William was born in the early hours of the morning on 21 August 1765 at Buckingham House, the third child and son of King George III and Queen Charlotte. He had two elder brothers, George and Frederick, and was not expected to inherit the Crown. He was baptised in the Great Council Chamber of St James’s Palace on 20 September 1765. His godparents were his paternal uncles, the Duke of Gloucester and Prince Henry (later Duke of Cumberland), and his paternal aunt, Princess Augusta, then Hereditary Duchess of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. He spent most of his early life in Richmond and at Kew Palace, where he was educated by private tutors. At the age of thirteen, he joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman, and was present at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1780. His experiences in the navy seem to have been little different from those of other midshipmen, though in contrast to other sailors he was accompanied on board ships by a tutor. He did his share of the cooking and got arrested with his shipmates after a drunken brawl in Gibraltar; he was hastily released from custody after his identity became known. He served in New York during the American War of Independence. While William was in America, George Washington approved a plot to kidnap him, writing: “The spirit of enterprise so conspicuous in your plan for surprising in their quarters and bringing off the Prince William Henry and Admiral Digby merits applause; and you have my authority to make the attempt in any manner, and at such a time, as your judgment may direct. I am fully persuaded, that it is unnecessary to caution you against offering insult or indignity to the persons of the Prince or Admiral…” The plot did not come to fruition; the British heard of it and assigned guards to William, who had up till then walked around New York unescorted.
He became a Lieutenant in 1785 and Captain of HMS Pegasus the following year. In late 1786, he was stationed in the West Indies under Horatio Nelson, who wrote of William: “In his professional line, he is superior to two-thirds, I am sure, of the [Naval] list; and in attention to orders, and respect to his superior officer, I hardly know his equal.” The two were great friends, and dined together almost nightly. At Nelson’s wedding, William insisted on giving the bride away. He was given command of the frigate HMS Andromeda in 1788, and was promoted to Rear-Admiral in command of HMS Valiant the following year. William sought to be made a duke like his elder brothers, and to receive a similar parliamentary grant, but his father was reluctant. To put pressure on him, William threatened to stand for the House of Commons for the constituency of Totnes in Devon. Appalled at the prospect of his son making his case to the voters, George III created him Duke of Clarence and St Andrews and Earl of Munster on 16 May 1789, supposedly saying: “I well know it is another vote added to the Opposition.” William’s political record was inconsistent and, like many politicians of the time, cannot be certainly ascribed to a single party. He allied himself publicly with the Whigs as well as his elder brothers George, Prince of Wales, and Frederick, Duke of York, who were known to be in conflict with the political positions of their father.
The newly created Duke ceased his active service in the Royal Navy in 1790. When Britain declared war on France in 1793, he was anxious to serve his country and expected a command, but was not given a ship, perhaps at first because he had broken his arm by falling down some stairs drunk, but later because he gave a speech in the House of Lords opposing the war. The following year he spoke in favour of the war, expecting a command after his change of heart; none came. The Admiralty did not even reply to his request. He did not lose hope of being appointed to an active post. In 1798 he was made an admiral, but the rank was purely titular. Despite repeated petitions, he was never given a command throughout the Napoleonic Wars. In 1811, he was appointed to the honorary position of Admiral of the Fleet. In 1813, he came nearest to any actual fighting, when he visited the British troops fighting in the Low Countries. Watching the bombardment of Antwerp from a church steeple, he came under fire. A bullet pierced his coat. Instead of serving at sea, he spent time in the House of Lords, where he spoke in opposition to the abolition of slavery, which although not legal in the United Kingdom still existed in the British colonies. Freedom would do the slaves little good, he argued. He had travelled widely and, in his eyes, the living standard among freemen in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland was worse than that among slaves in the West Indies. His experience in the West Indies lent gravitas to his position, which was perceived as well-argued and just by some of his contemporaries. Others thought it “shocking that so young a man, under no bias of interest, should be earnest in continuance of the slave trade”. In his speech to the House of Lords, the Duke insulted William Wilberforce, the leading abolitionist, saying: “the proponents of the abolition are either fanatics or hypocrites, and in one of those classes I rank Mr. Wilberforce”. On other issues he was more liberal, such as supporting moves to abolish penal laws against dissenting Christians. He also opposed efforts to bar those found guilty of adultery from remarriage.
