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 William IV (1765–1837), by Sir Martin Archer Shee, 1833 William IV (1765–1837), by Sir Martin Archer Shee, 1833
William IV (1765–1837), king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and king of Hanover, was born on 21 August 1765 at Buckingham House, London, the third child and third son among the fifteen children of and his queen, of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744–1818). On 20 September he was baptized as William Henry. Of his younger siblings six were boys, two of whom died in early childhood, and six girls [see ].

A prince soon at sea

Prince William was brought up at Richmond and Kew. His education from 1772 was superintended by Major-General Budé, a Swiss from the Hanoverian army, and Dr James Majendie. At thirteen he was sent into the Royal Navy, chiefly to prevent him from falling under the influence of his eldest brother, George, who was already annoying and opposing his father in the customary Hanoverian fashion. He joined a 98-gun ship, the Prince George, as a midshipman on 15 June 1779, and saw action within a year. After spending nearly two years in Hanover (1783–5) to complete his education he went back to sea. On 17 June 1785 he was promoted lieutenant and in April 1786 he obtained the command of a 28-gun frigate. At twenty-two he was described as being ‘about 5 foot 7 or 8 inches high’ with a ‘good complexion and fair hair’ (Dyott's Diary, 1.36). Although fulsome praise of him by Nelson and others should be largely discounted, he had developed into a competent naval officer of undoubted courage and a likeable young man of a boisterous kind. But as a king's son he was under peculiar difficulties in learning how to work well with others, and a foolish quarrel with his first lieutenant soon soured him with regard to his profession and showed his incapacity for high naval command.

William's romantic inclinations and strong sexual appetites were also liable to cause difficulties. In Hanover he started by courting a rich merchant's daughter, and was soon sighing for such of ‘the pretty girls of Westminster … as would not clap or pox me every time I fucked’ (Ziegler, 51). When at Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1788, commanding the frigate Andromeda, he fathered a son (William Henry Courtney) and was said by a friend who was serving in the same station to be ‘perfectly acquainted with every house of a certain description in the town’ (Dyott's Diary, 1.37). Late that year George III became mentally incapacitated and William's eldest brother called him home. Soon after his father had recovered he was gazetted as duke of Clarence and of St Andrews, and earl of Munster in the peerage of Ireland: this marked the end of his naval career. To all appearances his chances of regularity in either official employment or personal life were small. He could accept nothing but a high post, and he had neither the capacity nor the degree of the king's favour needed to secure that. His matrimonial options amounted to foreign royalties who were not Roman Catholics. Even apart from the restrictions imposed by the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, a wife from the British aristocracy would bring with her unacceptable political implications. He was in debt, and the House of Commons would be disinclined to make him a large marriage grant.

Mrs Jordan

None the less Clarence was lucky enough to gain twenty years of domestic stability and happiness. His partner from late in 1791, Dorothy Bland (or Phillips), was known, and is remembered, as —Mr Jordan was wholly fictitious. Bubbling with vitality, and radiating happiness, she remained for years, tragic roles apart, the most successful actress on the English stage. Until 1797 the couple shared Clarence Lodge, Roehampton. In that year the duke was made ranger of Bushy Park, and Bushy House, Teddington (now incorporated in the buildings of the National Physical Laboratory), became his home. Between 1794 and 1807 Dorothy Jordan bore him five sons and five daughters while continuing to act in London and the provinces. Despite insinuations in cartoons and the press (coarsened by the fact that ‘jordan’ was the popular term for a chamber-pot) that, so far from Clarence keeping her, she kept him, he made her regular payments. She was generous with her money and had to provide for earlier children by two other men. On occasion, however, she saved him from financial disaster. In October 1797 he reported to his banker, Thomas Coutts: ‘Mrs Jordan is getting both fame and money: to her I owe very much’ (Patterson, 1.83). At that time his debts, though less substantial than those of his elder brothers, exceeded £46,000.

The connection could hardly be permanent. By the end of 1810 George III's descent into senile dementia brought Clarence the prospect of a rich wife in the benevolent climate of his eldest brother's regency. He had moved nearer to the throne: no one but his two elder brothers and his niece Princess Charlotte stood between him and the succession, and the princess was ineligible for the crown of Hanover under the Salic law. Neither Dorothy Jordan's physical allure nor her earning power were what they had been. A deed of separation was drawn up on 23 December 1811 (a day before Clarence became an admiral of the fleet) and she left Bushy a month later. The financial provision represented as much as the ducal finances would stand; but this was not enough for someone in debt, and depredations by two of her sons-in-law increased her embarrassments. In 1815 she fled to France to escape her creditors, and she died there, aged fifty-four, a year later. When William came to the throne in 1830, he gave what may seem evidence of an uneasy conscience by commissioning from Chantrey the statue of Dorothy Jordan with two of their children which is now in Buckingham Palace.

