The penultimate part in this series of blogs focuses on the last King and penultimate Monarch of the House of Hanover, King William IV. William was born on 21st August 1765, being the third son of King George III and Queen Charlotte. William was never expected to inherit the Crown. William was baptised in the Great Council Chamber of St James’s Palace on 20th September 1765. William’s godparents were his paternal uncles, the Duke of Gloucester and Prince Henry and his paternal aunt, Princess Augusta of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel.
Most of William’s early life was spent either at Richmond Palace or Kew Palace where private tutors educated him. At the early age of thirteen, William joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman and was present for the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1780 during the American War of Independence. Not only this but, during the war he also served in New York. Whilst serving in New York Prince William (as he was known then) was embroiled in a plot to kidnap him, approved by the first President of the U.S.A George Washington. Thankfully the plot did not come to fruition – after the British learnt of the plot, many guards were assigned to the Prince who had until that time, freely walked the streets of New York, alone. In 1785 William became a Lieutenant and the following year was made Captain of HMS Pegasus. The same year he was stationed in the West Indies under Horatio Nelson, William and Horatio became great friends and dined together nightly, William even insisted on giving Nelson’s bride away at his wedding! William was given command of the frigate HMS Andromeda in 1788.
In 1820 William’s Father King George III died and his elder brother the Prince Regent became King George IV. William was now second in the line of succession placed only behind his brother Frederick Duke of York. This was now a time when the prospect of William becoming King was high, both the King and Frederick had no legitimate issue to succeed them and both were very unhealthy men. When the Duke of York died in 1827, William who was over sixty years old, became heir presumptive. Also, in 1827 William was made Lord High Admiral by the incoming Prime Minister George Canning. Whilst in office William had repetitive conflicts with his Council, which was composed of Admiralty officers. These conflicts finally came to a head in 1828 when William put to sea with a fleet of ships, leaving no clue as to where they were going and remaining away for ten days. These actions caused the King (through the new Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley) to request his resignation as Lord High Admiral, with which William complied. The remaining time of King George IV’s reign, William spent in the House of Lords where he supported the Catholic emancipation bill against the opposition of his younger brother Ernest Augustus. While William was serving in the House of Lords, the King’s health continued to deteriorate and it was obvious that the King was nearing death. No matter what genuine affection William felt for George, as his brother and as King, this could not hide the rising anticipation William felt for the fact that he would soon be King.
King George IV died on 26th June 1830 and having no surviving legitimate issue, his brother succeeded him as King William IV. Aged 64, at that time he was the oldest person to assume the British throne. In contrast to King George IV, who spent most of his time at Windsor Castle, King William would often (especially during the early times of his reign) walk unaccompanied through London or Brighton, depending on where he was staying. King William IV did his utmost to endear himself to his people, he dismissed his brother’s French chefs and German band replacing them with English ones, much to the approval of the people. George IV’s painting collection was given to the nation and although his brother had begun the renovation of Buckingham Palace (formerly Buckingham House), William refused to live there and twice tried to give away the Palace, once to the Army to use as barracks and once to Parliament after the Houses of Parliament burnt down in 1834.
At the time, the death of a Monarch required fresh parliamentary elections, therefore a general election was called in 1830. The Duke of Wellington’s Tories lost ground to the Whigs under Charles Grey, although the Tories still had the largest number of seats. The Tories were bitterly divided and when Wellington was defeated in the House of Commons, Lord Grey formed a government. One of Lord Grey’s pledges was to reform the electoral system, which since the fifteenth century had seen few changes, the inequalities in the system were large, for example large towns such as Birmingham or Manchester elected no members while small boroughs (known as rotten boroughs) such as Old Sarum which only had seven voters were sending two members to parliament. It was this desire for reform that would signal the start of a crisis for King William IV.