From 1791 William lived with an Irish actress, Dorothea Bland, better known by her stage name, Mrs. Jordan, the title “Mrs.” being assumed at the start of her stage career to explain an inconvenient pregnancy and “Jordan” because she had “crossed the water” from Ireland to Britain. William was part of the first generation to grow to maturity under the Royal Marriages Act 1772, which forbade descendants of George II from marrying unless they either obtained the monarch’s consent or, if over the age of 25, gave twelve months’ notice to the Privy Council. Several of George III’s sons, including William, chose to cohabit with the women they loved, rather than seek a wife. Having legitimate issue was not a primary concern for William, as he was one of the younger sons of George III, he was not expected to figure in the succession, which was considered secure once the Prince of Wales married and had a daughter, Princess Charlotte, second-in-line to the throne. William appeared to enjoy the domesticity of his life with Mrs. Jordan, remarking to a friend: “Mrs. Jordan is a very good creature, very domestic and careful of her children. To be sure she is absurd sometimes and has her humours. But there are such things more or less in all families.” The couple, while living quietly, enjoyed entertaining, with Mrs. Jordan writing in late 1809: “We shall have a full and merry house this Christmas, ’tis what the dear Duke delights in.” George III was accepting of his son’s relationship with the actress (though recommending that he halve her allowance); in 1797, he created William Ranger of Bushy Park, which included a large residence, Bushy House, for William’s growing family. William used Bushy as his principal residence until he became king. His London residence, Clarence House, was constructed to the designs of John Nash between 1825 and 1827.
The couple had ten illegitimate children—five sons and five daughters—nine of whom were named after William’s siblings; each was given the surname “FitzClarence”. Their affair lasted for twenty years before ending in 1811. Mrs. Jordan had no doubt as to the reason for the break-up: “Money, money, my good friend, has, I am convinced made HIM at this moment the most wretched of men,” adding, “With all his excellent qualities, his domestic virtues, his love for his lovely children, what must he not at this moment suffer?” She was given a financial settlement of £4,400 (equivalent to £285,100 today) per year and custody of her daughters on condition that she did not resume the stage. When she resumed acting in an effort to repay debts incurred by the husband of one of her daughters from a previous relationship, William took custody of the daughters and stopped paying the £1,500 (equivalent to £93,700 today) designated for their maintenance. After Mrs. Jordan’s acting career began to fail, she fled to France to escape her creditors, and died, impoverished, near Paris in 1816. Before he met Mrs. Jordan, William had an illegitimate son whose mother is unknown; the son, also called William, drowned off Madagascar in HMS Blenheim in February 1807. Caroline von Linsingen, whose father was a general in the Hanoverian infantry, claimed to have had a son, Heinrich, by William in around 1790 but William was not in Hanover at the time that she claims and the story is considered implausible by historians.
Deeply in debt, William made multiple attempts at marrying a wealthy heiress, but his suits were unsuccessful. Following the death of William’s niece Charlotte, then second-in-line to the British throne, in 1817, the king was left with twelve children, but no legitimate grandchildren. The race was on among the royal dukes to marry and produce an heir. William had great advantages in this race—his two older brothers were both childless and estranged from their wives, who were both beyond childbearing age anyway, and William was the healthiest of the three. If he lived long enough, he would almost certainly ascend the British and Hanoverian thrones, and have the opportunity to sire the next monarch. William’s initial choices of potential wives either met with the disapproval of his eldest brother, the Prince of Wales, or turned him down. William’s younger brother Adolphus, the Duke of Cambridge, was sent to Germany to scout out the available Protestant princesses; he came up with Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel, but her father Frederick declined the match. Two months later, the Duke of Cambridge married Augusta himself. Eventually, a princess was found who was amicable, home-loving, and was willing to accept, even enthusiastically welcoming William’s nine surviving children, several of whom had not yet reached adulthood. At Kew on 11 July 1818, William married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, the daughter of George I, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. At 25, Adelaide was half William’s age. Their marriage, which lasted almost twenty years until William’s death, was a happy one. Adelaide took both William and his finances in hand. For their first year of marriage, the couple lived in economical fashion in Germany, and William’s debts were soon on the way to being paid, especially since Parliament had voted him an increased allowance, which he reluctantly accepted after his requests to increase it further were refused. William is not known to have had mistresses after his marriage. The couple had two short-lived daughters and Adelaide suffered three miscarriages. Despite this, false rumours that Adelaide was pregnant persisted into William’s reign—he dismissed them as “damned stuff”.
