When George IV’s only daughter died, the crown fell to his younger brother, William. As a teenager William was sent into the Royal Navy where he developed a strict sense of etiquette, earning him the future moniker “The Sailor King.” He also served in the American Revolutionary War –news of his presence apparently spawned an abortive plot by George Washington to kidnap the young prince. During the Napoleonic Wars, William became friendly with Lord Nelson, but once attaining a command of his own William proved unpopular among the men. His time in the Navy was marked by an endless parade of drinking and womanizing around the world. He rose in the ranks to attain a largely ceremonial title, Lord High Admiral, but he soon lost the respect of those around him and William was effectively forced to resign his post.
Once his naval career ended Prince William demanded a dukedom for himself. When his father initially refused, William threatened to stand for a seat in Parliament –thereby putting himself on par with the commoners– so the old king grumblingly relented and granted William the title duke of Clarence in 1789. Satisfied with his standing, William then took a notorious mistress for himself named Dorothea Bland, an Irish actress who also went by the stage name of “Mrs. Jordan” (the title of “Mrs.” seemed to confer a certain degree of respect). Over the coming years she bore William no less than ten illegitimate children, all with the surname Fitzclarence (“Fitz” was used to indicate illegitimacy). Sadly, William often found himself in financial straights during this period and so Mrs. Jordan was often forced to continue her stage career in between bouts of confinement. The affair with Mrs. Jordan ended in 1811, Sadly, she later died impoverished near Paris in 1816.
Like his brother before him, William had realized the only way to attain financial security was through a legitimate marriage. Thus he began proposing to various women around the courts of Europe until a proposal was at last accepted by a German Protestant princess, Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. By this time his brother King George IV’s only daughter had died and there was need for the family to produce a legitimate child. Even though William was smitten with a young English heiress named Miss Wyckham, he and Adelaide consummated their marriage and had two daughters who both died in infancy. It was a tragic set of events for William. The continuity of the crown was now of growing concern as the death of George IV finally came in 1830.
Unlike his brother, William was unenthusiastic about his own coronation ceremony. He had hoped to scrap the whole tradition altogether, but the Tories demanded that a coronation take place. Thus William IV was crowned King beside his Queen consort on September 8, 1831 at Westminster Abbey in a considerably more humble, muted ceremony in contrast to his late brother’s outrageous extravagance. At 64 years old, William IV remains the oldest person to succeed the throne in British history.
What kind of a man was William IV? Per Winston Churchill, “Good-nature and simplicity of mind were William IV’s in equal measure. The gravest embarrassments he caused his Ministers sprang from his garrulity” (517). William is often remembered as a dullard with an unfortunate taste for ordinariness and eccentricity. He was known for his droning, tactless, unintelligent speeches. A less than remarkable man, William IV was once described as ‘a little old, red-nosed, weather-beaten, jolly looking person with an ungraceful air and carriage.’ At the start of his reign he quickly earned a modicum of respect from his people simply by not bearing the name George, but by the end of his seven years William’s countrymen had grown mostly indifferent to their king. Perhaps the greatest struggle for William was in finding a balance between being both a “man of the people” and also an illustrious, elevated aristocrat. On some days the King could be found strolling the streets of London by himself, hoping to appear less aloof than his late brother, but these walks rapidly came to an end with the mania surrounding the Reform Crisis.
At any rate, this was a time of great change for the European aristocracy and the common people had grown embittered. New industrial towns had sprung up under the “rotten boroughs” system and a rising middle class felt increasingly disconnected from its self-proclaimed superiors. Would England face revolution or reform? Across the Channel, Paris was once again entrenched in riots. The “July Revolution” saw a mob storming the streets, violently forcing the king from his throne –ultimately spelling the end of the Bourbon monarchy. The ousted Charles X was exiled for the second time in his life, this time in Holyrood, Scotland under the auspices of Sir Water Scott. It was a sobering moment for defenders of the old order.
Despite the gathering clouds of revolution, the reign of William IV was a unique turning point, albeit somewhat accidentally. The Tories were finally swept out of power in 1830 and a new Whig government under Lord Grey promised a hopeful platform of reform. Unfortunately, as with all the Hanoverians, William IV was stubbornly obstinate –he sided with the unpopular Tories. But by now common opinion had swung hard in favor of greater enfranchisement for more property-owning men, a move which the Tories bitterly opposed (by now the Tories exclusively represented the land-owning gentry who had accumulated vast real estate holdings, a conglomeration of wealth that flirted with obscenity). With the memory of Versailles fresh in everyone’s minds, and with open civil war being threatened daily on the streets of London, William IV finally caved to the Whigs. In his own words, William IV claimed, “I have my view of things, and I tell them to my ministers. If they do not adopt them, I cannot help it. I have done my duty.” The result of the stand-off was an extraordinary piece of legislation known as the Reform Act of 1832 which included: new poor laws, child labor standards, the abolishment of slavery in most parts of the British Empire, and a significantly expanded right to vote. It was to be the birth of the modern constitutional monarchy. Interestingly enough, two years later in October 1834 a fire engulfed the Palace at Westminster, and both Houses of Parliament were utterly consumed in a raging fire. Ripe for metaphor, a new Parliament was quiet literally rebuilt from the ground up.
As his years waned, much like his brother before him, William retired to self-imposed exile in Windsor Palace, hoping to avoid the rancor of the Tories and Whigs. Only once did he wade back into politics: to appoint a new Prime Minister who was contrary to the will of Parliament (a Tory named Robert Peel). William was the last King of Britain to perform such an act. When he died in 1837 his legitimate children were already deceased and so the crown was inherited by his niece, the daughter of his brother Edward, a young girl eighteen years of age named Victoria. William had long despised Victoria’s mother, the conniving Duchess of Kent, and so William pledged to live long enough to ensure Victoria’s queenship would succeed smoothly without need of regency. As promised, William died slightly less than a month after Victoria turned eighteen. News of his death declared the king died of hay fever, but in fact William’s body was greatly weakened by alcoholic cirrhosis and related circulatory problems. In the end, pneumonia killed off the king. His last words were said to have been, “The Church, the church…”
Winston Churchill’s offers the following remarks on William IV: “In 1837 King William IV died. Humorous, tactless, pleasant, and unrespected, he had played his part in lowering esteem for the monarchy, and indeed the vices and eccentricities of the sons of George III had by this time almost destroyed its hold upon the hearts of the people. An assault on the institution which had played so great a part in the history of England appeared imminent, and there seemed few to defend it” (524).
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, and Peter Ackroyd’s Dominion: The History of England From The Battle of Waterloo.