The rich wife did not materialize until, in 1817, Princess Charlotte's death in childbirth made Clarence's marriage essential. A bride was hurriedly found for him in of Saxe-Meiningen (1792–1849). She met him on her arrival in England on 4 July 1818 and they were married seven days later.

Admiral Tarry Breeks

Adelaide improved Clarence's manners and finances, but failed to produce an heir. Her first child lived for no more than a few hours, and her second, also a daughter, for only three months. There were also miscarriages. The royal pair were in Germany for the first year of their marriage, and made further long stays on the continent in 1822, 1825, and 1826. The first journey was made for economy and to escape importunate creditors; but their finances improved steadily. In 1818 Clarence refused the offer of an increase of £6000 in his annual grant, thinking it niggardly; but two years later, obliged to stay in England for his wife's health and thus in pressing need, he realized that this was the most which the Commons could be persuaded to provide and reversed his refusal. Back-dated by three years, the increase was not one to despise.

Queen Caroline's trial in 1820 exposed Clarence to a brief period of unpopularity. As a prominent champion of his brother's cause, he was alleged to have written to the captain whose ship had conveyed Caroline from England in 1814 that she and her husband would both be pleased if she were to be seduced during the voyage. Her lawyers' offer to prove the existence of the letter was ruled out of order, and Denman was reduced to pointing to the duke with the words ‘Come forth, thou slanderer’ (Arnould, 175–6). The radical Black Dwarf reminded ‘Admiral Tarry Breeks’ that the prince who had abandoned Dorothy Jordan was not convincing as a champion of sexual morality (Ziegler, 129).

By the middle of 1826 it was clear that, while Clarence would not found a dynasty, he would probably become king. George IV's health had deteriorated and the duke of York was plainly dying. When the latter succumbed in January 1827, Clarence was said to have punctuated the funeral by remarking to the duke of Sussex: ‘We shall be treated now, brother Augustus, very differently from what we have been’ (Gore, 234). He had been given the sinecure post of general of marines, at £4000 a year, some years earlier. On becoming heir presumptive he received an addition of £3000 a year, and his wife an annual jointure of £6000. After a decade of Adelaide's management, topped by these new provisions, Clarence was able to reduce his debts to a few thousands. In terms of money values at the end of the twentieth century the couple's joint income had risen to some £2 million a year.

In April 1827 Clarence became lord high admiral at the invitation of the incoming prime minister, George Canning. Viscount Melville, Liverpool's first lord of the Admiralty, was one of the ministers who had refused to take office under Canning. The revival of the lord high admiral's post, last occupied early in the previous century, was a neat dodge to circumvent this refusal while conciliating the heir to the throne. The duke's patent restricted him, while in London, to acting only with the knowledge and approval of the high admiral's council: at sea he would need their endorsement of his orders unless accompanied by a council member. Their senior member, Sir George Cockburn, had even less intention of relaxing these restrictions than the duke had of obeying them. On 20 October 1827, by which time Goderich had succeeded to the premiership following Canning's death, Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, interpreting his orders with great freedom, sank the Turkish fleet in the Bay of Navarino. The enthusiastic praise which he received from the lord high admiral had not been preceded by consultations with the latter's council, and it did not reflect the government's policy. In January 1828, after Wellington had succeeded Goderich as prime minister, the speech from the throne referred to Navarino as an ‘untoward event’ (Hansard 2, 18, 1828, 3), and Codrington was recalled and dismissed.

More serious trouble followed in July 1828. William's council objected to the terms of reference which he had given to his commission on naval gunnery, and when he disregarded their objections they secured the cabinet's support. The lord high admiral then demanded Cockburn's dismissal. Wellington could not allow this, if only because he knew that it would have brought the resignation of other council members. He therefore sought the king's support, and George IV wrote to his brother, ‘You must give way’ (Ziegler, 138). An attempt at a truce soon failed. On 31 July the lord high admiral hoisted his flag at Plymouth in a small squadron which was due for manoeuvres, and sailed off into the blue. He was at sea for ten days, with no one knowing where he had gone. He was near to breakdown; and Wellington, despite the king's last-minute doubts, enforced his resignation late in August. It was a sad episode for the navy because some at least of William's reforms were much needed. He commissioned its first steam vessel, and he was right to be concerned at the state of naval gunnery. His way of learning the essential lesson that he must always act constitutionally was a painful one, but if this aspect of his education had been deferred until he reached the throne the results would have been far more serious. He bore no grudge against either Cockburn or the duke. In 1829, when the latter by a remarkable volte-face pushed Catholic emancipation through parliament, Clarence proved his fair-mindedness, his liberalism, and his dislike of his ultra-tory brother the duke of Cumberland, by giving the measure strong support.