When King George IV died on 26 June 1830 without surviving legitimate issue, the Duke of Clarence succeeded him as William IV. Aged 64, he was the oldest person ever to assume the British throne. Unlike his extravagant brother, William was unassuming, discouraging pomp and ceremony. In contrast to George IV, who tended to spend most of his time in Windsor Castle, William was known, especially early in his reign, to walk, unaccompanied, through London or Brighton. Until the Reform Crisis eroded his standing, he was very popular among the people, who saw him as more approachable and down-to-earth than his brother. The King immediately proved himself a conscientious worker. His first Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, stated that he had done more business with King William in ten minutes than he had with George IV in as many days. Lord Brougham described him as an excellent man of business, asking enough questions to help him understand the matter—whereas George IV feared to ask questions lest he display his ignorance and George III would ask too many and then not wait for a response.
The King did his best to endear himself to the people. Charlotte Williams-Wynn wrote shortly after his accession: “Hitherto the King has been indefatigable in his efforts to make himself popular, and do good natured and amiable things in every possible instance.” Emily Eden noted: “He is an immense improvement on the last unforgiving animal, who died growling sulkily in his den at Windsor. This man at least wishes to make everybody happy, and everything he has done has been benevolent.” William dismissed his brother’s French chefs and German band, replacing them with English ones to public approval. He gave much of George IV’s art collection to the nation, and halved the royal stud. George IV had begun an extensive (and expensive) renovation of Buckingham Palace; his brother refused to reside there, and twice tried to give the palace away, once to the Army as a barracks, and once to Parliament after the Houses of Parliament burned down in 1834. His informality could be startling: When in residence at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, King William used to send to the hotels for a list of their guests and invite anyone whom he knew to dinner, urging guests not to “bother about clothes. The Queen does nothing but embroider flowers after dinner.” Upon taking the throne, William did not forget his nine surviving illegitimate children, creating his eldest son Earl of Munster and granting the other children the precedence of a younger son (or daughter) of a marquess. Despite this, his children importuned for greater opportunities, disgusting elements of the press who reported that the “impudence and rapacity of the FitzJordans is unexampled”. The relationship between William and his sons “was punctuated by a series of savage and, for the King at least, painful quarrels” over money and honours. His daughters, on the other hand, proved an ornament to his court, as, “They are all, you know, pretty and lively, and make society in a way that real princesses could not.”
William distrusted foreigners, particularly anyone French, which he acknowledged as a “prejudice”. He also felt strongly that Britain should not interfere in the internal affairs of other nations, which brought him into conflict with the interventionist Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston. William supported Belgian independence and, after unacceptable Dutch and French candidates were put forward, favoured Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the widower of his niece, Charlotte, as a candidate for the newly created Belgian throne. Though he had a reputation for tactlessness and buffoonery, William could be shrewd and diplomatic. He foresaw that the potential construction of a canal at Suez would make good relations with Egypt vital to Britain. Later in his reign, he flattered the American ambassador at a dinner by announcing that he regretted not being “born a free, independent American, so much did he respect that nation, which had given birth to George Washington, the greatest man that ever lived”. By exercising his personal charm, William assisted in the repair of Anglo-American relations, which had been so deeply damaged during the reign of his father.
For the remainder of his reign, William interfered actively in politics only once, in 1834, when he became the last British sovereign to choose a prime minister contrary to the will of Parliament. In 1834, the ministry was facing increasing unpopularity and Lord Grey retired; the Home Secretary, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, replaced him. Lord Melbourne retained most Cabinet members, and his ministry retained an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons. Some members of the Government, however, were anathema to the King, and increasingly left-wing policies concerned him. The previous year Grey had already pushed through a bill reforming the Protestant Church of Ireland. The Church collected tithes throughout Ireland, supported multiple bishoprics and was wealthy. However, barely an eighth of the Irish population belonged to the Church of Ireland. In some parishes, there were no Church of Ireland members at all, but there was still a priest paid for by tithes collected from the local Catholics and Presbyterians, leading to charges that idle priests were living in luxury at the expense of the Irish living at the level of subsistence. Grey’s bill had reduced the number of bishoprics by half, abolished some of the sinecures and overhauled the tithe system. Further measures to appropriate the surplus revenues of the Church of Ireland were mooted by the more radical members of the Government, including Lord John Russell. The King had an especial dislike for Russell, calling him “a dangerous little Radical.”