The first reform bill of 1831 was defeated in the House of Commons and so Grey urged the King to dissolve parliament which would in turn force a general election upon the country. William was hesitant to do so, having only just come through a general election, he knew the country was in a state of over excitement, he was fearful of violence. He was though irritated by the actions of the opposition, who had announced their intention to move a passage of address against dissolution to the House of Lords. It was these actions that made King William decide to travel to the House of Lords in person to prorogue parliament, this would stop all debate and prevent the pass of an address. King William did just this, he arrived at the chamber and hastily put on his Crown and dissolved parliament there and then. Although the reformers rejoiced at the news of a fresh general election, they did not rejoice at the Second Reform Bill being rejected in October 1831, which in turn resulted in ‘Reform Riots’ across the country. In the face of these riots, Grey and his government urged the King to appoint new peers in order to get the Reform Bill passed in the House of Lords, although reluctant, King William agreed and appointed just enough peers in order to pass the Bill. On the Bill’s third attempt, it was not rejected outright by the House of Lords however they did begin to amend its basic character – once again Grey and his ministry were not happy with this and so appealed to the King, they said that if the King did not force the Bill through in its entirety then they would resign. The King refused and thus Grey resigned.
The crisis came when William decided to ask Wellington to reform his government, Wellington did not have the support like Grey did and hence the King’s popularity sank to an all time low. Rubbish was flung at his carriage and he was publicly hissed at, it was this pressure that forced King William to reappoint Grey and his ministry and to threaten to appoint more peers in order to pass the reform bill. It was this threat that ensured the Reform Act 1832 was passed without a hitch and it was the passing of this act that restored the popularity of King William IV to an all time high.
Both King William IV and Queen Adelaide were very fond of their niece, Princess Victoria of Kent. Their attempts, however, to forge a close relationship with the girl were dampened by the conflict between the King and Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent (who was married to the King’s late brother Prince Edward, Duke of Kent). The King was angry over what he saw as disrespect from the Duchess to the Queen. He took the opportunity to say what he felt at what proved to be his last birthday banquet in 1836, a speech which is dramatized in the film The Young Victoria by Jim Broadbent playing the King, he says “I trust to God that my life may be spared for nine months longer…. I should then have the satisfaction of leaving the exercise of the Royal authority to the personal authority of that young lady, heiress presumptive to the Crown, and not in the hands of a person now near me, who is surrounded by evil advisers and is herself incompetent to act with propriety in the situation in which she would be placed” The speech caused Victoria to burst in to tears and only after difficult persuasion did her mother not leave immediately after the dinner. The evil adviser the King was talking about was of course John Conroy, the Duchess’ private secretary.
Queen Adelaide attended the dying King William devotedly in 1837, not going to bed herself for more than ten days at one point. King William IV died on 20th June 1837 at Windsor Castle where he was eventually buried. His dying wish was fulfilled though, he survived just long enough for the Country to avoid a regency, the Crown passed to his brother’s daughter, Princess Victoria of Kent, who became Queen Victoria, a Queen who was of age, exactly what William wanted. Under Salic law a female could not rule Hanover so therefore the Hanoverian Crown went to William’s brother, Ernest Augustus thus ending the personal union of Britain and Hanover which had existed since 1714.
Although the reign of King William IV was short it was in no doubt eventful. The ascending power of the House of Commons and decline in the House of Lords were marked by the Reform Crisis, a crisis that could have seriously damaged the reputation of King William. In my opinion, like many of the Forgotten Monarchs, King William IV was a popular, capable and devoted Monarch of this country, it was only events out of his control that could have impacted upon his legacy. I also think we have to thank King William IV for one of our greatest monarchs ever, Queen Victoria, had it not been for his determination to avoid a regency then maybe, just maybe, the independent reign of Queen Victoria may not have happened, as we know if the evil adviser John Conroy had his way, Victoria would not have reigned by herself at all.
Before I finish, just a bit of fun trivia for readers here, although King William IV is not a direct ancestor of the later Monarchs of the United Kingdom he does have many notable descendants through his illegitimate family with his mistress Mrs Jordan, including current Prime Minister David Cameron, TV Presenter Adam Hart Davis and author Duff Cooper.
What do you think? Was King William IV a great King? Should he be forgotten at all? And just what did he bring to the role of King that others before and after him didn’t? photo credit: ell brown via photopin cc
I think he certainly was a good King- a real ‘people’s king’ to coin a well known phrase. He should definitely be remembered more, perhaps next year we can hope for a television program/documentary about him to coincide with the three hundredth anniversary of the Hanoverian succession.
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