A very decent king

William was woken at Bushy at 6 a.m. on 26 June 1830 and told that he was king. He succeeded an infirm recluse and could hardly fail to be popular. He shared the xenophobia of his poorer subjects, and at once replaced George IV's French cooks and German band with indigenous, if less skilful, performers. His wish to spread happiness round him was genuine. By his instructions the East Terrace at Windsor and the ‘private drives through the park’ were opened to the public (Greville Memoirs, 2.26); and on his birthday he gave a banquet to 3000 of the town's poorer inhabitants. He could afford to entertain on a large scale without over-burdening the civil list because, having no taste for grandeur, he reduced George IV's lavish establishment. The stud was halved and the royal yachts reduced from five to two. 150 of George IV's birds and animals were given to the Zoological Society. In London William authorized the demolition of the royal mews to clear part of what is now Trafalgar Square and had a public passage opened between Waterloo Place and St James's Park. He was too undignified to win great respect from the governing class. His frequent speeches were almost always unwanted and often embarrassing. The peculiar shape of his head proved useful in June 1832, when a stone was thrown at Ascot and the padding in his hat saved him from injury; but his cephalic resemblance to a pineapple or coconut engendered more laughter than awe; and his incessant, and unavailing, efforts to satisfy his illegitimate sons' demands for honour and emolument did not enhance the crown's standing. Even among the governing class, however, he started with a large measure of approval. Greville, to whom the new king's ‘centrist’ or ‘old whig’ political views were not obnoxious, noted on 18 July 1830: ‘Altogether he seems a kind-hearted, well-meaning, not stupid, burlesque, bustling old fellow, and if he doesn't go mad may make a very decent King, but he exhibits oddities’ (ibid., 2.6).

William's strong sense of fair play made him determined to avoid even the appearance of intrigue against his ministers. On 28 June Lord Ellenborough, who was one of them, noted a royal remark to a friend about ‘the late King's error in not frankly supporting his government’ (Ellenborough, 2.287). The new king, Princess Lieven reported on 6 October,
acts upon the principle that [his] duty is to support the [Prime] Minister until Parliament by its vote determines that the Minister no longer possesses the confidence of the nation. For this reason he will do nothing to upset him, but he will be at no pains to pick him up when he falls. (Letters of Dorothea, 254)
These observers were not mistaken; but they had failed to take into account two of the factors which were to differentiate this reign from the last. First, William was far more energetic than George IV had been. His capacity to interfere with his ministers' doings greatly exceeded his predecessor's. Second, it was not clear that a very active king would behave quite in the way predicted should he be faced with a constitutional issue which he thought would affect the position of the monarchy. William combined an old-fashioned distrust of party with fears of radical republicanism, and saw the king's role as being that of a conciliator. He hankered after a government in which the best men would serve together irrespective of party to safeguard the established order. He never understood either the rivalries and resentments of political leaders or their need to retain a reputation for consistency. Of the complicated currents of political life outside parliament he knew nothing: to him the leaders of popular movements were simply agitators.

The crisis over parliamentary reform: Vote for the two Bills

Within months of his accession this naïve but well-meaning monarch was plunged into the long crisis which culminated in the passage of the 1832 Reform Act. Wellington's government, which had been weakened in the general election caused by the death of George IV, was defeated in the Commons in November 1830, and was succeeded by an administration pledged to parliamentary reform under Earl Grey. The new cabinet, which comprised nine members of the Lords, an earl's eldest son, an Irish viscount, a baronet, and a wealthy Scottish commoner, did not look like a gang of revolutionaries. Their early relations with the king were cordial. Royal influence was used freely to secure a seat at Windsor for the Irish secretary, and the civil list was treated with care, despite expectations of governmental economy. On 4 February William agreed, ‘without a wry face’ (Ziegler, 177), to a bill abolishing the worst rotten boroughs, reducing others to a single member, and providing every constituency with at least a minimum of resident voters. Although this was drastic by the standards of the time, the king's fears concerned, not an extensive reform measure in itself, but what might need to be done to put it on the statute book. He dreaded the election which would follow its rejection by the Commons because of the disorder which that might engender, especially in Ireland. The prospect of the Lords rejecting a bill which the Commons had accepted he thought still more alarming. On both counts Grey was more reassuring than the situation warranted. ‘If what we shall have to propose shall obtain His Majesty's sanction’, he told Sir Herbert Taylor, the king's secretary, on 13 January, ‘I should have little fear of carrying it through Parliament.’ This reassurance was repeated more than once during the weeks which followed (Reform Act, ed. Grey, 1.52, 92, 118, 154). Yet, in the event, securing the bill's passage through the Commons entailed a general election, while the Lords rejected it until threatened with a creation of peers. Unwittingly, William had been misled.

