King William IV of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, as well as the King of Hanover, was born the third son of George III and Queen Charlotte just before dawn on 21 August 1765 at Buckingham House. He only came to the throne due to the deaths of his second oldest brother, Frederick, and his niece, Princess Charlotte, the daughter and heir of his eldest brother, King George IV.
When he was thirteen he joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman, and in the true spirit of the British military, was treated mostly like any other upper-class teen who enliste, except for the fact he had to have his tutor with him to continue his education. William performed well, and didn’t try to throw his royal weight around. He accepting his duties in rotation like all the other midshipman, and he “even got arrested with his shipmates after a drunken brawl in Gibraltar”. His service wasn’t prefunctionary either. He participated in the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1780 served in New York during the American War of Independence, where George Washington actually planned to kidnap him in an attempt to strong-arm Britain.
During his naval career:
He became a lieutenant in 1785 and captain of HMS Pegasus the following year. In late 1786, he was stationed in the West Indies under Horatio Nelson, who wrote of William: “In his professional line, he is superior to two-thirds, I am sure, of the [Naval] list; and in attention to orders, and respect to his superior officer, I hardly know his equal.” The two were great friends, and dined together almost nightly. At Nelson’s wedding, William insisted on giving the bride away. He was given command of the frigate HMS Andromeda in 1788, and was promoted to rear-admiral in command of HMS Valiant the following year. William ceased his active service in the Royal Navy in 1790 … When Britain declared war on France in 1793, he was anxious to serve his country and expected a command, but was not given a ship … Despite repeated petitions, he was never given a command throughout the Napoleonic Wars. In 1811, he was appointed to the honorary position of Admiral of the Fleet. In 1813, he came nearest to any actual fighting, when he visited the British troops fighting in the Low Countries. Watching the bombardment of Antwerp from a church steeple, he came under fire, and a bullet pierced his coat.
Due to his time in the Navy, he was known as the “Sailor King” during his reign. William was made the Duke of Clarence and St Andrews and Earl of Munster on 16 May 1789 and subsequently served in the House of Lords. He was nominally a Whig, but that was mostly to get on his dad’s nerves. There were some areas, however, where he was in sympathy with the liberal Whigs; he was in favor of removing the penal laws against dissenting Christians and against the attempt to keep those found guilty of adultery in a divorce from remarrying legally.
He differed most sharply from the majority of Whigs on the issue of slavery. He had been fed a load of tripe by the slave-owning gentlefolk of the West Indies while in the Navy and he had swallowed it whole. His arguments against abolishing slavery were that 1) “the living standard among freemen in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland was worse than that among slaves”, and 2) freedom “would do the slaves little good” since the poor mites probably were smart enough to take care of themselves the way their nice owners did. These arguments are, of course, rankest bullshit based on the myth of black inferiority and the ignorance of the rapes, beatings, and inhumanity of actual slavery. Nonetheless, the arguments impressed conservatives who were unsure about the abolishing of slavery.
In his personal life, he formed an attachment with one of the leading actresses of his age, an Irish woman named Dorothea Bland, who went by the stage name of Mrs. Dorothea Jordan.
Then children— and equal numbers of sons and daughters – were born to the pair and they were all given the surname “FitzClarence“. These children have several famous descendants, including former Prime Minister David Cameron, TV presenter Adam Hart-Davis, author and statesman Duff Cooper, and the first Duke of Fife,” who married Princess Louise, herself a granddaughter of William’s niece, Queen Victoria. King George III, a (mostly) doting father who loved his grandchildren even if they were born on the wrong side of the blanket, made William the Ranger of Bushy Park, which included the manor of Bushy House, in 1797 so that William and Dorothea and their happy brood of children could live in comfort and relative seclusion.
Alas for love, after 20 years of blissful cohabitation, the couple split up in 1811 because William was head over ears in debt and decided he needed to marry a heiress to make his fortune. Dorothea was actually sorry for him. She wrote to a friend that the want of money had, “I am convinced made HIM at this moment the most wretched of men … With all his excellent qualities, his domestic virtues, his love for his lovely children, what must he not at this moment suffer?”
