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King William IV

the oldest person ever to ascend the British throne

King William IV

William Henry was born in Buckingham Palace on August 21, 1765, the third son of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Most of his early life was spent at Richmond and Kew Palace, where he was educated by private tutors.

Since he was not expected to become king, William entered the Royal Navy as a midshipman at the age of 13, and ended up making it a career. Aside from having a private tutor during his early years at sea, he was rarely treated any differently than other midshipmen, nor was he ever promoted strictly because of his peerage.

William first saw action at the Battle of St. Vincent, against the Spanish, on January 16, 1780. He subsequently served in New York during the American Revolution, and was at one time the potential victim of a kidnapping plot approved by General George Washington; the plot was never carried out, however, because word of it leaked out. On the conclusion of the war he travelled in Germany, visiting Hanover and Berlin, where he was entertained by Frederick the Great.

In 1785, William was promoted to Lieutenant. The following year he was made Captain and stationed in the West Indies, under Admiral Horatio Nelson. Shortly after 1787, being tired of his station, he sailed home without orders, and was punished for his insubordination by being obliged to stay at Plymouth until his ship was refitted, when he again sailed for the West Indies. He was created Duke of Clarence in 1789, and retired from the Navy as a Rear Admiral in 1790.

In 1791, the Duke took up residence with Irish actress Dorothea Bland (known to the public as Dorothy Jordan). The couple lived happily together for the next twenty years, much to the chagrin of his parents, and had a total of 10 children (5 sons, 5 daughters), all of whom took the surname FitzClarence.

When war was declared against the French Republic in 1793, William strongly supported it and was anxious for active employment, but was unable to secure a command. Thus condemned to inactivity, he amused himself by joining the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York in their opposition to the king. He also threw himself into the dissipations of society, and his hearty geniality and bluff, sailor-like manners gained him popularity, though they did not secure him respect. He took his seat in the House of Lords, where he defended the extravagancies of the prince of Wales, spoke on the Divorce Bill, and vehemently opposed the emancipation of slaves and defended slavery on the ground of his experience in the West Indies.

In 1811, William's oldest brother, George, became Prince Regent when their father was declared insane. The death of the Prince Regent's only daughter in 1818 resulted in a scramble among George's brothers to marry and produce heirs. The same year, William married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, but none of their 4 children survived infancy. With the death of Prince Frederick in 1827, the Duke of Clarence became heir to the throne, and in the same year he was appointed Lord High Admiral. In discharging the functions of that office he endeavoured to assume independent control of naval affairs, although his patent precluded him from acting without the advice of two members of his council. This involved him in a quarrel with Sir George Cockburn, in which he had to give way. As he still continued to act in defiance of rules, the king was at length obliged to call upon him to resign.

His Reign

Duke William ascended to the throne upon the death of his brother King George IV on June 26, 1830, and was formally crowned as King William IV at Westminster Abbey on September 8, 1831. Just shy of his 65th birthday at the time of his ascension, he became the oldest person to date ever to assume the British throne. His low-cost coronation (compared to his predecessors) endeared him to the British.

Reform Crisis

At the time, the death of the monarch required fresh elections and, in the general election of 1830, the Duke of Wellington's Tory government lost ground to the Whigs under Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, though the Tories still had the largest number of seats. Wellington was defeated in the House of Commons in November, and Lord Grey was asked by the king to form a new government. Lord Grey pledged to reform the electoral system, which had seen few changes since the fifteenth century.

When the House of Commons defeated the first Reform Bill in April 1831, Lord Grey's ministry urged William to dissolve Parliament, which would force a new general election. The king was initially reluctant to exercise his right to dissolve Parliament, but was spurred to do so when the opposition, anxious to bring on a change of ministry, moved an address against dissolution. Regarding this as an attack on his prerogative, William immediately proceeded to Parliament, donned his crown, entered the Chamber, and dissolved the body. According to contemporary accounts, when initially told that his horses could not be ready at such short notice, William said, "Then I will go in a hackney cab!"