A few days before the second-reading debate in the Commons was due to start, a blunder by Grey revealed that the king was refusing a dissolution in case of the government's defeat. This came near to wrecking their chances, since the fear of an election represented the best chance of preventing one. Only the dexterity of their whips secured them a second-reading majority of one in a vote of 603 (23 March 1831). When they were defeated by eight at the start of the committee proceedings, William, realizing that no other government could be formed, agreed to dissolve. Annoyed by obstructive opposition tactics, and taking a Lords motion against dissolving as an infringement of his prerogative, he became eager to prorogue parliament with the utmost speed. He was, he told Grey, ‘always at single anchor’ (Broughton, 4.108); and, when warned that the horses' manes for the royal coach took five hours to plait, he is said to have threatened to go to Westminster in a hackney coach, if necessary.

These proceedings gave William a brief period of great popularity. The honest old tar was held to have thwarted the borough owners' selfish trickery. The more intellectual voters were reminded that ‘the richest, the oldest, the noblest families in the country, headed by the King himself’ supported the government and the bill: the less intellectual were exhorted to ‘vote for the two Bills’ (Brock, 198, 201). The popular image bore little relation to the fact. The course of the election alarmed the king by revealing what seemed to him a dangerous increase in popular influence. As it began he had written to Grey urging that, while ‘the principle of the bill’ could not be abandoned, it should be ‘remodelled’ (Reform Act, ed. Grey, 1.244); but although the government, having won a great majority, produced modifications to their measure, these were not enough to satisfy the king, or, indeed, to win over the more moderate tory peers. To remodel the bill, which had aroused such enthusiasm outside parliament, was politically impossible. ‘It is’, as Viscount Melbourne later told Taylor, ‘a very dangerous way of dealing with a nation to attempt to retract that which you have once offered to concede’ (Lord Melbourne's Papers, 135). None of this altered the king's support for his government. He had promptly removed three members of his household when they voted against the second reading, and in May he made Grey a supernumerary knight of the Garter. Being totally indifferent to ceremonial, he had wanted to avoid a coronation. The fatigue of one was no light matter for a 65-year-old who was no longer robust, and he regarded the rituals of 1821 as having been preposterously over-elaborate and expensive. When obliged to sanction a ceremony shorn of the Westminster Hall banquet, he allowed his ministers the largest number of coronation peerages that the precedent of 1821 could be employed to cover.

The bill in the Lords

Despite gaining fifteen votes from the coronation (8 September 1831), the government was defeated by forty-one on the Lords' second reading a month later. Lord John Russell told the Birmingham Political Union, to the king's annoyance, that the opposition peers' stand was no more than ‘the whisper of a faction’ (Walpole, Russell, 1.172), and the Commons gave the government's modified bill a two-to-one majority. The problem of the upper house remained, however, and in January 1832 Grey asked for an immediate creation of ten or twelve peers, with permission to apply for another batch if the first failed to bring the tory peers to heel. The king, realizing it to be no more possible than in the previous April for any other government to be formed, agreed to a creation, but objected to this procedure. Knowing that some of the bishops and peers had agreed to reverse their votes, and assuming from a remark by Grey that a creation of twenty-one would be sufficient, he favoured making that number ‘at once’ (Reform Act, ed. Grey, 2.78). The cabinet then explained that they did not yet know how many creations would be needed; and on 15 January 1832 William undertook to create, at the appropriate time, enough peers ‘to secure the success of the Bill’ (ibid., 2.102, 113). As that phrase was left undefined, and subject to the king's interpretation, it would be very difficult to bring the undertaking into effect for anything except a second-reading defeat. Moreover, William stipulated that (except for three new peerages already agreed) the creation must not add permanently to the Lords: it was to be confined to peers' eldest sons and collateral heirs. ‘Earl Grey still anxiously cherishes the hope’, he told the king the next day, ‘that [the creations needed] may not exceed, or, at all events, not greatly exceed, the number [twenty-one] before mentioned to your Majesty’ (ibid., 2.120). As the premier had told his colleagues some weeks earlier that a creation might turn some of their supporters against them, and there were already indications in the press that even the threat of one was doing so, this was an imprudent statement.

