1702. © National Portrait Gallery, London


Mary’s sometimes estranged younger sister Anne had been heir apparent since Mary's death in 1694. William’s last official act as King was to sign a bill excluding James II’s son from the succession. The 1701 Act of Settlement was passed aiming to secure a Protestant succession by disqualifying any Catholics from inheriting the throne. Queen Anne was crowned on St George's Day, 23 April 1702.

William and Mary's Legacy and Reputation

William and Mary are not the best-known of English monarchs, despite occupying the throne at such a formative and important moment in Britain’s history. William has been criticised for not doing enough to integrate with his new people and spending too much time on his European ambitions. However, his military reputation was also an asset to the kingdom and his careful courting and negotiating of those in parliament set a model for rule which is still influential to this day.

Mary was much more beloved by the nation and became a model of royal affection famous throughout Europe. She was instrumental in keeping the machinery of royal power working, especially in times of William's absence. Mary also did much to enhance the dignity and respectability of the royal court, which was a feature of her ambition to improve the model and spiritual health of the nation. Mary's ardent Protestant piety, like that of her husband, was a driving and defining feature of her reign.


More about William III

Searching for the Young Black Man in the Portrait of William III

A young Black man dressed in blue and gold holding a helmet stands beside William III in a portrait produced in c.1670-1832. Who was he? Where did he live and when? Why is he in the painting with William III? And how can historians unravel the mystery surrounding him?


The story of Kensington Palace

An elegant retreat for Britain's royal family

The story of Hampton Court Palace

Home of Henry VIII and the Tudor dynasty

Queen Anne

A surprisingly successful monarch, despite ill health and tragedy


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The Palace Gardens

Walk in the footsteps of royalty in the beautiful Kensington Palace gardens.

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The Queen’s State Apartments

Explore the beautiful private rooms at Kensington Palace where Mary II once took her meals, relaxed and entertained.

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The King's Staircase

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