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William IV

William IV (1765–1837) king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1830–7), king of Hanover. The third son of George III, born 21 August 1765, he seemed unlikely to become king. He entered the navy at 13 as a midshipman and soon demonstrated that despite enthusiasm for the service, his talents were limited and his manners rough. He saw active service in the War of American Independence, and became a warm admirer and friend of Nelson, but his naval service was accompanied by a private life which was far from respectable. George III's first serious illness led to the prince's return home in 1789. He now became duke of Clarence. In 1790 he met Mrs Jordan, an actress, with whom he was to live for many years and who bore him ten children. Although he received promotions to rear-admiral, vice-admiral, and in 1799 admiral, the navy refused his pleas for a return to active service. His long affair with Mrs Jordan ended acrimoniously in 1811, the year in which he became admiral of the fleet. In 1814 he briefly hoisted his flag at sea, commanding the naval escort for Louis XVIII's return to France from his English exile. The death of George IV's daughter Princess Charlotte in 1818 led to William's marriage to Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, a widowed Bavarian princess. The marriage was a generally happy one, with Adelaide taking care of William's illegitimate children. The duke of Kent died in 1820, leaving a single daughter, Victoria, and the duke of York, George III's second son, died without issue in 1827. George IV's health was failing. William, by now the probable successor, was already in his sixties. In 1827 he was given the resurrected dignity of lord high admiral, intended as an honorific title, but his clumsy attempts to make its nominal authority effective led to his resignation after only fifteen months. He had made serious errors of judgement, but he had also tried to improve naval gunnery, reform the promotion system, and limit flogging. He had also helped the navy to obtain its first steam vessel, the Lightning. George IV died on 26 June 1830, and ‘Silly Billy’ became king, with little in the way of helpful previous experience. He had occasionally spoken in the House of Lords, showing himself more liberal than most of his brothers, supporting catholic emancipation and opposing slavery. He marked his accession by the conferment of titles on his illegitimate children, and exhibited an obvious and sometimes undignified zest for his new role. He also showed a willingness to work hard and an antipathy to extravagance, both of them contrasting with the attitudes of his predecessor. He inherited a political crisis, as the end of a long period of Tory ascendancy approached and Wellington's government faltered. Unlike George IV, William had no objection to Whig ministers, telling his new premier Lord Grey that he had ‘complete confidence in your integrity, judgement, decision and experience’. During the reform crisis of 1831–2, he facilitated the enactment of that Great Reform Act which was crucial in ensuring the peaceful evolution of Britain. William's enthusiasm for change was limited, and in November 1834, having tired of his Whig ministers and disliking the unscrupulous political manœuvres of men like Brougham and Russell, he dismissed the government and recalled the Tories under Peel. This proved a premature and unsuccessful ploy. The new government made gains at the ensuing general election, but not a majority, and William was forced to take the Whig ministers back again for the remainder of his reign. William's relations with his sister-in-law, the widowed duchess of Kent, Princess Victoria's mother, were difficult. He was determined to survive to see the young princess achieve her majority and so prevent her mother's regency. He lived for a month after Victoria's 18th birthday and died on 20 June 1837. His young successor wrote of him, ‘Whatever his faults may have been, … he was not only zealous but most conscientious in the discharge of his duties as a king. He had a truly kind heart and was most anxious to do what was right.’

Norman McCord

Bibliography

Ziegler, P. , King William IV (1971).

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William IV

William IV

William IV (1765-1837), called the "Sailor King" and "Silly Billy," was king of Great Britain and Ireland from 1830 to 1837. He reigned during the struggle over the great Reform Bill, and his actions helped to establish important constitutional precedents.

William Henry, third son of George III, was born at Buckingham Palace on Aug. 21, 1765. The shortest of the royal brothers and closely resembling his mother, Queen Charlotte, William was perhaps the least physically attractive of the Hanoverians. He was, however, the best-natured, bluff, hearty, and un-assuming. Like that of all the children of George III, his early childhood was sheltered, and he was educated by tutors. At the age of 13, however, he was launched on a not unsuccessful naval career, which probably accentuated his basic personality traits. He rose to the rank of rear admiral, seeing active service in America and the West Indies, and became a fast friend of the future Lord Nelson.