During the next few months a group of moderate tory peers, led by the earl of Harrowby and Lord Wharncliffe, and nicknamed the Waverers, who had voted against the bill in October, collected a majority for the second reading on condition of there being no creation. They aimed not merely to prevent one, but, as far as possible, to have the bill amended in the Lords' committee; and they made clear that, if any peers were created, all their fellow converts, not to mention a number of government supporters, would oppose the bill at every stage. The king reported all their contacts with him to Grey and supported their efforts openly.

The ministers had become disillusioned. The more moderate of them had gone forward, once they had known how much opposition their bill would arouse, only because withdrawing it, or whittling it down, would have been ruinous for them and perilous for the country. ‘Damn Reform’, Grey said to a colleague on 9 February, ‘I wish I had never touched it’ (Broughton, 4.174). Four days later he told Taylor that if, during the committee stage, the government were unable to make the concessions demanded by Harrowby and Wharncliffe, and the Waverers voted with the opposition, the cabinet would have to ask for a creation of fifty or more. The king's attitude to his ministers now became less cordial. Earl Howe, who had been the queen's chamberlain until ousted for his vote against the second reading, was still corresponding with Adelaide; and, apart from opposition voices in William's ear, he could not entirely repress his resentment that the reassurances given him had all proved unreliable. He refused to commit himself about the committee stage, or even to allow an immediate creation in the increasingly unlikely event of a second-reading defeat.

On 14 April 1832 the bill was given a second reading in the Lords by 184 votes to 175. The opposition leaders, judging their followers to be too divided for detailed committee work, adopted tactics similar to those used a year earlier by their colleagues in the Commons: they sponsored a wrecking amendment under the guise of an adjustment in procedure. Lord Lyndhurst, who was clever but irresponsible, saw in this move a chance to oust the government, and through his trickery the opposition achieved a majority of thirty-five (7 May). The cabinet, who had been taken by surprise, decided to resign unless the king sanctioned an immediate and large creation. They expected his refusal, and acceptance of their resignations, which duly arrived on 9 May. It was no longer certain that the opposition leaders would be unable to form a government: immediately after the Lords' vote Ellenborough had declared their readiness to support an extensive reform; but William had misjudged both the politicians' reactions and the intensity of the popular reform movement. Mass meetings were held; a run was threatened on the Bank of England; and on 15 May he was obliged to ask Grey to resume the premier's duties. He added a request for conciliatory modifications to the bill. Grey replied at once that the events of the last few days had made modification impossible. On 18 May he and Brougham secured the written consent of their royal ‘master’ to a creation, unlimited as to numbers, the necessity for which would be judged by the cabinet, and not by the king. The news of this persuaded most of the opposition peers to withdraw. No creation of peers was needed, and the bill, virtually unamended, received the royal assent by commission on 7 June 1832.

Foreign policy and the Irish church

Throughout his reign William IV regarded foreign affairs as the king's particular province, and paid great attention to them. He distrusted foreigners, the French most of all, and was particularly suspicious of what he saw as revolutionary or radical regimes. Trying to export British liberal ideas he regarded as a mistake. Most of his countrymen in all classes shared the first of these views at least, so that his expression of them may have helped Palmerston, who was foreign secretary for all except the first few months of his reign, and on whom, despite many disagreements, he conferred the grand cross of the Bath in June 1832. William's comments were occasionally shrewd: he wrote in 1833 that good relations with Egypt were particularly important to Britain, since it had been ‘shown lately that communications by canal and by steam vessels might be established from Cairo to Suez and the Red Sea’ (Ziegler, 234). It is difficult, however, to identify any case in which his advice had more than a very slight effect in moulding the policy adopted.

