William IV was the man who left his throne to Queen Victoria but he was king for just seven years and heir to the throne for only three years before that. And yet he holds the record, at the moment, as the oldest person ever to inherit the British crown. William IV was a truly unexpected king but a good one, a popular one and a man whose reputation continues to grow. In many ways he laid the foundations for the reign of Victoria and without his brief stint as monarch, her long rule as queen may well have been much more difficult. He is a fairy godfather to the modern British Monarchy.
He was born William Henry on June 21st 1765 at what is now Buckingham Palace but was then known as Buckingham House. He was the third son of George III and his queen, Charlotte, and was never expected to rule for there were two older brothers ahead of him in the line of succession. He was educated by private tutors before joining the Royal Navy at the age of thirteen. In some ways, this newly teenage prince had found the true love of his life.
Prince William served in the American War of Independence and his experience there shows how the life of royalty at the time was changing. On his arrival in America, he had experienced the same freedoms as his fellow sailors, walking out unguarded and living the same day to day life as them. But there were then reports of a plot to kidnap William, supposedly approved by George Washington. and after that the prince was given guards as he went about his life and work. It was one way in which the change from the old ways of the crown to the modern royal life we know now began to happen around this Prince William.
But naval life wasn’t just a way to keep this royal brother occupied. William was good at his calling and in 1786 was given his own ship to command. As Captain of HMS Pegasus he would serve in several places including Canada and the West Indies where he came under the command of Admiral Nelson who was very impressed by this royal sailor writing of him ”in attention to orders, and respect to his superior officer, I hardly know his equal.”
He was made a Rear-Admiral in 1789 but by then his life was beginning to change. Aware that his time in the Navy was drawing to a close, William began to look to his future and as he contemplated leaving the sea behind he asked his father to make him a duke. His older brothers were already members of the House of Lords and William wanted a piece of that action but George III was less keen. And that’s when William showed another streak of what we might think of as a modern phenomenen – he tried a bit of spin. This prince declared he would stand for parliament to make his voice heard. His royal papa was horrified and when William left the Navy in 1790 he began his new life as Duke of Clarence and St Andrews.
He also began a new chapter in his personal life for not long afterwards he met an actress called Dorothea Bland and the two set up home together. William’s new partner was very well known under the stage name Mrs Jordan and she had already had a successful and high profile career by the time they got together. She had also had several relationships and four children with two different men. Mrs Jordan was famous in her own right and she and William became a celebrity couple. With limited pressure on him, as third in line to the throne, to produce legitimate heirs, William set about setting up a family with Mrs Jordan. Their ten children took the name FitzClarence and became mini celebrities themselves.
While his eldest brother, George, took on more responsibilities for their ailing father and had a daughter of his own, Charlotte, who was second in the line of succession, William carved a high political profile for himself with several well known speeches in the House of Lords. He made several passionate contributions to the debate on the war with France which was declared in 1793 and he won popular support for his opposition to laws against members of non conformist Christian traditions. But he caused huge controversy with his outbursts against those who wanted to abolish slavery and once labelled the famous reformer, William Wilberforce, as a ‘fanatic or hypocrite’. Despite that he remained popular in general, partly because of his relaxed and charming personality which contrasted with the sometimes haughty demeanour of his brother, George.
But the tragic loss of George’s daughter in childbirth in 1817 changed William’s life and destiny forever. Princess Charlotte of Wales had been the only legitimate grandchild of George III and now his line was in danger of running out. William, along with two of his younger brothers, headed off to Europe to find a bride.
By then, Mrs Jordan was history. Their relationship had ended in 1811 – she said money was the cause of their split – and part of their separation settlement had been an agreement that she would never act again. When one of her son-in-laws ran into debt in 1814 she did take to the stage to pay off his creditors – William had stripped her of her allowance and she had fled to France where she died in relative poverty in 1815.
In 1818, the Duke of Clarence took tea with a German princess called Adelaide at Grillon’s Hotel in London. They liked one another well enough to agree to the marriage that the British Crown so desperately needed and the couple wed a week later. The new Duchess of Clarence was almost thirty years younger than her husband but they made a good pairing. However, Adelaide suffered several miscarriages and had several stillborn children. The couple did have two daughters but both little Charlotte and her sister, Elizabeth, died very young.
