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Willem III (Willem Alexander Paul Frederik Lodewijk; February 19, 1817 – November 23, 1890) was King of the Netherlands and Grand Duke of Luxembourg from 1849 until his death in 1890. He was also the Duke of Limburg from 1849 until the abolition of the duchy in 1866.

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Willem was born on February 19, 1817 in the Palace of the Nation in Brussels, which was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands at the time. He was the eldest son of the future king Willem II of the Netherlands and Anna Pavlovna of Russia, daughter of Paul I of Russia and Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg. He had three brothers, one of whom died in infancy, and one sister.

Willem married in Stuttgart on June 18, 1839 his first cousin, Sophie, daughter of King Wilhelm I of Württemberg and Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna of Russia, daughter of Paul I of Russia and Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg.

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Sophie of Württemberg.

The marriage was unhappy and was characterized by struggles about their children. Sophie was a liberal intellectual, hating everything leaning toward dictatorship, such as the army. Willem III was simpler, more strongly conservative, and loved the military. He prohibited intellectual exercise at home, for which action Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, who corresponded with Princess Sophie, called him an uneducated farmer.

Willem III comes across as a very unlikable person. His extramarital affairs, however, led the New York Times to call him “the greatest debauchee of the ages.” Another cause of marital tension (and later political tension) was his capriciousness; he could rage against someone one day, and be extremely polite the next.

The king was a man of immense stature and with a boisterous voice. Standing at 6’5″ (196 cm) he was an exceptionally large and strong man by the standards of his age. Willem III was known to be a philanderer and had several dozen illegitimate children from various mistresses. He could be gentle and kind, then suddenly he could become intimidating and even violent. He kicked and hit his servants about. He was inclined to terrorize and humiliate his courtiers. The king was cruel to animals as well. His ministers were afraid of him. Most people around him agreed that he was, to some degree, insane.

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The king could be erratic, he ordered the dismissal and even the arrest and execution of those that he found in lack of respect, including a Mayor of The Hague. Orders like these were disregarded. The king who thought of himself as a specialist on all matters military frequently tried to take command of manoeuvres, creating chaos wherever he went.

Willem III as a staunch Conservative and therefore loathed the 1848 Liberal constitutional changes initiated by his father (Willem II) and Johan Rudolf Thorbecke. His father saw them as key to the monarchy’s survival in changing times. Sophie, who was a strong Liberal and she shared the views of Willem II and Thorbecke. Willem III himself saw them as useless limitations of royal power, and would have preferred to govern as an enlightened despot in the mold of his grandfather, Willem I, and other royal figures such as Friedrich II The Great of Prussia and Catherine II The Great of Russia.

Because of the growing trend toward Liberalism, Willem III was even reluctant to take the crown. He considered relinquishing his right to the throne to his younger brother Henry and later to his older son. His mother convinced him to cancel this action. The Dutch constitution provided no way to relinquish one’s claim to the throne.

On March 17, 1849 his father died and Willem succeeded to the throne of the Netherlands. He was at that moment a guest of the Duchess of Cleveland in Raby Castle. Representatives of the Dutch government traveled to London to meet their new king in London. Willem was reluctant to return, but he was convinced to do so. Upon arrival the new Queen welcomed her spouse with the question “did you accept?”. The new king nodded, but he remained uncertain about the matter for some time.

In 1877, Queen Sophie died and years of war in the palace came to an end. In the same year, King Willem III announced his intention to marry Émilie Ambre, a French opera singer, whom he ennobled as countess d’Ambroise – without government consent. Under pressure from society and the government, he abandoned these marriage plans.

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Willem III and Emma of Waldeck and Pyrmont, Queen Consort of the Netherlands.

Willem remained eager to remarry. In 1878, he first proposed to his niece, Princess Elisabeth of Saxe-Weimar. He then considered marriage with Princess Pauline of Waldeck and Pyrmont, a small German principality, and Princess Thyra of Denmark, who had her own private scandalous history. He finally decided to marry Pauline’s younger sister Emma, the fourth daughter of Georg Viktor, Prince of Waldeck and Pyrmont, and Princess Helena of Nassau. Some politicians were quite angry, as she was 41 years the king’s junior. Emma showed herself, however, as a cordial woman. Willem III asked permission from parliament, this was easily granted. The couple were quickly married in Arolsen on January 7, 1879.

Emma had a positive influence on Willem’s capricious personality and the marriage was extremely happy. The last decade was without any doubt the best of his reign. The king had stopped interfering with most aspects of government. In 1880, Wilhelmina was born.

King Willem III had had three sons with his first wife, Sophie of Württemberg: Willem, Prince of Orange (1840–1879), Maurits (1843–1850), and Alexander (1851–1884) but two of them had died before Wilhelmina’s birth, and the third brother also died before she turned four. None of them had ever married. The only other surviving male member of the House of Orange was the King’s uncle, Prince Frederick of the Netherlands, but he had no son either, only daughters, and he died in 1881 when Wilhelmina was one year old.

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Young Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.

By 1887, the King, now seventy years of age, finally abandoned hope of a son with his young wife, and made the pragmatic decision to settle the throne upon his only daughter. Under the Semi-Salic system of inheritance that was in place in the Netherlands until 1887, she was third in line to the throne from birth. When Prince Frederick died a year later in 1881, she became second in line. When Wilhelmina was four, Alexander died and the young girl became heir presumptive.

King Willem III died on November 23, 1890. Although ten-year-old Wilhelmina became queen of the Netherlands instantly, her mother, Emma, was named regent.