William also placed great importance on the king's duty to defend the established church. In June 1833 he wrote on his own responsibility to the archbishop of Canterbury, urging the bishops not to undermine the government by outright opposition to the Irish Church Bill; but when in the following year some ministers treated that measure as a step towards something more, he took fright. Early in May 1834 Lord John Russell declared his support for diverting some of the established church's revenues in Ireland to lay purposes. This drove Stanley and three other cabinet moderates to resign three weeks later, and in July Grey went too on an Irish coercion question. The king instructed Lord Melbourne to discover whether Wellington and Peel would be willing to serve in a coalition; and, when they refused, he suppressed his doubts and allowed Melbourne to reconstruct the whig government.

In November 1834 Earl Spencer's death removed Althorp as leader of the Commons. When Melbourne, making no secret of this blow's severity, proposed Russell as leader, William dismissed the government. After brief ‘caretaking’ by Wellington, Peel became prime minister and parliament was dissolved. The king's move, though not unconstitutional, proved unwise, and no repetition of it has ever been attempted in the United Kingdom. The dismissal of the premier was easily ridiculed: in Edward Lytton Bulwer's pamphlet William is depicted as asking Melbourne: ‘How can I support reforming ministers, when Lord Spencer has ceased to be?’ (Bulwer, 21). Although the whigs had been losing support, and the Conservatives gained in the election, Peel was left in a minority and in April 1835 he had to resign. The days when the king had been able to give someone a majority by making him prime minister were no more than a memory. Melbourne, summoned again, made stringent conditions. From the existing royal household members who were in either Lords or Commons he required ‘a firm, unequivocal support’ for the government; and, in the event of vacancies, no one was to be selected ‘whose principles and opinions [were] adverse to’ it (Lord Melbourne's Papers, 270–71). More contentious was the claim that, as a majority of both the old and the new House of Commons had expressed support for lay appropriation of the Irish church's surplus revenues, the government would have to be pledged to that measure. Despite doubts about his duty under the coronation oath William had to agree to this pledge too, and Melbourne was reinstalled, with Russell as leader of the Commons.

A monarch of the most strict integrity: last years, death, and reputation

William's relations with a government which he had distrusted from the start, and had been forced to take back, could hardly be easy; and his control of his temper, always precarious, was being eroded by increasing ill health. Impotent to rid himself of the cabinet, he subjected its members to continual pinpricks. In his eyes they had crowned their offences by allying with Irish agitators in order to regain office. Their Canadian policy was also a recurrent cause of royal criticisms and complaints. In July 1835, after William had voiced these at a council meeting, Greville recorded:
This … does more to degrade the monarchy than anything which has ever occurred: to exhibit the King publicly as a cypher, and something worse than a cypher, as an unsuccessful competitor in a political squabble, is to take from the crown all … dignity. (Greville Memoirs, 3.223)
William saw as little as possible of his ministers, and made a point of ignoring the whig speaker, whose election to the post in February 1835 had been the first sign that Peel's administration was doomed. In 1836 Melbourne wrote to Russell: ‘To have two or three great points to fight would be nothing; but to be fretted by opposition upon every little matter is intolerable’ (Walpole, Russell, 1.269).

The cabinet were not the only people who distressed the king or incurred his reproaches. Despite all his efforts, his eldest son (created earl of Munster in June 1831) remained unreconciled with him to the end. Once, when King Leopold of Belgium called for water at dinner, William expostulated: ‘I never allow anybody to drink water at my table’ (Greville Memoirs, 3.311). A far greater and more enduring irritant was the conduct of Leopold's sister the duchess of Kent, who hoped, all too obviously, that Princess Victoria would succeed to the throne while still a minor and subject to her mother's regency. She declined to come to court with Victoria in case they might encounter one of the royal bastards, and took her instead on semi-royal progresses of a particularly tactless kind. William did not turn the other cheek; but until a late stage of the quarrel he was generally agreed to be less at fault than his sister-in-law. In August 1836, however, when the duchess had ignored the queen's birthday and appropriated a suite of rooms at Kensington against his express instruction, he insulted her publicly before some hundred of his guests. He trusted, he announced in his speech, that he would be spared ‘for nine months longer’ since the duchess was ‘incompetent to act with propriety’ as regent (ibid., 3.309). The princess burst into tears; and the two parties, soon realizing that they had gone too far, patched up an uneasy truce.

The king's wish was granted. In April 1837 his annual attack of asthma was exceptionally severe, and by 20 May he had declined into an illness which was soon recognized to be mortal. His liver and spleen were enlarged, his lungs turgid with blood, and his heart valves ossified. Princess Victoria reached her eighteenth birthday, and thus her majority, on 24 May; and the king, who was dying, as Disraeli wrote, ‘like an old lion’ (Beaconsfield's Letters, 113), even survived to see the anniversary of Waterloo on 18 June. He received the sacrament on that day from the archbishop of Canterbury. Adelaide, who was nursing him devotedly, had not been to bed for more than ten days: when she broke down as the blessing was given, he showed more concern for her than he had ever revealed over his own suffering. The next day Victoria wrote, despite the scene at the dinner, that her uncle had always been ‘personally kind’ to her (Letters of Queen Victoria, 1st ser., 1.73).

