Thursday, May 8, 2014
Monarch Profile: King William IV of the United Kingdom
This entitled him to a seat in the House of Lords and, like his brothers, tended to associate himself with the Whigs in opposition to his father the King. This ended up costing him more than he would have ever expected. Having resigned from active duty in the Royal Navy upon entering the political fray, he found it difficult to return to the service he loved. Probably just as a thoughtless show of rebellion, he opposed the British declaration of war on France. It was a stupid thing to do and when he was applied to return to the navy, eager to take part in the war at sea, he was denied. Even after publicly changing his position and speaking out in support of the war, the conflict with France would pass without the Prince being given any significant command or seeing any front-line service. This left him with nothing to do but argue politics in the House of Lords and he would have been much better suited to a career at sea as his political views tended to be scattered and inconsistent. He thought the laws related to marriage and family were too harsh and that the penalties against dissenting Christians were oppressive but saw nothing wrong with the continued legality of slavery in the British colonies. It might have caused some to remember the nickname Prince William was given by his family as a youth; “Silly Billy”.
On June 26, 1830 at six in the morning, the Duke was awakened and told that his brother was dead and he was now King William IV of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Hannover. He said he had always wanted to sleep with a queen and went back to bed with his newly elevated wife Queen Adelaide. However, once he was later fully awake, few other monarchs displayed such unabashed joy as King William IV. He dashed off, alone, driving his own open carriage through the streets of London, shaking hands with his new subjects, offering a ride to those who desired one and even getting some kisses of congratulations from some prostitutes. Some were aghast at his behavior, particularly after all the preening and finery of George IV, but many others viewed it favorably. Many ordinary people were pleased that their new monarch seemed so “normal” and viewed him as a good man of common sense who would sort things out in the government. It seemed rather heart-warming to have the new monarch actually approach common people on the street and tell them how happy he was to be their new king. Needless to say, his coronation on September 8, 1831 was a much less extravagant affair than that of his brother, whose coronation had been the most lavish in all of British history. King William IV was a practical, unassuming and dedicated monarch who was all about the “business” and not about the “show”. Still, he was not without a sense of humor. When the Privy Council was first brought in to him and dropped to one knee, he mischievously asked, “Who is Silly Billy now?”
King William IV was nothing if not a hard worker. His first prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, said that he accomplished more with William IV in ten minutes that he had been able to get done with George IV in ten days. He got along well with Earl Grey, the Whig Prime Minister who had replaced Wellington but he was not about to be the servant of the Whig party either. When King William became convinced that reforms were becoming too much and being done too quickly, he determined to apply the brakes. In 1834 he dismissed the Whigs from office and appointed Sir Robert Peel to the post of Prime Minister but Peel found it impossible to form a government and, in the end, the King had to invite the Whigs to come back again. King William IV would be the last British monarch to appoint a Prime Minister without the support of Parliament and while he supported many liberal ideas for reform and greater democracy, he did so in an effort to win support for the existing institutions and seemed rather shocked when this did not always prove to be the case. He had seen his father, King George III, dismiss ministers, call new elections and have the people vote in accordance with his wishes for the most part. However, with the reforms, King William saw himself lose popularity for doing the same and came to accept that the scales of power were tipping in favor of Parliament and the House of Commons during his reign.
Determined to the end, King William IV managed to do exactly that. He died on June 20, 1837 at Windsor Castle, just one month after his niece turned eighteen. Today, his relatively short reign is often overlooked but it was a crucial period in British history. Despite his earlier opposition, King William IV signed the abolition of slavery in the British colonies, enacted laws to stop child labor and provide assistance for the poor. On the negative side, his reign marked the ascendancy of Parliament dominated by the House of Commons but it would be wrong to paint William IV as being a man of any particular political ideology. He opposed the extremes of both the left and the right and was a thoughtful, competent constitutional monarch. Like the sailor he started off as, King William IV provided a steady hand on the wheel of the great ship of state and steered it along a moderate course through political waters that would have upset things and caused great disasters in less capable hands.