In fairness to William, he provided his pseudo-wife with an excellent settlement of £4,400 (roughly £287,900 in modern money) per year and “custody of her daughters on condition that she did not resume the stage. When she resumed acting in an effort to repay debts incurred by the husband of one of her daughters from a previous relationship, William took custody of the daughters and stopped paying the £1,500 (equivalent to £94,600 today) designated for their maintenance.” Sadly, when her career on stage began to falter Dorothea moved to France in an effort to outrun her debts, and died in poverty near Paris in 1816.
William spent five years after separating from Mrs Jordan trying and failing to marry a heiress. His most notable rebuff was mega-heiress Catherine Tylney-Long, who chose to marry William Wesley-Pole instead of a duke. She made the wrong choice, because William would turn out to be a good husband when he married but the more handsome and charming William Wesley-Pole proved to be a cad who beat her and spent all her money.
Marriage became an even more pressing issue when the heir to the throne, Princess Charlotte of Wales, died in childbirth in 1817. Now one of George III’s unmarried sons had to wed and produce a new heir. It was a reproductive race, and William was determined to win it.
William’s initial choices of potential wives either met with the disapproval of his eldest brother, the Prince of Wales, or turned him down. William’s younger brother Adolphus, the Duke of Cambridge, was sent to Germany to scout out the available Protestant princesses; he came up with Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel, but her father Frederick declined the match. Two months later, the Duke of Cambridge married Augusta himself. Eventually, a princess was found who was amiable, home-loving, and was willing to accept, even enthusiastically welcoming William’s nine surviving children, several of whom had not yet reached adulthood. In the Drawing Room at Kew Palace on 11 July 1818, William married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, the daughter of George I, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. At 25, Adelaide was half William’s age.
The couple were surprisingly happy together. Adelaide kept his spending in check and got him out of debt, as well as making him exercise and stop drinking. In turn, William was both faithful and good to her. The only dark spot on their marital sun was the fact they were unable to have children. Tragically, they had two daughters who died in infancy and three known miscarriages. Adelaide, however, was a loving and kind stepmother to William’s children and seems to have been in love with her husband as well.
When the his elder brother Frederick died in 1827, William became the heir presumptive to the British throne. In acknowledgement of William’s new importance, the incoming Prime Minister, George Canning, “appointed him to the office of Lord High Admiral, which had been in commission (that is, exercised by a board rather than by a single individual) since 1709.”
William was only Lord High Admiral for a year, but he did and excellent job of it. He ended whippings with a cat o’ nine tails as a punishment except in the case of mutiny, worked to improve naval gunnery, required “regular reports of the condition and preparedness of each ship”, and fought to get the first steam warship in the navy. He correctly saw steam powered ships as the future of naval warfare, much to the disgust and disagreement of his councilors. The Naval Council was so distraught and angry about the steamships that the king was pressured to ask William for his resignation. An officer and a gentleman, William complied.
King George IV died on 26 June 1830 and the 64 year old William succeeded him as King William IV.
He was initially popular with his subjects, because he was a hard worker with little love of pomp. His first Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, said that “he had done more business with King William in ten minutes than he had with George IV in as many days,” and “Lord Brougham described him as an excellent man of business”. William also got rid of the French chefs and replaced them with English cooks, much to the public’s delight.
The new king did his best for his surviving illegitimate children, but as was the Hanoverian tradition, his sons were all a pain in their father’s ass. Although he made his eldest son the Earl of Munster and gave the other kids “the precedence of a younger son (or daughter) of a marquess”, his sons griped and whined for more. The irrational demands of his sons irked the public, agreeing that the “impudence and rapacity of the FitzJordans is unexampled”. His daughters, however, we all well-liked since they were, “pretty and lively,” and could move in “society in a way that real princesses could not.”
The general election of 1830 saw an increase of Whiggish MPs under Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, and although the Tories still had the largest number of seats they were so divided that Wellington was defeated in the House of Commons, allowing Lord Grey to form a government. Grey had pledged to reform the electoral system, especially the problem of rotten or pocket boroughs, and to address several systemic inequalities, such as Catholic emancipation and the abolition of slavery.