William IV died at Windsor Castle very early on the morning of 20 June 1837. His last words are said to have been ‘the church, the church’ (O. Chadwick, The Victorian Church, 1987, 1.158). Greville judged the prime minister's eulogy to be ‘very effective because … natural and hearty’ (Greville Memoirs, 3.377): among all British monarchs, Melbourne had said, the late king stood out as the one ‘of the most strict integrity’ (Hansard 3, 38, 1837, 1548). William was buried on 8 July in the vault at St George's Chapel, Windsor, after a funeral which seemed to Greville ‘a wretched mockery’ (Greville Memoirs, 3.382). The queen dowager, to whom he had been devoted, died on 2 December 1849, aged fifty-seven. Her pious and systematic philanthropy, extending over nearly twenty years, had helped to set the monarchy on its modern course.

Constitutional doctrine seldom keeps up with the march of events. During William IV's reign most of those concerned with politics would have agreed with him that the ‘equilibrium of the three estates … it is … essential to preserve in their just and proper bearings relatively upon each other’ (Reform Act, ed. Grey, 1.100). Like every other observer, William had noticed the increasing power of the House of Commons during the twenty years before the introduction of the Reform Bill. He inferred that this imposed a special duty on the sovereign of ensuring that his position, and that of the House of Lords, did not suffer further erosion. According to the constitutional notions of the time, his was a reasonable inference, and his determination to preserve what he saw as Britain's ‘mixed form of government’ was not thought unconstitutional (ibid.). His convictions did not, however, correspond to the political realities of the 1830s.

These considerations were obscured during Victoria's long reign. In 1860 A. J. Maley wrote in his Recollections that William IV had been ‘peculiarly fitted to supply the British Empire with a monarch’ since he had shown ‘no capacity for public business, and little inclination to interfere in the conduct of it’ (Maley, 1.5). Spencer Walpole took the opposite line in the third volume of his History, published in 1886. He explained such episodes as William's dismissals of his government in May 1832 and November 1834 in terms of the ‘hereditary taint’ which affected George III's sons. ‘Eccentric rather than insane’, he wrote, William ‘had the obstinacy which distinguishes insanity’ (Walpole, History, 3.387). This was written nearly forty years after Prince Albert had begun to remove the monarchy from political conflicts, and more than ten since Bagehot had defined the sovereign's rights vis-à-vis the cabinet as delimited to being consulted and giving encouragement or warnings. Like other late Victorians, Walpole was not biased in favour of a king who had been surrounded by his bastard children; and as a convert to Gladstonian Liberalism he revered the authors of the 1832 Reform Act. He had little access to the private papers in which Grey, Melbourne, and Palmerston looked back ruefully at what they had done in 1831 and 1832.

William IV was inexperienced in public affairs and less intelligent than the politicians with whom he dealt; but if political obstinacy is defined as persistence in policies which are outdated or unrealistic, he was hardly more obstinate than the whig leaders who assured him repeatedly that the Reform Bill could be enacted without risk of a general election or a ‘permanent’ addition to the Lords. Leading tory peers who supposed initially that no extensive reform would be needed, and ended by gambling that their version of the bill would be accepted without dangerous disturbance, were scarcely forward-looking realists; and it would be hard to find a policy more obstinately pursued than Russell's in 1834, when he disrupted the government for a lay appropriation project which lacked substantial support. The political outcomes of William's reign were fortunate in their results, not from his ministers in their invariable wisdom having neutralized his obstinacy, but because most of Britain's parliamentary class were experienced and sensible.

