For the most part of the nineteenth century, advocates of male love fell back on references to famous homosexuals from the past. These overviews often mentioned viceroy-king Willem III. Quickly after taking office in the United Kingdom, it became a custom to ridicule him for his alleged homosexuality. Therefore, this aspect of his personality was known among intellectuals.
In his voluminous “Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes” (1914), Dr Magnus Hirschfeld wrote: “Willem III, prince of Orange, later King of England, 1650-1702. His passion for Bentinck, the later Duke of Portland, in whose arms he died. See the letters of the Duchess Elisabeth Charlotte von der Pfalz of October 12, November 4 and December 13, 1701 [...], who also mentions his favorites and other British homosexuals.” In a biography, recently published by Boom, it appears that his descendant King Willem II (1792-1849) could also have been included in this kind of surveys.
After the French occupiers had been chased away in 1813, Willem Frederik Prince of Orange-Nassau was crowned King Willem I of The Netherlands. So, in 2013, it was celebrated that the Royal House of Orange was ruling The Netherlands for two hundred years. In 2007 and on the occasion of this jubilee, then Queen Beatrice gave three historians permission to open up the archives of the royal family for biographies of the first three kings. As Willem II was only king for nine years, from 1840 until his death in 1849, his rule did not get as much attention as those who ruled for much longer periods of time before and after him. Very wrongly, according to his biographer Jeroen van Zanten, who remarked in an interview with newspaper “de Volkskrant”: “He led a very adventurous life. In addition to which, he is extremely interesting for leaving autobiographical notes. A prince and king with self-reflection!” Van Zanten also discovered that a group of Liberals put pressure on him because of his “bisexuality.”
When The Netherlands became a kingdom in 1813, this was a repeat of a form of government that had existed in the French period, when Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, the younger brother of French emperor Napoleon I, ruled The Netherlands as king from 1806 to 1810. One of the important developments during French rule was the adoption of French legislation, replacing the Dutch criminal law. Because of this, sexual acts between men were no longer punishable, a situation that lasted exactly one hundred years. That same-sex activities were no longer punishable does not mean they were socially accepted, as the case of Willem II shows.
The parliamentary system of government we now know in The Netherlands was shaped in the revolutionary year 1848, in which The Netherlands got a new Constitution. This shifted the omnipotence of the king to ministerial responsibility, and the Dutch Lower House would be chosen directly. For a long time, the notion – encouraged by the king himself – prevailed that Willem II became a Liberal overnight and agreed with these developments. However, his biographer says in “de Volkskrant”: “Willem II already was a Liberal. The fact that he eventually did sign the Constitution can partly be attributed to blackmail by Liberals who knew about his bisexuality.” At that moment, the incarcerated German Petrus Janssen, who had had an intense friendship with the king, had started writing a continuous flow of letters to the elite in which he threatened to expose all the details of his “relation” with Willem II if they would release him from jail. Minister Baud described this as “terrorismus” that was “burdening” the king. They acted boldly: Janssen received a yearly allowance for life of 1500 guilders, and confidants of the king were ordered to make Janssen “leave Europe post-haste.” Initially, they tried to ban him to Rio de Janeiro, but the United States of America turned out to be a better alternative.
With Janssen’s departure overseas, the source of the problems was gone, but these were not neutralized. Because of the shower of letters, a lot of people had become aware of the king’s preference, including the Liberal opposition. It was not the first time Willem was in danger of becoming discredited. Ever since 1819, disclosures were regularly bought off. In that year, two officers demanded sixty-three thousand guilders. Otherwise, they would reveal the details of the romantic relationship between the then crown prince and his aide-de-camp Ernest Albéric Henri Marie Joseph. Twenty years after this incident, Willem was the victim of a brutal robbery by two Belgians, who threatened to rob him of his masculinity, and expose his “immoral” conduct in life. This threat was only bought off ten years later. Of course, journalists were bound to pick up from the grapevine. At times, they also got paid not to publish.
Van Zanten can now conclude from the records that the crucial and radical step towards democratic renewal by the king, who had been a part of the preparations for this new Constitution, but found direct elections of the Lower House hard to swallow, has to be seen in the light of possible revelations about his “friendships with men”: “The group around [Liberal politician and later Minister] Donker Curtius swept the Janssen affair under the carpet, but also put pressure on the king to take that radical step,” says the historian in “de Volkskrant.” Showing all too clearly that the personal is often political, and that royalty can also be fired with enthusiasm for their own gender, despite of the consequences.