Willem was the son of King Willem II and Anna Paylovna of Russia and on the death of his father in 1849, he succeeded as king of the Netherlands where ruled until his death in 1890.
William III was a man of immense stature with a boisterous voice, standing at 6’5″ (196 cm) he was an exceptionally large and strong man. Known to be a philanderer he had several dozen illegitimate children from various mistresses. He could be gentle and kind, then suddenly he could become intimidating and even violent. He was inclined to terrorize and humiliate his courtiers and servants. His ministers were afraid of him and most people around him agreed that he was, to some degree, insane.
He married his first cousin, Sophie, daughter of King William I of Württemberg and Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna of Russia on 18 June 1839. This 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. Whereas William was simpler, more conservative, and loved the military. His extramarital enthusiasms, however, led the New York Times to call him “the greatest debaucher of the age”. Another cause of marital tension (and later political tension) was his capriciousness as he could rage against someone one day and be extremely polite the next.
After years of turmoil, Sophie and Willem mutually wished to have a divorce, but a divorce was seen as an impossible scandal because of their position. By the mediation of Prince Frederick of the Netherlands, a formal separation without divorce was finalized in 1855, and it was decided that the couple was to remain formally married in public, but allowed to live separate lives in practice. Willem was to be given full right to decide about the upbringing of their eldest son, who would become King, while Sophie was given full custody of their youngest. Sophie was to fulfill her representational duties as Queen in public, but allowed to live her private life as she wished.
Sophie was an unusual queen with her left leaning political opinions and scientific interests, and her non-dogmatic views on religion, her support for progressive development and her disdain for etiquette gave her the soubriquet “la reine rouge” (‘The Red Queen’). Sophie died at Huis ten Bosch Palace in the Hague in 1877 and she was buried in her wedding dress, because, in her own view, her life had ended on the day she married.
During his reign, the king became more and more unpopular with his bourgeois-liberal subjects, his whims provoking their resistance and mockery, but he remained quite popular with the common people.
Willem III had two sons by his marriage with Sophia, Willem (1841–1879), and Alexander (1843–1884). Both of them died unmarried and the death of Prince Alexander left the house of Orange without a direct male heir. After the death of Queen Sophia in 1877 the prospect of a disputed succession was averted by the marriage of the king in 1879 with the twenty year old princess Emma of Waldeck-Pyrmont, who managed to produce an heir.
From this union a daughter, Wilhelmina, was born in 1880. In 1888 and 1889, the ailing king became increasingly demented and died in 1890. On her father’s death Wilhelmina succeeded him as Queen of the Netherlands and ruled for the next 58 years until her death in 1948.
Abandoned and forgotten, a magnificent bronze bust of King Willem III lies in a side garden and usually behind a locked door, in the rear of the former Dutch Colonial headquarters on the island of Pulau Banda in Eastern Indonesia. Perhaps he should be rescued and brought back to the Netherlands,
A most engaging story.