Despite a lack of legitimate heir, William was being propelled closer to the Crown. When his brother finally became George IV, William moved to second in line to the throne, behind his brother Frederick, but when he died in 1827 it became clear that William would be king. And he clearly took his destiny seriously – the wild parties, the heavy drinking, the profligate spending that had coloured so much of his life disappeared. He ate healthily, rarely drank and threw himself even more heavily into politics. His tenure as heir to the throne may have been short but he lived every moment of it in preparation for the duty that was now clearly going to belong to him. In May 1830, the seriously ill George IV told his little brother that ”God’s will be done. I have injured no man. It will all rest on you then.” And it did. George IV died on June 26th that year and the Duke of Clarence became King William IV.
The new monarch was popular, again due in part to his personality and charm which won far more fans than either his brother or his father had ever had. And his dedication to duty continued as he took on the responsibilities of being king with the Duke of Wellington, his first Prime Minister, saying William worked far harder than George IV ever had. He promoted a simpler form of monarchy with an almost low key coronation and lived far more discreetly than his brother who had become known for his extravagance. His queen was also popular and the two provided a period of calm following the public fights between George IV and his consort, Caroline.
Perhaps one of William’s most useful traits was being a good learner and early on in his reign he had a very hard lesson to take on board. Just months into his rule, the Tory government of the Duke of Wellington lost general elections and the Whigs, under Lord Grey, took power. They were determined to bring in electoral reform but there was opposition to the changes in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. After seeing their bill rejected, the Whigs pushed William to dissolve Parliament and fresh elections gave Lord Grey a bigger majority in the Commons which now accepted the changes. But the Lords continued to oppose them and against a backdrop of violent protests across the country, William tussled with his government which wanted him to create enough new peers to get their bill through parliament. At one time tried to put in place his choice of Prime Minister but his selection, the Duke of Wellington, had nowhere near enough support for that to be viable. The king’s popularity plummeted as a consequence of the Reform Crisis but the changes went through. William realised that his interference in politics could be a dangerous thing and he chose his battles wisely from that point onwards.
He had one more run in with the Whigs when, in 1834, he became embroiled in the fall of Lord Melbourne who had taken over from Lord Grey. William IV decided to make Sir Robert Peel, a Tory, Prime Minister but the situation soon proved impossible leading to new elections and the restoration of Lord Melbourne. But this interference in politics didn’t really do William that much damage at all. His country had come to love him by then and his handling of this crisis was much smoother than the earlier one which had caused him so much damage.
He could be a shrewd diplomat, working to restore relations between Britain and America and choosing to devote his time to his British crown above the other than he had inherited from his brother, for William was also King of Hanover. He never visited his German inheritance, leaving the day to day management of his other realm to his brother, Ernest Augustus, and his insistence on remaining a king in Britain no doubt won him many more fans at a time when attitudes towards anything foreign still bordered on suspicious following recent issues like the Napoleonic Wars.
But there was one more crisis to be resolved – who would wear William’s crown after his death? The options were limited. Despite ongoing speculation about the queen being pregnant (William hated the rumours) it was increasingly clear that the throne would pass to the king’s niece, Victoria, only child of the only marriage of George III’s fourth son, Edward, Duke of Kent. But this princess was kept almost captive by her mother, the widowed Duchess of Kent who, under the influence of her private secretary, John Conroy, devised an upbringing to keep the future queen under her control. This involved quite a few snubs to William IV during his reign as the duchess took her daughter around the country to introduce her as a monarch in waiting and stopping the king seeing the girl who would inherit his throne as much as she could.
In 1836, at a party at Windsor, William IV proclaimed publicly that one of his dearest wishes was to live long enough to stop the Duchess of Kent acting as regent for Victoria – if the Crown passed to the princess before her 18th birthday then her mother would hold power for her. By then, the king was 71 years old and his health was beginning to fail. But he got his wish – Victoria turned 18 on May 24th 1837 and William died less than a month later, on June 20th 1837.
William was buried at Windsor and was widely mourned. But while his rise to power was rapid and his reign brief, his legacy was immense. William understood the power that the people now wielded and courted public opinion assiduously. He also realised far more fully than any of his predecessors how the political power of the Crown was changing. Under his stewardship, the Monarchy became more outward facing and more inclined to drop back from day to day politics. William knew that high spending, high living kings and queens weren’t what the people wanted at the time and he shaped his monarchy accordingly.
William IV was an unexpected king and perhaps the person most surprised by his destiny was himself. But he was sharp, quick and calm enough to learn how to succeed when the succession came calling. In King William IV the modern face of monarchy began to come into clearer view.
This profile of William IV is part of the Monarchy Rules series on Royal Central – coming next, a look at George IV. And catch up with our portraits of Queen Victoria, Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII, George VI and Elizabeth II by clicking the links.
Photo credit: “William IV crop” by Martin Archer Shee – Royal Collection object 404385. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons, John Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, William Beechey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and David Wilkie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons