Places to visit

William of Orange
and the French-Belgian border

Dutch Prince William of Orange became the English king William III after the 'Glorious Revolution' in 1688; he and his wife, Mary, were cousins - both grandchildren of English king Charles I. William is pictured in armour - he was one of the last English monarchs to lead his troops in battle (the last was George II fighting the French at Dettingen in 1743).

William was a life-long opponent of French king Louis XIV (right), and won his grudging respect as a most able general and diplomat.

The Man who shaped the frontier
Dutch prince William of Orange (1650-1702) spent his life fighting French king Louis XIV's plans to capture most of the crumbling Spanish empire in the Netherlands. But for William's opposition, northern France might have included most of Belgium and Luxembourg...

As "stadholder" - chosen ruler of the Dutch republic - he organised and led their army to make it an effective fighting force against the French - saving Holland's hard-won independence (finally recognised in 1648 after 80 years of fighting)

Contemporary English pamphlet welcoming a replacement for the unpopular catholic king James II

Anti-French Alliances
He made alliances that checked the expansion of France. He married English king James II's daughter, Mary (see pictures above), in the hope of getting England's help for the Dutch cause. Both were protestants. In 1688 the English parliament invited Mary to take over from her father, a Catholic whose attempts to favour catholics had aroused great suspicions. Mary insisted that her husband should be king. James fled to France, where Louis XIV supported the "Jacobites" continuing attempts to re-capture the English throne.

Battle tactics in the 17th century
1. Battle of the Boyne 1690 - William's famous victory in Ireland saved Ulster protestants besieged in Londonderry by James and the French.
2. Siege of Londonderry 3. Siege train: teams of horses were needed to move the heavy cannons and their supplies of cannonballs into place

When he became king of England, William was already an experienced battle-hardened general from years of fighting in Flanders. He brought in foreign soldiers, and set about reorganising the English army to fight the threat from France. Despite Parliament's reluctance, it was the first time that England kept a standing army - the Bank of England was started to lend the government money to pay for the expensive wars against the French.
In Flanders, wars typically meant sieges - and this was repeated in Ireland, where James tried to stage a come-back. An army would encircle a town, cutting off supplies and reinforcements, and bombarding it from large and quite crude cannons
(hidden behind baskets in picture above). Hand-to-hand fighting was with a mixture of old and new weapons: swords, pistols and rifles.

Sea battles

Battle of Beachy Head, 1690: the French sank 5 ships of the combined English and Dutch fleets, but had not made preparations to follow up any victory with an invasion.

Jean-Bart - France's 'Sir Francis Drake' - this famous French privateer was licensed and financed by Louis XIV to raid English and Dutch shipping from his base in Dunkerque [shown here on a boot polish ad!].

East of Brest, France had no harbour capable of taking large battleships - only small ports which were too shallow at low tide. If the French fleet ventured into the Channel, a west wind would give them no refuge in French territory until Dunkerque. The English fleet had naval bases at Plymouth, Portsmouth and Chatham. So French admirals were reluctant to bring the fleet into the Channel.

In 1690, they did so while William was busy in Ireland with the army and part of the fleet. An inconclusive French victory in the battle of Beachy Head caused great alarm in London.

In 1692 the fleets met again at La Hogue, off the Normandy coast. This time,Louis had an army ready but the English and Dutch had twice as many ships. After a week of fighting within range of French shore batteries, the French fleet was defeated.After that Louis XIV laid up his battleships, and concentrated on land campaigns. French seamen were encouraged to join fleets of privateers - smaller boats based in the Channel ports. English battleships could not prevent these swift "pirates" - like the famous Jean Bart -raiding Dutch and English shipping in the North Sea and down the Channel - they caused great disruption.

Defensive fortifications - Vauban
1. Gravelines - still ready for a 17th century-style siege. 2. French master military engineer, Vauban. 3. Le Quesnoy - a complete walled town from the period

Most towns in Flanders had walls from the Middle Ages. So many were besieged in the fighting between France, Spain and Holland that more elaborate fortifications were built to help them withstand "modern" weapons. Country people in the region were used to being driven from their cottages to huddle in a besieged town, while the attacking army looted their farms. In the town they faced death by starvation, fire or cannonball - unless their own forces came to relieve them in time.

Carlos II of Spain - died in 1700

Settling France's northern border
In 1700 the Spanish king died without a direct heir. His crumbling, weakened empire included Spain, the Netherlands and huge areas of Mexico and Latin America. There were claims from France (Louis' grandson), a German, and an Austrian.

There had already been discussions about splitting up the Spanish Empire: Louis realised that the rest of Europe did not want Spain to be merged with France, and France could not afford more wars. But William died in 1702, and the "War of the Spanish Succession" ended in 1713 with the French withdrawing to more-or-less the present borders, and Austria taking over what was left, apart from the Dutch republic. The alliance which William put together had finally succeeded in securing Dutch independence, and limiting the expansion of France in the north.


Places to visit:
Historic fortifications network

Related background information
Vauban - French military engineer
History of Flanders - how it came to be Spanish
Jean Bart - French corsair based in Dunkerque, fought against William




A-Z © Copyright 2000 Invicta Media Last updated 25th May 2002 - 24/2/2000