Willem – who would later become King Willem I – was the oldest son of Stadtholder Willem V and Wilhelmina of Prussia. The ambitious prince was frequently in conflict with his indecisive father. After the French army invaded the Netherlands in 1795, the family left for England and later Germany, where they lived in exile.
In 1810 the Netherlands became part of the French Empire governed by the Emperor Napoleon. When Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Leipzig (Germany) in 1813 Willem was asked to return to the Netherlands, where he was proclaimed sovereign prince. Napoleon came to power again in 1815, but suffered his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo (today Belgium) in 1815. Later that year Willem I was invested as the first King of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, which consisted of the Netherlands and today’s Belgium. He was the first member of the House of Orange to hold this position. He also became Grand Duke of Luxembourg.
In 1830 the restless southern Netherlands declared independence. Willem I sent troops, but was unable to prevent Belgium from becoming independent. It was not until 1839 that Willem I officially recognised the country’s independence. In 1840, filled with disappointment, he abdicated at Paleis Het Loo.
After the death of his first wife Wilhelmina of Prussia Willem married Henriette d’Oultremont, a lady-in-waiting from Belgium, for which he received heavy criticism. Willem and Henriette moved to Berlin, where he lived until his death.