Michael Brock


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Hunt. L., diary as midshipman · NMM, logbook, letter-book, and order books |  Beds. & Luton ARS, corresp. with Earl de Grey · BL, corresp. with Lord Holland, Add. MSS 51522–51523 · BL, corresp. with Princess Lieven, Add. MS 47347 · BL, letters to Sir Robert Peel, Add. MSS 40301–40303 · BL OIOC, corresp. with J. C. Hobhouse, MS Eur. F 213 · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Thomas Coutts · Bucks. RLS, letters to Sir Thomas Fremantle · Ches. & Chester ALSS, letters to J. H. Cooper · Ches. & Chester ALSS, letters to Colonel Cottin and Mrs Cottin · Cumbria AS, Carlisle, corresp. with Sir James Graham · Hants. RO, letters to Charles Broughton · Hunt. L., letters to Lord Moira · Lpool RO, letters to E. G. Stanley · Mitchell L., Glas., letters to William Beattie · NA Scot., letters to Sir Alexander Hope · NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Melville · Niedersächsisches Hauptstaatsarchiv Hannover, Hanover, letters to duke of Cumberland · NL Scot., corresp. with Lord Lynedoch · NMM, letters to Sir Edward Codrington · NMM, letters to Sir Thomas Foley · NMM, corresp. with Lord Hood · NMM, letters to Sir Richard Keats · NMM, corresp. with Lord Minto · NMM, corresp. with Sir Charles Ogle · NRA, letters to earl of Durham · NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with William Adam · NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lord Conyngham · NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with Sir John Sinclair and Sir George Sinclair · PRONI, corresp. with Lord Dufferin · Royal Arch., letters to George III · Som. ARS, letters to Sir Richard Keats · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Aberdeen, FO 14 · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Ellenborough, PRO 30/12 · U. Durham L., letters to Lord Grey · U. Nott. L., corresp. with duke of Newcastle · U. Southampton L., letters to Lord Palmerston · U. Southampton L., corresp. with Lord John Russell · U. Southampton L., letters to first duke of Wellington · Warks. CRO, corresp. with George Seymour · Warks. CRO, letters to Sir J. W. Waller · Warks. CRO, letters to Sir Alexander George Woodford


A. Ramsay, oils, c.1767, Royal Collection · J. Zoffany, double portrait, oils, c.1770 (with Princess Charlotte), Royal Collection · J. Zoffany, group portrait, oils, 1770 (George III, Queen Charlotte, and their six eldest children), Royal Collection · B. West, double portrait, oils, 1778 (with the duke of Kent), Royal Collection · T. Gainsborough, oils, 1782, Royal Collection · R. Cosway, miniature, 1791, Royal Collection · T. Lawrence, oils, 1793, Upton House, Warwickshire · J. Gillray, caricature, etching, pubd 1795, NPG · M. A. Shee, oils, 1800, NPG · G. Jones, group portrait, oils, 1821 (Banquet at the coronation of George IV), Royal Collection · T. Lawrence, oils, c.1827, Royal Collection · plaster replica medal, 1827 (after J. Henning), Scot. NPG · F. Chantrey, pencil drawing, 1830, NPG · lithograph, 1830, NG Ire. · stipple, pubd 1830, NPG · watercolour drawing, c.1830 (after H. Dawe), NPG · H. B. [J. Doyle], caricatures, 1830–32, BM · R. Davis, group portrait, oils, 1831 (The coronation procession of William IV), Royal Collection · E. James, enamel on copper, 1831, NG Ire. · F. C. Lewis, stipple, pubd 1831 (after T. Lawrence), BM, NPG · bronze bust, 1831, Scot. NPG · D. Wilkie, oils, 1832, Royal Collection · stipple, pubd 1832 (after T. Lawrence), BM, NPG · M. A. Shee, oils, 1833, Royal Collection [see illus.] · D. Wilkie, oils, 1833, Wellington Museum, Apsley House, London · D. Wilkie, oils, 1835, Examination Schools, Oxford · F. Chantrey, marble bust, 1836–7, Buckingham Palace, London · D. Wilkie, oils, 1837, Scot. NPG; version, NPG · S. Nixon, Scottish granite statue, 1844, King William Walk, Greenwich · J. Chapman, stipple (William IV when duke of Clarence), NPG · H. E. Dawe, mezzotint (after C. Jagger), BM, NPG · R. Easton, watercolour drawing, NPG · G. Hayter, group portrait, oils (The trial of Queen Caroline, 1820), NPG · J. Simpson, oils, NG Ire. · J. de Veaux, red wax medallion, NPG · T. Willement, double portrait, stained-glass window (with Queen Adelaide), north choir aisle, St George's Chapel, Windsor · mezzotint (William IV when duke of Clarence), BM, NPG · portrait (after T. Lawrence), National Physical Laboratory, Bushy Park, Middlesex

Wealth at death  

200 guineas to each of three executors; main beneficiaries were eight children of Mrs Jordan, each receiving £2000 and share in £40,000 life insurance: will, 1837, Royal Arch.