Grey ascendance and reforms lead to a major crisis for the new king:
When the House of Commons defeated the First Reform Bill in 1831 … and at the urgent request of Lord Grey and his ministers, William IV prepared to go in person to the House of Lords and prorogue Parliament. The monarch’s arrival would stop all debate and prevent passage of the Address. When initially told that his horses could not be ready at such short notice, William is supposed to have said, “Then I will go in a hackney cab!” Coach and horses were assembled quickly and William immediately proceeded to Parliament … William hastily put on the crown, entered the Chamber, and dissolved Parliament. This forced new elections for the House of Commons, which yielded a great victory for the reformers. But although the House of Commons was clearly in favour of parliamentary reform, the House of Lords remained implacably opposed to it.
In an attempt to punish William for his interference and his demands for a modest coronation, the conservative Tories in the House of Lords threatened to boycott what they sneeringly called the “Half Crown-nation”. William, notoriously blunt, told them they were welcome to do so because it would mean a “greater convenience of room and less heat” at the ceremony. In sprite of the Tory threats, the King’s Coronation on 8 September 1831 was well attended.
The Tory nobles continued to prove difficult in parliament, however, much to the distress of William and the nation:
After the rejection of the Second Reform Bill by the Upper House in October 1831, agitation for reform grew across the country; demonstrations grew violent in so-called “Reform Riots”. In the face of popular excitement, the Grey ministry refused to accept defeat in the House of Lords, and re-introduced the Bill, which still faced difficulties in the House of Lords. Frustrated by the Lords’ recalcitrance, Grey suggested that the King create a sufficient number of new peers to ensure the passage of the Reform Bill … William reluctantly agreed to the creation of the number of peers sufficient “to secure the success of the bill” … the Lords [hoping to stave off the creation of new member] did not reject the [resubmitted] bill outright, but began preparing to change its basic character through amendments. Grey and his fellow ministers decided to resign if the King did not agree to an immediate and large creation to force the bill through in its entirety. The King refused, and accepted their resignations. The King attempted to restore the Duke of Wellington to office, but Wellington had insufficient support to form a ministry and the King’s popularity sank to an all-time low. Mud was slung at his carriage and he was publicly hissed. The King agreed to reappoint Grey’s ministry, and to create new peers if the House of Lords continued to pose difficulties. Concerned by the threat of the creations, most of the bill’s opponents abstained and the Reform Act 1832 was passed.
Grey was furthermore able to push through the Factory Act of 1833 (outlawing child labour), the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (freeing the remaining slaves in the British colonies), and the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 (which standardized government assistance for the desperately impoverished). That’s why he’s one of my all-time favorite politicians in history. Seriously, drink some of the tea named after him and wish his departed shade well; he’s earned our eternal admiration.
King William would actively intervene in politics just once, in 1834, when he forced a Prime Minister on Parliament. Lord Grey had retired and the Home Secretary, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, had replaced him. Lord Melbourne retained most of the same Cabinet members from the Grey administration, and his ministry still had an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons. Regardless of the will of the majority and the public, the leftist polices of the Whigs scared William. He was especially worried about the potential actions of Lamb’s ally, Lord John Russell, whom the King called “a dangerous little Radical.” In November 1834, the Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Charles Spencer, Viscount Althorp, became a peer and moved from the House of Commons to the Lords. Melbourne was set to replace Spencer with Russell, but William used a flimsy excuse to name a Tory, Sir Robert Peel, Leader of the House of Commons.
Peel couldn’t rule the rowdy and angry Whigs, so William dissolved Parliament to force fresh elections, hoping to put the Tories back in power. Unfortunately for the king, the Tories lost again, and William had to learn to live with both Melbourne and Russell for the rest of his reign.
The king and queen were both very fond of little Victoria, but they disliked her mother, the Duchess of Kent. To prevent the Duchess f Kent from ever becoming Regent, the king was determined to survive until Victoria’s 18th birthday, the 24 May 1837. Poor William almost almost didn’t make it, however, when his eldest daughter Sophia, Lady de L’Isle and Dudley, died in childbirth that April.
The king, already frail, was prostrate with grief. Only sheer force of will kept him alive for the next two months.
As the king lay dying in June, Queen Adelaide attended him with unshakable devotion, staying by his bedside without rest for more than ten days. King William IV died in the early hours of the morning of 20 June 1837 at Windsor Castle, where he was buried as he had wished – simply. He really doesn’t get enough credit for his good sense and well-managed reign.