In November 1834, 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 whom 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. William claimed that the ministry had been weakened beyond repair and used the removal of Lord Althorp—who had previously indicated that he would retire from politics upon becoming a peer—as the pretext for the dismissal of the entire ministry. With Lord Melbourne gone, William chose to entrust power to a Tory, 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. Consequently, Parliament was dissolved to force fresh elections. Although the Tories won more seats than in the previous election, they were still in the minority. 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, remaining there for the rest of William’s reign, and the King was forced to accept Russell as Commons leader.
The King had a mixed relationship with Lord Melbourne. Melbourne’s government mooted more ideas to introduce greater democracy, such as the devolution of powers to the Legislative Council of Lower Canada, which greatly alarmed the King, who feared it would eventually lead to the loss of the colony. At first, the King bitterly opposed these proposals. William exclaimed to Lord Gosford, Governor General-designate of Canada: “Mind what you are about in Canada … mind me, my Lord, the Cabinet is not my Cabinet; they had better take care or by God, I will have them impeached.” When William’s son Augustus FitzClarence enquired of his father whether the King would be entertaining during Ascot week, William gloomily replied, “I cannot give any dinners without inviting the ministers, and I would rather see the devil than any one of them in my house.” Nevertheless, William approved the Cabinet’s recommendations for reform. Despite his disagreements with Lord Melbourne, the King wrote warmly to congratulate the Prime Minister when he triumphed in the adultery case brought against him concerning Lady Caroline Norton—he had refused to permit Melbourne to resign when the case was first brought. The King and Prime Minister eventually found a modus vivendi; Melbourne applying tact and firmness when called for; while William realised that his First Minister was far less radical in his politics than the King had feared.
Both the King and Queen were fond of their niece, Princess Victoria of Kent. Their attempts to forge a close relationship with the girl were frustrated by the conflict between the King and the Duchess of Kent, the young princess’s widowed mother. The King, angered at what he took to be disrespect from the Duchess to his wife, took the opportunity at what proved to be his final birthday banquet in August 1836 to settle the score. Speaking to those assembled at the banquet, who included the Duchess and Princess Victoria, William expressed his hope that he would survive until Princess Victoria was 18 so that the Duchess of Kent would never be regent. He said, “I trust to God that my life may be spared for nine months longer … I should then have the satisfaction of leaving the exercise of the Royal authority to the personal authority of that young lady, heiress presumptive to the Crown, and not in the hands of a person now near me, who is surrounded by evil advisers and is herself incompetent to act with propriety in the situation in which she would be placed.” The speech was so shocking that Victoria burst into tears, while her mother sat in silence and was only with difficulty persuaded not to leave immediately after dinner (the two left the next day). William’s outburst undoubtedly contributed to Victoria’s tempered view of him as “a good old man, though eccentric and singular”. William survived, though mortally ill, to the month after Victoria’s coming of age. “Poor old man!”, Victoria wrote as he was dying, “I feel sorry for him; he was always personally kind to me.”
William was “very much shaken and affected” by the death of his eldest daughter, Sophia, Lady de L’Isle, in childbirth in April 1837. A watercolour sketch made by her during her pregnancy in early 1837 shows how frail he had become. William and his eldest son, George, Earl of Munster, were estranged at the time, but William hoped that a letter of condolence from Munster signalled a reconciliation. His hopes were not fulfilled and Munster, still thinking he had not been given sufficient money or patronage, remained bitter to the end. Queen Adelaide attended the dying William devotedly, not going to bed herself for more than ten days. William IV died in the early hours of the morning of 20 June 1837 at Windsor Castle, where he was buried. As he had no living legitimate issue, the Crown of the United Kingdom passed to Princess Victoria of Kent, the only child of Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent, George III’s fourth son. Under Salic Law, a woman could not rule Hanover, and so the Hanoverian Crown went to George III’s fifth son, Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. William’s death thus ended the personal union of Britain and Hanover, which had persisted since 1714. The main beneficiaries of his will were his eight surviving children by Mrs. Jordan. Although William IV is not the direct ancestor of the later monarchs of the United Kingdom, he has many notable descendants through his illegitimate family with Mrs. Jordan, including Prime Minister David Cameron, TV presenter Adam Hart-Davis, author and statesman Duff Cooper, and the first Duke of Fife, who married Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Louise.
- August, 21, 1765
- United Kingdom
- Buckingham House, London, England
- June, 20, 1837
- United Kingdom
- Windsor Castle, Berkshire, England
- Windsor Castle
- Berkshire, England
- United Kingdom