William IV

views updated May 14 2018


WILLIAM IV (1765–1837), king of Great Britain and Ireland (1830–1837) and king of Hanover (1830–1837).

William Henry was the third son of George III and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. In 1779 he was sent to sea as a midshipman in the hope that the Royal Navy would instill disciplined habits and offer him a career of public service. He saw action against the Spaniards off Cape St. Vincent, and subsequently his competence as a naval officer won the approval of his superiors who included Horatio Nelson. From 1783 to 1785 he resided in Hanover. In 1789 he became duke of Clarence and St. Andrews and earl of Munster. He played no part in the French Wars that commenced in 1793, and his promotion to admiral in 1798 was a formality. He resumed an active connection with the Navy in 1827 when he was appointed lord high admiral, but he clashed with members of his advisory council and resigned.

From 1791 William cohabited with Dorothy Jordan, an actress. A caring father, he fostered the marital and career prospects of their ten children (surnamed FitzClarence). William terminated his relationship with Jordan in 1811, and in 1818 he married Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. Although their children died in early infancy, the marriage was a happy one. William had no cultural or intellectual interests. His undignified appearance and eccentric mannerisms, together with behavior and language that smacked of the quarterdeck, attracted ridicule in polite society, but his bluff geniality contributed to the popularity he enjoyed at various times during his reign.

William became king in 1830 on the death of his brother, George IV. He played a major part in two episodes that altered the British constitution. The first of these was the struggle for the Reform Act by which Earl Grey's Whig government enlarged the parliamentary electorate in 1832 and removed some anomalies from the representative system. Wishing to restrict the extent of the change and abate controversy, William would have preferred to see the legislation carried by a coalition of Whigs and Tories or by a Tory government, but at two crucial junctures he supported his Whig ministers in the face of strenuous Tory opposition. He deferred to their insistence on a general election in 1831 at which they won a majority in the House of Commons, and, when the Tories blocked the legislation in the House of Lords, he agreed to create enough Whig peers to pass the Reform Act if the Tory lords persisted in their opposition. The threat was enough to carry the day, setting a precedent for the subordination of the House of Lords to the wishes of the House of Commons. William's popularity during the controversy was indicated by an illustration in The Extraordinary Black Book, a radical tract that contained an illustration showing a people's king surrounded by ministers who were "Friends of Reform, Foes of Revolution."

The second episode counteracted this favorable impression. Alarmed by the liberalism of his ministers and encouraged by Tory sympathizers, who included his wife and some of his children, William dismissed the Whigs in 1834 and installed a Tory government led by Sir Robert Peel. He was emboldened by a precedent from the years 1783 and 1784 when his father had ousted a Whig-dominated coalition and appointed a more congenial government that was confirmed in office by a general election. William miscalculated; at the ensuing general election, the voters rejected the Tories. William had to endure the humiliation of reinstating the Whigs, who not only pursued policies that were repugnant to him but also took the opportunity to restrict the hostile activities of his court circle. It was the last time that a British monarch dismissed a government with a House of Commons majority.

William's enthusiasm for reform was always limited. Before coming to the throne he had supported Catholic emancipation but defended the institution of slavery. During the crisis that attended the passing of the Reform Act he was reluctant to depart from the eighteenth-century constitutional theory that envisaged a balance of power between the monarchy, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. After 1832 he attempted to protect the privileges of the Protestant church establishment in Ireland, and he regarded the activities of the Irish nationalist leader Daniel O'Connell as little better than treasonous. William also disagreed with his ministers' policy of supporting liberals in Portugal, Spain, and other parts of continental Europe.

The last years of his reign were uneventful. William died in 1837 and was buried in Windsor Castle. He was succeeded in the United Kingdom by his niece, Victoria, and in Hanover, where the Salic law of succession excluded women from the throne, by his brother, Ernest Augustus.

See alsoGeorge IV; Great Britain; Wellington, Duke of (Arthur Wellesley); Whigs.


Brock, Michael G. The Great Reform Act. London, 1973. The standard work on the 1832 Reform Act.

Newbould, Ian. Whiggery and Reform, 1830–1841. London, 1990. A modern study of the Whig reformers of the 1830s.

Ziegler, Philip. King William IV. London, 1971. A biography that draws on the royal archives and other major primary sources.

Alex Tyrrell

William IV

views updated Jun 11 2018

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


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

William IV

views updated May 21 2018

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. □

William IV

views updated May 21 2018

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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