Thursday, May 8, 2014

Monarch Profile: King William IV of the United Kingdom

Fair or not, it is a fact that the life and reign of King William IV has been largely overshadowed in history by his successor Queen Victoria. It is not uncommon for King William IV to be given barely a mention simply as the predecessor to the Queen who gave her name to an age and became the longest-reigning monarch in British history. However, while he may not stand out much from the ranks of British monarchs, he was a solid overseer of his dominions and led a life of remarkable service that should not be forgotten. The future monarch Prince William Henry was born on August 21, 1765 at Buckingham Palace, the third son of Their Majesties King George III and Queen Charlotte of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. With two elder brothers ahead of him in the line of succession, no one ever thought he would one day wear the crown himself. He did not have much of a childhood, spending most of his early years at Richmond but, in those days, children were expected to grow up rather quickly. When he was only thirteen his private education ended and he was shipped off to the Royal Navy as a midshipman, learning the ropes (literally and figuratively) to become an officer.

To the modern reader this may seem somewhat shocking but 13-year old midshipmen were not uncommon in those days, some, in fact, were younger than that and boys working as “powder monkeys” onboard ship could be considerably younger still. The teenage prince was, of course, a special case but received very little special treatment. He took his lessons with the other young gentlemen, took his turn performing menial tasks, played pranks, had fights and got in trouble like all the rest. He also saw combat at the battle of Cape St Vincent in 1780 during the American War for Independence. He served ashore in New York and was even the focus of a kidnapping plot by the rebel forces of the Continental Army. However, British intelligence learned of the scheme and assigned a guard to the prince, so the plot was called off. Prince William was a dedicated officer who loved the navy and the navy life. In 1785 he earned his commission as a lieutenant and in 1786 was appointed captain of HMS Pegasus, serving in the West Indies under the famous Admiral Horatio Nelson. The legendary admiral had a high opinion of Prince William and the two became fast friends with the Prince giving the bride away at Nelson’s wedding to Frances Nisbet in 1787. Later, the Prince was promoted to command a frigate and in 1789 became a Rear Admiral. That same year King George III granted him the titles of Duke of Clarence and St Andrews and Earl of Munster.

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”.

Perhaps because of this, views on the Duke of Clarence tended to be divided. In many ways he quite liberal, being a staunch advocate of Catholic emancipation but he was also more supportive of his family and was never able to be as cruel toward his father as his older brother King George IV had been. Most liked him, whether viewing him as forward thinking or just a good natured, simple sailor. He lived, for a time, with his mistress, a London actress, but later married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Coburg-Meiningen. Not considered a great beauty, she was nonetheless an excellent wife, faithful, supportive and very religious. Unfortunately, the two never had any children who long survived so that the only offspring of the Duke of Clarence were the ten illegitimate children he fathered during his years with his mistress “Mrs. Jordan”. Still, he had a happy and genuinely good marriage with Princess Adelaide who, perhaps, helped reform him just a bit. The choice he made was also more important than it may have first appeared since his only surviving elder brother, King George IV, had only one legitimate child who predeceased him. So it was that, at a fairly advanced age for the time, the Duke of Clarence became heir to the throne. For most of his life he had given it very little thought, but once the Crown was within reach, he took great care to live to obtain it. He went to great lengths in an effort to remain in good health.

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?”

Despite the outrage of the more grand members of the court and aristocracy, the great majority of the people cheered King William IV for his simplicity and care to spend as little of their tax money as possible. King William looked to the future with the hope and optimism of the reformer, and perhaps with the naiveté of one as well but that would fade quickly. Queen Adelaide, on the other hand, remained the nervous one. Always preparing piously for the end of the world, as Queen she prepared for a possible revolution, admiring the late Queen Marie Antoinette and hoping she could behave with such stoic courage when the mob came for her. She need not have worried. When King William IV, not waiting for any preparations to be made or for guards to line the streets, dashed over to Westminster, hurriedly placed the crown on his head at an odd angle and declared Parliament dissolved (clearing the way for the passage of the Reform Bill) the public cheered him mightily for sending the politicians home. The Whigs adored him, thinking he was firmly on their side, which, of course, he was not. He was a dutiful monarch who was not about to support anything he thought detrimental to the welfare of his people.

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.

On the world stage, King William IV was friendly with the United States, supported Belgian independence and the candidacy of Duke Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to be King of the Belgians. However, he opposed unnecessary intervention in foreign countries and never even visited his Kingdom of Hanover in Germany. Under the system that existed then, the Austrians actually had more influence in Hanover than the British did and when the brilliantly conservative Austrian Chancellor Prince Metternich took action to prevent the spread of liberalism in Germany, it was only with difficulty that King William IV saw this pushed back. He gave Hanover a new constitution that was friendlier to the middle class and gave much more power to the parliament but it was a flash in the pan, more suited to Britain than Germany and after his death, the next King of Hanover would see these changes done away with. In his domestic life, King William was mostly troubled by disputes and drama within the Royal Family. As he had no children of his own, the most intense of these involved the succession and his adamant opposition to his sister-in-law the Duchess of Kent, mother of Princess Victoria who would succeed William on the throne. The King took great offense at the Duchess disrespecting Queen Adelaide, disliked her tyrannical nature and was suspicious of the influence the controller of her household, John Conroy, seemed to have over her. King William was determined to live long enough to see Princess Victoria reach adulthood so that the Duchess of Kent would never be able to hold the power of regent for her daughter.

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.

2 comments:

  1. I always liked HM King William IV.

    Yes he was bluff & blunt, but he was a good man. And one hell of a seaman. Queen Adelaide was generous and probably softened him quite a bit. Adelaide in Australia is named aft her.

    I never cared much for the Duchess of Kent, and I don't understand her views that William & Adelaide's Court was licentous (sp?). Maybe because several of his illegitimate children lived there and he helped them out? He's not the first king to have done that.

    I see nothing wrong w/him expecting Victoria at Court. It wasv appropriate & expected. I believe they kept the Princess from attending so that she & evil Conroy could keep Victoria under their control.

    Good King William IV was in many ways like his father. Down to earth, adoring of his wife/women, not particularly intellectual but well-meaning, patriotic, and honestly caringvof their subjects. They are two of my favorite British Kings.

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  2. The great lengths he went to to get the crown included abandoning Mrs Jordan and forbidding her from acting and taking away their children even though she helped support him and their children for twenty years, He is not the kind of man any woman would admire.

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