William's active naval career ended in 1790, and until he ascended the throne 40 years later, his life was spent in retirement. Like his brothers, he sought solace in love. Until 1817 he lived happily with the actress Mrs. Dorothea Jordan, producing ten illegitimate children. The death of Princess Charlotte, the daughter of his eldest brother, changed William's life. He was now third in line for the throne, after the older brothers George, who served as regent from 1811 to his accession in 1820, and the Duke of York. In 1818 William married the German princess Adelaide; it was a most happy marriage. The Duke of York died in 1827, and on George IV's death in 1830 William IV ascended the throne.

The new king was more than a little eccentric, but his reputation as a "character" probably did him no harm, and his informality gained him considerable popularity. William did his best to be a strictly constitutional monarch, and, despite his personal fears of parliamentary reform, he firmly supported his ministers, save on one occasion. That was in May 1832, when William faltered over packing the House of Lords to carry the Reform Bill and tried to bring in a Tory ministry. Neither the House of Commons nor the country would have it, and William had to give way and bring back Lord Grey. It was a clear indication that a king could no longer actually appoint his own ministers. And the lesson was underlined by William's unsuccessful attempt in 1834-1835 to replace the Whig Lord Melbourne by the Tory Sir Robert Peel, again against the wishes of a majority in the House of Commons.

By and large, however, William demonstrated a strong sense of reality, and he was always ready to yield to necessity. These qualities, which were not marked in his Hanoverian predecessors, were undoubtedly of the first importance in carrying the British monarchy over a most difficult period. By the time he died on June 20, 1837, William had done much to restore the tarnished reputation of the crown which George IV had left him.

Further Reading

W. Gore Allen, King William IV (1960), is a recent biography, but uneven in quality. A charming short treatment of William is in Roger Fulford, Hanover to Windsor (1960). Asa Briggs, The Making of Modern England, 1783-1867 (1959), gives an excellent, balanced account of the political background.

Additional Sources

Marples, Morris, Wicked uncles in love, London, Joseph, 1972.

Pocock, Tom, Sailor King: the life of King William IV, London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991.

Somerset, Anne, The life and times of William IV, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980. □

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William IV (king of Great Britain and Ireland)

William IV, 1765–1837, king of Great Britain and Ireland (1830–37), third son of George III. He went to sea in 1779, served under Admiral George Rodney in action off Cape St. Vincent (1780), and by 1786 was a captain. William became duke of Clarence in 1789 and was advanced by 1799 to the rank of admiral, but he saw little active service after 1790. Meanwhile in the House of Lords he opposed the antislavery movement and supported the extravagances of his oldest brother (later George IV). About 1791 he formed a liaison with Mrs. Jordan, an actress, with whom he lived for over 20 years. He married (1818) Adelaide, daughter of the duke of Saxe-Meiningen, and on the death (1827) of the duke of York, second son of George III, he became heir presumptive to the throne. Made lord high admiral in 1827, he tried to run naval affairs without his council, contrary to law, and was forced to resign (1828). In 1830 he succeeded George IV as king. His most important public act was his promise, given most reluctantly, to the 2d Earl Grey that he would, if necessary, create enough Whig peers to pass the Reform Bill of 1832 (see under Reform Acts). This bill and such reforms as the education act, the new poor law, the municipal corporations act, and the abolition of slavery in the empire marked his reign, but he maintained the generally passive attitude toward politics formed during his many years as younger son and later younger brother of the king. Political leadership was left to the duke of Wellington, Earl Grey, Viscount Melbourne, and Sir Robert Peel. Good-natured but eccentric and given to ill-considered public utterances, William was only moderately popular. He was succeeded by his niece, Victoria.

See biographies by W. G. Allen (1960) and P. Ziegler (1971).

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William IV

William IV (1765–1837) King of Great Britain and Ireland and Elector of Hanover (1830–37). Third son of George III, he succeeded unexpectedly at the age of 65, after a long career in the navy. Nicknamed ‘Silly Billy’, he was well-meaning though unkingly. He assisted the passage of the Great Reform Bill (1832), by creating new peers to give the government a majority in the House of Lords.

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