The general elections of 1831 gave the Whigs a majority in the House of Commons, which passed the second Reform Bill on Septenber 21. The House of Lords defeated it on October 8, however. Frustrated by the Lords' refusal to pass the Reform Bill, Lord Grey asked William to create enough new peers to ensure its passage. The king refused to do so, however, and Lord Grey and all of his ministers resigned. William attempted to restore the Duke of Wellington to office, but Wellington had insufficient support to form a ministry. With his popularity now at an all-time low, the king agreed to reappoint Grey's ministry, and to create new peers if the House of Lords continued to pose difficulties. Concerned by the threat of the creations, most of the bill's opponents abstained, and the Reform Act 1832 was finally passed. The Reform Act abolished some of the worst abuses of the electoral system (for example, representation for so called 'rotten boroughs', which had long ceased to be of any importance, was stopped, and new industrial towns obtained representation). It also introduced standardized rules for the franchise (different boroughs had previously had varying franchise rules) and, by extending the franchise to the middle classes, greatly increased the role of public opinion in the political process.

"Ministry of the Hundred Days"

In July 1834, a by now unpopular Lord Grey retired. He was replaced by William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, whose ministry retained an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons. There were divergences of opinion in the Cabinet, however, and the king strongly objected to the ministerial policy respecting the Irish Church. In November, the Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Charles Spencer, Viscount Althorp, inherited a peerage, thus removing him from the House of Commons to the Lords. Melbourne had to appoint a new Commons leader and a new Chancellor (who by long custom must be drawn from the Commons), but the only candidate that Melbourne felt suitable to replace Althorp as Commons leader was Lord John Russell, whom William (and many others) found unacceptable due to his radical politics. On November 14, claiming that Lord Althorp's removal to the Upper House would weaken the ministry in the House of Commons, William suddenly dismissed them and summoned Sir Robert Peel. Since Peel was then in Italy, the Duke of Wellington was provisionally appointed Prime Minister. When Peel returned and assumed leadership of the ministry for himself, he saw the impossibility of governing because of the Whig majority in the House of Commons, and the king had little choice but to dissolve Parliament. Although the Tories gained a few seats in the subsequent elections, they were still in the majority. Peel remained in office for a few months, but resigned after a series of parliamentary defeats. Lord Melbourne was restored to the Prime Minister's office, and remained there for the rest of William's reign. This would prove to be the last time an English sovereign attempted to impose an unpopular ministry on the majority in Parliament.

Other Events

1831 The new London Bridge opened over the River Thames.
1832 A cholera epidemic killed over 20,000 people.
1833 The Factory Act was passed, prohibiting children aged less than nine from work in factories, and reducing the working hours of women and older children. The Abolition of Slavery Act was passed, despite the king's objections.
1834 The Poor Law Act was passed, creating workhouses for the poor. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to Australia for attempting to form a trade union.
1835 The Municipal Reform Act was passed, requiring members of town councils to be elected by ratepayers and councils to publish their financial accounts.

King William IV died at Windsor Castle on June 20, 1837, and was succeeded by his niece, Victoria. He is buried at Windsor Castle.

His Children

By Dorothea
George Augustus Frederick (Jan 29, 1794 - Mar 20, 1842)
Henry Edward (Mar 27, 1795 - Sep 1817)
Sophia (Aug 1796 - Apr 10, 1837)
Mary (Dec 19, 1798 - Jul 13, 1864)
Frederick (Dec 9, 1799 - Oct 30, 1854)
Elizabeth (Jan 17, 1801 - Jan 16, 1856)
Adolphus (Feb 18, 1802 - May 17, 1856)
Augusta (Nov 17, 1803 - Dec 8, 1865)
Augustus (Mar 1, 1805 - Jun 14, 1854)
Amelia (Mar 21, 1807 - Jul 2, 1858)

By Adelaide
Charlotte Augusta Louise (Mar 27, 1819)
Elizabeth Georgiana Adelaide (Dec 10, 1820 - Mar 4, 1821)

SOURCES
BBC History www.bbc.co.uk
Notorious Names Database www.nndb.com
The Official Website of the British Monarchy www.royal.gov.uk
Royal Family History www.britroyals.com

SEE ALSO
Buckingham Palace
King George III
American Revolution
George Washington
Horatio Nelson
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington
Charles Grey
Windsor Castle
Queen Victoria

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The Robinson Library >> General and Old World History >> Great Britain >> England >> Later Hanoverians, 1820-1837

This page was last updated on July 16, 2017.